Guest blog post written by Lauren Cousin, clinical therapist
Do you ever feel like the people around you don’t fully understand your emotions? It’s not your fault or theirs, but some feelings cannot be easily understood unless you’ve been through similar experiences. Several months ago, I was working through a difficult period in my life. I had some big decisions to make and felt I had some significant obstacles in my way. I felt isolated and fearful of being seen as “different” because of my experience. I started to think that no one could possibly understand me. A couple of friends knew about my problem and gave me advice with good intentions but without the ability to fully relate. It was discouraging and lonely.
One night while visiting with another group of friends, one of them opened up to us about what she was currently going through. I was amazed by how much I could relate because her story mirrored what I had been feeling for months. In that moment I felt understood and, interestingly enough, relieved, like a burden had been lifted from me. We lessened each other’s burdens by simply telling one another, “I know that feeling, I have been there.” And, in so doing, we both felt less alone and more hopeful.
We all have a need for connection, belonging, and to be understood by those around us, especially as we go through indescribable situations—those hard times that are not often discussed with others. Sometimes even our closest friends and family cannot understand or provide the emotional support we yearn for. Our wounds can begin to heal when we feel supported by speaking with others who have similar thoughts and feelings and can truly understand. They know exactly what you mean when you say things like “I’m triggered,” “I’m anxious,” or “I’m afraid.” This is a big reason why support groups were created: We all have a natural desire to be seen, heard, and understood.
The Benefit of Support Groups
The concept of support groups came about when a few doctors gathered individuals together to discuss their common affliction of tuberculosis, a serious disease that mainly affects the lungs. When the doctors saw the way the members of the group benefited from their shared experiences, support groups began to form around many purposes and topics.
Individuals have found that being part of a support group increases their trust in others, helps them feel less isolated and judged, and can reduce their distress, depression, and anxiety. Dr. Irvin David Yalom termed this experience “the principle of universality,” which is simply the act of receiving and giving support and the way it strengthens feelings of worth and personal ability. This support, both given and received, can promote personal growth and healing in ways that may not be possible if you were doing it alone.
Support groups can be a validating and healing space where you hear others share similar thoughts and feelings, almost as if they are speaking your truth and your story. This allows for a level of understanding that we often don’t get to feel in our everyday interactions. Even if other group participants have different experiences than one another, the opportunity to have connection and be supported within one another’s variations is refreshing.
Attending therapy and reaching out to friends and family are encouraged and applauded when safe and possible for you to do. As helpful as a therapist may be however, they are only one person. And friends and family, no matter how well-meaning, may not understand the full impact of what you have been through, or may not be able to hear your story with an open heart. Support groups can bridge those gaps or fill them when they are not safe or available to a survivor. Individuals who have attended support groups have often said that they feel they found their tribe. They feel understood and validated, sometimes for the first time.
The Goal of Support Groups
When was the last time you shared a painful or shameful thought you’d been holding on to and it was received with validating love and compassion? Maybe that validation was joined with the comment, “That happened to me; you’re not alone.” To have that experience is a gift and a relief to the mind and body.
The goal of support groups is to create this experience for individuals who are struggling in any aspect. Your story matters and support groups provide a safe place where you are allowed and encouraged to have a voice. By having a common purpose (say for example, healing from child sexual abuse) individuals who attend support groups can talk openly and honestly about their feelings and experiences that may be disregarded by others. Each person can feel heard and validated for things they may have been holding on to or keeping secret.
In participating in these groups, individuals can experience a sense of empowerment, control, and hope for their situation and their future. Support groups provide a space to process and explore your feelings, while allowing you to show up completely as you are. By having a common purpose, members can learn from one another, improve understanding, expand the knowledge of available resources, and receive practical feedback. Many find this support encouraging while they work toward healing goals.
Finding the Right Support Group
Different support groups serve different people and different needs. It’s important to find a group that meets your personal needs. I would recommend that you go to a group to see how you feel while listening and observing, even before choosing whether or not you’d like to join or even share. Be aware of the confidentiality agreement that the group abides by, and if the agreements create a feeling of safety for you personally.
It can be difficult to open up and be vulnerable with a group, especially if you have been dismissed or shamed when you previously shared those feelings or experiences. Support groups are not usually led by a mental health provider, but by a fellow participant in the group.
Take note of the interactions and tone of others in the group. Do they create a comfortable and supportive environment? Support groups are not a replacement for medical or therapeutic interventions but can be helpful when used with those interventions. Questions you can ask to see if a support group is right for you:
When You’re Ready for a Support Group
If you feel it is a good time in your healing journey to pursue joining a support group, there are several ways of going about finding one. Speak to your doctor, therapist, or local clinic/hospital and see if they have any recommendations. National health institutions may list specific groups on their websites that they know are being held, as well as nonprofits that advocate for particular life challenges or circumstances.
The Younique Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on the empowerment, treatment, and education relating to child sexual abuse, has created a support group for survivors. Finding Hope Support Groups provide an opportunity for women 18 years and older who are survivors of child sexual abuse to have a safe space to openly discuss and be validated for the harmful impact of their abuse.
Check out the website FindingHope.org to find support groups in your area, as well as resources to assist you in starting a group if there isn’t one in your community. All these materials and resources are free, and the support group was created using evidence-based practices in relation to healing from child sexual abuse.
During the current and ongoing COVID-19 crisis it was found that some support groups moved their presence to an online platform for individuals to join the group while social distancing. That support for survivors continues virtually, and the emotional connection can be just as impactful during times of uncertainty individually, within your family, and community.
Many individuals are currently finding healing within a support group community, as well as experiencing a bond of unspoken understanding, validation, and empowerment. Survivors of different race, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc. can come together for a common purpose and enjoy the benefits of connection, empathy, and community. That is the beauty of the community that can be created within a support group. These connections can be powerful elements in a person’s life, and I would encourage you to explore the possibility of how this could help you in your healing journey.
The day when I was finally able to speak my truth out loud and not be judged or misunderstood stands out in my life as an important stepping-stone to who I am now. I gained freedom that day. It is possible for you to have that too. You are worthy of being heard and understood!