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5 Signs Your Online Support Group Is Not Being Supportive

How to know if your virtual support group is helping or hurting.

Key points

  • Advice is plentiful on the Internet. How can you tell what is worth listening to, and what is not?
  • Support groups are known to improve health and well-being—but not all online support groups are created equal.
  • Learn five warning signs of a non-supportive virtual group—and what to do next.
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

If you are struggling, it is only natural to seek out those who might be having similar experiences. What’s more, physical and emotional pain are often exacerbated by feelings of isolation. Relating to others who are going through what you are going through can be a major source of encouragement. Being part of a support group is a well-documented way to improve health; this is the reason I have been running support groups for chronic pain suffers for the past few years.

We all know that the internet is a mix of good and bad influences. Go online, and you can choose to either feed your mind with amazing knowledge and wisdom or stoke your fears with drama and conspiracy. In the groups I facilitate, it is fascinating to hear patients relay the health “tips” they have received from the online support groups they attend. However, advice like “eating a spoonful of dirt can help boost your immune system” makes you wonder where ideas like this come from… and why people believe them.

For this reason, I always make sure to remind patients of the risks involved—in any support group—during each new group’s orientation period. We discuss the fact that, despite their intentions for healing, support groups can soon head in unhelpful directions when members dish out shaky advice.

When it comes to finding a support group online, how can one tell if it is helpful or hurtful?

For starters, it is prudent to evaluate your online group through the lens of five basic warning signs. Below you will learn what these signs are, which will ultimately help you to determine if your support group is truly being supportive—or not.

1. Your support group is victim-focused.

Does your support group’s approach to encouragement reinforce the idea that there is nothing you can do to change? Do they suggest that bad things just keep happening to you? Or that what has happened before will keep happening? This type of thinking is victim-focused.

Unfortunately, people who see themselves as victims generally are not aware of their negative mindset. Look within yourself for signs of blame, bitterness, and powerlessness; consider adopting a growth mindset instead. View the challenges and difficulties in your life as an opportunity to grow and change, not as a sign of final defeat or evidence that you are powerless against them.

2. Your support group creates an enemy.

Does your support group create a focus for what is wrong in your life that has nothing to do with you? The enemy might be the health care system, your family, society in general, your past experiences, religion, the educational system, and/or the government. When your support group’s focus is on something that you have no ability to control, time and energy are wasted talking about things that will not bring about change in your life, today or ever.

Recognize that analyzing problems at length is a form of distraction. If you are sitting in a rocking chair rocking back and forth, you can fool yourself into interpreting that motion as you going somewhere (when, in fact, you are not). Groups that get caught up by “analysis paralysis” never encourage you to take action in the areas of life where you do have control.

3. Your support group creates unicorns.

Does your support group treat your problem as if it is remarkably unique? If you are labeled the only person in the world with your condition (like a unicorn), your support group is defining your problem as something that cannot be solved and, therefore, deserving of heightened sympathy. Pity then only serves to reinforce this feeling of terminal uniqueness.

While many people do indeed have rare and difficult-to-treat conditions, the focus of your attention must not linger there. What would benefit you is a shift away from what you do not have control over to that which you do. Ask yourself this: Would you rather be defined by your illness or by how you live your life despite your illness?

4. Your support group is reactive.

Does your support group become easily triggered by bad news and unexpected problems? You can tell if your group is reactive by how its members respond to sad stories told by those within the group. Do they immediately get caught up in the emotion and drama of the events shared? Do they condemn the “bad guys” in the story while expressing a lot of emotion and sympathy? If so, their reactiveness will only serve to increase the level of emotionality and sense of distress within the group.

See if you can identify the supportive people around you who know how to respond rather than react to life’s difficulties. Appropriate responses to pain, problems, and setbacks shared include the following: admitting what went wrong, looking at what lessons can be learned, and finding ways to make things better.

5. Your support group is not skill-focused.

Does your support group’s advice come in the form of a magic bullet? These one-step cures (that typically require little to no effort on your part) are often unknown by the rest of the world. If the advice given seems too good to be true, ask yourself this: Does the solution leave you more knowledgeable, better equipped, more empowered, or in possession of better tools to handle your problems?

When you attend a support group, you want to walk away from each meeting with some new tools to try, skills to practice, and ways to think differently about your problems. Without this skill and knowledge development, you will spend months in your group without seeing any long-term changes take place. Time will pass, but each day will be like that last one, with no measurable improvement in how you feel.

Find the support you need.

Keep this old saying in mind when evaluating potential support groups: “Where there is sickness, there is a salesman.” All along the wagon train trails of the Old West were salespeople selling snake oil. We know that even today, desperate people will try desperate things—especially when the help is coming from a well-meaning support group.

Above all else, remember this: Helpful support is the kind that empowers you to change. Only then will you be headed in the direction of better health, growth, and independence.

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