Last updated on 2nd November 2009
It's the first morning of this year's "Mixed Group" in Cumbria. I wrote about this group in some detail when we last met up almost exactly a year ago. Lying in bed a little earlier on, I thought over why I'm here. I should be reasonably clear about this by now - after all the group (with varying participants) has been meeting almost every year since 1991.
So part of being here is spending very precious, deeply connecting time with friends. Part - in this Mixed Group - is how it also enriches my relationship with Catero, my wife. Part is the break. This is a lovely part of Cumbria - lambs, curlews, stone walls, fields & streams - a good way to open my lungs and my brain, and my heart too. And that's a fourth reason. Most of us who are here are health professionals or work helping people in other ways. This background isn't crucial, but it probably is crucial that we're all quite "psychologically minded", that we're all - in overlapping ways - interested in looking at our relationships and how we can help them be rich and fun and loving and challenging and so many of the other qualities that make being with others one of the most important aspects of being alive.
So there's a bunch of inter-connecting reasons for being here. I have various metaphors that I use for this last one of looking at relationships and how I can make them better or worse. One metaphor is of myself as a musician, maybe a violinist or a Scottish fiddler! My challenge is, whoever I'm with - to play the violin as sensitively or beautifully or truly or joyfully or challengingly as is called for by the music, by the developing song of the relationship. Sometimes it's a duet, for example with Catero, sometimes maybe a quartet e.g. with another couple, sometimes it's a small chamber group e.g. when the full fourteen of us meet in the group later on this morning. This metaphor can seem a bit "precious" at times, but I do find it helpful. For example, our score on the Inventory of Interpersonal Problems (click for questionnaire; "spikes" on the scoresheet highlight areas of difficulty) provides a snapshot of ways that we might tend to play "out of tune" interpersonally. This is immensely important because, of course, it will be liable to affect all our relationships, to a greater or lesser extent. How bloody hard to jarringly play out of tune day after day! Wellbeing is profoundly entwined with how we relate. The Diener & Seligman study finding that good relationships are a necessary ingredient of high levels of happiness is just one of the many pieces of evidence that how we relate is crucial to our happiness, to our stress resilience, to the wellbeing of our partners & families, and - for many of us - to our work too.
Last year I did a simple survey of health professionals who have been to this Mixed Group and the related Men's Group over the years asking how this experience seemed to affect their work. The key request to them was "Please give a number somewhere between 0 and 10 to indicate approximately how helpful you feel these groups have been for you as a health professional, where 0 stands for 'not helpful at all' right up to 10 which stands for 'very helpful indeed.'" On average, the 45 health professionals (doctors, psychotherapists, nurses, etc) surveyed gave the groups 8.4 out of a possible 10 for how helpful they thought they had been for them as health professionals. See slides 14 to 23 of a talk I gave linking this survey to the overall importance of the therapeutic alliance. As one psychologist responded " ... a rare and invaluable opportunity for honest exchange and feedback from peers as well as support, in both professional and personal respects. This more personal and experiential aspect of the group is for me the 'core' of what we do together, and something I feel strongly is an important if not essential part of working as a healthcare professional, certainly in psychological fields ... in the CMHT (community mental health team) I work with, long periods off sick due to stress and burnout are unfortunately common, and I wonder if more opportunities for personal experiential work could help prevent this. In fact, the more I think about it, the more precious and rare an opportunity these groups seem!"