Staring at the blank glass canvas in our waiting room, a now quiet scene with the sound of birds outside the window and the smell of cleaning supplies from the multiple cleans between clients, I pondered what I was thinking setting up the 55 gallon community fish tank. Yeah, it will be fun and pretty for clients to look at, but something else was pulling me in. No, not the underwater plants, the aquascaping of rocks, sand, and dirt, not really even having some lovely fish in our farmhouse. Suddenly I realized what was calling to me in this strange time, it was the creation of a system, not just a community but a creation of a peaceful sustainable system that is in balance with one another and all in a 55 gallon bubble in our therapy and acupuncture office’s waiting room.
For those that know my work, you know that I do mostly individual sessions and mostly with horses somewhere involved. But I have always been fascinated by groups and fell in love with the theory and practice of group psychotherapy. The saying goes that “we need to heal our relationship wounds in relationship”, and I truly believe we need to heal our wounds with people, well, with other people!
We have all known the pain of being pushed out from a group, be it middle school, or a group of friends, co-workers, a farm, even your family, someplace where you were hoping to be seen and accepted and for one reason or another, you weren’t. What most people don’t realize is that we are wired to want to be part of a group, no matter what. Deep in our brains, we know that being on the outside of a group can mean death. We don’t get food, warmth, connection, protection, all the essentials for survival. To survive, we will do anything to be accepted, including betraying ourselves and others, believing strange things that don’t make sense, and listening to any and all things a group leaders says so that we will not be pushed out. The problem with this, is that we can accidentally and unconsciously set ourselves up for Trauma. I use a capital “T” because it is that type of Trauma, the big kind. The kind of trauma where we end up down a rabbit hole and we lose sense of ourselves completely. We then must go on an “auto-pilot” to remain with the flow of the group, no matter how absurd, wrong feeling, and possibly abusive the power dynamic is. When we leave the group, or find another group, only then do we realize what a hole we were in and how far we may have strayed from ourself to fit in. We do this because we are human, and there is no shame in that.
I have always wanted to create groups as a healing modality for people. Whether it be a grief group, empowerment group, mental process group, couples group, or healing from groups group, and now that we are faced with uncertain times, I have paused all my group efforts in my practice. Which now brings me back to the 55 gallon hunk of glass I am staring at in our empty waiting room… this is where that energy is going, to an underwater world of fish, plants, earth, and water. Feels metaphoric, to say the least, as I think I now realize what was bothering my group work - Many group members were struggling to see our inner connected dynamics. Group therapy is about seeing how we impact one another, how my anger inspires you to feel to feel yours, unless my anger is targeted at you, then your instinct is to fight it and protect yourself. See, our dynamics are so subtle and yet so profound. There is such a fine line between hurting and healing, sometimes community and relationships don’t feel remotely worth trying. So many folks I work with, when they are asked to be vulnerable, they actually become neurotic. I define neurotic here as unwilling to come to terms with their truth, or the truth of the situation. When we think being neurotic is being “ourselves,” thats what gets us into trouble. And if no one challenges our neurotic self, how would we know what happens when we work past that barrier we have made?
We don’t value being in a group, hearing one another’s wisdom, their edges to try to connect, to sit with one another in the discomfort of healing. Communities take time and the creation of rules that allow members to be themselves at their core and to also hold space for others in their vulnerability and process. We value productivity and comfort and fun, which doesn’t really create a system that works. Everyone is breathing out and no one is breathing in.
My truest hope for this time is that we learn to sit back and reflect on our communities. Do we live in a sustainable one? Are we on auto-pilot with the group that is taking us away from our hearts? What is our role and are we asking for more than we are giving? Do you know how to sit and breathe in?
One last comment, it is absolutely a privilege to ask people of power and influence questions and challenge them on where they are leading the group, and it is also our responsibility.
Kaia Livingstone is a psychotherapist who runs a private practice outside of Boulder, CO. She specializes in helping horses and humans bond in order to help them relate and connect on a deeper level as well as heal and grow.