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Peer groups: Cumbria spring group – feeling burnt out & relinking to values

Something quite deep happened to me, in me, during the group yesterday.  Third full day of the group and powerful, deep things were happening in and between a whole series of us.  Two couples have contacted particular distress.  No doubt many, maybe most, others have been moved strongly in various ways.  When there are powerful, potentially life-changing crises going on, one would need a heart of stone not to be deeply moved.

And that's what happened to me - my heart turned to stone.  Or in some horrid way, my heart felt as if it went dry.  A feeling in my chest of pain and withdrawal.  An image of some kind of wellspring going dry, stopping.  A sense in my chest of dry rocks rubbing together where before there was moistness, water, greenery, life.  Not all these images came at once.  There was a crisis in the group.  Somebody became very distressed - and I felt myself switching off and withdrawing.  Happily, relievingly - and it was maybe this that allowed me to stay with the aridity - others came in to empathise, to love, to care for the people in particular pain.  It worked through.  The storm settled.  I wasn't needed - and I was left - I ended the session with pain, dryness in my heart.  Why?  And why look at it, write about it on these pages first thing next morning?  Well I may or may not upload this to the blog.  I do believe though that it can be a gift to share how I can really struggle with pain and confusion too - and share possible ways of approaching it.  Maybe it can help me as well to feel into what's happening and try to put words to it?

Some of the background is the "complexity", or what I sometimes feel as the complexity, of my role here, my roles here.  So everyone knows that I'm a therapist, that that's how I make my living.  I'm also the organizer, the coordinator of the group.  I typically do the bookings, send out the mailings, sort out the money.  I'm helped.  People share the load, but I'm the one who has ended up keeping things going.  I've tried to hand over, or share it out more in the past and it hasn't worked for a variety of reasons - in contrast to the autumn Men's Group which would keep going perfectly well if I dropped out.  This isn't so clear in this Mixed Group.  I'm also the "oldest inhabitant", I've been coming to the group longer and more routinely than everyone else.  There's a risk that the group becomes "coals to Newcastle" for me, that in some ways I just go on being a "therapist" here.  By a "therapist" in this context, I mean that my needs are completely secondary to the client's needs.  That our interaction stands or falls on what is beneficial for the other person, not for me.  But this is a peer group.  I'm not being paid for my skills or helpfulness.  We're all here to care for each other.  All our needs and wounds and joys are important.  And, at the same time, the reality is that we do have different levels of experience.  In the "pool" of the group some of us "swim" more easily than others, are more familiar with it, or naturally find it easier.

I think I sometimes slide into a place where I see others needs as more important than my own here - that in some sense I feel I'm less "needy", almost less worthy of attention and care.  And, of course, it's much more complex than this.  Real life pretty much always is.  But how we see it, how I see my situation here hugely governs what I feel I can do and how limited or free I feel in my interactions.  So what are other strands, other ways of seeing and feeling about things?  Well one other strand is that a big part of me likes feeling less needy, likes feeling more "sorted out", more respected in some senses, more looked to for guidance sometimes.  There's a big bit of me that very much wants to be valued and cared about, and a role where I'm a kind, sometimes wise, giver is a pretty good way of getting these rewards.  And of course this overlaps too with some of the reasons that I chose to be a doctor and therapist - the rewards of feeling respected, of feeling that I'm sometimes doing good, valuable work, that sometimes people are grateful to me and that their lives have improved.  And this is OK, or at least partly OK.  I do believe that wanting to feel valued and respected is a pretty universal human wish.  I'm no exception to this.  I guess a problem with this kind of need in me, in a therapist or doctor, is that the bottom line is being helpful for our clients, our patients.  Getting "strokes" for being a "nice guy" is very much secondary.  But that's one thing to "own up to", to acknowledge, here in the group - that any lack of equality, or lack of peerness, is something that part of me buys into, colludes with too.  Sometimes others may value my experience, or insight, or suggestions - and I value being valued.  All of which can be fine, and all of which can at times cause problems.

So somebody became particularly distressed at one point in the group yesterday afternoon and I found myself switching off, internally withdrawing.  Very happily it almost certainly didn't matter for the person who was so distressed.  Other people were there for them.  Maybe if others hadn't been, probably if they hadn't been, I would have hauled myself back into a "responsible" carer role.  But throughout the rest of the day - and the group work time finished soon afterwards - but through supper and the singing that followed, I felt pain, dryness, withdrawal in my chest.  Thoughts go with this feeling.  Thoughts like - "It's really important that these four days are also time for my wife Catero and me.  Time for us to look at how we are as a couple.  To do a bit of self-gardening.  To take out a weed or two here and there.  To enjoy how we are together.  To love each other.  To maybe plan a bit, look at our dreams a bit, benefit from this potential oasis of time in our very busy lives.  It doesn't feel OK to me if nearly all the time is taken up with the needs of others".  Or another thought - some good cognitive therapy "catastrophising" here - that "Maybe this group has run its course for me.  Maybe I've become too stuck into an organiser, quasi-therapist role and it would be best to move on.  Possibly the group - at least as it currently functions - might cease to exist.  But others have the capacity to initiate similar ventures.  Maybe I would restart something like this, but guard more against sliding so much into such a 'parental' role as I sometimes feel I have done here in the Mixed Group". Or another thought (and feeling - they're so mixed up together and don't seem so separate as language sometimes suggests) - "But if I raise some of what I'm experiencing in the group, various bad things may happen.  Maybe the person who was so particularly distressed yesterday - and others too, because several people at times got into pretty heavy distress - maybe some or all of these people will feel I'm blaming them, or feel rejected, or feel angry and upset.  Maybe by raising this feeling of my heart going dry, others will be damaged by it, by the ways they interpret what I say."  And, I expect, there are other thoughts and feelings too mixed in with all this.

And what's the bottom line for me here?  What's underneath being a good quasi-therapist (as I'm conceptualising it at the moment), or being frightened of how opening up about my experience might affect others, or resenting not getting the space I want for me (as an individual and part of a couple) in the group at the moment, or this feeling of aridity, dryness and drawing back in my heart?  Well a deeper level, a more basic bottom line, is how I try to live.  I try to live with a loving heart, and with honesty, and with sensitivity to others and myself.  Whatever happens here, wherever this path leads in the group or elsewhere, I believe that I can have some kind of inner peace with myself if I keep doing my best to live in this way.  The three Rogerian-highlighted qualities of compassion, authenticity, and empathy - what I think of as a three-legged stool where if any of the legs is too out of balance with the other two, the stool tends to fall over.  So I want to work with myself and in the group with an open heart, with care for others and myself.  I want to work with myself, in the group, over these four days, and in my life as a whole, with genuineness, being as real and true as I can be to what actually seems to be happening inside myself.  And I want to work, to live with sensitivity to what's happening for others, to how they are, to what matters for them and for their lives.  That feels pretty much it.  As if when I climb out of my trench into the uncertainty, the risk of walking across no-man's land, the way I choose to walk is what's truly important.  And maybe I'll get shot down, and maybe there will be a fight, maybe misunderstanding and hurt, maybe I'll walk right over the no-man's land to others and we'll recognize and embrace each other.  And what matters to me most is how I get out of the trench and "walk".  It's how I walk my life that matters right now.


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