We’re nearly half way through the planned sessions of group therapy; last night was eight of the 20 we have allocated. It was also the first where there was something of a confrontation. Interestingly, it was the therapists that precipitated it.
It went something like this. There is one woman, let’s call her Jane, that has often done most of the talking, usually about one specific relationship that she’s been struggling with. This has frequently served as the basis for the other three of us to talk; perhaps we see in Jane’s relationship what we’ve seen in some of our own, perhaps we understand why she struggles as she does. Whatever, it doesn’t really matter – the main point is that she’s brought it up a lot, and that to use the parlance of the one bloke in the group (John, let’s say), the other three “bat off her.”
You could argue, I suppose, that she’s “hogging” the sessions, and though I observed last week to The Man that I was mildly irritated by this, generally I haven’t felt that way. She has contributed well to the group, and all three of us have valued her input. Yeah, we noticed that she maybe spoke more than we did, but we didn’t mind this; we’ve used it.
Anyway, yesterday, as soon as the male therapist (Robert? Yes. Robert. The one I saw on an individual basis for so long.) opened his mouth, I knew he was going to talk about Jane’s supposed dominance. Of course, he initially dressed it up as an exploration of how the group ‘gelled’, how we felt boundaries were being enforced etc etc. But I knew.
In fairness, I actually realised what he meant as he continued. What he was saying, officially anyway, was that the rest of us ‘use’ Jane’s talking as cushioning for our own issues. Through her significant commentary, she unintentionally provides a defence mechanism and a get-out clause for the rest of us. He acknowledged that we still explored things through her – for example, if she stuck up for the person with whom she is often having difficulty, we would leap to her defence, noting the failures of that other person. You might assess this as a form of transference or projection, and since this is psychodynamic therapy, I certainly do. That’s how the whole thing is meant to work; it’s the examination of the unconscious. And if we were deliberately avoiding talking about ourselves specifically, then why is that so? It’s not because Jane doesn’t give us a chance to talk. There’s more – an unconscious ‘more’ – to it than that.
I kept my mouth shut. I know all the terms – transference, psychodynamic, the projection of the internal onto the external, yakka yakka – and I know the premise. However, as far as I can see, they (the members) don’t – and why should they? Just because I’m a sad enough nerd to have spent over four years totally immersing myself in this bollocks doesn’t mean that other analysands do or should. But what I’m saying is that Robert wasn’t consciously (ha!) framing the situation as a personal attack on Jane; rather, he was making a psychological observation…but it did come out as a criticism (or would to those who didn’t understand the underpinning theory. In fairness, I would have felt attacked if I had been the named person in the conversation, and I do know said underpinning theory.)
Later, as we were leaving, John described the resulting period as “awkward.” I described it as having “been kicked in the face.” The other lady, Cathy, just shook her head in wide-eyed disbelief. Simply put, it was deeply unpleasant.
Jane asked if she should withdraw from the group. Immediately everyone said that she shouldn’t. Cathy in particular was very vocal that she found Jane’s contribution extremely valuable, and that she would miss her and her insight greatly if she left. Robert insisted he hadn’t meant to be critical, but Jane would not (initially) be persuaded. Eventually Robert apologised to the group for conveying his “observation” in a “clumsy” fashion, but Jane pointed out that if he really wasn’t saying that she was disruptive to the therapy, then he should apologise to her for inferring so. He duly did so, on an “unreserved” basis. Jane was not at fault, he mused…but perhaps he was?
The long and the short of it was that Cathy, John and I ‘came together’ to support Jane, mostly at the start of the session, but throughout it too. Robert saw that himself, and stated that it showed how comfortable and appreciative we’d become with/of each other over the weeks. Consequently, John, to paraphrase, said:
I now feel like you’ve been giving us some sort of test; have you engineered this situation to gauge our reaction? To see if we are as supportive of each other as we’ve appeared?
(Funnily enough, when I got home and told The Man about the incident, this was his first reaction too.)
Jane voiced the concern that to have done this would have been “very abusive.”
Robert assured us that this was not the case, and furthermore that he agreed strongly that it would have been abusive if that had been his intention.
It superficially appeared resolved, but there was A Silence. If Satan had popped up beside me and offered to take my soul and the rest of my entire existence in exchange for instantaneously being out of there, I would in that moment have taken him up on his offer with enthusiasm and a promise of further concession. Of course, anyone with half a brain would have expected a confrontation to eventually arise in group therapy, but since it had all been fairly civil hitherto, I hadn’t foreseen any of this until the session itself.
I stared, my head down, at a particular point on the unnecessary table that we sit around. I refused to look at any of them. Adrenaline pricked every nerve in my body. My heart rate increased. I noted the clamminess of my skin. My cheeks, by turns, flared bright scarlet then drained of all semblance of colour. I was mortified, horrified, anxious, scared…and, unexpectedly, vicariously hurt. I felt Jane’s pain, and it was horrid.
I mean, typing this now, it seems like a vast over-reaction on my part. No one was having a go at me* – but in a sense, I suppose, this is the point. Someone was – unwittingly, perhaps, but definitely nevertheless – ‘having a go’ at a fellow group member, and it wounded us all. We have become a unit. And Jane’s upset reflected, in classic psychodynamic fashion, our own senses of having been attacked and belittled, and brought them at a train’s pace† to the forefront of our consciousness.
An attempt at ending The Silence‡ was made by John, who said – mostly to Jane, to encourage her to speak and not sit there in silence in deference to Robert’s comments – “so, how have things been this week?” He gave a nervous laugh as he said it.
She went to speak, faltered, then grabbed her bag and coat, and stood up, stating that she “really should just leave.” It was Cathy that persuaded her not to, though John was vocal too. I made some utterance of support, but my personal horror and overwhelming discomfort kept me from enthusing in quite the way the others did.
At any rate, she stayed. We moved on. She did talk, but she didn’t dominate. I spoke a lot, as did Cathy. I raised issues that Jane had previously expressed, such as disillusionment about being intelligent and qualified but on the scrapheap (even though she actually isn’t!); not because I wanted to make her feel comfortable and able to speak per se, though I suppose that was a secondary motivation – but because I’d genuinely felt empathy with her experiences and wanted to express that. She and I engaged in conversation, as we subsequently did with the others. I relaxed enough at one point to tell them all that I was hopelessly petrified of confrontation, and exemplified this by alluding to my rather evident terror at the beginning of the session. Yes, that was partly borne out of empathy and sympathy for my fellow group member, but the feeling ran deeper. All in all, it became a useful session to which I significantly contributed.
But Christ, those early minutes were awkward. Horrible and awkward. Objectively speaking, Robert’s remarks weren’t entirely unfair or irrelevant – in the theoretical sense anyway – but I hope to God nothing like that arises again.
* Actually, in a sense I perceived Robert’s comments as more critical of John, Cathy and myself than of Jane. If we have been using her discourse as a way to psychologically protect ourselves from the impact of our own difficulties, then surely we are more at fault than her?
† Perhaps this is an invalid metaphor, at least in the UK and Ireland. I’ve rarely seen a train go faster than about 30mph in this dump. Think of the Shinkansen and we’re closer to the mark.
‡ The Silence in question actually was as bad as the sinister entities of the same name from Doctor Who.
I’ve noticed I haven’t given the female therapist either a name nor any airtime in this post. I’ll henceforth call her Ellie…if she ever even requires a mention. She’s a nice woman, but she doesn’t really do much. Her role seems to be that of a calming influence, if it’s anything at all. She habitually nods and says, “yeah,” sympathetically, and last night wanked on a bit about how she and Robert both weren’t attacking Jane, and that they value greatly her as a member. Other than that…not much.
Picture credits: see outgoing links.