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Peer groups, Cumbria spring group – first morning: a 3 layer view of interpersonal & intrapersonal judgement

Nearly every year for the last twenty years I've come down to a four day Spring residential "Mixed Group" in Cumbria.  I wrote about this group last year and the year before, and I'm also involved with a similar pattern of autumn "Men's Groups".

As a psychotherapist who works with both individuals and groups (see, for example, the "Interpersonal group work" page on this website) I guess I'm very much "in the business" when it comes to observing (and participating in) what happens as a collection of people meet up and start to interact - as we did yesterday evening, arriving and sharing a first meal.  Einstein is reported to have said "It is theory which decides what we can observe" and Kurt Lewin commented "There is nothing so practical as a good theory".  I know that there is an incredible richness and complexity of many behaviours and interactions and internal responses that occur as a group of people meet up.  I'm quite "sophisticated" and knowledgeable in my observations of all this, but I'm also aware - and I think it's helpful to remind myself - that the lenses, the theories, I look through as I experience what's going on are useful and also can blind me to some of the multiple intertwining themes.  Reality is richer than any theory.

So what lenses, models, theories, do I find helpful here?  One thing I often tend to do is hold a three-layer understanding.  The deepest layer of these three is an evolutionary psychology one - that as hunter-gatherers (and our interactions and emotions are still very much governed by our recent evolutionary past) it is a repeated challenge responding to meeting other people.  I believe we have "internal programmes" running (and that come online particularly powerfully when first meeting up) that are monitoring "Are these other people safe to be with?  Is someone going to put a spear in my back?  Can I relax here or am I in danger of being attacked, judged, dismissed, maybe eaten!?"  And, especially as the crucial initial "Is there danger here?" programme begins to quieten, there is the "Is there opportunity or reward here?"  And hunter-gather opportunity or reward is likely to be in areas like food, sex, and power.  So there is the "Are there others here who I am attracted to?  Are others here attracted to me?" line of the music.  There is the "Am I treated with respect here?  How do these others match up to me in experience and influence?" music line too.  These basic hunter-gatherer themes link in with Shaver and Mikulincer's five behavioural systems that I've written about before on this blog.  And I don't feel that these basic themes are necessarily either good or bad.  They just are.  They're not "original sin" or "the noble savage".  More importantly are they, in any particular situation, experienced and expressed in adaptive or maladaptive ways?  These internal programmes - or something quite like them - seem to be in the basic design of who we are.  They influence us powerfully, but don't have to govern who we are or what we do.  They colour what we wear, how we sit, our facial expressions, our conversations.

And another more recent layer, in this three-layer understanding, is the influence of our own personal early history.  How were my normal, healthy needs to feel safe, to be accepted, loved, valued, celebrated, encouraged - how were these needs responded to when I was a child?  This is Attachment Theory territory.  I've written a good deal about this.  See, for example, "Attachment, compassion and relationships" and "Assessing attachment in adults".  But it is broader than just the usual "How did my parents treat me?" focus of initial attachment theory, and extends - for example - into whether I had brothers and sisters and, if I did, how did I get on with them.  It certainly extends too into the territory of school and early experiences with other children.  Coming to these residential groups sometimes has a throw-back quality of going to school, meeting up with peers.  What I experienced back then, and the sense I made of it, I think profoundly affect the expectations and behaviours I bring to this group.  So, in many ways, I was fortunate in my school experiences.  I was fairly bright and fairly good at sport.  I was mostly accepted and, by the time I was eleven or twelve, I was a big fish in the small pond of my little school.  I think that the experience of being admired, liked, celebrated, followed, at that early age "went to my head".  An interesting description - "went to my head", because probably almost any important early experiences "go to our heads" in the sense that they powerfully affect the internal maps we develop about who we are, what we can expect from others, how to go about getting our needs met, and so on.  And these inner maps we construct are probably much more complex than I'm describing here.  They have many more twists and turns to help us make future decisions in a whole variety of situations with a whole variety of people.

And the third layer of this three-layer understanding is fashioned by my current life state.  Who am I now and how is my life going?  How is my health and energy?  How well am I ageing?  How stressed am I and how am I coping with current life pressures?  How has experience and learning changed how I see things and make sense of what's happening?

Lying in bed this morning I noticed myself doing that thing I warn my social anxiety clients again - "post morteming" in a self-critical way.  But from the hunter-gatherer perspective this can be very "sensible" and very natural.  How did things go?  How did I fit in?  How were others looking and acting?  All these observational processes running more strongly because of the early stage of the group.  And the next understanding layer - the early childhood/parent/sibling/school layer - connects for me, I think, with a way I can "boast", go into an occasional "Let me tell you about me and my exciting life experiences" trip (especially in these early group stages).  I suspect this connects to both the hunter-gatherer wish to be accepted and respected, and also to my school experiences of how good it can feel to be the centre of attention and "admiration".  But fascinatingly what kicks in then with much more emotional force is a judgement about how it is to be "big headed", and a stern internal admonition to stop "showing off".  And I mean really stern - a good emotional kick up my own backside.  And I watch that too with interest and a kind of wry amusement.  I think this internal critic is again a product of all three layers.  Hunter-gatherers do well to monitor how they're doing with a fresh group of other people - the basic programmes of  "Is there threat here?", "Is their possible reward here?"  And the little boy in me glances out of the corner of his eye - "Are others watching with admiration as I show off how I can perform in this or that way, how I report this or that experience?".  Blessings.  And there is the third, more recent, layer too ...

With different variants on these themes, I suspect that all of us have these two layers of hunter-gatherer and early childhood experience influencing us.  At the start of the group, the hunter-gatherer in me ensures that I'm monitoring particularly actively.  Thank you hunter-gatherer.  I guess you're trying to help me stay alive!  And the third, most recent, layer - me in my life now.  How does this layer react?  How does this layer judge what's going on?  Well three of the possible reactions are to suppress, to mindfully observe, and to reappraise.  The research data suggests that suppression - just trying to push these feelings down - isn't usually a very good way to behave.  See earlier posts I've written on "Emotional regulation, interpersonal perception & personality" and "Research on emotional regulation".  Reappraisal tends to be a much more successful strategy.  It's what I've just been doing.  Experiencing the memories of boasting a bit last night.  Experiencing the much stronger internal critic kicking in telling me I shouldn't do that.  Seeing all that in a broader, maybe wiser, framework.  The blog post "Reappraising reappraisal" addresses this territory more fully.  And mindful observation?  Well this links with the post I wrote last month on mindfulness and self-compassion with the three components of self-kindness rather than self-judgement, recognition of common humanity rather than self-isolation, and mindfulness rather than over-identification.  Mmm, the morning moves on.  Time to meditate, go running, plunge in the stream, have breakfast ... meet up with these other hunter-gatherers, these other little internalized boys and girls, these other magical, extraordinary, fellow human beings.

And see tomorrow's post on "Second morning, authenticity & feedback" ...


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