Being “Real” in a Peer Support Group

At a Self Help Resource Centre  meeting, my late friend Spencer Brennan read the following excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams:

What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Having facilitated peer support groups – with those living with mental health challenges – that excerpt resonated deeply with me. It really brought home for me the importance of creating spaces where people are allowed to reveal their “Real” self, with others who “understand”. I then thought about what model of support might best protect/ support such a space – a space that allowed an individual/s to safely share their “Real” self.

The answer for me was found in a peer support model/philosophy that author Shery Mead refers to as  “intentional peer support”. In the article “Intentional Peer Support: What makes it Unique?” the author notes that we – as facilitators – should do the following:

“…share our stories in ways that help others consider how their beliefs and assumptions have created their reality, understanding, choices, and even their relationships. Although we may have had similar experiences, we listen for how people have learned to tell that particular story and ask questions that create space for reflection and awareness. We explain that we are not there to provide “help,” but rather to contribute to a conversation and a process where we actively challenge each other, and where “recovery” becomes a mutual, dynamic relational process and outcome”. 

If you are facilitating your own group, I encourage you to read more about intentional peer support, to determine whether or not your group might benefit from this approach.

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