In my session with E today, after a bit of hesitation, I tell her that I was thinking I might quit group.
“I just notice that a lot of the time in group, I’m just sitting there feeling frustrated,” I explain. “It’s not giving me what I hoped.”
“Say more about that,” she says(of course). “What is it that’s frustrating you?
“Well, first I want to say, I like the women who go. Individually, some of them I like quite a lot. So it’s not that. But when we go around and have our check-ins at the start of each group, a lot of the time, people say things like, ‘Well, it’s been up and down. I had a good visit with my sister, but then at work, my boss said we have to work some extra hours. And my son had the flu…” It’s like they have to update us on all the events of the past two weeks.”
“Meanwhile, what I would prefer is for them to say something more like, ‘The last two weeks, I have really been working on how I communicate with my colleagues at work. And I’ve noticed that I keep struggling with this same thing…’, whatever they might be. Or they could say, ‘I notice every week I’m here, I complain about how busy I am, but nothing changes, and I’m starting to wonder why that is.’ But that doesn’t happen very much.”
(To be fair, there is one woman who does tend to check in this way, and I appreciate her so much.)
E agrees; she has noticed the same thing about this group.
“And that’s okay,” I say. “Maybe that’s just the stage they are at. Most of them are pretty new to therapy and to the group, and we all have our own paths to walk before we are ready to risk more. I know I sat in your office for years, talking about work and parenting stress, which was real but was not my central issue. I needed to do that though before I felt that you and I could stand it if I talked about having been sexually abused and what that meant for me. So I don’t begrudge them the time to talk at a safer level. I just see that it’s not benefiting me very much.”
“Okay, I can see that,” E says. “But what if instead of quitting–I mean, you can certainly quit if you want–but what if you instead ask for what you want? What if you tell the group about your frustration?”
I am surprised. “Don’t you think that would sound too judgmental? If I say, can you all go a bit deeper or step back and take a big picture look at what you are saying, won’t that just alienate them? They are working on developing a sense of trust in the group, and I come and say they aren’t doing it the way I want them to? And it seems so arrogant…”
E disagrees, naturally. “This seems to me to be exactly what you are learning to do in so many aspects of your life, including in your sexual relationship with your husband. You are learning to show up, listen to your instincts, and speak up for what you want. It’s okay to ask for what you want. You might or might not get it. You won’t always get it. But it’s okay to ask.”
I try to imagine doing that in group, and it feels oh, so awkward. “What would I say? I don’t know… I would be asking them to do something they maybe don’t want to do.”
“Maybe. Or you might be inviting them to do something they’d love to do but haven’t know how to. Maybe they need someone to model for them what it could look like to take risks. Not that it needs to be your job to do that. But you could think about it as a strategy to try before you simply quit the group.”
“I could still quit the group if I wanted,” I say, thinking out loud.
“You could. Or you might find the group shifting in a way that would make it more meaningful for you to stay. It feels to me like an opportunity to practice what you are working on anyway, asking for what you want, instead of turning away, assuming you can’t get it. You want something deeper; you could try asking for it.”
(As I write this now, it occurs to me that she, as the group facilitator, could also push the group to go deeper. She could ask more challenging questions. Sometimes she doesn’t ask many questions at all, but simply listens as we ask questions of the primary speaker. I wonder why, on the one hand, she doesn’t generally push people that much in group, but on the other hand, she encourages me to?)
In the session, I’m still wondering how I would even broach this subject. How would I say something like this to the group?
“What if you said something like what you said to me, that you’d like to encourage people to take a more meta perspective on the issues they talk about?”
“I do wish for less of the details about every person they work with and more about the patterns they notice in their own behavior and whether those patterns are working for them,” I say. “But I’m concerned it will come out as a negative judgment of the way they are showing up for group.”
“You can say that too,” E tells me. “You can say, ‘And I’m nervous that you won’t like me saying this and that you’ll think I might be judging you.'”
“Okay,” I agree. “Let’s say I decide to try this. I would wait until my turn in the check-in…”
“Or you could be the one to start the check-in,” she interrupts me.
Hm, she’s right. She always asks for a volunteer to start the check-in, and then we go around in a circle from there. I have never volunteered to start. “Okay, let’s imagine I start the check-in. And I say something like, “Over the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking about this group a lot. I really value and like each of you and the kindness you show me and one another. I wonder if you would be willing to approach our check-ins in a different way. Instead of summarizing what we’ve all been doing for the past two weeks or what has happened to us kind of externally, I wonder if we could instead talk about what has been going on for us internally. Or maybe we could take a step back and as an observer, talk about what we notice about ourselves over the past couple of weeks…”
I trail off and look at E, questioningly. “Like that?”
She nods, “Maybe tell them why.”
“Okay, um, I guess I bring this up because I come to this group looking for deep conversation and vulnerability, which I sometimes see in flashes, but which isn’t always present. And I worry as I say this that some of you might take that as a judgment and feel I’m criticizing you for whatever you have talked about in the past. I’m not. Any level of conversation and processing is really okay. We come here with different needs and purposes. Maybe what I’m asking for isn’t what you are needing from this group. And that wouldn’t mean you are wrong or that I am wrong, but only that maybe the fit isn’t quite right.” I pause and then say to E, “I don’t know if I would say the part about the fit. It kind of depends.”
We are both quiet for a moment. Then I ask her, “What do you think? What do you think would happen if I said something like that?”
“I think you will be received with kindness. I think at least someone will say she wants that too. And maybe others will think, that sounds good, and they aren’t ready for that, but they are happy to listen and watch and learn from others,” she says. “And maybe they can do it, and maybe they can’t, but how will you know otherwise?”
I still don’t know. As I read over my practice statements again, I don’t feel satisfied with them. Perhaps I need to offer an example from my own life? Without an example, it feels like a generic complaint that each woman could take and turn into a criticism of herself. I don’t want to feed anyone’s Inner Critic (“Shit, now I’m doing group therapy wrong too. I can’t do anything right.”)
Group doesn’t meet again until next Monday, so I have a week to think about this and how I might bring it up. Actually, I have more than that, because if I don’t feel ready, I can wait two more weeks after that. The point is not to hurry up and say something just for the sake of saying something. The point is to learn whether I can find words I feel might be both effective and kind and ask for something I want.