An Interactive Group Story

This is the story of Sharon’s work in one of my Interactive Groups. Sharon is a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for over a decade with the help of AA and therapy. In that time she had worked through enough of her issues that she was not in much emotional pain. She was a successful management consultant, had some close friends, and an active social life.

Her major unresolved problem was lack of intimacy. She tended to keep people at a distance and avoided a committed love relationship. Since her marriage ended many years before, she hadn’t allowed a man close.

Judgment as a Defense

We all want to be liked; we all want closeness with others.  To express these desires directly to other people puts us in a vulnerable position. We fear that they might not reciprocate, or they might even reject us or put us down. So we develop IFS protectors that block our own desires and the accompanying vulnerability. In an Interactive Group, I encourage people to reach out to connect with those group members they are drawn to—to take the risk to make themselves vulnerable in this way.

The group helps people to become aware of their protectors that defend against vulnerability and risk. If they defend by being nonchalant, someone in the group will probably point it out. If they defend by being judgmental and arrogant or by being distant and cold, they will probably get feedback about it. This gives people a chance to discover how they are defending against their desires, and to try out different behavior.

When Sharon joined the group, she had a tendency to defend against her softness and openness. She didn’t feel safe to show her desire for other people for fear of being rejected or shamed. Instead she had a protector that adopted an internal stance of arrogance and judgment. “There’s something wrong with you. I’m not sure I’ll let you in.” It was a way for her to feel better about herself.  Another protector pretended not to need others. “I don’t care. I don’t need you.”  She wasn’t aware of these attitudes and rarely expressed them, but they would leak out in little ways, and they kept her from being vulnerable.

As the group developed, Sharon got feedback from time to time when her judgmental style would leak out. She was very aware and dedicated to her growth, and she had a courageous way of acknowledging difficult things about herself without being defensive. So when she got this feedback, she was not only willing to acknowledge that she had been judgmental but also to explore what she was defending against. She often discovered that hidden beneath the judgmental protector was a desire to make contact with the person.

For example, in one early group, Jill was telling the group about her anger and desire to pull away from a friend. When Sharon pushed Jill hard not to do that, I encouraged Sharon to explore why she was doing this. She realized that she saw Jill as doing something similar in group, and she didn’t want Jill to pull away from her. When she told Jill this, Jill took in the feedback, but then Jill also told Sharon that Sharon had told her in an aggressive manner that made Jill pull back.

Knowing that she felt good about Jill, Sharon was surprised to hear this, but she took it seriously and became interested in changing this way of relating. I encouraged Sharon to show her positive feelings directly to Jill, and she was able to express some affection in a soft, open way. This enabled the two of them to make warm contact.

Fear of Conflict

Sharon also worked on her fear of challenging people. Before joining the group she tended to avoid bringing up difficulties with her friends, but then she would withdraw from them because the 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.

Desire and Vulnerability

In an Interactive Group we encourage people to be honest with each other about their responses, so if one group member reaches out to another, they could get hurt. However, if they can handle this, it is an opportunity for growth. They can learn how to deal with the hurt and to realize that it doesn’t mean that they are unlovable.

What is more important, as people learn to reach out in a vulnerable way for contact, they are likely to be received positively. Vulnerability is very appealing, and the more people learn to be vulnerable, the more they are appreciated by the other group members.

In an early meeting, as part of some work Harry was doing, I encouraged him to pick someone he wanted to connect with. He chose one person and indicated a couple of others as alternate choices. Sharon was later able to say to Harry, “I felt hurt that I wasn’t even on your list of second choices.” Harry replied, “I didn’t choose you because I feel intimidated by you. You are so sharp and perceptive that I was afraid you would see right through me.” I encouraged Sharon to stay with the part of her that felt hurt. This allowed her to soften, and her previous front of appearing nonchalant disappeared. In an open and appealing way she let Harry know that she liked him and wanted him to like her, too, and that a part of her felt hurt.

This had three effects. (1) She discovered that nothing terrible happened when she showed her vulnerability. She didn’t get rejected or ridiculed. (2) She discovered that she was strong enough to tolerate the hurt feeling, and that she didn’t feel bad about herself because of it. As she did this kind of work in group over time, she developed even more inner support (an aspect of Self) so that she could be open and vulnerable without fear. (3) Harry began to appreciate Sharon’s openness and softness (along with the earthiness and spontaneity that he had always liked in her). He was increasingly drawn to her. She was nicely rewarded for her vulnerability, and as time went on, it became more and more her natural response.

“This interaction was a key, a turning point for me. I used to think that I was warm, but other people experienced me as hard. It was with Harry that I began to recognize that I had a protector with an imposing, intimidating presence. I remembered people being afraid of me in my life, but I was surprised about that because I felt warm and open inside. It was a real surprise that someone like Harry was intimidated by me.”

In one group, Sharon had made a comment about how “the universe moved” when Harry said something to another member. Later she confessed that she had really meant that the universe had moved when he’d said something special to her. At another point she told him that she had a crush on him (but she wasn’t coming on to him). She expressed these vulnerable feelings in an open and contactful way, and Harry responded in kind. He was very moved by her vulnerability in reaching out and grew fond of her.

As the group continued, Harry and Sharon developed a deep connection. This enhanced her ability to be open with people. There was no longer any chance of Harry ignoring Sharon. “I liked Harry very much and once he began to appreciate me more, it had a strong impact. His recognition liberated me.”

Sharon also reached out to another man in the group, John. In one group John let us know that it was hard for him to feel a desire to connect with people. He got scared and a part of him closed down so her couldn’t even feel that he wanted anything. Sharon then told him that she hoped at some point he would want to connect with her. He wanted to know why. “Why anyone would want to work this out with me?” She let him know, in a vulnerable way, that she really liked him and wanted to connect with him, and that she wanted him to want her in the same way.

In a subsequent group, when I was working with John on his fear of reaching out, I suggested he choose someone to work with, and he chose Sharon. We decided to try doing this work non-verbally, and when that came up, Sharon got quite scared. In exploring her fear, she realized that she was afraid that if she really opened up and liked him, he would become more important to her than she was to him, and she would feel rejected and humiliated.

She decided to risk doing the non-verbal work, and I suggested that they sit next to each other and just notice their feelings. To her surprise, her fear seemed to leave, and she felt aliveness and energy in her body, though she had to work not to sexualize it. On the other hand, John got quite scared. With John’s protector closing down out of fear, it could have been a replay of Sharon’s worst fear– that she want him more than he wanted her. However she discovered to her delight that she didn’t feel rejected or humiliated. She was able to stay with her good feelings and let him struggle with his fear and shame. He did some important work on his own issues, and she experienced her strength and ability to stay open even when she didn’t get exactly the response she wanted.

All of these changes transferred directly into Sharon’s life outside group. She was able to confront people in her life as a way of clearing away obstacles to being closer to them. Her protectors that used arrogance and withdrawal have relaxed. She feels more comfortable with people and finds it easier to be open and to reach out. When someone doesn’t respond to her overtures, she doesn’t feel rejected or attacked, just disappointed. She feels that she is “clearing away the obstacles to feeling love and union with people.”

Need and Commitment

People deal not only with their relationships with the other group members, but also with the group as a whole. One of the issues that comes up for many group members is how much they are committed to the group and how much it matters to them. This is often a reflection of how they can commit to a love relationship and let people really matter to them in their lives.

Through the group work described so far, Sharon progressed to the point where she was ready to deal with the deeper issue of a committed love relationships in her life. It became apparent that even though Sharon could express desire in a vulnerable way, she didn’t allow herself to need the group or the people in it. In one group Jill was talking about who she thought would miss her if she left the group, and she didn’t include Sharon even though Sharon had expressed positive feelings toward Jill many times. When Sharon challenged her on this, Jill said that she didn’t feel as connected to Sharon because Sharon didn’t seem to need anything from her—because Sharon seemed independent and always able to ask for what she wanted.

Sharon thought about Jill’s feedback, and a couple of weeks later told us that she had come to the understanding that she has a protector that uses her independence as a defense. She doesn’t really let people close to her in deep ways, and she doesn’t let them know when she needs them. Even though she is satisfied with her life in many ways, she is lonely, and she usually hides this from people and even from herself.

She talked to the group about her loneliness and allowed herself to cry in a vulnerable way. She also shared other struggles and pain in her life. This was very important work; she opened up to the group and let us in at a new level. The next week she told us how much she valued the acceptance she received in that group and how much it helped her to be able to reach out to people in her life during the week.

For the next few months, however, Sharon’s work seemed to retreat from this kind of depth. When the group members challenged her on this, she explored it. She realized that a part of her was doing with the group what she tends to do in her life. It was subtly pulling back so as not to let the group members really matter to her. One way was to avoid needing things from people in the group.

As a result of this realization, she began to tell us about a major crisis in her life. Her sister had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was due for surgery. She was very close to her sister, and she shared with us the pain this brought up for her. After allowing her to cry deeply about this, I helped her to become aware of what she needed from us. She realized she needed to be held, and Marla volunteered to hold her. Marla had been in the group for about six months at this time, and Sharon and Marla had been developing a warm relationship. Sharon moved over next to Marla, and Marla held her like a child and let Sharon cry deeply. Sharon let herself relax fully into the situation and take in the love and nurturing she was receiving. Marla told Sharon how much she liked holding her, and they made a wonderful connection.

Thus Sharon took an important step toward letting herself need us. After this she began to share with the group more of the pain and difficulties she was experiencing in her life and to take in the caring and nurturing she received, from Marla and from all of us.

It is interesting to look at the development of Sharon’s feelings towards the group as a whole, especially how much she allowed it to matter to her. She joined the group with the intention of not staying very long, just getting what she needed and leaving. After a few months she became connected to some of the people and realized how much she was getting from the work, so she decided to stay indefinitely. However, she still wasn’t that attached to the group.

After about six months, I brought up the idea of the group doing a weekend retreat, and Sharon wasn’t interested because she didn’t want to give up “a precious weekend” of her time. This was really a protector avoiding connecting with the people in the group. “In fact, I generally spent my weekends completely alone. Except when I have to be with people, I covet the time alone. I was clearly dismissing the weekend.”

Harry told her that he felt hurt by this response, and this had an impact on her because of her connection with him. When the idea of a weekend came up again five months later, she was very enthusiastic because of her deeper involvement with the group.

It turned out that her sister’s surgery was scheduled a week before the retreat, and she felt the need to be there at the hospital for her sister as much as possible. However, she had allowed the group to become important to her, so she went to a great deal of trouble to come to the second half of the weekend. When she arrived, the group welcomed her with caring and concern, and she shared with us all the fear and pain she was going through.

Then she took an even bigger step and told us directly how important we were to her. She was wide open and vulnerable in a wonderful way. She told us that it felt shameful to let us know how much she needed us, but compared to facing the possibility of her sister’s death, it didn’t seem like such a big deal, so she was willing to take the risk. “It was really very profound. Recognizing how sick she was and that she might die, I thought, ‘So it’s embarrassing and shameful that I need you. Who cares! I can handle that.’ It was wonderful, a breakthrough.”

Harry was so moved that he wanted to hold her, and she let him cradle her like a baby. Then the whole group gathered around her and touched her and nourished her. Once Sharon lets herself feel and express a need, she has a great capacity to receive fully what is given to her, so it was a very satisfying experience, for her and for all of us.

Sharon has continued to bring her her needs to the group and to allow us to matter to her. She is now able to tell people in her life about her needs and to let them care for her, especially around her sister’s continuing battle with cancer. Already Sharon has grown enormously in her 18 months in group and is seeing the effect in many ways in her life. Her friendships have grown, and she has started dating someone whom she is serious about.

Click here to learn more about Interactive Groups.

Click here to see the schedule of Interactive Groups. Scroll down to that section.