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Opening up group, fourth session

I wrote last week about the third session of this "Opening up" group.  Yesterday evening was the fourth session.  The "cooking pot" of the group (a metaphor I used at the end of the post about our first group session) is getting stronger.  Group members seem to be feeling more trusting, more ready to share deeply.  And this produces a "virtuous circle" of taking more interpersonal risks, developing more care for each other, so feeling safer to be vulnerable, and then still more understanding and kindness.  Being part of this gives me hope for us as human beings.  We're surely capable of so much cruelty & ignorance, but we're also so capable of sensitive, gentle caring for each other.  I've participated in many "spiritual/meditation" retreats as well as many of these "interpersonal/emotional" groups.  I've more often plunged to deeper feelings of connection and love in the interpersonal groups than I have in the spiritual/meditation groups.  "To know you is to love you"

So precious to be able to take this kind of vulnerable, caring, openness into our families and close friendships.  Not, of course, all the time ... but able to visit this kind of gentle "looking after".  Familiar and trusting of these emotional/interpersonal states in varying levels of depth.  Able to "colour" our relationships.  So valuable to develop these wider "palettes".  It reminds me of the recent research study "Eavesdropping on happiness" that used digital audio recorders to unobtrusively track real world behaviours.  The authors reported clearly that " ... the present findings demonstrate that the happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial".  Highly relevant for happiness & wellbeing (see too the self-determination study "Daily well-being: the role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness") and for stress resilience, and even more bluntly for survival itself.  For more on this "hard end point", see the recent post "Strong relationships improve survival as much as quitting smoking".  In the journal editorial commenting on this major meta-analysis, the authors stated "Quite remarkably, the degree of mortality risk associated with lack of social relationships is similar to that which exists for more widely publicized risk factors, such as smoking.  Arguably, such a level of risk deserves attention at the highest possible level in determination of health policy."  Nice to think these interpersonal groups could dovetail into " ... the highest possible level in ... health policy".  I joke, but I'm also absolutely serious.  Working in interpersonal groups to learn to improve my relationships has been of immense value to me.  It has also contributed deeply to the precious levels of wellbeing I feel in so many of my close relationships ... with my wife, my children, my friends ... and it has clearly helped me become a better therapist. 

As an aside, a while ago I thought it would be fascinating to find out whether health professionals who had been to the peer interpersonal groups I've been involved with for many years felt that what they had experienced had been useful for their work helping others.  I sent out a simple survey to 46 people who had been to these groups, asking "Please give a number somewhere between 0 and 10 to indicate approximately how helpful you feel these groups have been for you as a health professional, where 0 stands for ‘not helpful at all' right up to 10 which stands for ‘very helpful indeed'."  I had 45 responses.  They gave an average score of 8.4 out of 10, suggesting that this mix of doctors, psychologists, counsellors, nurses and other health workers found the experience very useful for their work with others.  For more on this see the last ten slides of the presentation "The alliance is crucial. What are the implications?   

So after the check in, again people shared more.  One brave soul especially talked so openly about pain in a key relationship in their life.  Touching, so much so.  And the domino effect.  One person's brave sharing makes it easier for others ... even others who may have done very little opening up like this before in their lives ... even others whose childhoods had taught them the hard, hard lesson that showing vulnerability is likely just to lead to more pain.  Very special to begin seeing, experiencing that it doesn't have to be this way.  In one-to-one therapy, I can explain this.  They can begin opening up to me.  There's something so powerful though, such a big addition to see opening up by others in real time.  To experience, to feel, to witness that it can be OK, that it can be much more than OK.  Tremendous.  This can be real healing.  And I feel a little tearful just remembering it.

One of the handouts everyone in the group has had is the well known "Experiencing scale" with its emphasis on the value of allowing real emotional experiencing to help therapeutic change.  I mentioned in the group that three powerful ways I recognise of deepening emotional involvement in interpersonal groups are what we have been doing these last two evenings (sharing very openly and honestly about strongly felt experiences in our past or current lives), and secondly risking exploring how we are relating with each other here in the group, and thirdly coming down into the here-and-now of feelings in our bodies - our hearts & guts.  The next group meeting (the fifth one) is a full day session.  I like to do this, to have a full day together.  It's not typically as rich as a residential weekend (which I've scheduled into some groups I've run), but it's easier to arrange and a good compromise solution in the attempt to make a bigger "pool" for us to swim in.

Like "real life", the group river is likely to flow deeply and shallowly, fast and slow, smoothly and turbulently.  "New weather always unfolding out of the same sky".  Part of becoming a competent group facilitator or group member is learning this, beginning to develop "faith in this process".  Faith - and also the courage and knowledge to help the deepening and connecting processes.  Who knows what will happen in the next meeting?  Nobody.  Can we navigate the river to make it more likely that we benefit?  Certainly!

I'll write soon about the next - full day - session.


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