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Peer groups: Scottish Mixed Group – second full day: emotional ‘cooking’ in the group, and personal work too

I wrote yesterday about the first full day of this "long weekend" residential peer group.  The second day of the weekend was particularly rich - very nourishing or a bit too much depending partly on one's digestion.  So after the usual walks, talks, meditations, long chatty breakfasts, we began again in the full group at 10.00am.  Often at these residentials we start the morning with small support groups before moving on to the full group.  Over these three days we've reversed this sequence, starting with the full group and then, after a coffee break, moving on to the small support groups.  Both ways of organizing things have their benefits.  Yesterday starting with the full group worked particularly well.  As so often happens, one of the everyday experiences of living with others for three days had pushed buttons for someone, opened up old feelings of distress about being included or being excluded.  In everyday life one might have noticed the "bruise", let it go by and got on with other things - see for example "The bus driver metaphor" for more on this effective & usually appropriate coping style.  Here however, in this group, in general triggered feelings - particularly if they are strong - are likely to be very good grist for the mill.  In fact, if worked on honestly and openly, the emotions are likely to be a gift to the rest of the group, making it feel safer for others to open up to.

And that's what happened.  One of us, who had been to many of these groups, spoke about feelings of (unintended) exclusion experienced at the previous night's supper.  Linking this with other life experiences led to deep emotional processing.  A bit gasp-inducing if you're not used to this way of working with distress.  Clearly it wouldn't be appropriate if one usually went this route with the emotions that are triggered in our daily lives, but paradoxically going into feelings in this way (when it is safe & appropriate) typically means that it becomes easier to simply let them go by in everyday life.  This has a flavour of the kind of therapeutic approach one might use with posttraumatic stress disorder, and there's some accuracy in this comparison.  Ongoing upset from difficult experiences is much commoner than the territory typically described in PTSD - see for example, the work of Arntz & colleagues.  It's also about confronting emotional avoidance - the all-too-frequent fear of becoming "emotional".  I like the model "Emotions, arriving & leaving" with its emphasis on being able to wade into the river of passing emotions without either losing one's footing or being too "scared" and just trying to stay on the bank.

Partly because we were now into that beautiful stage of the group - the cooking pot has heated up, we're melting, softening, allowing feelings, in touch - and partly because many people here, psychotherapist newcomers very much included, are experienced in feeling what's going on for them emotionally and being able to express it - feelings move around the group a bit like a brushfire.  Precious.  Very moving, connecting, to oneself and to others.  One person's very authentic, open, vulnerable sharing triggering and making it easier for the next person to run with it.  And people don't "drop the baton", a whole series of us ready to stay in the stream, washed along, trusting it would be OK.  Marvellous.  I love this kind of "work", this kind of sharing, so much when the river of feeling flows like this.  The blog post "Mindfulness: the missing facet 'describe'" also speaks to this area. 

And then a coffee break, but taking our mugs with us into our small support groups.  Often I find being silent for two or three minutes before the start of a group is helpful for me in quietening, clearing, connecting to what's going on deeper inside.  It's sometimes good to begin in other ways too and today we decided to jump right in, bringing how we were feeling without taking time to settle.  Fine, this can be good too.  And the small group gives people more time to go further.  It feels helpful just having four people in our group.  In my experience, four - or even three - is probably a particularly good number for this kind of support group, meeting daily over the residential in chunks of possibly an hour to an hour and a half.  We spoke, amongst other things, of the fear of allowing emotion, of being judged, of inhibiting ourselves inappropriately to please others.

And lunch, a feast of bread, tomato salads, cheeses, soup - the colours of the table - and the colours in the people.  Not grey, drab, conforming to shapes that don't fit us.  And walking with two others, continuing the exploring, sharing.  Back for a cup of tea, cake, a small "special interest group" looking at group process, ways of understanding what had been happening.  And coming back from walking into the hotter room, into a group of people maybe expecting me to say "wise, insightful things", I felt a bit hot & flustered.  Normally it would be fine for me to "drive the bus", allow these temporary feelings and get on with what was important - looking at what had been occurring in the group and ways of understanding, helpful ‘lenses' that can lead to better choices.  And that's what I did, settled, got into the conversation.  However when we convened in the full group, I asked for space to return to the flustered experience.

I know this "getting hot & self-conscious" thread in my life.  I've worked on it and it gets in the way very little.  However, it was triggered here and I wanted to look at it & speak about it.  Partly this is because I don't want to avoid or hide here and so opening up about difficulties feels potentially right.  More though, it's that this is a group I convened and have been partly facilitating.  Our aim is to increasingly become a genuine peer group.  Not a great idea then to stay in the "aren't I marvellous and strong" facilitator/therapist chair.  So opening up in this way is partly to nudge forward that we are evolving into a peer group, and partly because "marvellous and strong" for me is made fuller, richer by also having the courage to be "open & vulnerable".  And I feel this dichotomy, strong or vulnerable, is a limited and often poor way of seeing these experiences.  Maybe better would be, for example, to view them through the attachment & behavioural systems model, that I've written about before, with its emphasis on care-seeking (attachment), care-giving, exploration, sex & power.  I believe we're deeply biologically programmed to move, when the situation "demands" it, into each of these modes.  If all is going well, the "biological programme" is effective in satisfying the relevant need, and one can move on again with one's life. 

The care-seeking, attachment system is easily the most studied and written about.  When it's well functioning, if we feel a need for reassurance & soothing - and it's an appropriate situation - we're able to seek support, be effectively helped, and we can then move on again with our lives.  The classic example I give is a mother & toddler in the park.  The toddler is exploring, playing.  He/she falls and bruises themself.  They're distressed, run to mum, are effectively soothed and are quickly wriggling to be off and playing again.  Many of us - partly because of difficult early childhood experiences - find it very hard to allow this care-seeking attachment system to express and to get our needs for support, soothing & reassurance well met.  Sometimes this is particularly true for people with an active care-giving, rather than care-seeking, system.  We can get caught in compulsively caring.  It's a tricky path to walk when facilitating these kinds of process groups.  To start with, like a parent looking after a younger child, we are likely to be quite strongly and appropriately anchored in a care-giving mode (as we are nearly all the time in one-to-one work as health professionals).  Later though in the life of the group - and this especially true for peer groups - it may actually be counter-productive for more experienced participants to stay excessively in care-giving mode.  It can all too easily give the message that where we're all trying to get to is a persistently controlled, level "agreeableness".  It's a bone I have to pick with some long-term meditators (and I'm a long-term meditator myself).  I don't equate wellbeing with blandness!  Will Schutz, a key figure in the early encounter movement, argued that medical training (with its tendency to emphasise only ‘control') can be an obstacle to becoming a good (process) group facilitator.  And this overlaps into the whole issue of self-disclosure by health professionals - see, for example, my blog post "A quiet rant to group facilitators & would-be group facilitators".

So on this final afternoon of our three day group, I had a choice.  Wading in the river of passing feelings, I was fine, easy - I could stay controlled - but I it felt right to do something different.  There were a series of choices here.  For example, I could ‘work' on my tendency to occasionally become a bit socially anxious, give background, do an episode of "self-therapy".  It felt potentially a bit heady & hard to get into.  Instead I went down to the physical experience of emotional distress in my body.  Imagery & feeling.  Deliberately pushing out to go over the emotional waterfall.  I've described this process much more fully in a series of posts from a peer group a couple of years ago.  See especially the sequence "Cathartic work from the inside", "Cathartic work from the outside", "The triangle of emotions" and "The broadening, evidence-based relevance of emotional processing".  In that group two years ago, I "facilitated" myself as I went down the emotional rapids.  Here in this group, a dear friend offered to help.  Good.  Precious.  And it felt easier with his caring support here in a group where the culture of how we work is still becoming established.  And what I feel I did is move through a classic, primitive, care-seeking attachment sequence ... allowing strong distress to well up, sob, be soothed by the dear friend and by the group, then move on out into strength again, dancing, moving ... the "toddler" squirming to play once more!  "Real life" is much richer than any theory, so what happened had a whole series of colours, strands in it ... but an attachment lens seemed particularly useful in understanding what was going on. 

And click here for more on this second full day of the full group.

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