8.1 Introduction

Shared personal experiences are a key element of peer-based programs and services, in terms of its’ contribution to establishing the peer relationship. Similar life experiences help to “open doors” and “build bridges” between the peer supporters and the peers. Equally, reflecting upon own lived experience and creating narratives of past events can assist the peer in looking at the past- and the present- from a different perspective, attributing certain events a different meaning and finding his way to the changes in his own life. However, if we want to make the most out of it and keep the practice secure for both the peer supporter and the peer, all parties involved- including the professionals involved in the services organization and supervision- shall be well aware of those aspects will be helpful to achieve these objectives and those that shall be avoided.

8.2 Learning objectives

In this unit the learners will

  • Learn the potential benefits of sharing lived experience
  • Consider the difficulties to sharing experience
  • Familiarize themselves with the mechanisms of role modelling in peer support
  • Understand the value of own lived experience in peer support
  • Familiarize themselves with the ways in which peer supporter can create meaning and restructure autobiography
  • Familiarize themselves with aspects relevant to sharing experience effectively

8.3 Sharing personal experience

Identifying and expressing own strengths

It is demonstrated that interventions which help identify and develop strengths of the individual result in improved wellbeing. Generally, people who are aware of their strengths, are more likely to use them consciously in determined situations and are more likely to progress towards their goals. Based on that, researchers in the field of homelessness have proposed that adopting a strength orientation and helping the individuals build adequate self-perceptions in interventions with individuals experiencing homelessness can widen their pathways out of homelessness.

In his research, Roger Tweed (Tweed et al., 2012) reports that formerly homeless people interviewed informed that strength recognition (e.g. realizing that their self-worth or realizing that they had something to offer) contributed to their escape from homelessness. The study concluded that, in spite of their marginalized positions in the society, the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness perceives their personal strengths. At the same time, it detected that individuals who experienced longer periods of homelessness have more difficulties in identifying their personal strengths.

This evidence makes us think that encouraging strengths recognition is an important aspect to address, when working with people who are homeless. To make this work more targeted, it is interesting to orient the intervention at those strengths that tend to predominate among people experiencing homelessness. Researchers identified a number of strengths that were most frequently reported by homeless or formerly homeless people in interviews (Tweed at al.).

Coping skillsMotivationPerseveranceSelf-sufficiency
Care for othersSpiritualityInterpersonal skillsTechnical job skills
CourageKindnessSocial intelligenceAuthenticity

Most of the above strengths relate to those listed in the VIA (Values in Action) classification, developed by Peterson C. and Seligman M.E.P. It includes 24 different strengths of character and has been used effectively in a wide range of cross-cultural research. The scientific survey is available for free, in more than 20 languages, on the website of Institute on Character.

Peer support and lived experience

There is no doubt that sharing personal experiences is a key element of peer-based programs and services, in terms of its’ contribution to building the peer relationship. Similar life experiences help to “open doors” and “build bridges” between the peer supporters and the peers. However, there are other benefits of sharing lived experience (Psych Hub, 2021):

  • Inspire hope by showing that there are solutions and ways out even from the most difficult situations, and people with problems similar to ours have found them
  • Contribute to make the peer feel less ashamed of his situation which, in turn, can lead to more motivation to look for solutions or help (or accept help that’s being offered)
  • One of the best ways to promote empowerment and contribute to combating stigma
  • Can reduce the possibility of relapse
  • Helping others as a powerful tool to help oneself

Drawbacks and difficulties to sharing experience

Lived experiences told in first person can inspire hope and encouragement in those who are going through a rough patch at the present time. However, for those who are sharing them it can be very difficult, especially when it comes to personal experiences related to struggle, loss or pain. Often these are the most painful memories of a person’s life and she can be still struggling with difficult emotions while remembering them. The reluctance to sharing can have other motivations, such as fear of being judged, feeling ashamed of past circumstances, unwillingness to disclose own fragility, distrust towards a person or a group one is supposed to share with.

Usually, it takes some time and practice for the people to become comfortable sharing their experience. This is why, while conducting the training for peer support agents, it is recommendable to take little steps at a time and be careful not to pressure the prospective peer supporters to share intimate parts of their stories, since this is something that shall come from them. The participants shall feel that they are in control of the situation and free to decide what aspects their stories they want to share at each point. Especially in the beginning of the program, when the group isn’t well established and familiar with each other, the level of “expected” intimacy shall be cautious. For this purpose, it is recommendable to be flexible while designing exercises and giving assignments to the participants. For instance, if you ask the participants to reflect upon their past experiences, you shall be careful to leave them the liberty to choose which experiences or events to bring up.

Lived experience label

Peer supporters- and experts by experience in general- at some point may get a feeling that their whole identity reduces to the ‘lived experience’ label, and their opinion is valued only because of this. In order to prevent this situation, it is important that professionals who work with a peer supporter are aware that he is more than his experience and has other aptitudes to contribute to the common project. These professionals shall be careful to avoid making reference exclusively to the aspect of lived experience. Instead, they might try to take little actions to help the peer supporter discover or reaffirm his other competences and skills. These could be, for instance, consulting the peer supporters on issues not strictly related to first-hand experience, occasionally commenting on the peer supporter being good at something… 

Sharing experience effectively

To be effective, the process of sharing experiences has to be well thought of and carefully executed. Below are some fundamental considerations to make this work.

  • Reject one-size-fits-all approach 

It is essential to understand that no two experiences are the same— there are always multiple factors that add numerous shades and variations. Similarly, one has to be aware that, even though the situation might be similar, the needs and expectations of two different people don’t have to be the same. Indeed, something that worked for one person could work for another but it doesn’t necessarily have to.

  • Intention and action sustained over time

The change is possible only when there is a steady intention accompanied by action on behalf of the peer that receives help, and both are sustained over time. The understanding of these factors is a “must” for the program to succeed and therefore, the peer supporters shall not forget to convey it while sharing their experience.

  • Intentional experience sharing

The peer supporters don’t transmit bits of their experience randomly. They analyze and define the purpose of sharing particular bits of experience at different stages of their intervention as a way to ensure that they share aspects of their story that can be actually helpful to the peer. Usually, it will be a logical consequence of the mutual interaction between the peer and the peer support agent, e.g. upon request from the peer or upon having detected a particular need of the peer, based on his behavior or account.

The objective of sharing experiences is to inspire hope, provide ideas for coping, discuss alternative solutions… however, sometimes a person might not be prepared for certain developments as of yet, or it might not be the right time for it and, what was initially intended to help, could result in an additional challenge or a prejudice. This is why the peer supporters shall try to avoid sharing aspects at risk of resulting problematic or evoke prejudice to certain solutions or services.

  • Keep it down-to-earth

Sharing of experiences is meant to allow the people to connect to each through their biography. For that purpose, the story that is told has to be relatable. In practice, that means trying to find a balance between describing the harshness of their experiences, exaggerate positivity of truly difficult situations

  • The peer is the one to decide

Peer support shall be a tool to guide the peer in making his own decisions and to strengthen his sense of self. By no means should it be seen as a way of influencing the peers’ decisions. This is why a peer supporter shall avoid telling his peer what to do or even giving direct advice about actions to be taken. If he chooses to inform the peer about his experience, it is to offer him an expanded perspective and help him feel that he’s not alone in this.

  • The language matters

The language the peer supporter uses is highly important as it is a conductor that will get the message through. When used correctly it will help underpin the aspects exposed above. It is desirable for the peer to use modal verbs of probability- may, might, could…- and avoid modal verbs expressing certainty, such as will, must, can’t…

Lack of common understanding of lived experience

Homelessness is a complex phenomenon that can affect people from different backgrounds, ethnic origin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and social-economic status. Additionally, lack of stable housing often goes together with other circumstances and problems such as a physical or mental health problem; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; diverse types of trauma; addictions; communication difficulties…

Now, imagine that the peer supporter and the peer assigned to work together share the lived experience of homelessness but, outside of that, their background and experience is considerably different.

In the first place, all parties shall understand that it can be difficult to reach an ideal level of parallelism in lived experience between two people in the context of peer support. There will be peer relationships where the level of shared experience is extremely high and there will be others where there is a general context of shared experience (in our case— having experienced homelessness) but many differences can be observed. Certainly, it might be easier to connect and find common ground in the first case; however, sharing an overall context of experiences will be enough for the people to connect provided that the peer supporter has the ability to empathize with the peer and understand his specific circumstances.

Sharing lived experience at other levels

Sharing lived experience with peers is not the only way to make a contribution to the community and help others with one’s own experiences. Involving survivors into the planning, implementing and evaluating services is an excellent way of bringing in different perspectives which can greatly improve the chances of services to meet the needs of the users and achieving overall objectives of a program at stake. Undoubtedly, any effort in this direction, has to be built upon an understanding of the value of the lived experience and its’ potential when it comes to services design, changing the system or adapting its response to certain social challenges. Additionally, for this approach to work there must be a true intention and commitment of the structures in charge towards including different stakeholders in the process, which requires certain efforts and persistence to build and maintain an appropriate framework for that. Another important aspect is that, in case the participation in a determined program is on a one-time basis, it is essential that the experts by experience receive sufficient information on the purpose and implications of the activity beforehand and on the impact of their contributions afterwards. This will help them to be clear about what their role is and will contribute to them feel heartened and encourage them to keep contributing with their experience in the future.