I have group therapy with six other women every other Monday,–these days on Zoom, of course. Last week, like so many other weeks when we go around and say what’s up for us, I brought up something a lot more personal than did any of the others did, and it set me up for a very difficult week.
That evening, the others mostly spoke before me and said things like, “I have so much work to do; it’s hard to really let myself relax on the weekend,” or “I find myself checking out a lot and not really paying attention to my child,” or “I’m concerned about what my son will do when school starts up online again this fall.” Nothing very out of the ordinary.
I was second to last. I said, “I have been thinking a lot about something from my past that I really regret. In fact, I feel so ashamed of it that I can’t tell you right now specifically what it was. But I’ve been struggling with it, really thinking about it, about how we come to accept these things about ourselves. I listened to a guided visualization that helped me a little, one focused on dealing with experiences we regret…” and I described it a little. “So that’s what has been up for me.”
After me, the last woman told us that she was devastated because a coworker and friend had committed suicide the week before. “I keep thinking maybe there was something I could have done to help,” she said. “Also I keep thinking how mad I am, about what he was suffering and so many people in our country are suffering now…”
Not surprisingly, we spent most of the remaining time listening to this woman, supporting her, validating her range of reactions. All very appropriate and rich with lessons about how complicated grief is.
With only about 10 minutes left, E turned back to me and asked if we could talk a bit more about what I had brought up.
“Sure,” I said, “but I don’t know what I need to process exactly.”
E suggested that maybe each woman could just share how it felt for her to hear what I said, since clearly what I talked about was at a different level than what they had brought up. I think she was trying to call attention to my vulnerability and also to provide reassurance from the others that it was okay to say something like I did. I can’t even remember now exactly what was said, but they told me things like I was “brave”, that I am a good example for them, that it helps them to see me grapple with questions like this. Warm, validating words.
It’s not the first time we’ve enacted this ritual–Q takes an emotional risk in group, the others say supportive things. I first did it maybe 14 months ago, deliberately trying to shift the group conversation towards something deeper. I’ve done it a number of times since then. I have even talked about how I’ve thought about leaving the group but wanted to challenge myself to show up authentically, to take responsibility for shaping the group to be something I would like it to be.
But this time, after group ended, I started feeling upset, really upset. I realized that even though all the group members say nice things, in fact it has changed nothing. Literally nothing.
Don’t get me wrong; the things the others talk about matter, even when it’s not something as tragic as a suicide. Themes like boundaries, self-care, and assertiveness come up all the time, and we all need support for that. They are completely legitimate things to talk about in a women’s therapy group.
But that’s different than talking about trauma and healing and your inner child and the shame you carry from your past. Those are things I am grappling with, and they are things I would like to talk about in group. It would help me to hear that others struggle with similar things, or to have validation for my emotions and my healing work, or to know that people can hear about my experience and still care about me. That’s why I have continued to try to shift the conversation, at least some of the time.
But after last Monday night, I saw clearly that I have been going in a consistently different direction than the rest of the group. And I felt raw. Overexposed. Foolish. Inappropriately trusting. Guilty of over-sharing. Awkward. I felt as though I had just climbed up to the high dive and then realized that it’s too high for me. I wanted to back down. I wanted to return to jumping off the steps of the kiddie pool.
Next I thought, I’m a misfit. I’m a freak in this group. Harsh words, I know, but in that moment, I immediately judged myself very harshly. And that judgment tied directly into many old fears: I don’t belong. There is something different about me, so I can never fit anywhere. People won’t really care about me. I’m not lovable. I’m not worthy.
Furthermore, I told myself, not only do you not fit, but you are trying to make the group into something it’s not. The others want the group to be what it is. They come together to talk about their lives, and then they have to contend with you, always trying to redirect the conversation. What a drag you must be. How they must roll their eyes (internally) when you start to talk.
It set off a real emotional storm. I became obsessed–many of you know what I’m talking about–thinking about the same things over and over, telling myself stories about what a misfit I am, scolding myself for being different and wrong and not belonging. Seeing E for individual therapy on Wednesday did not put it to rest.
And to my disappointment, I did what I have so often done when I am really triggered: I collapsed. I fell into bed, not all day every day, but a lot of the time. I lost energy and motivation. It was hard to do anything of the things I usually rely on to support me, like meditation, yoga, walks. I tried a little of that, half-heartedly though, and it didn’t help, or if it did, only briefly. On Thursday, I even burned myself–just a little, and I have to say, it provided more release than anything else I tried. But I felt ashamed about regressing, like I let myself down, and E, too.
Slowly, though, hurricane winds started to recede. By late Friday, I was still feeling lousy, but I had just enough distance from the center of the emotional storm to do two things: 1) challenge my own thinking, and 2) start to value what I needed.
I started examining my thoughts and asking myself, is this really true? Or am I perhaps exaggerating things? Could I say the same thing in a less judgmental way? So, I told myself, maybe I’m not personally a misfit. Maybe there is just a poor fit between what I want from group and what the others want from group. We could have different desires, and they could all be valid.
Maybe it’s not true that I don’t belong anywhere. I have intentionally cultivated deeper friendships over the past several years. This has been a struggle for me, because I’ve found it hard to trust and therefore hard to connect deeply, but I have made progress. I’m not all alone. There are people who value having me in their life.
And if I’m not a misfit, and my desires are valid too, maybe I can take them more seriously. So I did a search online for group therapy options in my city. I found out that there is an art therapy class (online) for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse starting up in September. I emailed the therapist running the group to find out more about it.
Over the weekend, I continued to feel more stable, little by little, and this let me think about the whole week with a sense of perspective. I started thinking about how hard it had been, how much I had felt as if an alien being had taken over my body and my brain. My body had felt agitated, alert, and sickened. My brain had circled around the same thoughts, repeatedly stabbing me with negative judgments. Do I really need to re-experience this every time I doubt my ability to fit into a group, every time I fear rejection?
I’m not a psychologist, but I have learned enough about trauma to know that I can’t just talk myself out of a trauma reaction. I have a ton of cognitive behavioral strategies, but they don’t touch the triggered brain. I have mindfulness strategies too, but when I’m really activated, I can’t use them, at least not immediately. And while the virus persists, I don’t have access to my cranio-sacral therapist, who can help me slow down my reactive brain. This leaves me still in need of more assistance getting out of my lizard brain.
Maybe I should consider going back to EMDR, the one approach I know of that doesn’t just help me cope with the pain traumatic memories but actually reduces the distress attached to them. Supposedly.
I’m not really a misfit, not really. I’m just a human being, like so many others, with a trauma history. And as much healing as I’ve done, I can still be knocked off my feet by those trauma hurricanes.