Does it really help?
Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 41-43
“I don’t feel seen, heard or understood.” This is one of the most common types of anguish of our time. We live in an era where technology connects us in ways that would have felt like science fiction 30 years ago. Yet it seems we are more disconnected than ever. Not to mention that our post-pandemic world is still healing from so much isolation. In November 2021 the federal government released a document about loneliness.1 It reported that one in 10 people aged 15 and older say they always or often feel lonely.
Likely, living in this high-tech, capitalistic era has contributed to loneliness. Many people face new levels of poverty, while others strive to get even richer. For so many people, significant time is required just to meet our basic needs, leaving less time to spend on our well-being. Referring to Gabor Maté’s book, The Myth of Normal, journalist Chris Hedges writes that, “The engine of capitalism, defined by the cult of the self, thrives on the fostering of psychological and physical chronic disorders, including high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, depression, addictions, and suicide.”2
Writing about our lack of connection and community, BC’s own Dr. Bruce Alexander notes that, “People adapt to this dislocation by concocting the best substitutes that they can for a sustaining social, cultural and spiritual wholeness, and addiction provides this substitute for more and more of us.”3
As a larger societal collective, we must develop safe spaces within our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces.
Taking radically intentional action
So is there anything I can do as one person to increase connection? How do I support my loved one who is lonely or suffering? I have no idea where to start… These are the thoughts and questions so many of us have in relation to disconnection. There aren’t easy answers, but I’m going to share some words that may bring hope.
I was lucky enough to write the free "Where We Are At” peer support curriculum for the province of BC (see peerconnectbc.ca).4 I have been working in peer support for decades. As a result I’ve spent years reflecting on and researching these tough questions. I have known pain and isolation myself, and I’ve supported family members and friends as they’ve struggled. The question I always come back to is this: how can we support individuals who are struggling and slowly impact our communities so that fewer people suffer in the future?
The peer support curriculum addresses this question. The project involved several working groups with people who have lived and living experiences of mental health and substance use issues, who are also committed to creating change for individuals and society. I believe we really have something useful to offer British Columbians and that the curriculum has applications outside of peer support.
Change starts with becoming better supporters. That is the radical act. Putting effort into building intentional community and connection with people shouldn’t be radical, but in this hyper-individualistic era it is! Being a supporter means going against the grain. We have to become positive deviants—someone, or a group of people, whose uncommon behaviours and strategies let them find better solutions to problems than their peers.5
This can happen when we help out a neighbour, sit with someone grieving without trying to fix them, call a friend we haven’t heard from in a while or advocate for a colleague who is struggling. Such small acts are simple, but cumulatively, they can change someone’s world and, perhaps, even society as a whole.
The peer support curriculum aims for this change by embracing the following core values:
- Hope and Wholeness for all: connection has to be universal to bring lasting change
- Acknowledgement: all of us long to know and be known, and seen for who we are
- Mutuality: this value recognized the importance of reciprocal and co-created relationships
- Strengths-based: it’s more motivating to move towards a goal, than away from a problem and to build on existing strengths
- Self-determination: it is essential to create an environment where people can tap into inner motivation, free from coercion
- Belonging and Community: all humans need to belong; we work towards safe spaces where people feel connected
- Respect, Dignity and Equity: all humans have intrinsic value, and we serve with an understanding of cultural sensitivity and a trauma-informed lens, while mindfully addressing bias
- Curiosity: being curious fuels connection, growth and deeper learning
As supporters, embracing these core values means we must do our own healing work. This often begins with self-reflection and self-awareness, while practising self-compassion.
But we must also recognize our biases and judgments because we all have them—our brains are wired to judge. Awareness creates opportunities to deconstruct bias. We must embrace curiosity and a sense of “not knowing” so we can see someone else for who they are, and not just a projection of our own experiences and world view.
And, while it’s easy to want to motivate or change someone else, lasting change must come from within. When people are motivated extrinsically (from the outside, for example, with rewards and punishment), change doesn’t stick. Intrinsic motivation (from the inside) is much more powerful. This happens when we tap into meaning, purpose and enjoyment. As supporters, we can help by shining a light on someone’s strengths through encouragement.
We can pay attention to their growth, no matter how small, and celebrate the small wins. This encouragement is more than cheerleading. If we notice a loved one has done something hard, we can say something like, “I noticed how you stood up for yourself, and I know how hard that is for you.”
As supporters, we also need to understand the effects of trauma on the body. After a traumatic event, a person is more likely to experience long-term trauma when they feel alone and helpless right after the event. When pain and helplessness are unprocessed, they continue to live in the body. People can also experience re-traumatization when they are triggered by something that has similarities to their original trauma. For example, when someone who’s experienced domestic violence hears people yelling on the street, their sympathetic nervous system can react as it did when it first experienced trauma. This is not an echo—their bodies react the same way. As supporters we must be trauma-informed to try to prevent the sympathetic nervous system from engaging. Learning this, and cultural humility and sensitivity, is essential for creating safe spaces.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The answers to these tough questions are both simple and complex. Change requires a paradigm shift. But that shift is accessible when we have support and guidance along the way. Please check out the full free training at peerconnectbc.ca.
I also offer in-person and Zoom training for teams that want to work through the curriculum collectively. (Let’s face it, not all of us can get through an online training independently.) I am currently working on a version of this training for supporters and loved ones. For more information about training, visit my website
About the author
Jenn has worked in mental health since 1994. She launched her small business, Luminate Wellness, in 2015. Jen writes curriculum and delivers professional development training for organizations wanting to create a strong values-based culture. She wrote the BC Peer Support Training curriculum. To discuss training, please reach out to [email protected]
Government of Canada, S. C. (2021, November 24). Canadian social survey: Loneliness in Canada. Canadian Social Survey: Loneliness in Canada. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/211124/dq211124e-eng.htm
Hedges, C. (2022, October 14). Dr. Gabor Maté on trauma, addiction, and illness under capitalism. The Real News Network. therealnews.com/dr-gabor-mate-on-trauma-addiction-and-illness-under-capitalism
Alexander, Bruce K. (n.d.). Bruce K. Alexander’s Globalization of Addiction Website. brucekalexander.com
Cusick, J. (n.d.). Peer Support Services in B.C.: An overview. peerconnectbc.ca. peerconnectbc.ca/wp-content/uploads/Standards-of-Practice_Final.pdf
Positive deviance collaborative. (n.d.). positivedeviance.org