I Feel Your Pain: The Power of Witness in Support Group

By Elisa Friedlander, from her blog.

People have a deeply innate desire to be seen. I’m not talking about Facebook selfie type visibility, I mean really be seen. To have people, or even that one person, be tuned-in to your joy, struggle or other experience. To simply be present without trying to fix you. When somebody bears witness to a piece of my story, we’ve established a connection and those shared moments become a part of me. I have received a valuable gift.

To be witness to the story of another is also powerful. Even though deep down we want people to see who we are, we might be conflicted about that. It can feel vulnerable, uncomfortable or even unsafe for some. When somebody allows me to see them, I know I am the recipient of trust. It’s a pretty big honor to be in that position.

This give and take makes for an ideal dynamic in intimate relationships. Even when we are fortunate enough to have it, though, sometimes we need more. We need to be witnessed by people who know first hand what it’s like to be in our situation. That’s where group support comes in. It’s not meant to be better or worse, or a more or less profound experience. It’s about being seen in another, important way.

After being diagnosed with a progressive neuroinflammatory condition called CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome), I wanted to meet others who understood this specific pain and its tremendous life impact. I searched for support groups but found none within a reasonable vicinity. I was not willing to be without it, so I started one of my own.

We gather each month and focus on a specific topic. When the conversation veers to something other than what we planned, the energy it ignites serves as useful information. There is strong desire to connect with others about the newly raised issue. Most often, we agree to revisit it another month when we can expand the dialogue.

Along with the discussions, the group itself is always evolving, and I love how welcoming and even excited current participants are when new people come to check it out. Each person offers what many friends, sadly, no longer do when medical issues enter the picture. They show up. We come together because of our shared experience, but our group is not only about pain. By listening without judgment, we also bear witness to one another’s strides, resilience and hope.

I get far too much credit for starting and keeping the group running. The truth is, it was not a selfless act on my part that propelled me to get it going. Yes, I wanted to contribute to this community somehow, and this felt like a natural fit for me, but it was more than that. I needed to, or I would continue to be the only one I knew who understood this type of burning nerve pain. I wanted a space where others were game for talking about issues related to our rare condition in a forward-moving way. I needed these people whom I had not yet met.

When I worked with parents of children who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing, I encouraged group support as an adjunct to our psychotherapy sessions. Hearing from me that their kids could be independent and live happy lives wasn’t enough. They needed to meet parents of older children to be directly exposed to that truth. For the majority, the group experience increased their ability to go further in individual therapy. Both systems of support offered a unique experience of witness that met different needs.

I have also had opportunity to lead many support groups. But at my monthly CRPS gathering, I am a participant. Sure, I facilitate, but being a gentle guide, offering up topic ideas or sending out information is only part of a much bigger picture. Having this group in which I’m not looked upon as the professional means I am in the company of my peers. I can open up and be seen.

Like the others, I wake up some days and pain informs me that I can’t make it. I might be in the midst of a major flair-up or recovering from a recent emergency room visit. I might feel exhausted from too many nights without sleep. Getting through the car ride, much less interacting with people, seems questionable. Yet I go, and people who know about the hardest part of my life start walking in. I am instantly comforted, and the feeling continues long after our time together.

I consider the group to be an integral part of my pain management plan. It doesn’t stop the hurting or help me regain mobility, but it’s high on my list of things that renew me, which is a key element of the coping process. Few things compare to the power of witness. There’s not a selfie I could post that could give me that feeling of being seen.

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