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Peer groups: Cumbria spring group – cathartic work from the inside

I wrote yesterday about a horrid feeling of my heart "drying out" and closing.  Although it seemed hard to do without possibly upsetting other people badly, I was very clear that I would share what was going on in me.  These kinds of groups need honesty to flourish - otherwise we'd be squeezed out of the group room by all the elephants of unspoken feeling that would accumulate in the corners!  When it came to the start of the full morning group at 10.30am I was already feeling lighter and freer, my heart more liquid again.  Plunging under and then climbing the mill stream waterfall, greeting, speaking, having breakfast.  Meeting in the small foursome morning support group we've set up for the start of each day.  All this had led me to feel easier and also gave me the opportunity to share that I was distressed and wanted time to work on it.

At the start of the full group, as usual, we began with a couple of minutes in silence, simply settling.  I could feel my heart beginning to pound.  Once we'd opened our eyes I said something like "I want space to work.  I don't feel I'd find it easy to attend to others right now.  If somebody else feels ripe to work I'm happy to negotiate with them.  Otherwise I want some space".  That was fine.  Usually we'd start with a round of check-ins, but typically if someone is feeling particularly emotionally charged or distressed, pretty much everything else takes second place.  How do I "work" in this kind of peer group?  The experiencing scale highlights the potential value of engaging directly, in present time, with my emotional state.  Emotions are rooted in the body.  They are usually fluid, bubbling with impulse and direction.  The work of Les Greenberg and his colleagues (e.g. Robert Elliott in Glasgow) has thrown so much light on what working more directly with emotions can involve.  See, for example, the diagrams in this pair of emotional awareness & regulation slides.  If I was using this kind of approach with a client, I would almost certainly go in very carefully, explaining why we might consider using such a directly emotion-focussed approach, what it would involve, and why it looked potentially valuable to risk going down such emotional rapids.  My job would then be to stay on the bank of the emotional river and help guide them as they tumbled down the stream of their feelings.  I'd be ready to pull them out too if they looked like bruising themselves too much on the rocks!  There are parallels and also differences diving into the emotional river here in the group.  In the heart of a well-established residential group like this, it's likely emotions can emerge very strongly.  And the group is mostly familiar with this kind of raw, body-centred approach.  So the emotional river is running in flood here in the group, and I'm choosing to dive into it without asking for a guide on the bank.  I know the rapids very well and I trust myself to swim.     

The waterfall

So I shared with the group the sense of my heart having gone dry.  I gave a little background to explain it.  I'd already talked a bit to the person who I felt might be most upset by this before the full group started.  I lay down spread-eagled on my back in the middle of the group circle and spoke from a place, a feeling, of dry stones grinding together in my chest.  I pushed out into the river of feeling, allowing my body to move as it seemed to want to, making noise from the pain in my chest.  Tears came.  I moved to one of the people who had been active in the group when my heart closed.  I embraced them, crying.  Not coming from a therapist place.  Just a suffering fellow human being place.  I sat at the edge of the group, looking at their concerned, loving faces.  I talked about a fear that if I wasn't caring, giving, wise, helpful ... then I wouldn't be loveable.  I asked for their love in this emotionally vulnerable, needing place ... just for me, not because I had earned it in any way.  And I was given it.  Dear friends in this group, my wife, concerned, loving, caring people.  I said I wanted contact.  I lay down again in the circle and people moved forward to put their hands on me.  Just crying.  Held.  Then I said I wanted to stand.  Be the centre of a human sandwich.  Warm.  Loved.  Very good. 

Eventually, laughing, the clustered group sandwich dissolved.  Catero was there.  Witnessed, liquid, I embraced her.  "This is my beautiful woman" I said.  True.  We sat.  Quiet, soft, close.  Smiles, kindness.  When the work and the responses it drew was drawing to a close, somebody asked me "How are you feeling now?".  I said "Peaceful.  Tearful.  Happy".  Interestingly a few minutes later, that person - a strong, independent soul - said they now wanted time.  That they hadn't felt safe to work in the group, but that they now wanted to take the risk.  So often in groups like this, one of the best ways of helping others is to work and be as deeply honest and open as one can be oneself.  So they worked ... and came through laughing, happy with their own journey in the group.  Precious.  One of many ways to explore and be helpful.  A very powerful and sometimes extraordinary way. 

And see tomorrow's post for a discussion of " ... cathartic work from the outside".

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