GroupsHealingRecovery 5 minutes to read

The group experience plays such an important role in a person’s healing. 

There have been stories of hurt that have occurred within a group setting, which not only created resentment toward recovery groups but also hindered the healing that should have taken place. As you read this, you might be someone who has enjoyed every group you have been a part of. While there might also be some of you who carry the pain with you because of a negative group experience. Either way, I hope by reading this you feel uplifted and encouraged. 

In 2014, I was approached by a leader in our church. She asked if I would be willing to go through the Behind the Mask material and said it would make me a better youth leader. Little did she know, I was hiding my recent sobriety from substances, the sexual trauma I experience, and my addiction to pornography and masturbation. These were things I planned to take to my grave. I said yes, not knowing what I was walking into. After only the first chapter, I realized this wasn’t just something to help me lead, it was something that was calling out all of my secrets. I was left with a decision: “Will I face all of the lies and secrets I’ve held onto or will I continue living in the dark?

I decided to ask my leader a very personal question. A question that shined a light on my sexual trauma. Filled with fear of what her response might be, I was met with grace and a smile. She saw the beauty God put in me before I could even see it. She was honest and vulnerable. I will never forget what it was like starting that group and the honor of having such an amazing leader. 

Throughout the years of participating in many different groups, as well as leading them, I have come to realize there are three key factors that create safety and promote healing within a group setting.

1. Grace

As a woman who has experienced abuse, betrayal, and addiction, it can be difficult to feel like I fit into any one category. When I was in a betrayal-focused group, I worried the women would look at me as if I was the one betraying them. When I have been in a group for those struggling with addiction, I have sometimes felt as though my story isn’t good enough. Or maybe my story is too much for others to hear. 

The enemy wants us to believe these lies. He wants us to keep everything in the dark so that we aren’t able to find healing. God, however, wants us to release the pain and hurt we have experienced or caused. God calls us to live in the light. 

Now, as a group leader, I don’t focus my attention on what someone has done or what has happened to them. Instead, I focus on the grace God continues to give. Like the tide that never stops coming into shore. God’s grace is a gift He wants to shower us with, despite our experiences. When we as leaders keep this in mind, it’s easier to empathize with the group members.

If a group member keeps relapsing, rather than meeting them with shame, we ought to meet them with grace and guide them to learn more about their “why.” Why are they relapsing? Why didn’t their Escape Plan work? Is there something they could do next time that might be more effective? Help them run through the darkness to get to the sunrise on the other side.

2. Vulnerability

Empathy is when we get into the hole with someone else and say, “I’m here with you. I feel what you feel. How can I help?” One of the best ways to show empathy is by being vulnerable. Now, please don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean the moment someone comes to us with something we immediately tell them a story about ourselves. This would be what I would call “false vulnerability.” As a leader, we aren’t meant to make things about ourselves. 

True vulnerability might look like a group member coming to you and sharing something intimate, possibly hurtful. As a leader, we are to feel what they are feeling. Hurt with them. Validate their feelings. And thank them for trusting us with their heart. When we immediately share a personal story, sometimes this can be a way of deflecting. We turn to what is comfortable for us. But by feeling their pain and being comfortable with being uncomfortable, we truly are giving them a safe space to share and heal.

3. Guidelines

I am such a stickler for guidelines! When it comes to my day-to-day life, I tend to be a little more free-spirited; however, when it comes to a Pure Desire group, I am very strict. Unfortunately, there have been too many groups that have not held up the guidelines as a priority and because of this, the people within the group end up getting hurt. The Pure Desire guidelines have been created in such a way that it helps take pressure off of the leader but also creates a safe space for the group members. 

If you have been in a group before, as you think about your own experience, when it was time to share your story or your top 10 worst moments, would you be fully honest if you knew that someone might share this information with their spouse? Would you want to be open and vulnerable if there was any chance the leader or group member would try to give you advice afterward? I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable and would certainly try to censor what I share. 

When the leader prioritizes the group guidelines and leads by example, it creates a safe space for both those who are new to the process and those who have been in it for years. This brings comfort and allows each group member to be transparent, which leads to true healing.

There are other ways we, as leaders, can help the members of our group. However, grace, vulnerability, and guidelines would have to be my top three. It is because of God’s grace we are saved. 

I didn’t feel this when I first began opening up. But my leader allowed God’s grace to move through her and I could see it in the way she smiled at me after sharing something I thought was absolutely horrific. Grace was seen in the way she talked to me. She was vulnerable, felt what I was feeling, and met it with kindness and support. She created a safe space for me to be open and honest by putting guidelines in place. 

Her willingness to allow God to use her is why I’m here today.

The views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not reflect an official position of Pure Desire Ministries, except where expressly stated.

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Sarah Peters

Sarah is the International Groups Coordinator Assistant for Pure Desire and is a certified Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional (PSAP) through the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). She is a group leader and speaker who has a heart for helping women and students who struggle with trauma and addiction—passionate about bringing Pure Desire to women’s prisons and juvenile detention centers.

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