Working Through Conflicts in an Interactive/IFS Group

Sharon tended to avoid bringing up difficulties with her friends, but then she would withdraw from them because her negative feelings festered. This was directly tied to her fear of vulnerability. As long as she was holding back negative feelings toward someone, she didn’t have to reach out or get in touch with her vulnerable exile. She felt justified in keeping the person at a distance or even writing them off. She was also afraid of the person’s reactions if she confronted them.

When Sharon brought up this issue in a group consult with me, I suggested that she work on confronting people in group directly, and this terrified her. She was afraid that the other person would get hurt, and then they would abandon her or get angry at her. I encouraged Sharon to get feedback from the group members about this, and when she did, only one person expressed fear of Sharon’s confrontations. The rest of the group welcomed them.

After this, she began to bring out her negative feelings toward people in group, and in the process she learned more about how her judgments were a protection against wanting contact. This also got her judgments out in the open so they didn’t fester inside and get in the way of her connecting with people. Sharon found that when she did challenge someone in a soft way about something they were doing that she didn’t like, the person would often reveal the reason behind their behavior and be willing to try to change. This encouraged Sharon’s own openness. Conflict became a way of becoming closer to people.

For example, Patti joined the group about 9 months after it started and Sharon didn’t feel very receptive to her. Sharon describes it as follows:

“I had a part with the attitude of ‘I’m in the in-crowd and I’ve got something that you don’t. You can’t come in.’ This protector felt this way toward some people. They had to prove that they were willing to be open and loving, that they were scared and vulnerable, and they had to appreciate me and let me know that. Once they did that, then I could trust them. I was very scared to confront Patti, especially because it was something that was part of her character and couldn’t be changed.

When I mentioned that in a consultation, Jay encouraged me to work on it with her because both of us could benefit from it. That gave me the idea that my response to someone could be appropriate and helpful to them. So he gave me the courage to do it.”

Even though at first Sharon didn’t say anything about her judgmental response, Patti sensed it, and, after a couple of months, she questioned Sharon about it. This gave Sharon an opening to do the work. She acknowledged that she had a tendency to make people prove themselves before she would accept them, and that she was feeling that way toward Patti. Patti asked her why, and Sharon said it was because she didn’t sense warmth from Patti toward herself or toward other people in the group.

“This was very scary. If I would ever talk back or challenge my mother in any way she would be so wounded. She could dish it out but she couldn’t take it! I felt tremendous guilt at hurting her. In my family, I had all this training that you can’t disagree, or argue, or confront in any way. I had already worked on that in individual therapy, so in the group I was ready to try it out and break old habits.”

Patti felt hurt by Sharon’s statement, but she also acknowledged that she did have a part that was guarded at first with people for fear of not being accepted. Patti was feeling shaky about not being accepted in the group, and I encouraged her to explore this rather than defending herself. It was difficult for Patti to make herself this vulnerable, but with encouragement and reassurance from me and from the group, she was able to do some very courageous work. As she explored this issue, it led back to an exile with deep pain about not being accepted in her family of origin, and Patti opened herself and expressed the pain in a vulnerable, appealing way.

Sharon’s attitude toward Patti changed right in the moment. She melted and felt genuine caring and respect for her. She realized that Patti had warmth, but that she expressed it in a different way than Sharon. They continued to work on this issue and other differences between them as the group progressed, and they grew closer over time. In addition, because of this work, Sharon saw the possibility of being more receptive to other new people whose style of relating might be different from hers.

I lead four Interactive/IFS Groups, some of which have openings now. Click here for more information about them.