Saturday, March 19, 2011

Choosing a Support Group

 "We know the rules of community; we know the healing effect of community in terms of individual lives. If we could somehow find a way across the bridge of our knowledge, would not these same rules have a healing effect upon our world?

"We human beings have often been referred to as social animals. But we are not yet community creatures. We are impelled to relate with each other for our survival. But we do not yet relate with the inclusivity, realism, self-awareness, vulnerability, commitment, openness, freedom, equality, and love of genuine community.

"It is clearly no longer enough to be simply social animals, babbling together at cocktail parties and brawling with each other in business and over boundaries. It is our task--our essential, central, crucial task--to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed." ~Howard Rheingold

A gentle environment is conducive to healing
That's the guiding principle underscoring my beliefs about healthy versus unhealthy cyber-support. If you like chaos and bickering and high anxiety, mutinies, paranoia, criticism, smear campaigns, in-fighting, out-fighting, snide remarks slighting anyone daring talk about themselves, then read no further. You won't agree with my philosophy and you'd really hate the WoN message board anyway.

For those who might be looking for support because of a narcissistic relationship: Be aware that you may be replicating the dynamics you were ‘used to’ in the N-relationship. That means chaos will feel familiar. Bullying or attacking members (or watching leaders bully and attack members) will feel familiar. Idealizing a leader as having all the answers will feel similar to the narcissistic relationship. As you become aware of how you reacted in the narcissistic relationship, you will be better able to spot dysfunction in all relationships, even recovery groups.

There are scads of groups on the web where members walk on eggshells, paranoia runs rampant and yet, leaders are idealized as being ‘strong’ and ‘competent’. This also replicates false notions about strength that we were groomed to accept in the narcissistic relationship. If an environment increases your paranoia or exacerbates your anxiety, leave. There are plenty of excellent message boards to choose from.

The reason I believe we need a gentle environment is because we will not be distracted by forum disputes. We might even be looking for a way to avoid anxiety. We might be distracted by the intermittent chaos but it’s not conducive to restoring trust, feeling safe, increasing our comfort with self-disclosure and brutal honesty about our feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Fundamental to healthy support, is the group’s understanding of emotional trauma and forum member’s empathy for people who are coping with crisis. This is why I believe recovery groups should avoid being confrontational. My opinion is based on my cyber-experience in numerous groups. Some were soft on confrontation, allowing me to progress comfortably and others were devoted to shattering defenses like a Bullying Radio Show. Bullying might be entertaining to lurkers and it might satisfy a leader’s aggressive instincts, but ultimately, this approach harms fragile people. Tenderness, patience, kindness, empathy, sympathy, and yes even love for wounded people is a prerequisite to healthy recovery in a cyber community. If a leader cannot tolerate victimization because she has not done her own recovery work, she will be prone towards attacking anyone triggering her unfinished work OR her fear of vulnerability.

So no, I don’t believe there is such a thing as "puppy dog and rainbow forums" enabling members to stay stuck in their muck. When it comes to breaking down ego defenses, it's time to call in the professionals. I find it arrogant for a lay-person (or a support group) to destroy a board member’s defenses and then justify aggression as beneficial. I’ve argued this point innumerable times and sometimes got myself banned, pathologized, or dismissed as an codependent enabler; but you see, I knew from direct experience, that breaking through defenses was potentially dangerous. It's like stealing somebody's clothes when it's hailing outside and then expecting them to 'thank you' for exposing their nekkidness to the neighborhood.

Here's the thing: The safer I felt, the more I was accepted within the community and valued as a contributor, the quicker my defenses diminished on their own. I did not need someone to use a golden hammer to knock sense into my head. I needed to trust my own psyche to know when the time was right---and the right time always comes faster if we’ve established safety for ourselves.

Aggression ought never be justified nor interpreted as ’strength’. It is not. It is aggression and it is counterproductive to healing. When vulnerable members are attacked, this is not compassion---no matter how leaders reframe their lack of compassion. 

Respect, Dignity, Inclusion, & Collaboration 
Am I welcomed into the group?
Am I respected, treated with dignity, included? 

1-Protect your anonymity. Make sure your name is not recognizable. Never include actual places, schooling, children’s ages, real names, or other identifiable information. This does not mean fabricating a personal history that isn’t true. Healing demands rigorous honesty disclosing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Yours. The person who benefits the most is yourself, but it really doesn't matter if you call yourself Calamity Jane or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

2-Lurk to see if forum members jerk each other around. Lurk to see if forum members know one another as friends, not posts. Lurk long enough to witness at least one altercation so you can see how management deals with ‘disputes and/or differences of opinion’.

3-Avoid GroupThink. That means allowing for alternative ways of coping. If the manager or group leader has all the answers, run the other direction. Do another google search. People are complex. Narcissists are complex. There is no one way to solve a problem or reduce human beings to ‘templates’.

4-Avoid groups pushing a time-table. True recovery is s-l-o-w.

5-Be wary of confrontational groups confronting board members of being in denial. People have ego defenses for a reason: to protect themselves from insupportable pain. It is irresponsible to shatter defenses without being there to support them afterwards. Respect the limitations of cyberspace.

6-Avoid groups pathologizing partners, parents, or children of narcissistsBe cautious when a group suggests that narcissists attract the weak-minded, the co-dependent, the fragile, the insecure, etc. There may be precipitating factors to the N-relationship or even mental illness of some kind; but so far, research has not proven a direct correlation between preceding mental problems and a subsequent relationship with a narcissist. 

7-Avoid the excitement of chaos on a message board (it’s tempting, I know!). Reading a forum because it’s exciting to witness confrontationdistracts us from our own process.

8-Be cautious about groups with a financial incentive. This doesn't mean pay-for-participation is a bad thing. It takes an enormous amount of time to manage a forum and most people need some form of financial compensation. However, there are lots of volunteer groups on the web that are free (or supported by donations from active board members). If a leader is charging fees for her work and that leader does not have medical or psychological credentials: keep your money in your pocket and your brain in your head.Critical thinking skills are essential in a market flooded with hucksters and NewWage Gurus.

9-Avoid groups that delete, ban, and cancel memberships without warning. This creates a paranoid situation again, frightening members to tow the mark or lose membership.

10-Stay away from groups encouraging retaliation and vengeance. Or groups that encourage members to inflict narcissistic injury whenever possible. 

11-How much do you know about the ‘leader’? In a group, that may not be important but in a community, self-disclosure is essential. The less we know about a leader, the more our imagination ‘fills-in-the-blanks’ and in the case of narcissistic victims, idealization overrides reality.

12-Learning about pathology is important but the belief that we can overcome trauma and tragedy is vital. Recovery is possible; recovery skills can be learned; recovery skills are best taught by those "who have integrated them in daily life". (link)

13-Narrative, narrative, narrative. Self-disclosure is crucial. Be willing to make mistakes, to admit problems and issues, to ask for help and receive help. Use the message board to write about yourself and integrate the whole of your experience. Putting experiences into words makes them real. We get to know ourselves and other people do, too. What we generally discover is that "we are good enough, nice enough and gosh darn it, people like us."

Remember: Self-Help should make you stronger and more aware of what you think, feel and believe. Self-help ought never result in increased dependence on authority figures, nor heighten fears and augment suggestibility. 

Build safe and compassionate online relationships, my friends, but when it comes to therapeutic relationships, let professionals do what they were trained to do. 


Adapted from an article published on The Narcissistic Continuum, March 2010

©2011 WebOfNarcissism