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.

What Dreams May Come

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“Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions. ” — Edgar Cayce

I just led a workshop on dreams that went very well. Yet when I sit down to write a blog post about dreamwork, I get stuck.

This site is primarily devoted to group psychotherapy. The style of group therapy that I’m inspired by is Modern Analytic, based on the work of Louis Ormont, who learned from Hyman Spotnitz, who learned from Sigmund Freud.

The style of dreamwork that I’m inspired by is Jungian, based on the work of Carl Jung.

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud disagreed profoundly on the nature of dreams and the Unconscious.

From what I’ve gathered, Freud believed that dreams were more or less personal events. They came to the individual and were comprised of elements of the individual’s experience and psychology, originating in whatever had been repressed in the person’s lifetime. He focused on sexual urges and believed that the manifest content of the dream was an elaborate cover for the truer, latent or hidden meaning of the dream.

Jung believed dreams came from a transpersonal source. Instead of being strictly limited to the individual’s experience, dreams were messages from the Collective Unconscious, a sort of unified psychic field that encompasses all of humanity and ultimately all of life. Jung believed that the images of the dream were in and of themselves the essential message, expressed symbolically.

Where this difference leads is to the degree reverence attached to a dream. It seems to me that many people more influenced by Freud consider a dream not significantly different from other communication. Especially in the group world where the emphasis is on the transferences evoked by other group members, sharing a dream is generally considered an indirect interpersonal expression–the group member shares the dream as a way of communicating something about their state of mind and emotional life towards other members and the group as a whole. The other members are invited to share their associations and interpersonal reactions and in this way the dream becomes grist for the primarily relational project of group.

In contrast, the attitude that has grown in me from my Jungian studies is to treat a dream almost like prophecy. It is a gift from the gods, a message specifically designed to assist me in my growth and development. It is something to be meditated on, leisurely mulled over and slowly digested. Sharing the dream and receiving others’ reactions can interfere with this contemplative practice. Making the dream interpersonal distracts from and dilutes the inherently intrapsychic import of the dream.

The workshop I led focuses on the intrapsychic. It’s an introduction to a simple, powerful method for drawing profound personal meaning, inspiration and insight from our dreams and the dreams of our clients. If you’re interested, I invite you to join me for an online course in which each member will apply the method in its entirety to a single dream:

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Santa Clause and the Narcissistic Defense

Have you seen the film, A Miracle on 34th Street?

It hinges upon whether people will accept Kris Kringle’s claim that he is in fact Santa Clause.

What a strange preoccupation. Why does it matter so much whether or not people believe in the material existence of something that seems so clearly to be mythical?

The answer, I suggest, is the Narcissistic Defense.

When I say the Narcissistic Defense, I’m using Dr. Hyman Spotnitz’s definition, not to be confused with a lot of other psychological writing on narcissism.

Rafael Sharon has written succinctly and eloquently about this term:

The idea is that a baby is frustrated, can’t communicate, needs the mother (the object) to fulfill it’s needs. It’s guess work much of the time. What starts to happen in certain cases is the baby will have the feeling from the mother that the mother can’t handle the aggression, the crying, the screaming, so they turn it inward to protect the mother. They turn it on themselves.  This is the narcissistic defense and we all do it to some extent. We blame ourselves for what’s going on around us.  The ultimate example is schizophrenia. I think it’s both biological and it’s nurture. I don’t think just anyone is going to suffer from schizophrenia. That’s the ultimate narcissistic defense where you disable your brain so you won’t do anything disruptive to your primary object.

So what does Santa Clause have to do with the Narcissistic Defense?

Most parents want to give to their children. They want to provide what they need and also give them gifts and increase their delight. Christmas in America is a prime time for gift-giving.

Wise parents also want their children to be able to express their aggression in a constructive way and not turn it inward.

Santa Clause is a way to satisfy both of these desires.

If parents just gave their children gifts directly, there is a risk that the child would either cling to their anger and reject the gift, or cling to the gift and reject the anger. The Narcissistic Defense is all about rejecting the anger. Children understand that they need their parents to survive. They can’t afford to risk that relationship. Unless the parents express aggression in a constructive way and encourage their children to do the same, young people will suppress some of their anger out of fear that their parents will withdraw their love and support.

Santa Clause allows parents to celebrate with their children when they give them something that they enjoy. If the gift seems to not come directly from the parents, then it has a sort of emotional purity, the child can appreciate it without the overwhelming burden of gratitude and need associated with everything else the parents provide.

When a person stops “believing in Santa Clause,” they have entered the adult world. Now when they are angry with someone or in conflict, they need to consider if and how to express themselves.  Can the person handle their criticism? If the conflict is not resolved, they may not receive gifts or resources from that person in the future.

This is also one reason that in therapeutic settings like Group, we want actions like gift-giving to be put into words. Unconsciously the gift may be an attempt to ward against or dissipate anger and conflict in a relationship. It is far better for the therapeutic relationship to express the affectionate, loving feelings that inspire the gift-giving, and also explore whatever fears of conflict there may be.

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!

 

Help! I just can’t stand that person…

Help! I just can’t stand that person!

Wonderful.

What the hell do you mean, “wonderful?”

You’re having a powerful experience in Group. You’re getting your money’s worth.

What are you talking about?

Someone in Group activates you. Their very presence stirs up a lot of emotion. This is a big opportunity for you to learn about yourself. Have you shared your reactions in Group?

No, I wouldn’t do that.

Why not?

Well, because it would hurt her feelings, and it wouldn’t be nice and it would make me look bad to lash out at her…

So?

I can’t have people thinking that I’m that kind of person!

Ah. I’m wondering if you’ve ever been exposed to the psychological term, Shadow?

No.

What is the Shadow?

The Shadow refers to the parts of ourselves that we hate so much that we do not allow them into consciousness. We then get to maintain an image of ourselves that is more palatable. The price of this splitting up of ourselves is that we often project the Shadow onto others, despising in them behavior that we ourselves do but don’t want to admit that we do.

Group is a forum par excellence for working on your Shadow. Other people will bother you, often because they are holding pieces of yourself that you don’t like.

Does that mean I shouldn’t confront them?

No, definitely confront them! Whatever they’re doing may be something that has sabotaged their relationships in the past without them realizing it. Confront away. Just keep in mind as you call them out, that most likely some of your reaction is to a part of yourself.

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.