We’ve all heard that assumptions are bad. There’s no need to repeat the old adage about what happens when you assume. There are actually some cases where it is advantageous to make some assumptions. We’re going to now explore some of the assumptions we make in NIPS. Before going into the mechanics of NIPS, we believe it is important to present the set of assumptions which underlie our work. Indeed, this basic information, essentially a set of assumptions—may be the most important part of NIPS. Like everything else in NIPS, these assumptions are derived from the long tradition of peer support. While not every such community relies on exactly the same assumptions, there have many things in common. Like many other peer support communities, we repeat the basics of these assumptions in every meeting of NIPS. Indeed, if every member of every constituency where NIPS is active could hear about and accept these assumptions, our lives would go ever so much more smoothly.
As a practical matter we have also found it useful to present this common set of understandings when we gather as NIPS. People do make different assumptions about how human beings behave. Indeed, human beings have gone to war for thousands of years, at least in part about these different beliefs about how the world works. We do not want these disagreements to creep into NIPS. Therefore we take time at each of our workshops to present a basic set of assumptions which we ask every participant in NIPS to accept and act on—at least while they are in a NIPS setting or interacting with another member of NIPS.
These are not terribly controversial assumptions and thousands of us have adopted them for our NIPS work and found them useful in those settings, and for many of us beyond our meetings as well. Very similar assumptions have been accepted by many thousands in similar peer support communities around the world. We invite you to consider these assumptions; but we do not want to spend time in NIPS gatherings arguing about them. They are drawn from the large body of experience with peer support communities although they are not approved by any one of them. They are what we have found useful. We are not trying to become psychotherapists or philosophers. However, we find that if we do not state our assumptions, then all kinds of difficulties arise later.
Indeed, one of our key advisors has pointed out that part of the reason so many foundations were skeptical about funding us at first was because they did not understand the extent to which we go to establish a strict structure of positive norms for our NIPS meetings. They know that peers getting together has not always been a good thing. Think Hitler or your worst nightmare of a motorcycle gang. By emphasizing these assumptions at every NIPS gathering—and enforcing them, we create a space of safety, sobriety and support.
For anyone in a NIPS Peer Support Project, there is a group of peers we are trying to get to adopt these basic tools in order to help make their own lives better, others like themselves better and the environment better. We know that these tools can help with all three.
To begin with, you have to take care of yourself if you are going to make the world a better place. This is a marathon not a sprint. This will not work if every activist burns out after their first action or first year of actions. Therefore the first application of peer support is to make yourself a better you in doing this work. These assumptions apply to you.
Second, is the peers you are organizing. These assumptions will guide you in the interactions described in other parts of this model. It matters what assumptions we make about the people we meet and work with.
In some cases, NIPS is not working with a population simply to make its situation better, as we did, for example, in our project with returning veterans. Take our climate change work. We want that issue to change. However, we cannot do that without taking care of ourselves and interacting positively with others in our projects. Hence the importance of the following assumptions.
1. WE ASSUME THAT PEOPLE ARE GOOD. The first NIPS assumption is simple –that each member of any constituency where NIPS is working, and indeed, every human being is inherently and infinitely good on all the dimensions we can think of, to an extent well beyond our current conceptions. We are loving, intelligent, powerful, decisive, cooperative, creative, etc. No matter what we might have done in a difficult situation, we are still good people at our core, deserving of treatment and respect as such. One aspect of that natural goodness is the ability to process literally billions of bits of information at every moment—all the details around us the sights, the sounds and the smells. Based on that information, we choose a flexible, new response that is most appropriate to each new situation.
2. WE ASSUME THAT PEOPLE GOT HURT. The only reason we do not function on that high level as extraordinarily good and intelligent people at all times is because of ways we have been hurt. In our families, in school in religious institutions, those in charge are often harsh. Some groups of people are treated often treated harshly by society, based on their economic situation, their skin color, their age or disability status among many others
Sometimes, we are hurt physically beginning with physical “discipline” in the home. More often we were damaged psychologically by criticism and rejection, much of it by people we loved who said it was “for our own good.” NIPS, and most peer support communities, believe that the only reason people ever act badly to one another is because they were first hurt themselves. We are still our lovable selves underneath.
3. WE ASSUME THAT WHEN PEOPLE GET HURT OR DEVELOP THESE HABITS, THEY STOP PROCEESING INFORMATION NORMALLY. The way this process of setting up good vets or anyone to do inappropriate or bad things works can be thought of quite simply. In combat or anytime we as human beings are being hurt either physically or psychologically, our usually magnificently functioning brains stop working to a large extent. When we are being hurt physically or psychologically that magnificent mechanism shuts down. Information about that situation comes in and just sits there unanalyzed. All the sights, sounds and other details of the situation sit there in a clump.
4. WE ASSUME THAT EVERYONE SOMETIMES ACT BADLY BASED ON POORLY PROCESSED INFORMATION. When another situation similar enough to the one where you got hurt comes up, that clump of unprocessed information can lead us to choose to behave in one of two unproductive ways. Either we rigidly reenact our role as victim, e.g. acting scared, going passive, or we take on the other role of perpetrator in this new, but familiar situation, and seek to hurt the other person in the way we were hurt. It is probably true that we have some split-second choice in the matter and decide to reenact that old situation in hopes of getting to bring up and deal with the feelings we had back then when we were getting hurt, but our choice happens very quickly and usually feels like no choice at all.
5. WE ASSUME THAT WE CAN REPROCESS THAT INFORMATION—IF SOMEONE WILL LISTEN. The good news is that we can regain our ability to function well, even in situations similar to the ones where we have been hurt in the past. All we have to do is find someone who will listen to us while we tell the story of how we got hurt, and tell it over and over again. During the process, when the emotions come up, we simply express them in the safe environment and good things start to happen. Just as our physical body has a tendency toward health, so does our emotional “body.” Not that we don’t ever need medical help; sometimes we do. But our minds (like our physical bodies) “want” to be healthy. All we need to do usually is create a situation conducive for that healing to take place.
6. WE ASSUME THAT EXPRESSING OUR FEELINGS IS KEY TO REPROCESSING.
Some psychiatrists refer to the need to identify the primary emotions we are feeling and process them fully. In the peer support world, we have noted that this processing often involves visible, external, physiological processes such as crying, laughing, trembling, perspiring, blushing, etc.). In the peer support world, we do not think that it is not the external processes that are healing, but something deeper in the way the brain functions. The external processes appear to be just markers, probably left over from some evolutionary or divinely creative process. They do, however, help us know when we or someone else is engaged in that deeper healing process. Many insights come after the telling and repeated telling of the story of our hurt, expressing our deepest feelings about them and after these physiological processes have been expressed. It is probably simpler just to say, “It’s OK to cry.” In the language of other schools of thought and everyday life, if you take the time to “process your feelings” with another person who doesn’t interrupt, and doesn’t get in the way of your expressing your feelings (indeed, even encourages you), you will think more clearly afterward and be able to make decisions more easily and productively.
7. FOR OUR PUPOSES AT NIPS, WE ASSUME THERE ARE ONLY 4 MAJOR FEELINGS.
It is helpful for us to have a simple model of what is going on in a listening session and for that model to be consistent from one NIPS meeting to the other. That way we can always know what to expect when we come to a meeting. Of course in the professional world, there are many, many different types of feelings which can be identified. Some psychologists would argue that there is a feeling or an attitude associated with every possible thought or behavior. Others think there are only two. The model we have found most useful identifies the following four as a guide to understanding what is going on with a peer.
GRIEF. The feeling associated with loss, typically expressed by crying.
FEAR. The feeling associated with a future injury or loss. Typically expressed by laughter for light fear and trembling with cold perspiration for heavier fears.
ANGER. The feeling associated with an injury or a loss caused by another, typically expressed by raging with violent motions, a flushed face and warm perspiration.
BOREDOM. The feeling associated with lack of stimulation.
PHYSICAL INJURY. Typically, people are not able to express all the feelings associated with an injury. After small injuries, we are told to “pull ourselves together,” in combat we had to. Severe injuries often involve loss of consciousness or medication. We have found that people talking about past injuries, in addition to expressing the other feelings listed above will often yawn or stretch. Sometimes this yawning or stretching happens at other times as well, but we think it is related to these old injuries.
We were pleased to note the substantial agreement between these first four useful categories developed in the peer support world and the “primary emotions” identified by Dr. Hoge.
7. WE ASSUME THAT TAKING TURNS SHARING OUR STORIES AND LISTENING TO OTHER’S STORIES REALLY HELPS. The trick is to set up situations where people can tell their stories while somebody else pays attention. In almost every situation in almost every society, that does not happen very often. “Fluid” conversational norms almost always require that a person interrupt whoever is speaking, with a story of their own—just to show “empathy.” While some one is talking, the other person is typically thinking about what they will say in response or getting ready to launch into as an alternative topic. “Why, your story about your mother dying reminds me of the time I saw my friend die.” Almost no one ever gets to tell their whole story all the way through—certainly not to the point of expressing deep feelings. The obvious exception we have all experienced is when the person supposedly listening to us has checked out and has pretty much stopped paying us any attention at all–lost in their own thoughts. It is hard to keep talking when that happens and it doesn’t help very much in this healing process.
As far as the expression of feelings is concerned, the general situation in society is even worse. The suppression of emotional expression usually starts with little children. When babies start to cry, most people will do almost anything to stop them—feed them snacks, jiggle them up and down, make ridiculous faces to distract them, and all too often, end up in frustration, threatening to hurt (or actually hurting) them again if they do not stop. The pressure on boys not to cry is particularly intense. One man describes how his father reacted to his crying. His father held a knife to his throat and said, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to really cry about” He didn’t cry again–for years! The process continues for adults to this day—especially in the military. If you tell someone how badly you really feel about yourself (in some ways, on some days) and begin to cry deeply (as we believe you someday must to deal with some of the feelings stirred up by losses in life), most adults will try to stop you from crying, even from making “nervous” gestures. They will urge you to “suck it up” or hand you a beer. At the extreme, you may find yourself dealing with some institution, either law enforcement or mental health. The great trick in most of these peer support communities is to get people to “take turns.” For two minutes, five minutes, a half hour, an hour each. In NIPS, we do it in pairs, small local support groups, or in large, weekend-long, national workshops. Any social setting can be immediately altered to allow for taking turns. By doing that, you can allow everyone to get a chance to deal with the residue of any past difficulties which are getting in the way of what they need to do right now…the fear about an upcoming interview, or date, the confusion about how to decide on a job, or the outrage at the latest problem in the larger society.
8. WE ASSUME THAT “SAFETY” QUESTIONS CAN HELP. The basic foundation of NIPS is based simply on two peers taking turns listening to each other as they talk about the ways in which they have been hurt—sometimes related to the experiences they have in common, sometimes not–and the ways these hurts have left them feeling, thinking and behaving in rigid, irrational, often harmful ways. That’s it; one peer talking to another. This alone is enough. It is at least 90% of what we do for each other. However, some of the other peer support networks have identified some simple steps the vet doing the listening can follow to increase their effectiveness as a listener. The simplest guideline is to provide a perspective of safety contradicting the hurtful situation the other peer is describing. The essence of this insight is to let the peer who is talking know that the situation in which he or she was being hurt is not happening now. This can be done by anyone as he or she is listening to a peer. In general, these questions can help the peer veteran express the feelings left over from past hurts. It may only consist of telling the peer that it is safe to tell the story now or directing them back to an obviously damaging incident that the peer mentions briefly and then moves on. As the peer expresses those feelings, as they get a chance to cry, laugh, tremble, rage and yawn, this will allow the veteran to live free of that old burden, to do amazing new things, to feel happy and delighted (although it make take a while for the feelings to catch up with the improved thinking and acting.)
SIDEBAR: “4 SAFETY QUESTIONS”
Here are four questions that can always be your guide when you are in the role of “listener.” These will help you encourage a person to tell their story and express their feelings:
- What do you like about the person telling their story? Just keeping eye contact with a look of understanding and compassion on your face is a good start. It is a good idea to actually list the things you like about the person in your mind as a way to get in touch with this positive feeling. Lean forward in your chair. Be an “active listener.” This listening is 90% of the process.
- What is the nature of the pain underlying the story? Using our assumptions (which are as good as any) there are really only a few basic types of pain—grief over some loss, fear, anger, boredom and actual physical injury. It helps to make your best guess and label it along with the specific situation in which it occurred.
- What are a number of ways to let the story teller know that the old painful incident is not currently happening, i.e. that it is now safe? For example, if they were alone, you might say something to remind them that you are really here and listening, sometimes touching their shoulder or hand makes the point better that anything you can say. If they were in danger, you might remind them that there is no present danger. You might tell them you will help them if anything comes up.
- What happens when you try one of these ideas and attempt to encourage them in one or more of these ways? If your guesses were right about what they are talking about and the kind of statement or gesture you might make to let them know the current situation is different, then the story teller will express more of their feelings. If they do not express any more feelings, just return to listening and reconsider your answers to the first questions. Maybe you didn’t really identify the pain the person is feeling or maybe the thing you chose to say or do did not get interpreted the way you had hoped and you need to try one of your other ideas. For example, a man putting his hand on a woman’s hand may be interpreted romantically rather than sympathetically. Just go back to listening, continually coming back to question #1 periodically in your mind. Your unconditional positive regard for this person will show through.
When these “safety” questions work, you will observe it concretely and immediately. You offer an opposite view: they laugh, or cry or tremble… Their face moves. There is something about the safety the opposite view provides—or the evidence that you are working with them on their problem. You do not need a microscope or a PhD. They cry. You see the tears. Two veteran peers can help each other. What is nice about this insight from other peer support communities is its simplicity and its effectiveness. You really don’t need a PhD to increase the value of your listening to another vet. Therefore, the session consists of long periods with one vet talking or expressing feelings with occasional interjections by the listening vet which may or may not deepen those expressions of feelings. It is important to remember that your principal job is to listen. It’s always best when you keep your interjections to a very minimum.
End of Sidebar
In pretty much every country on the planet these days, there are people regularly engaged in some of these peer support practices—and we are doing everything in our power to make NIPS just as widely available. However, that means that in the meantime, if there is not a NIPS group in your community yet and no upcoming national workshop, there are almost certainly groups from pre-existing networks near you where you can practice the basics of NIPS. The Center for Community Support and Research at Wichita State and the Self-Help Clearinghouse in New Jersey have excellent webpages listing the full range of peer support communities which are currently available nationally. The Defense Center of Excellence in the Department of Defense is currently compiling a listing of all the peer support programs specially developed for returning veterans. Your local newspaper or social services information referral hot line will usually have a similar listing. More importantly, with this book, you will have all you need to teach one of your peers to take turns with you. You ask them to listen to you for ten minutes while you talk about something that is bothering you and express your feelings about it, then offer to do the same for her or him. This approach is simple, cheap and non-hierarchical. You don’t need to be an expert; all you need is a fellow Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran.
9. WE ASSUME THAT SOMETIMES YOU NEED HELP FOCUING ON PRESENT TIME. In general, there are two types of therapies which are recommended by psychological professionals for those of us who have to deal with more serious traumas. They are traumatic therapies and present time therapies. Some, such as exposure therapy and rapid-eye movement therapy encourage us to go back and relive the painful memories as a way of getting over their negative effects. Present time therapies, such as cognitive behavior therapy, teach us cognitive skills to avoid the painful memories in present time. They teach us to recognize the situations which trigger our memories and coping skills to avoid those triggers or to get away from the memory when they occur. Some therapies, such as cognitive processing combine some of both approaches.
The peer support world has come to similar conclusions. While we do not pretend to be therapists and recommend that you get professional help if you need it, we do emphasize both approaches. In NIPS, we commit to re-experiencing the trauma when we have another peer who has agreed to listen to us and stay with us while we experience the feelings associated with the memory. However, when we do not have such a committed listener with us and cannot get to one on the telephone, we use a set of common sense techniques to direct our attention away from the painful memories and onto interesting concern sin present time
As veterans, it is easiest for us to think of our mind as a car. We can drive it anywhere we please. During NIPS Listening Turns, we point it back on the old, awful experiences so we can tell the story in detail and process the feelings we did not have time to process at the time. At any other time, we learn to point our mind, our attention, away from those old memories onto interesting things around us or in the future. We use these present time techniques at the end of a NIPS session, especially if we have been feeling some heavy feelings, to get ready to listen to our partner or to go back to everyday life. For some of us, the emotional pain has been so bad that we keep thinking about it 24/7. That is how we think of “flashbacks,” “nightmares”, “intrusive thoughts” and many more serious “mental problems.” Our attention is just stuck back on those old experiences, thinking about them and telling others about them in hopes of having someone listen long enough while we got emotional enough to be free of their negative effects. When one of us has our attention “stuck” like that, pointed at the wrong target, so to speak, we do NOT recommend putting any more attention on the hurtful experiences. Instead, we will spend our entire listening turns doing Present Time techniques so we can function more effectively afterwards. Only later will we point our attention back on those experiences and only when we have another Iraq-Afghanistan era vet who has agreed to listen.
So in the meantime, we use some present time techniques to help the peer who has been having a hard time being stuck on the past trauma to focus his or her attention on the now. We may say something like, “What are you looking forward to in your life right now?” Or “If you were tasked with redecorating this room, what would be the first thing you’d throw out?” (Humor is a good tool.) Or, “Can you talk a little about something that it new and good in your life.” Sometimes a simple statement can help– a reminder that “you are surrounded right now by people who care about you and have your best interest at heart.” Be creative and use your own imagination. When your efforts come from your own caring for this fellow vet and it is “personalized” by you, they tend to hit the mark.
10. WE ASSUME THAT NIPS IS NOT ENOUGH FOR EVERY VET AT EVERY MOMENT.
It may well be that if any person going through a difficult time had enough peers around him or her committed to providing peer support he or she could get through any crisis. That might mean dozens of peers providing round the clock attention for months. Clearly, such resources are not available. Occasionally, a peer will need professional help from a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist. Some will need in-patient treatment. Some of us think of it as a substitute for those “dozens of peers, 24/7”.NIPS is committed to making every participant in our projects aware of as many of the other resources which are available as possible.
112. WE ASSUME THAT SOME “NON-MENTAL HEALTH” APPROACHES CAN ALSO BE HELPFUL. In addition to peers listening to each other in NIPS settings and in addition to the mental health profession, there are a variety of other tools which peer support communities have found helpful for personal growth At each workshop we brainstorm together about what some of these are, adding to an ever-growing list. Here are just a few of them:
a) Journaling. Many peer support communities recommend journaling to deal with stress—especially when you cannot immediately contact another member of the peer support network. Participants have also found it very helpful and have sometimes used it in our NIPS weekend workshops. Just taking a notebook and writing down your thoughts is all that it takes. Your brain will give you what you need to write about: the stress you are experiencing; the feelings. One exercise you might try is to write with your non-dominant hand—using our left hand if we are right handed, writing with your right hand if you are left handed. While the writing will be hard to read, the value is often great. Some believe this is a way for our subconscious to communicate with us. The journal is for your eyes only so put it someplace safe. That way you can write what you want in it without worrying that someone will read it. Many of us have found journaling each day helpful. Something else you might try in your journal is to write in present tense, describing the sights and sounds of the situation. Instead of writing, “Today I went to a baseball game…” write “I am sitting in the stadium at the baseball game. The crowd is excited and loud. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn is in the air.” It takes discipline to be faithful to journaling but if you can keep it up for a couple of weeks, the habit is formed. Some of us have found it useful to use the same egg timer just like we use in listening turns for our journaling. Try committing to write for ten minutes first thing in the morning for two weeks and see what happens!
b) Quiet Time. Almost all peer support communities recommend setting aside twenty minutes or so, once or twice a day to clear your mind from stress. There are many forms of meditation which serve this purpose. For those of us who are religious, prayer serves this function as well as all its other spiritual purposes. Study after study has shown the positive effects of meditation on both physical and mental health. Meditation is routinely recommended for the treatment of many forms of stress. Don’t let the term “meditation” scare you off. There are many, many different kinds of practices that fall into this broad category and it need not have any religious ramifications at all. Simply sitting quietly in a comfortable chair on a regular basis, focusing on some saying or just your breath going in and out, some pleasant scene or listening to relaxing music will provide wonderful benefits.
c) Exercise. Most every self improvement program includes exercise as an important component. Getting the blood pumping and breaking a sweat can do wonders for our moods. Check with your doctor to make sure you’re okay to start an exercise program if you haven’t been working out recently. As we get older, many of us stop exercising. If we’re having any kind of emotional challenges at all, one thing’s for sure: having an unhealthy body can always make it worse. Remember that it might take a while to get in the habit again but the benefits are great if you do. Also remember that anything that helps us to feel better immediately can sometimes become addictive so don’t overdo it. Moderation and balance are not usually part of the military lifestyle but there’s no reason we can’t develop them now.
d) Diet; Drink Lots of Water. In the same way that keeping your body fit through exercise can help to keep the head clear, so can eating right. There’s almost nothing that can compound negative feelings more that eating unhealthy foods. Of course junk food has an immediate appeal to help us feel “better” (usually “number”) sometimes. The bad thing is, the “backlash” is horrible. The simplest approach is to eat three moderately-sized, balanced meals each day with some protein and fresh vegetables at each meal along with lots of water each day. It is amazing how much better many of us have felt after cleaning up our diet.
e) Family time. Almost every time we make this list at a NIPS workshop, someone mentions “spending time with family” as a way to reduce stress. Of course sometimes being around family can be stressful to so here, as in all of the things on this list, moderation and balance are key words. Someone once said, “Your family knows best how to push your buttons because they installed them!” All that being said, being around those who love you and whom you love is a great way to keep a positive outlook on things. Some of us prefer to spend time with close friends. Either way, sometimes we veterans have a tendency toward isolation. A great way to remedy this, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable at first is family time…whether with our biological family or our “family of choice.”
f) Creativity and Play. Many of us were brought up to be fighters, not artists. That denied us the value of many creative pastimes—from painting, to playing music, singing, dancing, etc. At our NIPS workshops we have a “creativity table” with modeling clay, crayon, and other arts and crafts. Not only do they provide a break when the workshop feels heavy, they let us learn some new ways to relax. Besides the table, we break up our workshops with silly games. The current favorite is ‘Move Your Butt,” a takeoff on Musical Chairs. Whoever is “it” stands in the middle of a group sitting in chairs. The vet in the middle asks a question like, how many of you have ever jumped out of an airplane and everyone who answers yes has to get up and move to another chair. There is something about moving around and answering silly questions which contradicts the telling of our painful stories. You don’t have to be an artist to get a lot out of creative endeavors. That’s not the point of it. Go out and buy yourself a coloring book. You’ll be amazed.
g) Other physical activities. Yoga is a technique, thousands of years old that has been helping returning warriors for centuries. Tai Chi is a slow-moving martial art tradition that centers the mind and body. Many cities and towns have drum circles where people either bring their drum or dance to the music. There are many physical activities outside the health club environment, many with a “spiritual” feel. Give one or two a try. Getting into action with something new usually provides a boost all its own.
h) Avoid self medication. For far too many of us, our personal treatment is two six packs and a video game. Alcohol abuse is rampant among us and a major factor is suicides. We don’t just stick to legal forms of self-medication either. Unfortunately, self-medication just makes our problems worse. For that reason, we have dedicated a whole chapter to that topic later in this book.