Grieving in Group

There is a wonderful little book called The Wild Edge of Sorrow. It speaks eloquently about the importance of grieving, how it connects us to the wild within us, makes us more alive.

It talks about how in our culture especially, we’re taught to run from grief, to avoid it, dismiss it, deny it, cover it over. I know a lot about this. I think many of us join this profession so we can touch grief vicariously in our work with others, without having to dwell in our own.

Being with grief is a challenge. It is inherently painful, a confrontation with our powerlessness to keep or obtain what we long for.

In group, you can see people enacting the familiar cultural message. Variations of “cheer up, it’s not so bad,” or “it will pass,” distracting jokes, and so on abound. Truly being with someone grieving melts some of your armor. Truly being with your own grief melts more of it.

In this blog post, Sue Mehrtens cites the Edward Edinger’s idea that a significant part of our grief comes from missing what we’ve projected onto the lost. Recovery involves slowly taking those projections back into ourselves, discovering within us the qualities that we experienced in the other. What this means is that when we are grieving a lover, friend or family member that is no longer part of our lives, we are in a process of transformation. If we succeed, we will eventually incorporate into ourselves some of the aspects of the person that we most enjoyed.

We are constantly projecting onto others. We project the negative qualities of our self that we don’t want to acknowledge onto people that we hate. We project qualities that we appreciate and are growing toward onto people that we love and admire. Often we project complex blends of qualities onto people creating multi-layered tapestries of unconscious feelings.

Group provides the ideal container for exploring these projections. As a forum where the honest expression of love and hate is encouraged, group allows us to bring the unconscious projections to the fore, to access them, express them and understand them. Over time, we’re able to own our projections and integrate them, so they become known parts of ourselves. When this happens we have fewer enemies and fewer objects of infatuation. We become more fluent with the process and quicker at identifying when it happens.

When someone is grieving, we see in our reactions how our own grief was responded to by our caretakers. We see our attitudes about helplessness, powerlessness, not being in control and suffering. The more we allow ourselves to observe these attitudes and be with them, the more we consciously tolerate and tend our own lonely, vulnerable feelings, the more we allow whatever we are becoming to emerge.

The Brave You

Tracee Ellis Ros spoke at Glamour’s 2017 Women of the Year Summit. She spoke about being a successful woman, owning her power and sexuality. She spoke about living for herself rather than trying to fulfill society and culture’s expectations for her. It is an excellent, inspiring speech well worth the time to watch or read it.

One point in particular inspired this post.

She spoke about bravery.

Bravery allows one to face danger, pain and difficulty without being overcome by fear.

I participated in a group for therapists on Racial Literacy. The leaders would frequently remind us to strive to create a “Brave Space,” not a “Safe Space.” We need this reminder because most of us have a fear of conflict and would tend to hide and suppress our honest thoughts and feelings, rather than risk saying something hurtful or inflammatory.

We were privileged and lucky to be risking so little.

Historically women, people of color, people with more fluid gender/sexual identities, and other marginalized populations risked their lives and the lives of those they cared about when they dared to be themselves and to speak their truth. We’ve inherited a more free society because of their sacrifice. Of course, there’s always more work to do.

So how do you become brave?

In Group, you have the opportunity to take risks. You can allow yourself to feel and to put into words what might have been dangerous to express in the past or in other environments. In on-going groups, members agree to keep coming until their issues are resolved. This means that you have the security that no matter how your words affect the other person, they will keep showing up. Week after week, you will have the opportunity to better understand yourself and each other. The more suppressed, marginalized parts of yourself will have a chance to be seen and heard. You’ll be less afraid of these hidden parts of yourself and less afraid of these parts in others.

And sometimes, the fear will still be overwhelming, no matter how much work you’ve done. You’ll regress, make a cowardly choice, retreat from life’s challenges. When that happens, the other group members will be there to listen, to gently or not so gently remind you of what you’re capable of and to share their own struggles with being brave.

Do you have a story about being brave?

I would love to hear it.





Sense8 and Group Therapy

I just finished watching Season 1 of Sense8, a Netflix show about eight people who are telepathically connected, able to share experience, skills and perspectives instantly with each other, no matter where they are geographically.

I thought about Group.

For about a year and a half, I’ve been a member in a training group for Group Therapists which is a combination of supervision and therapy. I’m noticing more and more that the other members are living inside my psyche, that their attitudes, strengths and insights are available to me when I’m thinking about a challenge in my own life and work.

It’s not the same as being able to immediately access the lifelong training of a martial artist, but it’s something–a feeling of being more powerful than I would be otherwise, more supported, more balanced.

I don’t know how to end this post, so I’m letting my mind glide over the members of my group, imagining their reactions. They’re urging me not to leave out the unpleasant parts of being so connected.

The people in Sense8 often feel invaded, swept up in the feelings and experiences of another member of their cluster. They have to learn how to regulate, to focus and maintain their own self even as they are constantly joining with others.

This is also true for Group, just as it can be true for life. Connecting with other people means being affected by them. Their pain and sorrow touches on my own, activates desires to help, to be in control, to change the situation. I’m reminded of my powerlessness to “make it all better,” I may feel rage, fear, despair.

Many of us spend a lot of energy suppressing these feelings. They certainly are uncomfortable. They are also crucial to truly feeling alive.

What is Group Therapy?

What is Group Therapy?

People ask this over the phone, thinking Group might be for them. They ask at parties and networking events. Sometimes group members themselves ask.

What do you think it is? I ask them.

Well, like a support group?

Not quite.

The main difference in the groups that I run is that they are process groups.

What is a Process Group?

A Process Group is a space where members are invited to express their immediate, here-and-now thoughts and feelings towards and about other members. If your first reaction to this is “why would anyone subject themselves to such an environment?” you are not alone.

In a process group, members are encouraged to abandon many of the social norms of polite discourse.

Group members are asked to put into words any and all reactions they have including anger, sexual attraction, fear, hurt, and affection. As group progresses, members learn to express their sentiments in a way that focuses on their own experience:

  • “I feel frustrated and angry when you yawn while I’m speaking.”
  • “I feel hurt and scared when you yell at me and call me that.”
  • “I feel very attracted to you.”
  • “I feel a lot of affection for you and I’m angry because I think you’re making a bad decision.”
  • “I want to say something but I’m anxious that you will judge me.”

This feedback about members’ effect on other people is hard to come by.

Friends, family and acquaintances are rarely so direct, preferring either to avoid unpleasant conversations, or relying on unhelpful habits of criticism and blame.

Even individual therapists may struggle with sharing a perspective that is difficult and uncomfortable for their clients to hear.

Process Group members learn to access and express their own emotions and to comprehend and respond to the emotions of other people.

They discover how they might sabotage relationships and explore how to create and sustain intimacy, to ask for what they need and to receive it.