The Roots of Lived Experience and Peer Support

consumer/survivor/ex-patient history peer support Aug 02, 2017

The phrase "lived experience" has been widely adopted in the peer support movement. We talk about having the lived experience and using that experience to support others in their healing and recovery. Here's a little background on where the phrase "lived experience" came from. 

In 1988, I published a paper in the Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal titled, Recovery: The Lived Experience of Rehabilitation.  In that paper I wrote: "It is important to understand that persons with a (psychiatric) disability do not 'get rehabilitated' in the sense that cars 'get' tuned up or televisions 'get repaired'...Recovery refers to the lived or real-life experience of persons as they accept and overcome the challenge of the disability." 

I first learned about the concept of lived experience in graduate school at Duquesne University. I chose to go to a doctoral program that specialized in the study of psychology as a human science. Rather than isolating independent and dependent variables and quantifying the impact as does the natural science approach, I wanted to study psychology as a human science. It seemed obvious to me that we couldn't study human beings in the same way we study chemical reactions or climate change.

I wanted to learn a scientific method that could address the depth and breadth of human experience. Take for example the human heart. Natural science studies the heart and understands it mechanically as an organ that pumps blood. In the human sciences, we wanted to understand the human heart or the heart we experience prior to superimposing mechanical constructs on it. We wanted to understand the lived heart, the human heart, the heart we know prior to science. We wanted to understand the lived experience of the human heart: the broken heart; the heartache; the heart that grows callous; the cold-hearted; the heart that soars and losing heart. 

The method we learned for this study of the lived experience was called Existential Phenomenology. We were trained to listen very carefully to what people had to say about their experience. We were careful to honor and use the same words as the person speaking. We were trained to bracket or suspend our preconceptions so that the phenomenon we were studying could speak to us without constraint. That allowed us to enter into a very intimate dialogue with people and gave us a chance to deeply understand the experience of the person. In turn, this method yields deep insight into the human experience.

All of this got me to thinking that peer support and our emphasis on the lived experience, share some common roots with existential phenomenology. Be clear that I am NOT saying that peer supporters are supposed to be scientists studying our peers. That's not true. However, in order to do peer support, we must learn to bracket our preconceptions. We need to learn to unsee words like psychosis or depression so that we can be present to the lived experience of our peers. We need to always be learning about our biases and preconceptions so that we can bracket or suspend them rather than imposing them on our peers. As peer supporters, we care deeply about the lived experience of our peers. We use their words and strive to see the world through their eyes. This allows us to enter into deep dialogue and connection. 

Would love to hear your thoughts and any insights you have into the roots of lived experience and peer support.