Understanding Group Support

Audio Introduction: Group Support

We are not alone, and we were not meant to feel alone. Despite this, many of us feel a sense of isolation and separation from the world around us at different times of our lives. The causes of these feelings are many: childhood traumas, rejection, failure, ill-health, relationship problems, parental conflict, a spiritual vacuum, confusion, low job satisfaction, lack of self-esteem, unemployment, dormant social skills, retirement, a sense of being unloved, an incapability to share and love, shyness… and the list goes on. If we take it upon ourselves to undergo an internal search to discover the basis for our isolation, it is possible to estrange ourselves even further from the world around us.
The HELP program is to some extent an individual journey, but this chapter on group support and sharing is perhaps the most important of all. It is essential that this component more than any other be incorporated in your life.
Our lifestyles have undergone significant changes in recent years and, for many of us, feelings of intimacy and interconnection have been a casualty of this process. As the tempo of life quickens, information bombards us, and family and community ties continue to decline, we may find ourselves stranded on an emotional island, with all our thoughts and possessions but no one to share them with. Unfortunately, this is not an exaggeration for many people. Given a continued emphasis on material well-being to the exclusion of spiritual values, an increase in specialization and the use of technology that often leaves us feeling separate, and a decline in viable social, community, and religious structures to take the place of our original village and tribal ancestry, many of us are growing increasingly isolated with each passing day.
If solitude is a conscious choice on your part, as it has been for many great philosophers, poets, and saints, and you feel it is a necessary step to take for your appreciation of the world around you and your role in it, at least you are aware of the consequences of what you have chosen to do, why you are doing it, and you know how to remedy it when the time is right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with periods of solitude; most of our awareness exercises in this program underline the importance of removing yourself from the distractions around you. However, this would be a conscious choice on your part for further development, and this differs greatly from an unconscious drifting away from a sense of connection, leaving feelings of quiet desperation.
Research on the significance and health benefits of sharing and support has been extensive. One well-known study by Dr David Spiegel looked at the effect of group support meetings for women with metastatic breast cancer. Five years later, the women who had met once a week for 90 minutes over the period of one year were found to have twice the survival rate of the control group who had just received the usual medical care. Whether the studies focus on group support meetings, family ties, people involved in community or church activities, relationships and friendships, ethnic and cultural unity, or even pets, the results are impressive. Sharing and support can be one of the best complementary medicines to have at your disposal.

Sharing our Lives

For most people the thought of sharing their lives revolves around finding a mate with whom they will spend the rest of their lives. In HELP, sharing our lives has a much wider perspective. It involves getting together with people who may be facing a similar challenge to the one we are facing, and sharing our ideas and experiences with them.

The importance of the group dynamic is witnessed time and time again, whether it be with self-help groups that target a specific theme, the team spirit as motivation for sport, or the camaraderie that develops among soldiers during conflict situations to help them through. A shared experience with someone who can relate to what we are currently experiencing seems to resonate deep within our soul, and can begin to break down walls of isolation. Many of us have experienced this nurturing sense of comfort and belonging at some point in our lives, and when we reflect back on that time it can still bring a glow within us. We are social animals, and the key to our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being comes from this feeling of being integrated in body, mind, and spirit with all that is around us.

Reflecting on Sharing and Support

Take a moment to reflect on the meaning of support and sharing to you. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and see what words and feelings you associate with sharing and support. Take out your journal now and write down these words and any others that spring forward. Make a full list and, once you have finished, review each word and reflect on whether you are currently experiencing it in your life right now. Perhaps put an asterisk by those that could be enhanced.

When performing this exercise suppose the following words came up:
Intimacy, Openness, Company, Integration, Camaraderie, Larger than Life Itself, Honesty, Compassion, Help, Information Exchange, Community, Love, Balance, Motivation, Perspective

All these things have been shown by research in areas such as psychoneuroimmunology to be very important to our physical and mental health. Most of us would also hold many of these qualities in high regard, yet many of us devote only a limited amount of time to consciously promoting these qualities in our lives. It is as if we assume they will automatically be a part of our lives given our relationships, job, personality, environment, and spiritual pursuits, but this assumption may result in complacency, which will see these things slowly slip away from our lives. We wake up one morning and find ourselves trying to figure out how and why we lost them. We must take time to look at the larger picture, to put things in perspective, and realize that our priorities may not be promoting these qualities.

Go back to your list and reflect on the items you have put an asterisk by. Ask yourself how much time and energy you have put into cultivating these things recently. Record the answers in your journal, and use these reflections as a starting point for your journey of opening up.

HELP Support Groups

Through getting together with others who are participating in HELP, you will receive numerous benefits that will cement elements of the program together. This is one of the reasons that this component of the program is so important. While it may be difficult to organize a HELP support group and to make time in your weekly schedule, know that in the long term the benefits will far outweigh the costs. The benefits to you personally will vary according to what you put into the group and what you are seeking from it; the key ingredients are communication, sharing, honesty, compassion, and forgiveness.

HELP support groups can assist you in implementing the HELP program. The energy that arises from a group of like-minded people can help to foster motivation that you may be lacking on your own in relation to diet, relaxation, exercise, and so forth. You may be able to compare notes with others on, for example, recipe ideas, or how to organize daily life so as to implement the program.
Motivational help and information exchange tend to be the two most frequently thought of reasons for becoming part of a group, yet the benefits can go far beyond these practical matters, to include the establishment of a greater intimacy between yourself and others who may be experiencing similar challenges.

This process of establishing intimacy allows us to realize that we are not alone. That others share similar feelings although the details of their situations may differ greatly. It allows us to gain perspective on our own lives through the shared experience of others. It promotes an openness and honesty among people which friendships and relationships can often mask as we hide behind our images or roles. This sharing can allow a camaraderie to develop among people whose entire link with one another is improving the quality of life, both for themselves and the others in the group. Out of this link can develop a feeling of integration. The individual participants can feel greater through their identity within the group than they perhaps feel individually. They can then use this experience of wholeness to develop their lives so as to take this feeling outside of the group. Most importantly, in this integration process are the two keys of love and fun.

The group may provide an opportunity to develop a sense of humor about your trials and tribulations, and experience the healing power of laughter, joy, jokes, and taking yourself a bit less seriously. Fun is such an important component of life and yet as we grow older it seems to play a smaller and smaller role in our lives. It is as if somehow we are no longer allowed to have fun; it is not appropriate adult behavior. Group support can be an opportunity to usher fun back into your life, through stories, jokes, and looking at the lighter side of even the most unfortunate of situations. The intimacy that group support can create will allow this fun to take place.

The other significant benefit of group support is love: to know that you are worthy of love, and that love can flow through you to others who may benefit from that love. If we could only remember each day to live in a space of unconditional love, most of the other components of this program would take care of themselves. A group can be a place to feel both loving and loved by our fellow human beings, as we go beyond images and roles, and realize that behind them all is a heart just yearning to experience and express love.

Establishing a HELP Support Group

Following are suggestions that may enhance the quality of support groups. They are by no means rigid and should be seen only as helpful guidelines that you may use at your discretion when becoming involved in, or organizing, a group.

  • If possible, secure the services of a facilitator for the group who is experienced and respected by the other members.
  • Set up a regular schedule of meeting times and have everyone make a commitment to it.
  • Have an agreement of confidentiality. Anything that is said in the room stays in the room.
  • Establish common goals and objectives for the group that perhaps are put down on paper and displayed, keeping the focus of the group clear.
  • No matter what is said or done in the group, always conclude with a ritual that will allow people to feel a greater sense of unity than when they walked in. A commitment to forgiveness and compassion is helpful when concluding the get-together.
  • One of the ground rules must be honesty. The support group is a space where people feel safe to be completely honest and no longer hide behind their roles in society.

When looking at successful sharing in any environment, the key word is communication. Communication skills, both internal as well as sharing with others, are not often given the attention they deserve. To gain the full benefits of group support, consider the following points with regard to your communication skills.

Internal Communication

Internal communication is all about knowing ourselves. Before we can communicate effectively with others, we must be clear about our own feelings, and not just what we want to project or think others expect us to be feeling. In order to do this we must take time out for ourselves, and be still. To facilitate the art of internal communication try some of the following techniques:

  • Use receptive imagery techniques, meditation, self-inquiry, or just reflection and contemplation. The aim is to be honest with yourself.
  • Record feelings in your journal and go over events that you feel are unresolved.
  • Become aware of internal conflicts and conflicting priorities that may lie behind your feelings and actions.
  • Learn the art of acceptance. By learning to understand and accept yourself the way you are, you begin the process of opening up to growth and development.
  • Be honest with yourself about what is happening in your life at this , present moment.

We often look outside of ourselves for the reasons we are going through any experience we find ourselves in; we blame external factors, persons, and events when life takes an unexpected turn. It is a similar phenomenon to seeing stress as something outside of ourselves instead of our reaction to change. When we are honest with ourselves, we take responsibility for our feelings. We acknowledge ourselves as the creators of our lives and all the experiences we encounter.

It is also important to remember, when grappling within, to see every challenge in life, no matter how difficult it may be, as a chance for growth and learning. A golden opportunity to take the next step in our understanding and growth. A chance to develop our compassion, love, patience, and equanimity. It is not a matter of blaming ourselves when things go wrong but seeing the opportunity for personal growth in all of life’s challenges.

Taking these steps with our internal communication process will then affect our external communication, as we will no longer be looking to blame others, change others, or judge others, but rather just to share our feelings with one another. When you find communication is not happening with others, take a moment to review these points and perhaps you will discover some of the elements for misunderstanding within yourself. It is a shame that our educational system does not train us in the art of communication skills, as they really are the most fundamental skills we can have in learning to live harmoniously on this planet.

Communicating with Others

Realize that everything we say and do each day has implications for whether we will bring a greater degree of intimacy and support into our lives, or isolation and stress. The first thing to remember when communicating with others is the importance of that list you made earlier on sharing and communication. Take an active role in promoting greater sharing with others. By sharing we can open doors that have kept us isolated and have led to misunderstanding. We can assist others who may be experiencing by simply listening to them. Make a commitment to communication, in terms of both speaking and being an active listener.

The Art of Listening

The art of listening is a key component of effective communication. How much attention has been given in our education to the skill of being an active listener? Listening is not about second-guessing the other person, and either jumping in with our reactions or mentally switching off, and therefore not really hearing them. Other factors that interfere with active listening include being distracted by thoughts or events around us, a fear of being judged by the other person, being wrapped up in our concerns while another is talking, and not being with that person as they really are in that moment.

To remedy this, try to incorporate the following suggestions when listening:

  • Be empathetic. Try to hear the feelings behind what the person is saying. Put yourself in the other’s place, and try to feel what the person is feeling.
  • Acknowledge what the other person is saying and really hear the person.
  • Give yourself the time to listen by being relaxed and open to communication at that time.
  • Know that everyone deserves attention and respect, and focus on the positive.
  • Be in the moment, right here now. Accept and then let go of fears, expectations, judgments, distractions.
  • Establish a sense of equality by sitting without barriers, at the same eye level, with good eye contact.
  • Let the person speak without interrupting them with your explanations.

After your next conversation, peruse this list and be aware of whether you need to improve your skills as an active listener. Reflect on the interaction that you had and be honest about whether you exemplified the qualities of patience, being completely with the other person, total receptivity, and a willingness to let them fully express themselves while putting away your own concerns as they spoke.

True Communication

When communicating with others, express feelings in preference to thoughts. Feelings allow us to communicate through our heart, and help to bring us closer together. It is important to allow yourself to express what you are feeling. Examine the underlying factors behind your feelings through internal communication, and share them. Our thoughts often reflect judgments or preferences, and may lead us to find solutions in changing the world around us rather than transforming ourselves. Our feelings are real, and honestly express what we are experiencing at this moment.

When a misunderstanding occurs, accept responsibility for your part in it. Be aware that you may have contributed to the misunderstanding through the words you chose, the time you chose to communicate, or a whole range of other factors associated with the conversation. Let go of blame and share responsibility. Remember, the goal is sharing and support leading to greater intimacy. Also be aware of your expectations of the other person. What is it that you want from them as a result of this communication? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes so that you are sensitive to their needs.

Let love flow through your communication, both for yourself and those you communicate with. Know that this closeness is really behind your communication and promote it sincerely in your words. When love exists and flows from heart to heart rather than from head to head, true communication takes place.

Weekly Routine

While we have focused upon communication, sharing, and group support in general terms in this chapter, it is important to incorporate them actively into our daily lives. Try to make a commitment to the following tasks each week in order to heal the wounds of the past and bring greater intimacy into your life.

  • Keep a journal that will promote inner communication using the suggestions of honestly recording your feelings and any unresolved events in your life.
  • Try to form a support group, making a commitment to the other members to meet regularly.
  • Be aware of your communication patterns for both listening and speaking.
  • Regularly go over your list of what sharing and support mean in your life, committing yourself to it.
  • Make sure to schedule time in your week for internal communication.
  • Remember that the people in your life and you yourself deserve active listening and true communication; so practice the above.

If you forget, embrace unconditional love and have a sense of humor, and all will be well.

HELP-ful Hints for Sharing

  • If planning on driving somewhere, always think of someone who might possibly share the journey with you.
  • Contact old friends and relatives to rekindle past relationships.
  • Exercise with others who you would to share the activity with.
  • Write in your journal and write letters as a way of sharing your thoughts.
  • Regularly contact someone who might benefit from having a listening ear.
  • Schedule quality time with a partner or friend in your diary
  • Join or establish a group that reviews books or goes for trips together, or form a group based on your own theme.
  • If no one is available, share your feelings with a tree or a flower as a release.

Further Reading

Harrison, Dr John. Love Your Disease, Angus Robertson, Sydney, 1992.
Matthews-Simonton, Stephanie, Simonton, Carl & Creighton, James. Getting Well Again, Bantam Books, New York, 1978.
Ornish, Dean. Dr Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, Random House, New York, 1990.
Shaffer, Carolyn R & Anundsen, Kristin. Creating Community Anywhere, Tarcher/Perigree, New York, 1993.
Spiegel, D, Bloom, JR, Kraemer, HC & Gottheil, E. “Effect of Psychosocial Treatment on Survival of Patients with Metastatic Breast Cancer“, Lancet, Vol 2, 8668, 1989,888-890
-“Therapeutic Support Groups”, in Moyers, Bill. Healing and the Mind, Doubleday, New York, 1993, 157-170

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