Self-Disclosure – Sharing About Yourself

From the Core Values

Mutuality: The peer relationship is mutual and reciprocal. Peer support breaks down hierarchies. The peer support worker and the peer equally co-create the relationship, and both participate in boundary creation.

If connection is about energy exchange flowing back and forth between two people, then a big piece of connection is about sharing and reciprocity. In any relationship we can only know others and be known by them if there is mutuality. This is especially true in peer support.

What and how much you choose to share about yourself within your peer role will depend on how often you see the people you’re serving. If you just see someone once, then you will probably be mostly listening, and won’t likely share much about yourself. If you see someone on an ongoing basis, you may share more.

It’s valuable to remember that people feel heard and validated when they hear “me too” and “I get that.” So, even when you only meet with someone once, there will still be opportunity for some sharing. Afterall, the mutuality of the peer approach is what makes this work so unique.

Guidelines for Self-Disclosure

Let’s explore:

1. Sharing from the Framework of Building Connection

Consider some of your past experiences of meeting someone new. Can you think of times when you met someone and just didn’t click, maybe you even felt put off by someone? What about times you met someone and felt an instant connection?

  • What are some behaviours or words that put you off when you meet someone new?
  • What are some things about a person that make you feel connected to them?

Now, imagine meeting someone new and they tell you a little something about their life.

  • What does it feel like to be privy to a little bit of someone’s inner world?

Next, consider a time when you have heard someone teach or speak in front of a group. Perhaps this is in a class, at a workshop/conference, or even watching a YouTube video.

  • Do you feel connected to that speaker/teacher when they keep to only the facts of what they are teaching about?
  • How do you think you would feel when the person shares some personal details about their life, that supports application of the material they are teaching about?
  • How do you think you would feel about the person (speaker) if they shared something about a personal struggle they faced, along with a transformative moment when they were able to triumph over the struggle?

When someone shares something about themselves, they give us a little glimpse into who they are. We can’t help but feel a sense of connection. This “knowing” supports the building of trust, respect and connection.

2. Sharing Personal Stories Can Be Encouraging and Hopeful

We often watch and read stories of people’s struggle and overcoming difficulty because it is so hopeful when we get to bear witness to the strength of the human spirit. We are drawn to people’s experiences of “slaying their dragons” because they inspire us to feel like we can, in turn, slay our own. This is one of the big reasons we share our stories in peer support.

*Note that depending on the type of peer support you are doing on your campus, sharing your story of struggle might not be applicable.

  • Reflect on a moment (or maybe a few moments) of struggle that you got through. Did anyone support you through that struggle? What helped?

These moments are the small windows when hope creeps into our lives. These small little glimpses of hope can change everything for us.

3. Safety – Always Avoid Sharing Things That Could Be Triggering

Creating a sense of safety is paramount in peer support environments. We must recognize that certain things can be triggering to people, and we must do everything we can to avoid sharing traumatic details or specific experiences of violence, abuse, details of suicide, assault or other experiences that could be triggering.

You can’t always predict what someone will find triggering. Do your best to avoid graphic details. Pay attention to the facial expression and body language of the person you are speaking to. If you notice them flinch or pull away after sharing something, talk about it.

If you are facilitating a group, and a participant shares something that is triggering to other participants, it’s important that you very kindly and respectfully redirect the person. Perhaps having some community guidelines set up at the beginning of the group will help prevent that kind of sharing from happening.

Remember that some people coming into a peer support setting might be in a very raw and sensitive place in their life. They may not have tolerance for details around suicide or abuse, because of their own situation. Consider how to talk about those things in a way that doesn’t go into traumatic detail, but shares enough that your listeners understand.

Generally, people can safely relate to feelings. Sharing how you felt at a particular time of struggle in your life can be very relatable to people, without sharing details that could be triggering.

4. Discern What Is Safe for You to Share, and What You Would Prefer to Keep Private

It’s important that you do your own emotional assessment before you share. If something feels too raw, you don’t have to say it. If we share something with someone (especially if we haven’t built trust with them), and we are not emotionally ready to share, it can bring up difficult feelings afterwards. It can feel vulnerable in a way that is unsafe.

  • What parts of your life experience feel safe to share?
  • What are you not comfortable sharing?

5. Navigating the Risks of Over-Relating to Someone Else’s Experience

Over-relating means that because we have commonalities with another person’s experience, we assume there are more similarities than there actually are. We fill in the blanks of what we don’t know with assumptions that stem from our perceptions and worldview.

The connection of “me too” can start to break down when we assume that someone else’s experiences are the same as ours. We risk disconnection when we don’t create space in our peer support relationships for different perspectives and approaches.

When we are sharing our personal stories, we want to make sure we aren’t trying to sneak in some advice or making assumptions about someone else’s experience.

We can become aware of some of the frustrations or annoyances of over-relating when we share something with someone, and they say, “Oh yes, me too!” And then instead of continuing to listen to our story they launch into a long story about themselves. It can feel invalidating when this happens, and it can cause disconnect in the relationship.

When someone is telling us something personal and meaningful about their experience, it is often best to just listen – to bear witness to them. Honour them by fully, empathetically listening, and letting go of the need to reply.

It is important to remember that though we have commonalities, none of us will experience life in the same way. We need to create space in our connection for exploring the unknown, without assumptions getting in the way. When we say things like, “I know exactly what you’re going through,” we negate someone’s unique individual experience, and perhaps make them feel unheard and unknown. While we might say such things thinking they show understanding, we are doing the opposite; we are unintentionally choosing not to listen fully to the other person.

When we remind ourselves to be aware of our worldview, assumptions and biases, and when we honour the principles of self-determination, we are more apt to stay peer, listen empathetically and avoid advice-giving.

  • Have you ever been in the position of someone over-relating to you? If so, how did it make you feel? Is empathetic listening hard for you? If so, why?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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