There are a bunch of different techniques and skills that we use as peer support specialists. Active listening, conflict resolution, empathy, are tools we learn and perfect with experience and time. However, there is one tool that cannot be taught.
Our stories and personal experiences are what makes peer support… well, peer support. This is what allows us to connect on a deeper level, inspire change, and break down barriers. Moreover, your story is an example of hope and possibility.
Still, when should you tell your story? It’s a good question and one that we will cover in this article. There is a time and place for everything, including our stories.
Otherwise, we may unintentionally end up doing more harm than good.
Telling Your Story as a Peer Specialist: The Why
Before we look at matters of timing, let’s go over the reasons why you should share your story.
It’s more important than you think.
Building Connection and Trust
When working as a peer specialist, establishing a connection with those you support is essential. Sharing your personal story can be a powerful way to build trust and create that connection.
By opening up about your own challenges, you show others that they’re not alone and that recovery is possible.
It’s pretty incredible how these stories, the same one’s many of us used to be ashamed of, become a source of inspiration. More than that, they are a tangible example of hope.
These shared experiences are the true power behind peer support.
Opening up also shows individuals that it is ok to be vulnerable and talk about these things. When we are honest and open about the experiences of our past, it can help others feel more comfortable doing the same.
The next time you are talking to someone and they are hesitant to open up, take the lead. Share about your own experience with something similar, even if that was feeling hesitant to open up.
Providing Validation and Understanding
Sometimes, mental health problems and addiction can make us feel alone, like nobody really gets what we’re going through. Our stories can serve as a bridge to others who are facing similar challenges.
When we open up about our experiences, we show that we understand and empathize with their struggles.
Being able to say to someone, “I get it, I’ve been there too”, is powerful. It validates what they are going through.
This kind of validation is so important.
It lets them know that their feelings and experiences are not only valid, but understandable.
When we connect with someone who has been through something similar, it’s a special kind of bond. Not only that, but that connection can be a crucial first step in their healing process.
It communicates that they’re not alone and that there are people out there who truly understand what they’re going through.
Breaking Stigma and Fostering Acceptance
Sadly, many people still have negative beliefs and judgments about mental health and addiction. This causes problems because it makes it harder for individuals to ask for support when they’re struggling.
But when you share your own experiences, you can help break down these barriers and promote understanding. Your personal story has the amazing ability to challenge false ideas and stereotypes related to mental illness.
As a peer specialist, you bring humanity to the challenges of mental health.
This helps society see individuals as complete people, rather than just defining them by their diagnoses.
By speaking up and sharing your journey, you play a key role in changing how society views and treats mental health and addiction.
When people hear about your own struggles and triumphs, they begin to realize that mental health challenges can happen to anyone, and it doesn’t make them any less deserving of empathy and support.
Overall, these stories help others understand that mental health issues are a part of the human experience, and they shouldn’t be met with shame or isolation.
Instead, your narrative encourages others to reach out, seek help, and offer compassion to those going through similar struggles.
As peer support professionals, we should seize each opportunity to educate and inform. Whether in our family, community, or even the colleagues we work with.
Inspiring Hope and Resilience
Recovery is a journey that requires hope and resilience and that is exactly what your story illustrates.
It becomes a beacon of hope, boldly stating that change is possible.
Ok, I know that some of that might sound a little cheesy and over the top. I don’t blame you for being a little skeptical about the power of your story. I mean, you’re just like everyone else in recovery, right?
But that’s the point.
I’m not saying that your story isn’t amazing or that you didn’t overcome incredible odds. Rather, that finding our path in recovery didn’t require some superpower or a magic lamp. Everyone is capable of doing what we have done.
Knowing When To Share Your Story
While storytelling can be a powerful tool, it’s still important to know when and how to share your story. Just as our stories have the power to inspire, they also have to power to upset or overwhelm someone.
Besides, oversharing puts the focus on us and can discourage others from opening up, hindering their own recovery.
Our skills as peer support specialists develop with experience. Learning when to tell your story is no different. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Make Sure That It's Welcomed
Before sharing your story, make sure that it won’t do more harm than good. If there is something triggering or something that might remind someone of a traumatic experience from their past, it might be better to wait.
Alternatively, you might skip that part and only share what is relevant to the situation.
Personally, I feel the best practice for determining whether to share part of my story is just to ask. This way, if the individual isn’t interested, I’m not wasting their time or damaging the relationship by focusing on myself.
Moreover, if the person is already feeling a little overwhelmed, I’m not making it worse by sharing.
If someone tells you that they don’t want to hear your story, don’t take it personally.
They might not be in the right mind space to process something like that.
In fact, there could be a thousand reasons why they are hesitant to hear it. In any case, the focus should be on their recovery and well-being, not on our own.
Timing (and Relevance) is Everything.
Think about the timing and relevance of your story. Sharing something that doesn’t fit within the current conversation can throw someone off. More importantly, it can damage the rapport you are building with that individual.
This is because when we share something that is irrelevant, it can seem like we aren’t really listening.
Here are a few questions to consider.
Is it appropriate in the current context?
Will it resonate with the individuals you are supporting?
Does it bring something meaningful to the table?
Tailor what you are sharing to address specific themes or challenges they are facing. In other words, make it relatable and impactful.
This not only shows that we are listening, but it validates the person’s experience with real examples from our own life.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this last part, but I will mention it for good measure.
People can tell when we’re not being genuine. If we are manipulating our story just so that we can try and relate, it almost always does more harm than good.
Aside from being unethical, it can damage the helping relationship beyond repair.
I mean, think about it. If you found out that the person trying to offer you support was exaggerating (or lying) about their past, would you feel comfortable opening up to that person?
Just because we haven’t experienced the exact same thing, doesn’t mean we can’t relate. Believe me, you will gain more respect and create a deeper level of trust when you are authentic. Besides, your story is unique and powerful just as it is.
Isolation is isolation, shame is shame. More than the situation, it is the emotional experience that connects us.
Respecting Others and Their Boundaries
If you are sharing your story, remember to respect the boundaries of all parties involved. This means being mindful to protect the privacy and confidentiality of others involved in your story.
Regardless of whether the individual is being mentioned in a good way or not, don’t share something that would violate the privacy of that person.
We never know how sharing that information might affect them. For that reason, I always avoid mentioning any kind of sensitive information that might harm or compromise the wellbeing of anyone involved in my story.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t tell your story, just be mindful of names and specifics. When it comes to things like this, and I am not sure what to do, I have a rule that has served me well.
When in doubt, don’t.
Share Your Story With The World
Overall, telling your story as a peer specialist can be a transformative experience, both for yourself and those you support.
It allows you to connect on a deeper level and inspire change in the world around you.
I encourage you to be bold and share your experiences, not only to help the individuals you serve, but the entire mental health community.
Each time one of us stands up and tells our story of recovery, more people are willing to listen. Together we can create a world where mental health and addiction is looked at with compassion and understanding.
Your Story Matters.
If you want to tell your story, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We would love to publish the success story of another peer.
It might even inspire others to become peer support specialists and join the growing community! Let’s tell the world recovery is possible.
Elijah Meason is a Certified Peer Support Worker in the State of New Mexico. He is a SMART Recovery facilitator and is working toward getting his Masters degree in social work. He is currently working at a dual diagnosis treatment center helping individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges.