On a beautiful, serene Saturday morning, I paddled alongside a dear friend on a glassy river. All enduring friendships find some point of connection, and in addition to our shared faith, she is my adventure buddy. We have these, “Wouldn’t it be cool to _______?” conversations and then we inevitably find ourselves taking action. Our kayaking adventure that day was part of that process. Finding a collaborator friend to explore and enjoy outdoor physical activity while sharing matters of the heart is so encouraging and brings growth. We have found group support, albeit a group of two.
We observed a group of cyclists trekking on the road bordering the water, and as much as I enjoy cycling, I found myself commenting that I could never enjoy cycling at that level in a group pack.
My friend eyed me inquisically, and I found myself unburdening years of negative experiences trying to connect with hobbyist groups in search of “support and encouragement.” It was apparent that I had found precisely the opposite. Not that all these groups were terrible and didn’t have support to give. Just that they were too intensely focused on their own agenda to welcome someone who didn’t share their cult-like devotion or think outside their formula of success. Sometimes it was just collective limiting beliefs that I chafed at, and when I proved them wrong, I found myself facing suspicion or outright jealousy. Instead of group support, I’d encountered varying levels of sabotage.
One spring, I signed up for a local triathlon. I refer to this experience frequently in my writing because of the impact it had and the life lesson to be learned. I sent my application in and promptly received a call from the organizer. He suggested that I downgrade my registration to the Try-a-Tri instead. I looked at the parameters of his suggestion and quickly assessed that it was far less than I could achieve. I declined and insisted on keeping my registration as I originally submitted it. After that call, however, I was plagued with self-doubt.
On triathlon day, I meekly joined the group of full triathlon participants, and sure enough, I found myself lagging behind other competitors during the swimming portion. By the time I stumbled out of the water to my bicycle, everyone else was out of sight, and I never caught up. I finished, though, and I was so excited just for that. I wasn’t even last! There were two participants who somehow went off route and finished after me.
Imagine my surprise when my name was announced to take a first-place plaque! How does someone win first when they finished close to last? Well, I was the only FEMALE in my AGE group who participated, so I was a winner the day I signed up! I was so glad I didn’t cave to the pressure from the organizer to lower my ambition because there were many similar age and gender competitors in that lower-level race!
I signed up for a local runner’s clinic, eagerly hoping to improve my running ability in a group setting. When I called to inquire about what running level I should join, I was advised to start with the 5K group instead of the 10K group that I preferred. The problem for me was that I had successfully completed numerous 5K runs on my own and didn’t feel that investing my money to participate at that level would be enough of a challenge. I insisted on joining the 10K group.
The first week was good, but in the weeks following, I found runners dropping out until soon, I was running solo with the leader. This arrangement would’ve been acceptable, but other than the relatively silent companionship, I didn’t experience any coaching. As I completed the final session, I felt no benefit from rejoining or even recommending the group to others. I think their forte is the 5K Learn-to Run.
100 Mile Bike Ride
On a leisurely bike ride with another family, we dropped by their friend’s home, who happened to be a cycling enthusiast. Other guests were part of his cycling group, and they were enthusiastically sharing about an organized 100-mile bike ride that was coming up a few weeks later.
I was inspired and decided to complete the event. I trained intensely for three weeks, and on event day, I met up with these individuals who had captured my imagination. The trouble was, I couldn’t cycle at their pace, and by trying to keep up, I was becoming anaerobic. I wouldn’t be able to finish the event if I burned out in the first quarter. Knowing that they had to stop at each intersection to wait for me, took the joy out of it for me. I encouraged them to go ahead and that it was okay for me to ride at my pace alone.
There were many other participants, many of whom were riding lesser distances. By early afternoon, I found myself completely alone on the country route. Occasionally I would intersect with pockets of riders, but most of the day, I was solitary. Over eight hours after I had begun, I finished the route and crossed the finish line. There were only a handful of people left to cheer, and as I headed for the showers, the park was abandoned with only trash to signal the masses that had been there before me. I was unfazed. I rode 100 MILES!
My excitement dimmed shortly afterward when I learned that the very people who had inspired and encouraged me to participate, were dubious that I was telling the truth about finishing. It turned out that they had never completed the 100 miles themselves, and they couldn’t comprehend that a slower rider had accomplished what they had not in all their years of participation. Instead of feeling celebrated and supported, I felt I was being called out as a liar. I went back the following year with my husband, and we finished the 100-mile event together for good measure.
I went through a season where I pursued knitting and looked for a local knitting group to find the promised social companionship of belonging to a knitting circle. I attended a few times and felt as though I was sitting as an observer. The next time I attended, I called and asked if I could bring my niece with me. Granted permission, I brought her along as a special outing. Incidentally, someone brought a bunch of free knitting books to give away, and they spread them on the table with the invitation to help ourselves. I didn’t take any, but my niece picked out a couple.
It was several months before I was able to join the group again, but as I knit, they were discussing a book that had gone missing and that they were going to use some of the weekly fees collected to reimburse the store owner. Something about the looks in my direction alerted me that this discussion was for my benefit. As I browsed the store afterward, I felt I was being watched closely. As I laid my purchases on the counter, I decided to face the unspoken accusations head-on.
“Did the book that went missing disappear on the week I came with my niece?” I asked directly.
There it was. They thought we had taken it. I asked for the title and description and promised to do my due diligence by asking my niece if she had picked it up inadvertently. Of course, my sister-in-law and my niece examined her supplies, and the book in question was not among them. I know the very act of questioning my niece was insulting, but I felt it necessary to entertain at least the idea that an innocent mistake had been made.
I reported my findings to the store owner, and I even bought a sewing machine from her, but I never went back to the group that had somehow managed to peg my niece and me as thieves. It wasn’t OUR fault that someone had spread books on a table with the owner’s goods and that someone had used the opportunity to take something they shouldn’t have. The unintended months of absence afterward made us appear guilty so that the last group visit was anything but warm and welcoming. The store is no longer in business, and I have no desire to seek out the new location of that knitting guild chapter.
As I published my first book, I received an invitation to sit in on a virtual writers group. I listened to the conversation quietly and didn’t speak until I was invited to share about what I was doing.
I excitedly shared about my sabbatical, my self-published book and my new blog. I shared my desire to stay home permanently and write for a living.
The group burst into laughter.
“Don’t quit your day job!” Someone quipped.
I was stung. Later I shared with my husband that if I wanted my aspirations to be laughed at and criticized, I didn’t need to join a writer’s “support” group. I didn’t have any desire to follow up with that association.
My kayaking friend had sent me information on kayak training, so I called to sign us up. Not only did the class leader decline our registration based on the kind of kayak we had all purchased, but he regaled me with every reason why our kayaks were inferior and, in his mind, dangerous. I left that conversation completely unimpressed and with no intention of taking classes from him or anybody else. I would research safety videos on YouTube by the manufacturer of our chosen kayak. I knew that we could safely enjoy our kayaks at our level of use simply from previous years of canoeing. His tactics seemed more like a bid to bully us into buying more expensive kayaks from him, and he had no desire to adapt to students outside his niche. That was fine. I didn’t want to spend that money anyway. If I had taken to heart what this man had said, I wouldn’t be enjoying the amazing paddle with my friend having this conversation!
Positive Group Experiences
This isn’t to say that these groups I had negative experiences with are bad. They just were not positive for me. I’m sure some people are grateful to have joined them and have thrived in their existence. I’m also somewhat appreciative even for these hit-and-misses because it taught me a few things.
My collective experiences with groups have made me wary. Still, it has also made me an advocate for others who are finding themselves in a similar situation as I have.
I had a delightful group experience as part of a year-long online coaching course that I shared with other participants. It was a group that focused on positivity and encouragement. I genuinely missed that community when the year was over. I have remained in touch with several of those women on social media years later.
I am currently part of an online blogging group that has been a source of continual support and encouragement. There were a few toxic incidents early in the group formation, but I’m happy to say that I could be part of the solution when there was conflict.
In a Genesis class, I heard a statement that has stuck with me. The paraphrase is, “People cause our dysfunctions, but only people can heal our dysfunctions.” I have to say that I have found healing from toxic group dynamics by discovering and promoting healthy ones.
In other words, none of us thrive long-term isolated and alone. While we need to be selective about the groups we join, in the end, those who find community connection perform better long-term and report greater satisfaction overall.
Here are some tips to determine if a group is a good match for you
These words of learned wisdom are random and not conclusive:
1. If you feel you are being asked to “settle” for less than you know you are capable of, advocate for what you need even if you have to find it elsewhere.
2. By standing up for yourself, you might just expand the limited group mindset.
3. It is ALWAYS sweeter when you accomplish something that the “experts” say can’t be done.
4. Recognize the purpose or niche of a group and whether you fit into that agenda. If you don’t, it’s not your job to adjust the group’s purpose or niche; it’s your job to find a group that offers what you are looking for.
5. Recognize when a group isn’t living up to it’s stated purpose, and if you can’t be part of the solution, find another group.
6. Groups are supposed to encourage and support, not to strip you of your morale and dominate.
7. Be honest about what you can contribute to the group, and if you are just using the group for selfish means, don’t. Groups can spot a person with their own agenda immediately.
8. Is the group based on a shared purpose or a leader? The best groups have a shared purpose and a charismatic leader with good character, but if you find yourself bumping into ego or friendship cliques, you’ll find a group that has lost it’s shared purpose.
9. Groups that allow for differences and variations of approach are likely to be more supportive than groups with no tolerance for uniqueness.
10. Beware of the desire to over-specialize unless you must. Example: A general fitness-promoting group is more likely to be encouraging than a group devoted to one single fitness activity.
11. Never underestimate the power of just one or two friends who share a mutual goal. You don’t always need a crowd.
12. Sometimes, you have to stand alone. That’s okay. Just don’t remain alone indefinitely.
The past few months of lockdown due to COVID-19 have proved that we don’t flourish in isolation. We need each other in friendship and group support more than ever. By necessity, most of our interaction has been online. Online interaction is significant, but nothing replaces face-to-face interactions with others if you have the opportunity. So, as we phase out of isolation and back into community life, find your supportive friends and hobbyist groups. Just choose wisely!
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