My heart was pounding and I found myself unable to follow the conversation of the other members of the group. My mind was racing in its attempt to answer the question ‘why are you feeling like this?’ Instead of internally deliberating on this question I blurted out to the group ‘I don’t know why, but I’m terrified.’ Kind faces and soothing words were offered to me from several group members. No one panicked or tried to deny my feelings. The leader of our group offered some insight. ‘Dave, you may be feeling what Tom is unable access within himself. You are holding the terror that is within him but that he avoids.’ This interpretation settled my mind a bit and diminished my panic. Tom stared at me with curious eyes and elaborated ‘this isolation I feel…it is so awful.’ Tears streamed from his face and the group shared a silence that honored the intensity of the emotion.
This was a recent scene from the American Group Psychotherapy Association Conference in Houston, TX. This annual week-long training is focused on improving the skills of process group leaders from around the world. Process groups are a form of psychotherapy that aim to improve the members’ interpersonal relationships and consequent feelings towards themselves. Generally, these groups are led by 1 or 2 psychotherapists, have 5-10 members and meet for 1-2 hours weekly. Rather than advice giving or turn-taking, group members are encouraged to keep things here-and-now, focused on their feelings and thoughts towards other group members. While this form of treatment was created out of necessity in the 40’s/50’s to treat a glut of shell-shocked GI’s, it is now widely accepted as legitimate treatment method for depression, anxiety, along with other more interpersonal issues. There are many views on the theory behind group therapy, but most psychotherapists would agree that our interpersonal relationships are a manifestation of our internal relationship with ourselves. So if we can understand and improve our relationships with others, we, as social creatures, will improve our relationship with ourselves.
‘I just feel so alone. I don’t feel like I have much of a life – if people really knew how I felt they would be repelled. It’s just so scary to let people in.’ I nodded along as Tom’s voice resonated within me, he was putting words to an experience I’d had. As Tom continued to explore his sense of aloneness, I felt tears just behind my eyes and my mind again wandered back to my own period of hardship. ‘I don’t want to go here,’ I thought to myself. ‘That period was so scary and difficult – I thought I was done with it,’ I continued to think to myself as the group conversed around me. I was scared of letting the other members see my vulnerability.
As a co-leader of weekly process group, the AGPA conference gave me firsthand experience of a variety of techniques and leadership styles while deepening my own understanding of myself and how I relate to others. As psychotherapists, we are expected to know the landscape of our own emotional and psychological world so that we may help our clients improve their own relationships with themselves. The trainings at the conference were all experiential, meaning that the learning was by doing rather than by lecture or presentation. In group, we are expected to get scared, be angry, feel sadness, and bubble with joy while doing our best to put our experiences into words so that others may understand us. The psychotherapists in my training groups emotionally held me in my grief and fear and shared moments of spontaneous humor and levity. The variety of experience and depth of intimacy was shocking and wonderful.
Finally I cried – I could no longer hold back. Tom’s words and display of emotion triggered my own experience of isolation and fear. I noticed how my mind spun, how I had unconsciously avoided feeling this sadness by busyness and structure. I noticed how scared I was of this feeling. But as I cried, relief washed over me and I felt closeness to the group – they had experienced a side of me that I rarely let anyone see. I realized how it was only by witnessing and being present to others pain and difficulty that I was able to make sense of my own. My eyes met with the leaders as he spoke, ‘You’re scared of this version of you, but that’s not you anymore. By experiencing this here and now, by putting it into words and sharing with us - you’ve changed it.’ This kernel of insight delivered me a cognitive understanding of my own emotional world. I left the group and the conference satiated with an renewed enthusiasm and faith in the goodness of people. As a psychotherapist and process group leader, I believe my increased mindfulness and widened tolerance for the spectrum of emotion will allow my clients improve their therapeutic work with me.
Note: Other than my own name and experience, names and identifying details in this blog have been altered to preserve confidentiality.
My ongoing exploration into therapy related topics.