Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dynamics of a Support Group (Part 1)

This two-part series is a followup from our teaching last Sunday about the nature of support groups. This article basically provides us an overview of the dynamics common to most support groups whether it's an SSA support group, an Alcoholics Anonymous-type support group, or any other type for that matter. A good support group is very helpful because struggling with SSA all by yourself is tough. Having to reconcile your SSA issues with your religious convictions is even tougher if you don't get any spiritual support from a community that understands your struggles.

I want to thank Bro. Rollie for explaining to us in detail the 12 Steps and 5 Goals of Courage as well as other relevant topics that go with it. In particular, I was reminded about the Serenity Prayer - the serenity to accept the things I cannot change - including other people's misbehavior. I felt the need to let go of things or events that don't measure up to my set expectations, which often causes me to lose my sense of peace and to become frustrated. Another important thing that I learned is to be cautious of "support group dependency" as this tends to limit my interaction only to guys with SSA and neglect to reach out to the world of "real men". Interacting with "real men" in a healthy nonsexual manner is vital in the process of healing and growth.

Most people who choose to change their same-sex attraction find support groups to be very helpful. A support group should be a safe and confidential place where you can come to know that you are not the only one with same-sex attraction. No one will say, "You’re dealing with what?" It is a place to find encouragement from others who are working to resolve the same problems you are, and that helps reduce your feelings of being alone, different, and isolated. This section discusses the purpose of support groups and tells you what to look for in choosing one. It then discusses how to support each other in a group and the need for spirituality and safety. Finally, it explains how specialized support groups, such as sports programs, can be helpful.

Joe Dallas writes that the function of a support group is to "provide a safe, godly environment where people can openly discuss their same-sex attraction struggles; learn from the experiences of others who’ve gone through similar struggles; be accountable to a group of Christians who are genuinely concerned; and know they have friends who are regularly praying for them, available to them, and rooting for them." (Dallas, 1991, pp. 262–63)

A support group is about helping others. In the beginning, you attend to help yourself, but you soon discover that you find the help you need when you extend help to others. When you begin to care more about their needs than your own, you find yourself healed in the process.

Support groups emphasize dialogue as a way of learning to openly and clearly deal with issues that are at the root of feelings of same-sex attraction. As you listen to each other, perhaps for the first time you will listen to yourself. The typical newcomer sits and listens, and about half way through the discussion realizes he has finally found people who think and feel like he does. When he recognizes that he is safe and can trust the group, he begins to open up and the healing process of sharing begins. He discovers that even when others know all about him, they still accept him. Once the fear of rejection is gone, he finds that he has the courage to relate to others in the group and eventually to men outside the group. Support groups can help you by providing:

1. A safe environment where you can face your problems.
2. Feedback, insight, and practical ideas from others who have experienced the same things you experience.
3. A place to begin to build healthy relationships with others of your gender.
4. Interpersonal experiences in validation, love, and friendship.
5. Direction, vision, goals, and encouragement to continue when it is difficult.
6. Accountability for your actions.
7. Positive experiences to offset the effects of negative peer pressure.
8. Reduction of your sense of isolation.
9. Understanding, empathy, and acceptance from others.
10. Encouragement to continue through the lengthy process.

A Support Group Alone Is Not Enough
A support group will not solve all your problems; it has no magical "cure" for same-sex attraction. Participating in a support group is one of the many things you may need to do. Some men get a false sense of security by participating in a support group and when it doesn’t solve all their problems they may feel frustrated and lose hope that change is possible.

A support group in moderation can be valuable for support and understanding, but in excess, it can prolong and heighten your old identity. The support group should never take the place of the church, your circle of friends, or a normal social life; it is only a short-term supplement.

While your relationships with others in the group will be very fulfilling, they will not be all you need. The support group can be unhealthy if its members only interact with the other members of the group. In a sense, it can become a nonsexual gay community. If you live from meeting to meeting because it is your only social interaction, you need to actively pursue relationships with individuals outside the group at work, in your neighborhood, and in other groups. It is when you experience the love and acceptance of others of your gender who do not have same-sex attraction that you really start to recognize your true worth. Those friendships will be the most rewarding and healing.

In addition to a support group, many men need individual and group therapy. Sometimes support groups can actually do more harm than good if the person is not also seeing a therapist individually to help him correctly process the things he experiences and feels so they can contribute to his growth. If you have addictions, you may also need the help of a twelve-step program like Homosexuals Anonymous or Sexaholics Anonymous.

Choosing A Support Group
There are helpful groups of many kinds that seek to fortify those struggling to withdraw from drug addiction or to overcome other issues. However, there are also groups that do the opposite by justifying immoral conduct and binding the chains of addiction ever tighter. Some organizations exist to give support and love, but do not seek to help the person find ways to overcome homosexual behavior. These organizations do more harm than good because they help the person justify his behavior. Research carefully any group before you join it to be sure it will fortify you in the right way.

Before you choose a support group, get a copy of their written literature and read the group’s mission statement. (If they don’t have one, they likely have not defined their purpose well enough for it to be a healthy environment.) Does the group function according to the written statements? Do the values and beliefs of the group match yours? Does the group inspire respect for the individual and promote personal growth? Does the group have written policies to protect participants in their vulnerabilities and provide a safe environment? Does the program support abstinence of sexual behavior outside of marriage? This kind of sobriety can be attained through sharing experience, strength, and hope at group meetings. The group is on dangerous ground if it seeks to justify any homosexual behavior.

Joining A Support Group
The first step in joining a support group is to make the phone call to the group leader. He will generally want to talk with you before you attend a group meeting to determine your sincerity and readiness to participate with the group. He will explain to you the format and rules of safety and confidentiality that are critical to the success of the group. When you first attend a support group, you will likely go through the following stages:

Fear and anticipation. You may have a number of fears and concerns as you attend your first meeting. Will the other men accept me? Will I be able to open up to them? Will I be attracted to someone there? These are legitimate fears that are common to nearly everyone.

Sense of relief. Although your first meeting can be frightening, you will soon find that it is easy to make friends because people are there to lend support. Most people report an enormous sense of relief to have found a group who also struggle with attractions and whose values and beliefs match theirs.

Curiosity and sharing. The next phase is one of learning all the new information that is available. You will become aware of many books with good ideas about the causes of your problems and their potential solutions. You will also have the chance to exchange ideas with others in the group and hear what has helped them to be successful.

Boundary testing. As you mature emotionally through your experience in the group, you will find yourself testing the boundaries to determine what is appropriate.

Disillusionment. After the initial excitement wears off, you may become disillusioned as you realize that the support group in itself will not solve all your problems and there is a lot of hard work ahead of you. This is the phase where some drop out of the group in search of an easier answer.

Hard work. This is the phase where you settle in and do all the work.

Termination. Some people make the mistake of leaving a support group before they are ready and others remain much longer than is healthy. You may need the help of your therapist to determine when the time is right for you. If you are able to see your issues objectively, you will know when it is time to move out of the group. Be aware that sometimes group members panic when someone else is "graduating" and they may try to hold the person back for their needs and not for his. If you know it is time for you to move on, do it.

Open And Closed Group Formats
An open group is one where you can attend the group meetings whenever you like, as long as you agree to abide by the group’s rules. A closed group is one where the participants are identified and each makes a commitment to attend all meetings. Closed groups are more stable because people are not always entering and leaving. Because of this continuity, the participants are more dedicated and accountable to each other and they can make more progress.

Confidentiality and Anonymity
Many people who have same-sex attractions have chosen not to disclose such to others outside the group and could be deeply hurt by the release of information about their situation. In some cases, even spouses may not be aware of their participation in the group. Rules of confidentiality ensure privacy for individuals in the group. It is a safeguard of special significance to those who may hesitate to participate in an organization if they have any reason to believe that their same-sex attraction could be revealed to others.

In addition to protecting the identities of fellow participants, it is vital to keep confidential what is said in the group. A helpful phrase to remember is: "What we say here stays here." Outside the meetings, don’t mention the people you saw or repeat the things you heard. One careless slip of the tongue overheard by someone else could have a devastating effect on a fellow participant. While this principle may be clear in theory, putting it into practice may not always be easy. The following general guidelines may be helpful:

1. Keep identities anonymous. Most groups have guidelines about using only first names and last initials.

2. Membership lists. Lists of names, telephone numbers, and addresses should be kept only when absolutely necessary. If you keep lists of members, guard them with strict care.

3. Return addresses on mailings. Most organizations associated with same-sex attraction do not include the name of the organization in the return address of mailings.

4. Telephone messages. When leaving messages, be careful not to identify the individual with any group or meeting or to inadvertently divulge information that may be revealing. Assume that the person who receives the message knows nothing about the individual’s involvement with any group. Be aware that some people pretend to know more than they actually do to get information from you, sometimes unintentionally (out of curiosity) and sometimes willfully (out of spite). Either case can be damaging. Since others may have access to the individual’s voice mail or e-mail, leave only the information you would give to a stranger.

The Place of Spirituality in Group Meetings

For many people, spirituality can be a great motivator to keep one's behavior in check and continue to work at the issues underlying same-sex attraction. If this is your motivation, it is critical that you make spirituality a key ingredient in your support group program. You can strengthen each another by sharing testimonies, praying for each other, and encouraging each other to be righteous. There are many encouraging stories from groups about spiritual experiences that have had a profound influence on their growth and recovery. If your group is not having similar experiences, evaluate your activities and plan for ways to invite the Spirit into all you do.

One evening at our support group meeting, two women came by invitation. One was previously married to a man with same-sex attraction and wanted to understand him better and know what to do to support him. The other had a brother who died the previous week of AIDS and she wanted to find a measure of peace about his death. They were both anxious to learn and understand, and part way through the meeting one of them began to cry because the Spirit was so strong. She said she was overwhelmed by being in a group of faithful men who believed they could overcome their problems and were trying desperately to do so.

to be continued...


  1. Wow.. well written. Thanks for posting this..this is very informative.

    Nino Natividad