I’m so excited today to talk to you today about a topic that I don’t think I’ve talked about publicly before. And it’s extremely important because it’s about you and the communities that you probably belong to right now.
One of the positive by-products of the COVID pandemic is that we’ve had much more opportunity to be in community with each other in virtual spaces.
Are you involved in any online or offline groups or communities? My guess is that for the vast majority of you, the answer is yes.
The pandemic has exponentially expanded our opportunities for being in community with one another. In fact, I recently joined an online community to re-engage in a hobby that I haven’t done in a couple of decades. The last time I was involved in this hobby, you had to learn it in person or from a book. The community I just joined is 100% online—and it’s truly amazing.
We need community for many reasons. To engage in a hobby, to be among like-minded people, to enjoy a particular interest, and also for very serious reasons like recovering and healing from adult relational trauma or narcissistic abuse,
If you’ve experienced adult relational trauma or narcissistic abuse, it’s mandatory that you are in some kind of supportive community.
But the problem is that not all communities are created equal.
Some communities are healthy and effective, and many are not. And I would even go so far as to say that the majority of communities are not healthy.
So today I want to share with you five signs of a healthy community so that you can decide for yourself whether or not a community that you’re in right now is healthy or not. You can also use these criteria to assess communities you may want to join in the future.
The inspiration for this topic came from one of the members of the Return+Reclaim+Receive community. She shared earlier today in our weekly Focus Session that every single week when she leaves our sessions she feels energized, positive, and optimistic about herself, her life, and her relationships in a way that she has never experienced before.
In fact, she said that the Return+Reclaim+Receive community was the most powerful community that she had ever participated in. And her experience in communities goes all the way back to when she was in middle school! That blew me away.
So, what she said got me to thinking about communities in general. What makes a community healthy? And what kinds of communities support you to create the life and the relationships that you envision for yourself?
But before I get to the five signs, I want to share what I think is problematic about many, many groups and communities. It’s important to talk about what doesn’t work in communities because if you’re in one, you may not realize that it’s not as healthy as it could be. These are characteristics of communities that are actually harmful to you.
The first sign of an unhealthy community is that it is not solution-focused, but rather it’s focused on the problem.
The problem is often another person who the community member has no control over.
For example, in a problem-focused community, members spend a lot of time talking about what he/she/they did or what he/she/they didn’t do. Or, there is a lot of focus on figuring out the other person: What’s wrong with them? Why did they do that?
These are all examples of being problem-focused, and the focus is usually on things over which you have no control.
The reason this is an unhealthy dynamic is that the only person any of us can change is us.
So when a community member is mostly focused on the problem—which is outside her circle of control—she’s going to stay stuck. She’s not going to be able to move forward. And that’s because she’s not focused on herself.
Another characteristic of an unhealthy or toxic community is that it doesn’t place boundaries or structure around victim thinking.
In a community like this, you may be encouraged to see yourself as a victim or at the mercy of another person, rather than being supported to see yourself as someone who has the power to do something that can change your situation.
In a community like this, there are no boundaries in place that support community members to redirect their attention to what they have power over so that they can take meaningful action to change their situation.
This is extremely disempowering. It not only keeps the members stuck, it also makes them feel worse.
So if you are already depressed or despairing or anxious to begin with, you’re probably going to be even more despairing and anxious because you see yourself as powerless over the situation that is causing you pain, which is rarely ever the case.
When you participate in a community like this, it impacts your confidence because it is very disempowering. And it prevents you from moving forward.
Another characteristic of unhealthy communities is that they allow their members to be re-traumatized.
This may sound unbelievable, but it is true.
I’ve heard many stories over the years about communities that allow members to share very long, detailed and graphic stories about what happened to them, or what they witnessed as a result of being in an abusive and/or addictive relationship.
One woman shared with me that she was in a community where members posted links to pornographic websites—the very sites that had caused the trauma that brought the members to the community. Sometimes sites were posted so that members could research what was happening on those sites, or to stalk unfaithful partners.
This is extremely traumatizing. I rarely tell anyone what to do, but if you are in a community that allows this kind of activity, I strongly encourage you to get out now. There is no good that can come to you from being in a community that allows its members to be traumatized.
So let’s talk about healthy communities. What do they look like? And what should you be looking for in a community to join if you’re considering joining one?
The first characteristic of a healthy community is that it is solution-focused.
Being solution-focused doesn’t mean you never talk about problems. Of course, we need to identify the problem.
But once the problem is understood, then the focus shifts to what do you have the power to do to improve your situation, or to help you feel better?
The second characteristic of a healthy community is that you are encouraged to focus your attention on what is working in your life.
For example, in the Return+Reclaim+Receive community we begin every session with focusing on wins—what you’re feeling happy, excited, proud, or energized about.
You may be thinking, “I can’t do that. I’m in a horrible place. I’m in a lot of trauma.”
I know, I’ve been in a horrible place too, more than once! And I’m telling you, this practice—even if all you can say is, “I’m here in this meeting right now, sharing my wins,” that’s a win.
You realize that even in the midst of trauma there are still some positive things happening in your life—including that you’re still alive, that you’re here to see another day, and that you get to have another opportunity to do what you have the power to do to feel better.
The third characteristic of a healthy community is that you are invited to focus on you and your intentions.
This can be as simple as, “This week I’m going to get to bed earlier.” Or it could be something more serious like telling your parents that you’re getting a divorce or quitting your job.
The focus is on what are your intentions? What are you going to do to further the vision you have for your life?
The fourth characteristic of a healthy community is accountability.
In the Return+Reclaim+Receive community, every week we check in about the intentions we committed to the previous week.
We talk about how it went and what kind of progress we made. And even if we weren’t 100% successful, it’s helpful to talk about that as well, because knowing what didn’t work helps to inform you about course corrections that need to be made
The fifth characteristic of a healthy community is that you are encouraged to be your authentic self.
In order for you to become who you are meant to be, you must be able to be and express your authentic self. In a healthy community you will not be given a rigid, cookie-cutter solution, but rather you will be encouraged to go inside to find your answers, with guidance and feedback.
You should not feel pressured to be something or someone that you are not. Your unique challenges, strengths, and areas of growth are all honored, and you get personalized feedback about your situation.
Are you in a community right now? And if you are, are these communities healthy or unhealthy for you?
I encourage you to make an honest, clear-eyed assessment.
If you’re spending time in communities that are unhealthy or are even toxic to you, you may want to seriously consider whether or not you want to continue giving your very precious time to something that may actually be harming you.
© Victoria Tidwell Palmer (2022)