Our managing director, Vikki, was feeling wistful this morning! Here are her thoughts about the role of 'hope' in peer support, and why we can find it in unusual places...
Hope is a central part of peer support. More and more we are seeing peer supporters being asked to ‘embody’ hope as role models for service users. But is this really where hope sits in the peer relationship?
In my experience as a peer supporter and participant in peer relationships, hope find itself in many different places in peer support – but not often in shining examples of recovery. Some people are inspired by role models who identify as ‘recovered’, but for people who are very excluded in society and suffer deeply with mental distress, role models can sometimes enhance a feeling of distance and otherness from the peers trying to support them.
Most often, I think, hope is our quiet partner in peer support. It moves itself around in the relationship, putting itself in different places at different times, depending on where we are, what we are talking about and what we most need to stay connected. Here are some quick thoughts on hope in the peer relationship, and where I love to find it the most.
Connection and possibility at the beginning of our new relationship...
There is hopefulness, I think, in the connection at the beginning of a peer support relationship. For me, part of the connection I feel with my peers is indeed the hope that this other person is someone who I can share some meaningful conversations and experiences with. This is important in creating a relationship of value between us, and starting us out with a view to what is possible, rather than what we may be trying to escape from or move past in our lives.
This other human, who is like me and who I hold hope for...
There is also hopefulness in our shared humanity. I still struggle from time to time with seeing myself as a human being deserving of love, attention and acceptance. I am reminded that I both deserve and need this when I meet others like me who I can clearly see are deserving of these things. This isn’t an embodiment of hope in them, so much as a mirror of my humanity, of which hopefulness for myself is part of the reflection. As someone who trains peer supporters, I like to emphasise this difference. It is the human being in me, my mistakes, my struggles and my flaws, that I am most likely mirror in others who are looking for peer support – and my achievements, aspirations and ambitions for myself are a resource I can draw from for opening possibilities for collaboration in peer relationships. Talking about my life experiences and journey towards new phases in my life is connecting through both my steps forward and the falls along the way; creating opportunities for shared celebrations of successes when they come. And so, I seek to facilitate a very human, real and imperfect connection in a peer relationship, not drive forward 'recovery' through motivational stories – even when I write these kinds of blogs!
Where all hope is lost is where hope is most likely to be found in peer support
And then, perhaps most importantly, hope in peer relationships is something that sits right beneath us when one of us is in the depths of despair and has lost hope for themselves. The foundational part of peer support is the investment of our time, energy and empathy in our relationship and each other. I believe very strongly that hopefulness in these situations comes not from me saying “it’s gonna be OK, it worked out OK for me, you can do it” but in actually demonstrating that I am committed to another person surviving and moving on from their struggle. I do that by being there with them, listening to their thoughts and feelings and leaning into the strength in our relationship so that it can hold us together.
Being with someone in acute distress is so hard. No-one can take that emotional pain away, and it’s awful to witness. The fact that I am able and willing to invest my time and my own emotion in a person during these times demonstrates -- better than any words that I can think of -- how much I believe in them and their worth. That I am willing to invest my own time and energy in them to support them through their distress is, perhaps, the most meaningful show of solidarity I can offer. Sitting with my own difficult feelings as I witness theirs, not telling them that they need to be fixed and not removing their right to choose their own way through the darkness is, I think, how I have been most able to show hope for another. It is in actively doing nothing but being in that moment and having it mean something to me too. It is in actively not trying to make it, and with it, them, go away or stop. My presence can be validation enough at these times. I may not have to say anything at all. My story is not required here. This is how I honour their worth and their ability to survive. This is how I show love for someone who cannot, in a given moment, find any love for themselves.
More and more we are seeing peer supporters being asked to ‘embody’ hope as role models for service users. But is this really where hope sits in the peer relationship?
Well, it can; but, I don’t think it really does most of the time. I think hope is an incredibly important part of the peer relationship, but I don’t think you can bottle and present one person's story in a way that another person will necessarily accept and take with them into their own lives and identities. In fact, I think that’s a bit of an unnecessary risk, that the little bottle of hope will be an elixir and not a poison. I think we need to connect, learn about each other and find our relationship together before we can begin to know what hope might look like for another person.
I think it takes time, dedication and investment in the peer relationship to demonstrate hopefulness for myself, for my peers and for what we can do together. There are times for hopeful stories and motivational speeches in peer support, but they are not, perhaps, as important or as frequent as we might be led to believe.
By actively working on how I hold hope as a peer, I think I also learn a lot about hopefulness for myself. And therein lies some of the reciprocity in peer support that separates us from other forms of help. In allowing me to hold hope for them, I am inviting my peers to hold hope for me in return. And this is also a risk, because some of my peers may not be able to do that for me – or at least not all of the time. But, in this ongoing struggle that is life, the difference it makes in looking up from my own pit of despair to a person who believes I can make it out of there -- who believes in me enough to sit and wait patiently for me to do so -- is incredibly moving; moving enough, sometimes, to lift me right out of my own little hole in the ground and back into a world where I feel like, maybe, I can belong.
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