Last updated on 29th May 2009
Yesterday was a fairly classic first full day of one of these four day peer groups that I've been involved with for so long. Like a musical form ... a concerto or something ... there are usual stages to the group, phases which it typically moves through. When I wrote about this spring peer group a year ago, I used the metaphor of a cooking pot saying "so it's crucial that people feel the pot, the container of the group is safe enough, that it can hold and allow what comes up to work through without spilling over and burning anyone badly. So part of what we're doing can be viewed as making a container that feels caring enough, safe enough, accepting enough for members of the group to explore and work on issues that may bubble up for them. Another aspect of this cooking pot metaphor is that it's important too that it's 'on the heat', that the way we are in the group helps people get in touch with issues, pains, conflicts, experiences that it can be helpful to work on in this environment."
I find metaphors fascinating and often very helpful. They can provide a bridge between research facts and real life interactions. Another metaphor I quite often use about these kinds of process groups - where the interactions between group participants provide an important part of the material that we work with and learn from - is of a stone tumbler. As we come up against each other over the days and with the different group interactions, so we bump into each others' rough edges and vulnerable places. If we're ready to, if we're open enough, courageous enough, maybe loving enough, we can share how we experience these interactions and learn from each other about how we come across, about how we affect each other. We can learn too by observing how others cope and act. Interpersonal learning is one of the challenges and potential gifts of these groups. I wrote a year ago about factors that contribute to these groups being potentially so valuable. In a handout on "Therapeutic factors" that I put together for groups that I run myself, I highlighted Professor Irvin Yalom's work saying:
"Yalom's classic text 'The theory and practice of group psychotherapy' was hailed by Jerome Frank as 'the best book that exists on the subject today, and for the foreseeable future'. The first edition came out in 1970 and the new fifth edition in August 2005. Yalom detailed a series of research studies asking participants to rate 60 therapeutic factors (in their experience of participating in group work). These factors were grouped into 12 categories:
1. group cohesiveness 2. altruism 3. universality
4. interpersonal learning (input) 5. catharsis 6. instillation of hope
7. interpersonal learning (output) 8. identification 9. family re-enactment
10. self-understanding 11. guidance 12. existential factors
Typically interpersonal factors, catharsis and group cohesiveness are rated very highly. There is considerable variation though - with the type of group studied, with how long the group has been meeting for, and with the participant's level of functioning and personality style.
Our first full day here went well. Sharing concerns and vulnerabilities about working as a doctor or therapist or teacher. Talking about anxieties around coming to this group. Sorting out various organisational issues. Walking and talking deeply in the afternoon in small groups or one-to-one. Then most of us getting together at around 4.30pm as we'd agreed we'd like to share and speak about our different individual meditation practices. And in the late afternoon in the full group people talked more about their struggles at work or in their couple relationships.
At supper I found myself digging rather unhelpfully - talking with the person sitting next to me at the table about the joys and difficulties of knowing each other over quite a few years. It felt unhelpful to me partly because I'd had a glass of wine. I'm cautious about talking deeply - especially if there's any confrontation involved - when I might be affected by alcohol. I'm just not so clear and can stumble around in the conversation more clumsily. It's funny because, out in the world at large, I guess that alcohol often oils the social wheels encouraging deeper and more open conversations. Double edged though. It doesn't take much alcohol - or other drugs, or simple tiredness for that matter - to make these interactions more likely to be fairly sloppy and unproductive.
Then after supper, as so often in this Mixed group, we danced. Great!