The Truth About Sharing
I was recently at a Mental Health First Aid Training, and a question was asked about sharing our stories as we're supporting individuals living with mental illness. The answer was very simple, "absolutely not, you don't want to take away from their experience."
I shook my head at this, but everyone else nodded, and someone even said "absolutely, I hate it when people belittle my problems by telling me theirs are worse than mine."
They're not wrong, but they're definitely not right. They're right in saying that no one has the right to belittle our experiences. They're right in saying that we should not compare experiences. And they're right in their unconsciously pointing out that we need to learn how to share our experiences in a more effective manner.
Throughout my time in school, an engineering school, this was one of the most difficult things to overcome, and one of the main things I started talking about when I started raising awareness about Mental Illness and the stigma surrounding it.
We live in a society that's filled with comparisons, and in the process we belittle one another's experience, and don't allow ourselves or others to go through our pain. This is wrong. But the instructor was also wrong.
Sharing your experiences to show that you get it, that you understand and you've been through it before, is extremely powerful. For this to actually work you must share from a place of compassion and love. You share to connect, to say that I see you, and you're safe. It's not about competition, it's not about me, it's not about anything but showing you that I'm here, and I actually know where here is.
In my work as a Peer Support Specialist, and just as a supporter to the individuals in my life, I have seen the profound power in sharing your experience. Furthermore, I've seen its power from the other side. I remember the exact moment when I realized that I was not the only Muslim that lived with Mental Illness. The only reason I came to that realization, is because one of my supporters shared. They didn't share to make my experience matter less. They shared so that my experiences are acknowledged, and seen as something real, instead of the opposite which was happening with everyone else trying to support me.
Many times as we support we try to keep ourselves out of the ring. We don't share so that we don't take away from the individuals experience. But, if we want to support compassionately, we need to get in the ring and prove that we're there to support. This is not our fight as supporters, but we are there, in the ring, so that if you need support, you can tap us right in.
When I say these things, many people ask me about the how of it all. How do you share your experiences without taking the spotlight, and without belittling?
Here are a few tips:
- Be intentional about coming from a place of compassion.
- Regardless of the experience, link it to the emotions the individual you're supporting is going through. You don't need the same experiences to empathize, just the same feelings, which we all have to one degree or another.
- Don't over share, just share enough to say 'hey, I get it, it's not easy.'
- Share experiences, and most importantly share hope. Not only do you want to tell them that you've been there, you also want to give them hope in getting out.
- Make sure to stress that you're there for them, after sharing. It's not about you, and ultimately, this way you turn it back to them and center them.
- Ask for feedback. We each want to be supported in different ways. Check in about what else you can do to make them feel supported.
In the end what you're saying is this, "I get it, it's not easy, I've felt the same way before, and things can get better. And throughout it all, whatever you decide, I'm here for you."