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.

Vitality and Belonging part 2

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I considered naming this post, “Why Every Therapist Should Run A Group,” but the truth is, group isn’t for everyone.

Most people don’t want to be challenged. This applies to therapists as much as anyone else. We all have a natural predilection to maintain what is familiar, comfortable and predictable, even if this tendency exacts a large cost.

Some of us have a lower tolerance for suffering than our peers, or we’re fortunate enough to have suffered sufficiently to be willing to change.

Change is not guaranteed to improve the situation, it just makes it different. But different experiences can lead to new thoughts and feelings, novel attitudes and connections.

You might spare yourself a lot of grief if you embraced this idea alone: if you don’t like your situation, do something different.

Groups can be incredible catalysts for change if run well. If run poorly, well, misery loves company and it can be deliciously seductive to have a whole bunch of people with whom to preserve the status quo.

To run a group well, you have to embrace change. You need to be more excited by the possibility of learning something new than you are scared of being hurt and disappointed. Of course, you will be hurt and disappointed at times, but if you’re open to it, you’ll learn a lot from those moments.

I run a process group for adults on Tuesday evenings. The members have all been in therapy and are psychologically sophisticated. They take risks, share vulnerability, actively engage in the process of learning and change. It’s a place of intimacy and courage.

As the steward of the space, I keep two values in mind, Vitality and Belonging.

Vitality is something you experience in yourself, how engaged are you, how interested? Are you learning something new about yourself, being challenged, growing? Does the present situation feel meaningful to the rest of your life–your life outside the consulting room and the future? Many of us are conditioned to override our need for vitality.

Most schools and workplaces teach us to be quiet, sit in our seats, direct our attention to the instructed subject regardless of our natural curiosity and inclination. The pandemic of ADHD diagnoses is a reflection of this intolerance for intrinsic motivation.

Vitality is closely related to doing what you want to do in a deep and meaningful way. This doesn’t mean a reckless pursuit of mind-numbing pleasure. What you truly want to do may not be pleasant at all. Escaping danger or confronting an adversary are examples of intense vitality. So is any adventure or drama that captures your imagination, provides a sense of risk-taking and discovery. Vitality requires a degree of freedom, the ability to approach the edge of your comfort zone and explore new ways of being.

It’s in this liminal, unknown territory that you gain access to parts of yourself that you didn’t know you possessed.

Belonging provides the safety required for this kind of heroic enterprise. Belonging is experienced with others, in the sense of connection and shared purpose. We all have dark places inside us that are too scary for us to venture into alone. Therapy provides the support and companionship to see and touch what would otherwise overwhelm us. When there is belonging, there is a feeling of kinship and protection– “They have my back.”

Balancing these two values is the dance of leadership. It’s an art and a science that is never mastered, only studied and integrated through our own therapy, experience and training.

 

What Group Gives Us

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Our craft can be lonely. We’re often drawn to helping others because of our own longing for connection, intimacy, empathy, authenticity and security in the face of the irrational. We fill our days and our weeks serving others and it is easy to lose sight of the needs of the person in the therapist chair.

As we become skillful in helping others open up and courageously face their demons, it can be tempting to imagine that our own dark sides are managed, that our anxieties will obediently resolve in the face of our insight, that our infantile, animal parts are perfectly satisfied sitting for long stretches of the day.

Group is one way I honor these parts. Being part of a process-group, where the task is to be as honest as possible with thoughts and feelings in the moment, creates the psychic equivalent of a nature preserve. A little bit of my wildness can come out. I can touch the edge of my own vulnerability. I discover my aggression alongside an organic, mammalian affection so different from a more cerebral, cultivated compassion.

A group specifically for therapists also helps us process the psychic toxins of our patients. We can be held by the collective experience, wisdom and awareness of our peers. Someone else will intuit or be induced to feel something that we were not paying attention to in our difficult cases.

We may be very clever at hiding uncomfortable truths from ourselves, and possibly our therapists and supervisors. But in group, it is much harder to hide. As one member of a recent workshop said, “Coming here would keep me honest.”

Honesty helps us stay humble and humility is a constant challenge in a career based on clarity and cool-headedness. We’re supposed to know something. Surely we do know something, how to think differently about a problem, what a healthier attitude toward a situation would be, what to do next…and yet when we know what we’re doing, when we know what’s supposed to happen or how it’s supposed to go, the work starts feeling stale. More than our knowledge and technique, our clients need the alchemy of making contact with another vibrant human being who is willing to pay attention to them and be affected by who they are.

Group summons us to be more courageous and embodied. It reminds us of who we are and who we can become. It helps us come alive.

 

What is the “Here-and-Now?”

There’s a story about a fish who went as a prophet among the fish folk, speaking of an almost mystical, all-pervasive substance called water. Of course she was scorned for her teachings, her piscine friends and family too busy with their swimming to entertain fantastical ideas.

Talking about the Here-and-Now, I feel like a little as that prophet fish must have felt.

What is the Here-and-Now?

It is simply what’s going on between people who are in contact. In other words, it’s interpersonal mindfulness. 

Mindfulness has become a very sexy word, a catch-all for a quality of awareness, paying attention to one’s physical sensations, noticing the thoughts and images passing through one’s mind, attending to emotions, etc. The Here-and-Now refers to all of that, especially as it corresponds to being in the presence of other people.

In individual therapy, it refers to the underlying, often unspoken dynamic between the therapist and the client. In Group, the Here-and-Now may refer to what the group is doing as a whole, or any dynamic between any members and/or the leader.

For example, someone comes 15 minutes late to an individual appointment with me. During those 15 minutes I have all sorts of thoughts and feelings as I wonder what may be going on with the client and with the treatment. Did I say something they didn’t like last week? Perhaps they were offended? Are we getting to something deep that they don’t want to examine? Maybe they’re thinking of ending our work together…and so on.

When they do come, it would be easy to ignore the previous musings and focus on what the client wants to talk about. In non-therapeutic settings, this is what usually happens. The late person would apologize, blame traffic or some last minute distraction, and the conversation would move on. But there is something lingering between us. Working in the Here-and-Now refers to bringing into awareness and discussion this subterranean element.

Ideally, the Here-and-Now inquiry is linked to something the client says, so when the client mentions not feeling like they’re accomplishing much at their job, we can ask something like, “do you sometimes feel like you’re not accomplishing much in our work together?” or even, “how is that not-accomplishing-much feeling happening right now in the session today?”

But Here-and-Now can also be used more bluntly and without so much finesse: “I’m thinking about your coming late and wondering if there’s something between us that we should talk about–something that you’re not liking about our work together?”

Working in the Here-and-Now is powerful. It redresses the experience of many people who grew up in families where there were elephants-in-the-room, walking-on-eggshells moments, secrets and unsayable thoughts. It is powerful for another reason as well.

Fractals.

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The idea of fractals is that the smallest part echoes the same overall pattern. 

Our personality is structured similarly. Whatever issues and difficulties we may have in our lives outside of the consulting room, the patterns that create discontent in our lives are manifesting in the room as well. It could be in a tone of voice that causes someone to lose interest, a way of avoiding eye contact that prompts feelings of abandonment, a particular gesture that evokes a fear of being hurt. When we can bring into awareness what’s happening in the present moment with the other person, we can make a change in that interaction that will reverberate through the whole personality. 

Working in the Here-and-Now is accessible, visceral, immediate. It offers a way to disrupt patterns of disconnection that haunt people’s lives. It is invigorating for the clinician and the client. In Group, everyone is invited to work in the Here-and-Now, and the result is what I consider one of the key values of Group: Vitality.

 

If you’d like to learn more, I invite you to attend this workshop.

 

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.