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Transcript of Safe to Hope Podcast: Premiere 8 with Melissa Affolter

Ann Maree:  Hello and welcome to the Safe to Hope podcast. My name is Ann Maree and I'm the executive director for HelpHer and the host of this podcast. On the Safe to Hope: Hope Renewed in Light of Eternity podcast, we help women tell their story with an eye for God's redemptive purposes. All suffering is loss, but God leaves nothing unused in His plans. We want to help women see His redemptive thread throughout their circumstances, and then look for opportunities to join with God in His transformational work.

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Ann Maree: Once again I welcome Melissa Affolter to the Safe to Hope studio as we finalize our back to back series on story that we started earlier this fall with Darby Strickland. In this episode, Melissa, who facilitates the Restoried support groups, talks about the differences between a therapeutic group, a support group, and an accountability group. We'll also talk about how to know when someone is ready to tell their story or where they might tell it. Melissa will also help us a little bit with how to build the trust that creates some of those safe places for storytelling.

So if you will talk a little bit about the differences between a therapeutic group, a support group and an accountability group. No, no small task. Go, go for it.

Melissa: Sure. I'll do my best here. Restoried: we advertise or share about Restoried, saying that it's a support group. And so that would probably be the context I'm the most familiar with. The way that I differentiate between those is for a therapeutic group, I lean towards seeing that more as a diagnostic or treatment focused type of setting. Now, obviously with it being a group and having multiple people in it, even a therapeutic approach in that environment is going to not be fully formed because you can't meet each individual person with all of the specific things that they're hoping to get out of the group. But even therapeutic groups that I've seen advertisements for or read about or read descriptions of, they're usually pretty quick to say we don't provide individual treatment in this group, but there is still this element when it's therapeutic. You're living out in the group setting different variations of therapeutic work, therapeutic exercises, tools, resources. So I think that's usually the context of those types of groups. And then I'm going to skip over to accountability group and then come back to support groups, since that's the one I'm the most familiar with. Accountability group: I see that more as - I immediately think of the word responsibility - because when you're trying to aim for accountability, if that's the main purpose of the group, it's about being responsible or like taking ownership of this particular - whether it's maybe a topic like an area, maybe you're having an accountability group about eating habits, or maybe it's about a particular addictive pattern, pornography or things along those lines. And so accountability groups, I think, are going to typically not be loosely relational. There's elements of relationship, but the accountability, the responsibility for, taking ownership is kind of the central focus of those. And then a support group, I think is at least from my training and my experience, the part that's highlighted the most, I guess, is that it's relationally focused because there's support for one another. It's not just even the leader of the group or the facilitator supporting, it's you're actually trying to come alongside each group member and help the group as a whole to support one another. Now, the only caveat I would add is I think that most of these groups, all three of them, have a little bit of each one potentially. But I, think those would be the key ways that I would differentiate between them.

Ann Maree: Mm hmm. Yeah. And yeah, the HelpHer ministry has ongoing support groups, too. And we are very adamant about it being relational and being also affirming of each person where they are, what they've decided, what they are thinking, you know, and, being a support for that. But yes, totally agree. Each group probably has elements of the other ones. So kind of taking a turn here, asking a different kind of question: How do we know if we're ready or and or how can we discern what group or community will be safe for us? And, you know, I use that term loosely ‘safe’ in that there are no safe spaces. There are no safe people. Obviously, you know, you said it earlier, I'll say it often, I'm going to fail people, even I who have training will fail you. So I want to use that term loosely. But again, I'll ask the question so you can answer: How do you know when we're ready and how do we discern what group?

Melissa: Yeah, a couple of things that I jotted down for this one was just thinking through like, what questions would I encourage the person to ask themselves about herself and about the potential group in order to arrive at a conclusion of, ‘Am I ready or is this a good fit for me?’ So a couple that came to my mind were first and foremost, one that I oftentimes will try to be clear with women who are interested in Restoried, ‘Am I still in what I would call active crisis?' Because every group has different purposes. So I think about other ministries like Called to Peace Ministries. Obviously their advocacy work and the groups that they offer that are advocacy based in a lot of ways are again, they're going to have other elements, I'm sure. But one of their primary features is oftentimes coming alongside women who are still in the thick of making pretty critical decisions about what am I doing next? What's my next step when it comes to either getting to even physical safety? Because maybe that's what they're seeking and trying to discern, or maybe they're having legal challenges and questions and things. And so every group is very different, and that's a particular kind of work. And so for my work with Restoried, I start with - if the emphasis is a relational communal experience of healing. These are women who are coming in saying, ‘I'm now ready for these next steps of healing.’ And if that's where we're at, then I want to make sure that I'm not still in crisis mode where the carpet's being pulled out from me, under me in different ways every single day, like responding to different crises or chaos every day.

The other question I would ask is going back to that idea of do I have some sense of support? So I always encourage the women participating in Restoried, particularly since right now at least those groups are online, although we have done them in person. But I always encourage them, like when when you go home from group or if you wake up the next day and you kind of feel pretty rough because maybe it was just very taxing to participate in group the night before. What's your approach for how to kind of take care of yourself or if you need to talk to someone, do you have a partner, a friend, a counselor in your life that you trust? So I think those are some of the initial questions. And then the other one is more based on like, what do you know about this group? Is it recommended check references. Vet these groups know don't don't just abruptly blindly join a group, and I mean you can, but I just I would say those are some of the things that I would ask on the front end of myself if I was thinking about joining a group and wondering, am I ready? Is this a good fit?

Ann Maree: Yeah, You're touching on the next question that I wanted to ask. Can you go further? What determines or what should you look for in a healthy group?

Melissa: Sure. The biggest thing that came to my mind right away on this one was a good, healthy group will have some guidelines and some boundaries and those that will be clearly communicated on the front end. So for my groups, what that looks like is we have a commitment form that the women are required to review and sign before they are allowed to join the group. And there's various things in that commitment form. There's probably about 18 to 20 different commitments they're making. And so it's just a series of statements. Some of them are logistical, like saying, ‘I commit to attend at least 80% of the sessions, barring some kind of life emergency situation. And if that happens, I will communicate that to the group facilitator.’ So with that, we're asking for commitment from them. We're saying this is how you're demonstrating to the group that there's a mutuality to the group. It's a shared commitment. This is not just a, well, maybe I'll go, maybe I won't. We're committing to this. Other things that are on that form. talk about confidentiality. What type of space are you expected to kind of be in? So it has to be free from distractions. Like you can't just be sitting on the couch with your kids on the couch with you.I mean, obviously nursing babies, things like that might be a little different. But generally we make it really clear, like, here's some of the guidelines and commitments. And I think that those things set us up for a healthy group experience because it's sobering. We're coming to the group saying we take this seriously. And then it's also practical. It gives the women an idea of what to expect because, as you said, they are coming probably very apprehensive and nervous about, ‘What's this going to be like?’ This can feel really overwhelming. And so by telling them on the front end that there's these guidelines, I have found in my experience that it helps them feel safer. Like you said, there's not a perfectly safe environment. It's still a risk. But if we communicate at the start that we're committing to these principles together, then there's this shared perspective that like, hey, we're all saying we want this to be a safe environment for one another. And so, yeah, I use a form. Maybe other groups have different ways of doing that. But I think having something in place that's going to create some of those guardrails to keep you on the right path of the group.

Ann Maree: Yeah, we've used them as well for our support groups for the very same reason. And so, yeah, I mean, there's preparation that has to happen for sharing story and group. There's just some things that you have to get your mind around. But yes, I agree it does give a woman a person a - It's like when you're speaking, if you're going to speak at a conference, they show you around where you're going to be standing, where the water will be, the mic will be - it’s just it's it's a you don't just drop into a group and perform. You know, you don't drop into a conference and perform. There is that preparation. So and it is very important, again, as you're saying, for these for women who have stories. Let's see what, what would make or what might make group work and trauma tricky.

Melissa: Hmm. Yeah. This kind of encompasses several of the themes that we've talked about, but things like hearing someone else's story can immediately bring up something in us.

Ann Maree: Absolutely.

Melissa: And so I think that's one of the more obvious. And probably what makes people understandably apprehensive about joining a group is, ‘wow, do I have the capacity to be able to process with other people if they're talking about their story and I've had my own experiences, how is that going to impact me?’ And so again, I would tie that in with part of why we do the whole commitment form is to help them be prepared with what, not just what to expect logistically in the group, but also we give them some guardrails on how to share their story. So I don't remember the exact wording that I use in our commitment form, but in our commitment form and then in the first week that we all meet together, I'll verbally kind of walk them through this too, is, ‘hey, when we're sharing our stories, we're not necessarily diving into the super specific details of what happened to us.’ That's not the objective of sharing our story. And so we do that for a couple of reasons, partly for their own protection to go slow themselves. But then, yeah, also to guard the potential for other group members to hear those details and be really triggered into some pretty strong responses. So that's one, I think immediate or bigger potential area that could be tricky. Another one that I thought of is is confidentiality. In the five years that I've done Restoried as far as I know, I've never had anyone come back to me and share that they had a bad experience with confidentiality in the group. But I think it's something to be aware of in the sense that now that I have been in groups for five years, for me as the facilitator, when I go to certain conferences or events, it is pretty common now that I might see people who've actually been in my groups. And so when I say that that can be tricky, it's more so on on me. Like it's my responsibility, but it can feel tricky for the participants because then when they see me out somewhere, they might be wondering like, ‘Oh, is Melissa going to reference that that's how we know each other?’ And they might not want anyone to know that they participated in Restoried. So the commitment of the group is not just them to one another, it’s very much also my commitment to them. And so I have to just be very aware of that and very conscientious that if I see someone out somewhere and that's my only way of knowing them, I don't I don't go up to them and say, ‘Well, I saw you in a story last month or something like that.’ I handle it similar to how I handle my individual counseling. I just tell people, if you see me out somewhere, I will not be the one to acknowledge you first. If you want to acknowledge me and talk to me, that is completely fine with me. But it has to be your initiative. So yeah, triggers, confidentiality. Those are probably the big ones that stand out to me. Another one that came to my mind is really just like what other people think. I think that has come up sometimes. So sometimes in my groups, the women will try to share some of what they're experiencing or learning in Restoried with someone else in their life. Maybe it's a pastor or another counselor or a friend. And so sometimes, that can be a struggle to then process with them what their perspective is about it, because not everybody thinks they should be doing group work like this. There's always going to be people that think you ‘just need to get over things.’ Right? Yeah. So that can feel a bit overwhelming for people to is how do I they get excited to have maybe a new discovery in the group or to make a connection and then they might want to share that with someone. And if that is met with resistance or skepticism that can feel that can feel hard and painful.

Ann Maree: Yeah. And I appreciate what you're sharing, though, is just also being very careful with how we care for one another, not just in counseling or advocacy work or in group work, but overall it's purposeful. Again, we're using that word but care carefully for the other person and it extends. So let's see how do we how can we start small? Like maybe sharing in community requires building trust with one or two others over a long period of time. And maybe that's just too intimidating. I know it would be for me. So tell me how to start small