Fathers and teachers, I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I wrote just a few days ago about the fourth session of this "Opening up" group. This fifth session was a full day meeting. Good to have a whole day together. A bigger pool to swim in, more time to explore. Nice too to share food together - we all brought contributions for lunch.
We began the group a bit differently today. I suggested we took 10 minutes while we all wrote starting with the words "If I pushed myself a bit harder in the group, I ... ". I asked them to write deeply and honestly and spontaneously. I said that they wouldn't be expected to read out what they wrote. The important thing was for us all to really dig down and explore how we could open and use the group more fully. We then paired up to share what had emerged. People were welcome simply to talk about the general sense of what they'd written, or they were free to read it to their partner if they wanted to. I asked as well that they discuss how they could help each other work with the possibilities that had come up in their writing, as we went through the day. There are quite a few blog posts about therapeutic writing on this website, and it's a useful ingredient to introduce into groups every now and again. Fascinating how, even in groups where participants are very honest with each other, still material emerges with writing that doesn't emerge in the same way with just talking. We didn't do this today, but a precious thing to try is for everyone to write on some theme for say 10 minutes, then go round sharing (talking about what emerged, or in groups that are OK with this openness - simply reading it out), then (without any further discussion) everyone writes again for another 10 minutes, and then we go round to read again. Typically people's first time round explorations trigger thoughts/feelings in others that then enrich the group's second round of writing.
Jamie Pennebaker, the "godfather" of expressive writing, has said that it can be a bad idea to read what you've written to others. Quite rightly he points out that expressive writing isn't meant to be balanced or careful, and that reading it out may give the listener an unbalanced picture which they may well react to unhelpfully. Alternatively, if the writer knows that they will be expected to read out what they've written, they are likely to start inhibiting how spontaneously and freely they write. I think Jamie is generally correct about this, but I also know that in groups which "know what they're doing" and which already have a culture of considerable openness, simply reading out what one has written can be fine and helpful.
So we then came back to the full group, shared a bit about what had emerged from the writing exercise and pair discussion, and went on to check in more generally. We were the full group today (7 of us). We made time to discuss how the people were who had shared particularly deep personal material in the previous couple of groups. Someone who had been feeling dubious about the whole group process also had the opportunity to share this, to be heard and valued, to realise that others too - at times - shared similar feelings. So important in these interpersonal groups to watch out for people becoming peripheralised. So important to care for and make space for the inevitable doubts and distancing that will sometimes emerge. In one-to-one therapy, "micro-ruptures" occur regularly in the therapeutic process/alliance. Very important to keep one's eyes open for this and try to work through such difficulties. The same is true in group work. Honouring and validating individual's points of view. Being inclusive not exclusive.
And eventually to lunch. Yummy! Good food. Good company. And a chance to walk for a little in the autumn sunshine. And back in the group for the afternoon, reminding them of the point I made in the blog post about last session - "One of the handouts everyone in the group has had is the well known "Experiencing scale" with its emphasis on the value of allowing real emotional experiencing to help therapeutic change. I mentioned in the group that three powerful ways I recognise of deepening emotional involvement in interpersonal groups are what we have been doing these last two evenings (sharing very openly and honestly about strongly felt experiences in our past or current lives), and secondly risking exploring how we are relating with each other here in the group, and thirdly coming down into the here-and-now of feelings in our bodies - our hearts & guts". And later in the afternoon I set up a couple of exercises that more involved our current in-group relationships and helped to focus us on how we were feeling in the here-and-now. The first I call "The gaze exercise". I can't remember where I got it from - I've been using it for years. The way I work with it is to get people to pair up. It can also be done in threes, but on the whole it probably fits more easily as a pair exercise. Usually easiest if each pair positions themselves so they're pretty much at the same eye level. Distance is negotiable. "Not too far apart" is quite a good instruction. The exercise involves 4 minutes of silence. The first 2 minutes one simply looks at the other person. This isn't an eyes-locked-together kind of exercise. One is given full permission to "look them up and down". Yes, look at their eyes, and also their face, their hands, their clothes, hair, bodies. It's an awareness exercise. How do I feel as I look at them and they look at me? How do I hold my body? What happens to my breathing ... to my expression? What thoughts come up about them, about myself, about the situation? What are my emotions? Do they stay the same or change? What do I observe? What do I remember? What associations do I have? What do I fantasise? 2 minutes can be a long time. Then the 3rd minute, everybody closes their eyes. What happens? The request is to notice how one now feels, senses, thinks - with eyes closed. Then the 4th minute is a repeat of the first 2 minutes - eyes open again, looking at the other person. So this is a real time, awareness/relationship exercise. After the 4 minutes, the request is to share with your partner what has come up.
People vary a lot in how easy or difficult they find it to do this exercise. It's an awareness meditation - helping us realise how much is potentially going on as we're relating with another person. It's also a challenge noticing what emerges, and having the courage and emotional intelligence to put words to the experience in an authentic, possibly challenging, but constructive way. Again it comes back to the person centered, I-Thou, three legged stool of genuineness, empathy, and caring. If one or other leg of the stool is short, it wobbles. The close relationship typically lacks something of importance. I've done this exercise many times - in groups and also with friends. Rich. I love it. It's like savouring fine wine, really taking time to taste relating to another person. Quite a few people hate it. Too close. Too challenging. Too intimate. Too artificial. For someone who wants to explore close relationships, how to relate more truly, how to develop this intelligence - this can be a good exercise to try. So people took quite a while to share their experience in their pairs, and then we came back to talk a bit about it in the full group.
I commented that it can be very interesting to go right on to do "The gaze exercise" with another person. It helps one see what about one's experience one transfers across in a similar way from one of these exercises to another exercise, and what seems more particular to the specific person one happens to be doing the exercise with. Am I more in touch with thoughts, or sensations, or feelings? Am I more aware of the other person or more aware of myself? What difference does it make if there a man or a woman? Am I able to stay present with what's going on? As with pretty much all "real life" relationships too, it can be helpful to consider three overlapping domains that are involved. One domain is myself. What is this exercise demonstrating about me - maybe my self-consciousness, or vanity, or dominance, or carefulness, or sexuality, or kindness, or past life experience. Another domain is the other person. What feedback can I give this other about their face, their expressions, their posture, their hands, their body, thoughts about them, intuitions, memories, images, associations. And the third overlapping domain is our relationship. How do I feel with this person? Is this how I expected to feel? Maybe it's as expected, or quite possibly it's richer and more complex than I expected. So much in 4 minutes! And of course then the huge question about what I remember, what I'm prepared to share, how vulnerably and honestly and constructively I share it. Maybe find a friend and try this exercise! Preferably when you're both clear-headed and not misted by, for example, alcohol.
A lot of discussion can come out of this 4 minute experience. Maybe allow 20 minutes to discuss in pairs. Once we had talked about the experience in the full group, I queried whether people would like to go straight on to trying it again with another partner. There wasn't a clear majority wanting to repeat it straight away. I suggested we try a related but somewhat different sequence - "The space between us exercise". This one most people probably find a bit easier than the "Gaze exercise". It's also simpler to introduce it into conversations with those we're close to. It's just a somewhat formal way of asking questions like "How are we doing together?", "How do we feel about each other just now?", "How's our relationship going right now?". This interesting way of asking this kind of question comes from Irvin Yalom's book "The gift of therapy" (see too Yalom's website). He suggests one simply asks "How do I (and how do you) feel about the space between us right now?" The form of words can feel a bit awkward & artificial to me, but I also find it helpful. It helps me to focus both on what's going on within me ... "How do I feel ... ?" Emotions are physical things. What am I feeling in my heart, my gut, my face, my posture ... what am I feeling here being with you? And how is that intertwined with how we're relating right now ... and how we've related in the past? Not just "How do I feel?" but "How do I feel about the space between us right now?" My experience is that it's easier to hide in words with this exercise than in the silence of the "Gaze exercise", but it's also, in some ways, more useful, more practical. I've probably used this exercise, this focus, suggested it with many of my closer friends. It's easily transferable ... in a café, a bus, walking. Fun to use. Fascinating to use. Yalom talks about using the exercise often in therapy with clients. He is a different style of therapist from me. However, particularly in longer term work, I will sometimes suggest trying this exercise. See the blog post "Needs, beliefs & behaviours - part 4, relationships" for more on why this can be useful. I will pretty much always offer to speak first and, pretty much always, my client will accept my offer. Now here's a challenge. The point of therapy ... what it all rests on ... is to focus on what is likely to be helpful for the client. And this exercise can be very helpful. And it demands of the therapist a good deal of "real time", emotional intelligence. Often I can very honestly express my fondness and respect for the client. Especially if we've been working together over some time, this can be so important. I know with my own son, how important it has been to express not only my love for him, but also my respect for how he is leading his life. I may think that he would know this, not need it spelled out in so many words ... but spelling it out in so many words can be immensely precious. Sometimes, of course, there are not just "positive" feelings around to be expressed. But difficult feelings can often be even more helpful to speak through than "positive" ones. It's how they're expressed. Les Greenberg has written interestingly about this - see the handout "Honesty, transparency & confrontation".
Enough! Time to draw this rather long blog post to a close. And the full day meeting also came to a close. As usual we finished by writing reflection sheets. It seemed to me that it had been a good, helpful day. I was slightly uneasy about how "prescriptive" I'd been offering three structured exercises across the day. Quite a lot of structure. But it seemed to have worked well. Blessings.
For a description of our next meeting, see "Opening up group, sixth session".