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.


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.





Sharing The Weight in Group

I had a conversation recently with a colleague who works with people who struggle with compulsive overeating and are considering or have had bariatric surgery. She told me how frequently the surgery doesn’t help very much unless the underlying psychological issues are confronted. Which of course got me thinking about how issues related to food, weight, body-image and so on can be addressed in Group.

In February, I co-led a workshop called Food, Sex and Relationships. The basic idea was that the same emotional wounds that drive us to seek out particular foods and diets would manifest in how we related to others. If we paid careful attention to our interactions in a group setting, we could gain insight and awareness about the pain that prompted our over-eating, zealous dieting and shame about our needs and desires.

Group is the perfect place to receive the message that you’re valued, lovable and even attractive, regardless of your weight. This message can be explicitly expressed, or gently reinforced meeting after meeting, as members continue to show interest and appreciation when you contribute.

Our society is so quick to shame fat people that it can become almost impossible to address the issue with gentle curiosity. An authentic Group will wonder:

What is the weight is protecting you from?

How does it help you?

Which part of you are you trying to nourish when you overeat?

Who would you be without it?

Someone in Group may remind you of an abusive parent, a bullying peer in middle school, or a narcissistic spouse. Perhaps you unconsciously hoped that having more weight would make it harder for them to push you around, that taking up more space would force them to pay attention to you, that becoming unattractive would protect you from their predatory lust and controlling desire. Now, you have the opportunity to learn how to protect yourself effectively.

Hopefully you will discover what you’re truly hungry for and start getting nourished by the Group.

Eventually, this awareness of what you’re needing and wanting, what feels good and what doesn’t, empowers you. You no longer need to carry the burden of other people’s emotional immaturity and cruelty.  What a relief!


Can I bring a friend to Group?

Can I bring a friend to Group?

You probably want a simple Yes or No answer.

I try to avoid that, whenever possible. My reason is not just to annoy you.

Therapy, whether individual, couples, family or group, is a place to learn more about yourself, especially about your unconscious.

What is the unconscious?

Everything about you that happens without you having to think about it. Your breathing is generally unconscious. Your body temperature. Your dreams. Slips of the tongue. Accidentally scheduling the office party for precisely the same day and time that your wife requested additional help with the kids…

The unconscious contains our instincts. It holds all of the thoughts and feelings that we prefer not to think and feel. We all have deep-seated ideas about the world that we absorbed without realizing. These unknown and disowned parts of ourselves live in the dark places of our mind. Whenever we act, it’s difficult to know who or what exactly is pulling at the strings.

This is not meant to scare you.

Okay it is, but only a little.

Therapy is a place where we can explore and understand some of our unconscious urges.

So when the desire rises in you to bring a friend to Group, I get very curious.

Why at this particular moment do you want to bring a friend? Did something happen​ last session that made you want more support? Why this friend specifically? Is there something about her that you want the Group to see and understand about you?

The more questions we can ask about our seemingly simple desires and requests, the more we learn about ourselves.

Help! Someone in Group reminds me of…

Oh no! This is not what you expected. Another group member reminds you of your manipulative ex-boyfriend, or your raging father, or your codependent mom, or that cousin that you had a crush on in middle school and then hated when she started dating your friends…

Believe it or not, this is exactly what’s supposed to happen.

One reason Group is so powerful is because there’s an opportunity to work through something from your past in vivid, living interactions.

You may not realize just how hurt you were when your 7th grade teacher called you out.

Suddenly a group member says something in just that particular way and you are slammed with the exact feeling you had when you were 13. Unknowingly, this pain and rage inhibited you from trusting higher-ups and getting critical support from supervisors at key moments in your career.

In individual therapy, you could talk about this inhibition and how it’s cost you opportunities. You could explore the past memories and associations. If you’re lucky, your therapist may momentarily remind you of this teacher and you could hash it out in the moment.

In Group, that happens all the time.

You have the chance to express all the feelings evoked in you by this group member. You hear their response. You learn who you are reminding them of, what underlying pain prompted them to lash out. Over several weeks, you can develop a more nuanced understanding of each other and of yourself. And more likely than not, the next time you need to trust and open up to a supervisor or boss, you’ll find yourself doing so more easily.

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.