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A project to change long-term interpersonal patterns: at a residential group

"A friend is someone who sees the potential in you and helps you to live it."     W. B. Yeats (adapted)

"Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor."      Dr. Alexis Carrel

I wrote a post a couple of days ago - "A project to change long-term interpersonal patterns: background- which gives more information about this personal exploration into the very challenging task of adjusting decades-long habits.  The bottom line is that I want to unpick an interwoven tangle of issues that I stub my toes on occasionally.  The tangle includes a tendency, at times, to come across as a bit too "dominant", "extrovert", and "loud" in groups.  At it's worst this means that sometimes others can feel "oppressed" by me.  Other aspects of the tangle include some people sometimes feeling I'm "judging" them as "not good enough" in one way or another, some people sometimes feeling cared for by me in ways that they feel as "one up" or a bit patronising, some people sometimes feeling I'm too "in control" and never apparently "vulnerable".  This gives you an idea of the rap sheet I'm occasionally handed.  Of course it's all true!  It doesn't surprise me that sometimes others may experience me in these kinds of ways.  Just as some people sometimes experience me as courageous, insightful, helpful, stable, or loving.  I know a fair amount about this, partly because nearly three years ago I initiated a somewhat "fools-rush-in" initiative to receive feedback from twenty to thirty of my friends and acquaintances (not all selected because they liked me!) ... see "Compulsory multi-source feedback is coming or has already come to the health professions & to many other jobs as well""Lessons from a personal multi-source feedback project" and "Some suggestions for giving and receiving helpful feedback".  Adjusting, "tuning", and working on old patterns is a fascinating, "coals to Newcastle" task for a psychotherapist like me to look at and learn from.  My hope is that the exploration is useful for me personally, for me as a therapist, and for others too ... some of whom may be therapists themselves.

Probably the main place these "toe stubbings" occur is when I'm in interpersonal groups - especially as a peer participant - but I suspect that these patterns occur less overtly in other situations as well.  There are several reasons why peer groups might be particularly fertile situations for these problems to occur.  One is that the groups are specifically set up as opportunities to explore what happens when we're encouraged to be very open & honest with each other.  It's no surprise that this sometimes involves stubbing our toes against each other and, hopefully, usefully learning from it.  Another reason peer groups can be fertile ground for these kinds of occasional bumps with friends is that there can be some trickiness about the role I occupy in these groups.  I have been involved in group therapy of various kinds for over forty years - as participant, as facilitator, and as a trainer of facilitators.  Clicking on "group work" in this website's tagcloud will link you through to 80 or so posts that I have written about this fascinating approach to emotional & interpersonal learning.  This extensive experience contributes, at times, to fellow participants in peer groups interacting with me as someone who is a bit of an "expert".  It can distort interactions and perceptions ... but there's still likely to be useful learning for me in these experiences.  As an aside, one might think an obvious response to this difficulty would be for me to participate more in groups that involve lots of other experienced psychotherapists.  I've tried it.  Nope ... which isn't such a surprise when one remembers that lots of experience & training doesn't even particularly help psychotherapists become better at their day jobs ... see "Psychotherapy (and psychotherapist) outcomes are good but largely stagnant".  The truth is probably the other way round ... experienced psychotherapists would be likely to get better at dealing with tricky interpersonal situations if they participated more in peer groups and that would help them be more helpful as psychotherapists ... see Tim Anderson's classic paper "Therapist effects: facilitative interpersonal skills as a predictor of therapist success". 

So I was in a three day residential Men's Group very recently.  It went well.  Lots of emotional juice.  Living together like this for three days, with an agreement to be very authentic with each other, tends to make it a "hot house" of experiences & emotions.  All kinds of joys, pains, patterns, celebrations and difficulties are likely to emerge ... pretty much for everyone involved.  There was an episode in the late afternoon of the first full day that kind of delightfully illustrates this personal territory that I'm working with.  So it's early evening and the full group is "in session".  Quite a lot of people seem understandably tired, it's late in the day on a Saturday.  Conversations seem to me to be fairly low key.  The room is becoming darker as the outside light fades.  One of the participants has fallen asleep in his chair.  I'm becoming increasingly frustrated and impatient.  I know how wonderful this kind of interpersonal work can be, but this late afternoon session ... a kind of "graveyard shift" ... feels like it's sliding towards supper with only an occasional whimper.  

It's not that people aren't sharing worthwhile, personal material.  It's more for me the overall sense of sleepiness and the lack of strong emotional colours.  I would estimate that we're mostly working at about level 2 or 3 on the 7 level "Experiencing scale".  It feels a waste.  Earlier in the day there has been such deep, honest, powerful experiences of exploration & connection.  Magic.  The room continues to darken (we just have a couple of side lights on) and a second person's head starts to bob in what looks a very "falling asleep" way.  I jump in.  As a general rule in these kinds of groups, my experience is that it's usually good to share emerging strong emotions. They so often highlight important material that it's likely to be helpful to look at ... dipping down to the deeper levels of the "Experiencing scale".  

I say something like "Would anyone object to me turning on the main lights ... in this dormitory?"  I walk over and switch on the brighter lights.  I then go back to my seat and talk about my growing sense of frustration. Understandably several people, who have spoken in the previous half hour or so, feel criticised.  I apologise saying that I'm not trying to denigrate the content of what they've shared, but I am unhappy & impatient with the energy levels.  I have some sense of "upset wolf pack".  My back is kind of against the wall and I feel a little upset myself but mostly I feel alive.  Everyone is well awake now.  As a kid at school, I was captain of both rugby & boxing.  I know a bit about conflict and I back myself.  Unsurprisingly there are what I experience as fairly hostile remarks along the lines of "Well if you don't like the energy levels and depth of expression, let's see you do something better."  I would value it if this kind of group interaction was recorded ... in the heat of a whole bunch of guys talking, it's easy to get confused over exactly who said what and when.  I say something like "OK, somewhere that we're likely to find energy (which we already seem to have partially found) is if I look round the circle at each person individually, notice where there is a sense of 'unfinished business' or unspoken feelings, and then try to put what hasn't been said into words".

And it's true, possibly especially in more established & experienced interpersonal groups, that this area of "interpersonal input & output" is often mentioned as a particularly rich source of learning ... see, for example, Irvin Yalom's listing of "Therapeutic factors in groups".  But I'm also well aware that I'm slap bang in the territory of people feeling judged by me, of acting dominantly, of maybe looking invulnerable.  I can do "interpersonal directness", but there's a danger that it nudges me more into this "dominant judgement" swamp that I don't want to sink into.  A really nice younger guy has been speaking in a way that's quite different from the more general antagonism that seems to be washing around.  He asks gently if there are important needs that I have that aren't being met yet in the group.  Here's a more vulnerable (and probably equally deep on the "Experiencing scale") way to go.  I ask the questioner and another friend if they can help me with this and I move into a kind of "Focusing exercise".  I've described this in the past as going down into the unknown, "into the well" of held body feelings, images, intuitions to discover (and maybe be surprised) by what's there.  In Wendell Berry's beautiful poem "The country of marriage", he writes:

Sometimes our life reminds me 
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing 
and in that opening a house, 
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to. 
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark 
richer than the light and more blessed, 
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

So I go "off path into the forest" to explore what I'm feeling and maybe what needs don't seem to be being met. Vulnerable, uncertain, emotionally a bit naked.  And I touch a sense of yearning, for connection, for aliveness, for the profound feelings of love, presence, right here & now, authentic being with myself & others.  So movingly precious.  So especially reachable over these three days.  This is kind of a magic forest.  It's feels a bit heart-breaking for me if we don't walk deeply into it.  And the focusing and sharing comes to its conclusion.  I feel very peaceful and quiet inside.  I say "Thank you" to my two helpers.  I comment how warmly I feel I've been held by them, but my sense is still of "coolness" in the big outer observing circle.  I say I'll look round the circle to see what seems to be there.  And there are warm smiles, softness, connection with the larger group as well. Very special.  

For more on this, see the next post in this sequence ... "A project to change long-term interpersonal patterns: post-group reflections".


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