I need to say something before we get started, mistakes are a part of life. Working in peer support is no different. In all reality, it’s how we learn. However, your about to learn some of the more common mistakes that peer support specialists make.
Which in turn, can help you avoid making them yourself.
In this post, we will cover the ten biggest mistakes in peer support as well as some strategies for overcoming them. As you read through this article, if you find that you are making any of these mistakes, don’t stress.
- We are all guilty of making them at one point or another
- Fixing these mistakes is fairly simple once you realize that it’s happening
- As we said before, making mistakes is natural and it’s how we learn
At the end of the day, we are only human.
Table of Contents
Self-awareness is key to avoiding these mistakes
Before we dive into the specific mistakes, we need to talk about self-awareness. It allows us to understand our strengths, limitations, biases, and triggers.
In this case, self-awareness is how we recognize when we are making a mistake.
Through consistent self-awareness and reflection, we can correct, avoid, and learn from mistakes as they happen in life. Also, and more importantly perhaps, we can begin to realize why something was a mistake and the impact it has on those around us.
Without understanding the why, it’s likely that we will make that mistake again in the future.
Why is a mistake a mistake?
Take the mistake of talking too much for example (which we will get into later). We can recognize that we are talking too much during a group or in session, and change our behavior accordingly.
However, if we don’t understand why it is a problem, then it’s easy to slip up and start doing it again.
This is because we fail to see its impact on the individuals we serve. Once we realize the possible outcomes, we start to see how detrimental they can actually be.
From there, it’s less likely we will fall back into it. Or at least if we do, it becomes easier to spot.
In other words, self-awareness helps us recognize our own emotions and reactions, which helps us prevent them from negatively influencing our interactions.
With all that squared away, let’s get started.
The biggest mistakes to avoid as a peer support specialist
Keep in mind, that this list goes in no particular order. These can pop up at anytime if we aren’t paying attention. Remember, self-awareness is key.
Self-care is not a luxury—it's a necessity.
Neglecting self-care can lead to burnout and issues with our own physical and mental health. Not only that, but it makes us less effective as peer specialists. So by practicing self care, were actually doing the best thing for everyone around us.
It starts like this, we get busy and begin putting off our self care activities, whatever they may be. Then, because we aren’t taking time to recharge and stay positive, we end up frustrated and overwhelmed.
Which in turn, makes us less likely to engage in self care because we feel like there is too much to do.
From there, this causes conflict and misunderstanding with colleagues. Once this happens, we’re too irritated and distracted to be there for the people we are supposed to be helping.
Avoiding this mistake
If we’re not careful, it can end up becoming a vicious cycle. The worst part is, it often takes something extreme happening before we realize what’s going on.
Believe me when I say, it’s a place that you do not want to be.
To avoid this mistake, take time to prioritize yourself and your own well-being. Engage in healthy and life giving activities that will recharge and energize your spirits. Whether it’s practicing mindfulness, pursuing hobbies, or getting support, let’s make self-care a non-negotiable priority.
Remember, by nurturing ourselves, we can maintain our energy, compassion, and resilience. Moreover, our ability to be there and support others.
Feeling Responsible for the Progress of a Group or Individual
We all want to witness positive transformations, but we have to remember that we are here to support, not to fix. As much as we would like to be able to help every single person, it’s just not possible.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth.
Second, not everyone is going to resonate with you. Each person is unique, with needs and preferences that you may not be able to serve. This is no fault of your own.
Feeling overly responsible for the progress of a group or individual creates unrealistic expectations and unnecessary pressure.
Not to mention, sometimes people relapse or decide to leave the program. With this frame of mind, it can be easy to take it personally.
avoiding this mistake
If you feel as though you failed someone after they have some kind of setback, you are placing too much responsibility on yourself.
Each person’s journey is unique, and our role is to provide guidance and encouragement. Remember, everyone has their own pace and timeline for doing things.
Moreover, just because you don’t recognize progress, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
acting like a therapist
We are peer support specialists, not therapists or counselors. While we have valuable insights to share, we also have to recognize our limitations. Otherwise it can create problems, not only for the individuals we serve, but for ourselves as well.
Acting like a therapist blurs boundaries and creates confusion for the people we serve. It can lead to misunderstanding and things being taken out of context.
More importantly, we lack the training in these situations. Because of this, we might inadvertently say something that goes against best practices.
Also, acting like a therapist probably means you are working outside of your scope. If that’s the case, it can lead to situations you don’t want to be in.
Worst case scenario, we say something or act in such a way that ends up harming the individual. Because you are taking the time to read this and learn more about your role, I already know that this is the last thing you want.
For one, you can end up losing your certification. Again, the last thing you want. It can also lead to problems for the agency you work for if something were to happen. Also, speaking of if something were to happen, you might end up getting sued.
To that, I say no thank you.
avoiding this mistake
It’s crucial to clarify our role in the recovery process from the very beginning. In fact, this is part of informed consent. Which if you’re not already, is something you should be doing with every person you work with.
We can teach about mental health and addiction. We can share our lived experience, offer empathy, and provide practical strategies for coping with challenges. BUT we are not qualified to treat, diagnose, or provide clinical advice.
And so, my (non-clinical) advice to you as a fellow peer support specialist?
Stay within your scope.
pushing individuals too hard
Motivation is essential and encouraging individuals to step out of their comfort zones is important. That being said, pushing someone too hard can be counterproductive.
The last thing we want to do is make the situation worse.
Knowing when to push someone to stretch beyond their limits requires a few things. The first and most obvious of those being experience. As you grow in your peer support role, it will become easier to recognize those limits, as well as when someone is ready to expand beyond them.
As we mentioned earlier, each person has unique needs and learns at a different pace.
Trying to push someone who isn’t ready can have the opposite of the desired effect. The individual may become withdrawn or even defensive. In these situations, it’s often best just to give them space.
avoiding this mistake
If someone is ready to take that next step and maybe just needs some encouragement, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Active listening skills, such as open ended questions and reflective listening are useful for this process. By applying these techniques you can help someone explore their ambivalence to change.
When used correctly, individuals will come to realize they need to take that next step all on their own.
This way, it’s more of an indirect push. This is effective because when individuals have a sense of autonomy and personal choice, they are more committed to the process.
In fact, using these skills has been shown to improve treatment outcomes and engagement.
not pushing them hard enough
While we shouldn’t push someone too hard, we should also be careful not to hold them back. As I am sure you know, growth requires stepping outside comfort zones.
If we don’t take opportunities to encourage that growth, we are doing them a disservice.
This means, that on occasion, a more direct approach may be necessary.
Let me start by saying, I do not mean that we should be telling people what to do. Rather that we can point out inconsistencies in their behavior or thinking.
For example, say a peer has been mentioning that they are going to start attending meetings. However, every time they check in, they note that they haven’t managed to find the time. In this situation we might hold the peer accountable for not doing what they said they would.
Additionally, we might offer to help them find time in their schedule and arrange transportation. Afterwards, we could create some kind of verbal contract that the individual is willing to agree to.
avoiding this mistake
When taking the direct approach, it’s still important to be understanding and compassionate. We are not trying to place blame or to make someone feel guilty. Rather, it is about encouraging the person to take ownership of their recovery.
Overall, it takes finding a balance between support and challenge. By tailoring our approach to their needs, we can provide encouragement while still respecting boundaries.
Remember, it’s through gradual progress that lasting change occurs.
talking Too Much/Trying to Be The Expert
As peer support specialists, we have valuable knowledge and insights into the recovery process. But remember, at the end of the day, it’s not about us or our expertise.
I’m not saying that those things aren’t important, just that we need to maintain our priorities.
Don’t get me wrong, it can be tempting to share everything you know. Especially when a topic is being discussed in which we are particularly knowledgeable. Even more, when someone is struggling to understand the concept!
There have been times when I have wanted nothing more than to jump in and explain the situation.
However, this robs the group of the opportunity to discuss things and discover these answers for themselves. Studies show that people learn better when they are actively participating in the learning process.
In other words, when we simply explain everything to them, it doesn’t stick as well in their memory.
When we do all the talking, we are not including individuals in the learning process. In doing so, we are actually reducing what they are absorbing and taking with them.
And since helping them is the end goal, by playing the expert, we are actually doing the opposite.
Furthermore, if we are the one’s doing all the talking, we limit the ability of others to share. Which in all truth, may be the greatest disservice of all.
a prime example
Imagine someone who is closed off and never shares with the group. Now imagine the day comes when this individual feels comfortable enough to share and open up about something important. Only they never get the chance because the group facilitator is monopolizing the discussion.
At the beginning of the article I mentioned the importance of understanding how these mistakes affect the individuals we serve.
This is my prime example.
We may not think that talking too much really does any harm. But once we understand the possible consequences of those actions, it becomes hard to ignore them.
Besides, most times the urge to try and explain everything is just our egos taking over. I don’t mean to offend anyone, and I understand that it might be hard to accept. But it’s the truth.
In fact, I had to accept this fact myself and it was pretty uncomfortable.
It’s all about the individuals we serve. So, let’s be mindful of our words and allow them to take the center stage.
avoiding this mistake
This one definitely requires some self-awareness. We can start by taking note of when we feel the urge to jump in and talk.
From that place of awareness, we can choose to listen rather than respond.
Remember. it’s all about the individuals we serve. So, let’s be mindful of our words and allow those we support to take center stage.
Not Taking Advantage of Learning Opportunities
To truly excel as peer support specialists, we must never stop learning and growing. Failing to seize learning opportunities limits our ability to truly be effective. Not only that, but we end up missing out on exciting experiences.
The field of mental health and addiction is constantly changing. There are new discoveries happening all the time. With all this going on, it only becomes more important to stay up to date with the latest trends and information.
Whether it means reading books and articles, attending workshops, or taking new trainings, there is always something new to learn.
In fact, this is partly why we created this platform. Our goal is to create a place where peer support professionals can learn and grow together.
That being said, learning opportunities don’t have to come in the form of studying or formal education. They are happening daily all around us. In fact, just by reaching out and connecting with others in the mental health field we can create endless opportunities for growth.
avoiding this mistake
Supervisors and colleagues can provide a wealth of knowledge and practical experience. What’s more, we can get insight on specific situations and problems. This is one of the easiest ways to expand your peer support skillset.
Remember, there is an ocean of free knowledge out there. Books, podcasts, training, (this website!) and so much more.
By continuously expanding our knowledge and skills, we offer the most up-to-date and evidence-based support.
Together, we can be at the forefront of peer support, helping shape its future while guiding individuals toward the life they want to have.
Doing all the work
Our goal is to empower individuals to become the very best version of themselves. This includes being self-reliant, resilient, and self-motivated. When we step into solve their problems for them, we are taking this opportunity from them.
While it may be tempting to take on the work ourselves, it only hinders their growth and independence.
Think about it this way, if we are the one’s taking on these responsibilities now, what happens when we’re not around anymore?
By encouraging individuals to take ownership and be accountable, we are helping them learn to be self reliant.
In truth, it’s far more than that. We’re helping them recognize that they are capable of managing their own life.
avoiding this mistake
While yes, there are times when we may need to take care of a situation because they are unable to, but that is different. If they are capable of doing these things, we are doing them a disservice by not allowing them to do so.
It becomes more of a problem when the individual starts to become dependent on you. They may start to expect you to take care of these things and stop putting as much effort into taking care of them on their own.
Instead, let’s guide individuals in problem solving skills and encourage them to find their own solutions. As someone once told me, “Never work harder than your client”.
In other words, don’t do the work if they’re not willing to walk along side you. Because in the end, this might potentially be setting them up for a bigger fall later. Not to mention, you may be signing them up for things they’re not really interested in doing.
Remember, the greatest achievements are often born from personal triumphs.
Being Too Flexible with Boundaries
Establishing clear boundaries is absolutely, 100% a crucial aspect of peer support.
Not only for maintaining professionalism, but for creating and sustaining healthy peer support relationships.
Failing to set boundaries is setting ourselves up for problems.
As peer support specialists, we must be mindful of defining our roles and responsibilities. On top of that, we need to establish what is off limits in the relationship. Being too flexible with boundaries can lead to confusion, dependency, and the deterioration of professional relationships.
Honestly, that’s putting it lightly. Without clear boundaries, I have seen peer support specialists end up in some sticky situations.
It’s easy to think that a situation is innocent and harmless. However, once that first line is crossed it’s hard to go back. Without those boundaries, our support and guidance becomes skewed and becomes less effective.
In the end, individuals can begin to see us more as friends than a professional relationship.
Without those boundaries, our support and guidance becomes skewed and becomes less effective. Individuals begin to see us more as friends than a professional relationship.
avoiding this mistake
Obviously, romantic and intimate relationships are strictly off limits. So I won’t really address those topics here. However, even something as simple as accepting a gift, or giving someone your personal phone number can have unexpected consequences.
I’m not saying these things to try and frighten you, or stress you out. In most cases, you might not have anything to worry about.
But all it takes is one time for something to be taken out of context and then it becomes a monster of a problem.
It is understandable that you will develop a close connection with some of the individuals you support. At the same time, it’s vital to establish your role in the relationship.Remember, setting healthy boundaries is showing respect for our own well-being and the well-being of those we support.
not collaborating with the team
Just as we are supporting others, we need others to support us. Collaboration and teamwork are essential for comprehensive care. Our colleagues and other members of our team are all important parts of the overall process.
By trying to manage the situation by ourselves, in truth, we are only hurting the individuals we serve. Conversely, when we come together as a team, we can make informed decisions.
avoiding this mistake
As peer support specialists, we should actively seek out opportunities to collaborate.
These opportunities might include working with other professionals, community organizations, and support groups.
In any case, by forming strong partnerships, we leverage collective expertise, share resources, and provide a more balanced support.
Not to mention, these relationships can often open the door for new opportunities in our professional life as well.
Ultimately, mental health is a collaborative effort, and that includes peer support. So whether it is supervision, staffing meetings, of just reaching out to a colleague, take advantage of opportunities to collaborate and learn.
Learning From our mistakes
So there you have it, the top ten mistakes that peer specialists make. Having this knowledge can help you avoid making these mistakes in your own work. Or at least if you do make one, you will be able to pick up on it a lot sooner.
By practicing self awareness, and keeping these in mind, you can work towards providing the best possible support. All the same, if you do end up catching yourself falling into one of these common mistakes, don’t be too hard on yourself.
They’re called the most common mistakes for a reason.
In fact, by catching yourself, it becomes easier to recognize these patterns and become more aware of the behavior.
So in all reality, it’s a win either way.
Just keep your focus on helping others and you will be alright. Make sure to make time for self care and take advantage of opportunities to learn new things and collaborate with others.
Is there something we missed on our list of most common mistakes? Drop it in the comments below, and we will add it in the next time we update this post!
As always thank you for reading and thank you for the work you do!
-The MHAPSS Team
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.