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Hallmarks of a Healthy Support Group

Simply stated, a support group is a regular meeting of individuals who have joined together to offer one another support and encouragement in order to overcome a shared problem.  In informal, small group settings, participants, in turn, share their own experiences, feelings and struggles

Ideally, a good support group is, first, a place where recovering addicts will find true acceptance and a sense of what unconditional love is all about.  It is a safe, non-judgmental setting where they can express struggles, thoughts, ideas, and feelings without fear of rejection.  Hearing the stories of others with similar difficulties and how they overcame them, gives the struggling addict great encouragement to go on in a life of sobriety.

Healthy support groups can provide a sort of "family" atmosphere that stimulates the hope for a better life in all involved.  Because addiction wreaks havoc upon an individual's relationships with others, a good support group is a wonderful place for recovering addicts to begin the difficult and painful process of re-connecting with other people.

What does a healthy support group look like?

1.  It protects the confidentiality of its participants by not disclosing what members share during the meetings to those outside of the group.

First and foremost, a healthy support group protects the confidentiality of its participants by not disclosing what members share during the meetings to those outside of the group. If a detail of what is shared in a support group gets out, if a detail of what goes on in a program or session gets out to people who aren't authorized to share that, you've lost that person. You will never ever get them back. Not just that, but you will have harmed the reputation of your group. There has to be really up front understood confidentially. 

2. "Cross talk" (interrupting out of turn) is avoided along with offering unsolicited advice and counseling during the meeting.

Avoid cross-talk, which is basically interrupting out of turn and offering unsolicited advice and counseling during the meeting. This happens in NA, EA, Al-Anon, ACOA, as well as any of the Christian support groups. Everybody has your experts and all I can say is avoid those people. I would encourage you, that if you are going to use any support group, Christian or not specifically Christian, that you make sure you visit it two or three times to know what is going on before you send people to it, or at least have someone you know involved with it that you trust. Don't just sent them cold. There are some groups hostile toward Christianity, others that are not. The only way you are going to find them is to visit them or get some advice from people that you know.

Support groups are a lot like churches. If I went to a church, I am involved with the Assemblies of God, if I went to one Assembly of God, there are several that I visited, where if I went to them the first time, I would never go back, because it couldn't relate, or whatever. And that is within one denomination. What if you just dropped into any church on any street corner to find out what Christianity is like? That is not a representative of the church and what Christianity is all about. In the same sense, support groups are not some kind of monolithic thing and they are all the same. And if you are not a recovering person yourself, look for an open meeting and find out what is going on there and talk to people. This cross-talk thing is always going to cause problems, because usually it is a strong personality who is trying to exhibit undue influence is not right.

Without a facilitator, how do you avoid the cross-talk? You have probably heard a term called "group consciousness." Group consciousness is basically the commitment of the group that actually monitors itself. A good group has group consciousness so that when someone is getting out of turn, they will be confronted.

The best way, if you don't have a group, is to find two or three leaders. That is the way you start a support group. Of course, the best person to start it is someone personally, who has had NA and AA experience and some other support group experience. Support groups that turn into Bible studies are people who have never been part of a support group experience themselves. How can you create or replicate something that you've never done or experienced yourself?

3. It provides the recovering person with a combination of personal support and group accountability

Group accountability is important, just knowing I have people I report to who will care about what is going on in my life and wonder what is happening with me. 

4. It offers a format for honest sharing of personal thoughts and ideas

It provides a format for honest sharing of personal thoughts and ideas. It gives people a chance to process things by talking about them. There really is a tremendous healing value to talk, to get things out and to share. It is a tremendously healing experience.

5. It is a safe and non-judgmental environment for the risky experience of exploring and verbalizing emotions

A healthy support group provides a lot of room for feelings, and you hear people verbalizing, expressing feelings, and people aren't rejected or judged by any of those feelings.

6. It supplements the entire recovery process and is not the single focus or an end in itself

The group isn't recovery. It's not the sum total end of it. It's not really a program. It is more a support and a supplement to the entire process. A good support group communicates acceptance and freedom of expression without fear of rejection. People aren't censured or confronted by sharing honest and difficult feelings and things.

7. It communicates acceptance and freedom of expression without fear of rejection

I don't know if you've ever been to a meeting where it sounds so negative. There are groups like that. It doesn't really do what you want to do. Hopefully it is a group where people are sharing hopefulness and good experiences and positive reinforcement.

8. It promotes an atmosphere of positive reinforcement and  hopefulness

9. A "family" atmosphere is maintained when each individual feels he/she can fit in

It is an amazing experience, in the 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, the only qualifications for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. That is all you need to be there. It is one of the groups with the least exclusive membership that I have ever seen because they are coming together with the stated unspoken understanding that we are here because we have problems and we want to work on them together. It is really a super safe place, and it really does become a family atmosphere to help people to sense again the belonging or being part of something that is good for them.

10. It has mature, stable leadership, but is not controlled by one or a few dominant individuals

11. It has a definite format for its meetings, not rambling, directionless discussions

 

John Wesley's Small Group Rules

Christian "support groups" are not a new idea   John Wesley's "Rules for Small Groups," written in 1816, is an outline that embodies "the Method" from which the name "Methodist" came.  This method resulted in one of the greatest revivals the world has ever known.  Believers gathered together in small groups, sharing honestly, becoming accountable to one another, asking probing questions, praying for one another with a deep knowledge of their mutual needs and struggles.  Any believer can benefit from this type of gathering.  It can be a tremendously healing and encouraging experience for those in recovery. 

So, what did they do?

In the early days of the Methodist Church, members were expected to agree to six common disciplines or "Rules" found in The Works of John Wesley (1816): 

1. To meet once a week, at least. 

2. To come together at the hour appointed, without some extraordinary reason. 

3. To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer. 

4. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought or deed and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting. 

5. To end every meeting with prayer suited to the state of each person. 

6. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.

 

 

Written by Michael Liimatta, director of City Vision College