Internet Support Groups - Sharing the Fear
by M. E. Peychers, M.A.
Going online for support is especially helpful for people who feel isolated and alone with their troubles. Out in Cyberspace, there is always someone awake, someone sitting at their computer, someone willing to chat, comfort and console.
We all know that there should be no shame attached to any illness, physical or mental. Despite this, some people are too embarrassed to share their anxieties even with family and friends. This may be so whether the problem is immense or trivial. Whether it seems too terrible to mention or too foolish, the sufferer feels overwhelmed by fear of condemnation and of rejection.
Because of these deeply-rooted fears, many people who would benefit from seeing a therapist will never make that first appointment. To think of raising those same issues face-to-face with strangers in a traditional support group would be even more impossible. Yet in the anonymity of the chat room, email list, or bulletin board, and posting under a pseudonym, sometimes even the shyest person will open up and talk remarkably frankly.
This will rarely happen until he or she has been in the group long enough to be sure that other members won't pass judgment on what they hear. If a declaration of "how I really feel" is accepted and brings similar statements, the 'confessor' feels heartened by the openness of the replies. He or she might even go further, exploring how the trouble began, and encouraging other members to do the same for themselves.
When the darkest feelings are shared, and others reveal that they feel exactly the same way, people begin to realise that they aren't freaks. They are just a little further along the scale of normality than Mr. or Ms. Average.
People who joined a group feeling crushed by the weight of their anxieties can see new hope. They may even be inspired to look outside the group for help in taking the giant step of sharing their anxieties with people in their daily lives.
When people are scared and ashamed of any aspect of themselves, whether it's a phobia, an obsession, or even a physical response like sweating heavily or blushing (Berent & Lemley, 1994; Markway, Pollard, & Flynn, 1992), "coming out" about their problems can be just as traumatic and just as freeing as it is over sexual issues.
Being with people who apparently understand you can create very strong ties of friendship and of loyalty. Even if you learn that they haven't been completely truthful about themselves, even if they are not people you would previously have considered developing a friendship with in the real world, these factors may no longer seem to matter.
Regardless of their circumstances, or where they are on the planet, what counts most is that they help you feel safe enough to connect with your pain like no one else can. Compared with that rush of warmth, of trust, and perhaps of optimism, the fact that you only know these people through a computer screen may be immaterial.
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