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Honoring the Old...
Nurturing the Young Part 1
By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D

Our first task in approaching another culture is to take off our shoes, for the ground we are approaching is holy.

Was it so long ago that you can’t remember what it was like, your first day in group, the days and weeks leading up to it? The mixture of hope and fear, raised expectations tempered with skepticism born from years and years of high hopes dashed by the  futility of self-sabotage. Can you remember the questions that ran through your head? What’s it going to be like? Who are these people whose world I’m about to enter? And why would I openingly and willingly allow them to enter into mine? Aren’t they going to hate me for disrupting their group? How do I not make a fool out of myself in front of these strangers? What are the things that I’m suppose to know, but don’t. How will I know what to do, what not to do, and when to do and not do it? What are all the unspoken rules that everybody knows but me? Who talks to whom and when? What do you talk about? What don’t you talk about? Is anyone going to help me?

Come on now, think back? Don’t you remember the dread that consumed you, the idea of having to develop relationships with total strangers, the absolute terror provoked at the thought of putting your emotional and spiritual well-being in the hands of these creatures from a parallel universe. All the risk. Will they like me? Will I like them? Will they accept me? Detest me? Or worse yet, ignore me? Will they care about me, but then again, will they even welcome me, forget care about me? I’m sure you chuckled at that thought--being welcomed and embraced. I can hear it even now, the cacophony playing in your head, “I’m not worth caring about, I’m not smart enough, interesting enough, attractive enough. I’m not..., I’m not..., I’m not..., blah, blah, blah.”

Fitting in. Making a place for yourself. Being accepted. Being liked. Ultimately, being cared about. Come on now. Fess up You must have worried a little. You must have given some thought to the very first problem that was awaiting your solution as you joined the group. How do I get them to like me? How do I get them to let me be a part of what they already have going on? How do I go from being an outsider to an insider? Do I even want to try?

Didn’t at least one of the following thoughts run through your head? “We’re not allowed to have outside contact, so I can’t go out to dinner with them one-on-one and charm my way into their hearts. We’re not allowed to date them, so I can’t seduce my way into their souls. We’re not allowed to talk about our lives outside of the group, so I can’t impress my way into their minds. We’re not allow to talk about our problems, so I can’t arouse their pity or tend to their wounds so that I can ingratiate my way into their good graces.”

Perhaps you comforted yourself with the idea that there were still other tricks of the trade that you could use that would enable you to gain entrée into their hearts and souls. Afterall, you were then and still are now more than a one trick pony. Hey, you invented some of those tricks yourself. I’m sure at some point you must have thought, “I’ve fooled my share of people over the years. I know how to create the impression I want somebody to have of who I am. Strong, in control, unemotional, bright, articulate, insightful, well-informed, having it together, chatty, kind, compassionate, mixed with just the right amount of levity. Yea, keep it light. Don’t upset the apple cart. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t do or say anything offensive.”

I’m sure at some point prior to joining the group you must have thought, “This is group therapy, right? All for one and one for all. I’ll act the way you’re suppose to act in a support group. Let’s see, supportive, selfless, positive, sympathetic, empathic, you know P.C., baby, just keeping it real. I can always fall back on ole’ faithful, ‘I care about you.’ And if somebody starts crying or is otherwise upset, well, let’s see, I’ll tell them that ‘I feel your pain.’ Afterall, it worked for Clinton, didn’t it?”

Be honest with me now. At some point, the idea must have crept into your consciousness that the best way to fit in would be to clean up your act. You know, put your best foot forward, smooth off the rough edges. Wear clean underwear, a nice pressed shirt. Compliance. Conformity. Let somebody else take the risks. As for you, just go along to get along.

It occurred to you, I’m sure, that all you needed to do was hide what you didn’t want them to know about you. Come on now. Don’t look at me that way. You know exactly what I mean. Compartmentalize. Evade. Name, rank, and serial number only. Keep the focus off of the present moment. Hide behind a curtain of helplessness, add just a dash of chaos, topped with just a subtle hint of hostility. Tap dance, just keep your feet moving. Keep your feelings to yourself. Say and do the right thing, stick to the script, for God’s sake, don’t ever deviate from the script.

Sure this was group therapy you were starting, but, all those things about who you were, all those things that brought you so much pain and caused you so much shame, well, you decided it was better to just let sleeping dogs lie. You kept those skeletons buried deep in the back of the closet. That which you didn’t want the group to know, you just checked at the door, week after week, month after month, year after year.

I gotta admit, I admired your determination. No matter how many avenues of retreat I blocked, you always came up with another path. You clung so tenaciously to your old ways, your loyalty knew no bounds. So it didn’t surprise me that you initially focused on what everybody needed from you. That was a sure winner, a tried and true method of appearing as if you’re connecting without really having to connect. Take the focus off of you and your emotional discomfort all the while ministering to everybody else’s emotional comfort. You had a lifetime of practice with that approach. Same old tired formula--give without taking, give but block any attempts of reciprocation, give until there’s nothing left to give, and then pick yourself right back up and give some more. That had to be good for a few votes of inclusion, one or two kernels of acceptance. Afterall, giving melts even the coldest, most distant of hearts.” Wink. Wink.

As if fitting in and making a place for yourself wasn’t big enough of a problem, you had to be questioning what joining this group would do for you. When you stopped to think about it, just what were you going to be getting out of it? Does any of this have a ring of familiarity to it? “Sure, I knew what Steve promised. I read all the materials, but afterall, look at what I’m putting myself through. The money, the time commitment. I feel like I have to organize my entire life around this therapy. I agreed to be here every week. But suppose I don’t feel like coming one week. Suppose I want to do something for myself. And what’s this bullshit about “this is not just your therapy, for you are an important part of everybody else’s therapy?” Afterall, this is my life, my time, my money, therefore my therapy, yet I feel like I’ve given away so much of me just to join this group, but to whom and for what? Complete strangers, that’s who! Where’s my say, my voice. Isn’t that what this therapy’s about, my choices, my empowerment?”

Boy, did you fight it, tooth and nail, to the bitter end. You armored yourself in every way you could against the demands of becoming a member of the group. You fought for your say, your own wacky way of being in the group. But what did that fight get you? Did you get any closer to anybody? Did you get any closer to yourself? Did you get any closer to your higher power? You were well defended, plenty protected. Don’t you remember? Your defiance coupled with your compliance served you well, my friend?

This idea of having to talk to everybody in the group. I called it, involvement, presence, initiating, reciprocity, here-and-now, self-examination, reverence, self-disclosure. Forced to focus on you and only you. I can only imagine what it must have sounded like in your head. “Involvement, presence, initiating, reciprocity, self-disclosure, here-and-now, present moment, reverence, expressing feelings. Yea, right! Let’s see if Steve can make me. Go ahead, make my day. I’ll tell you this right now. No one can make me do anything I don’t want to. Let ‘em try. How tough can any of them be?

“My will is battle tested. They don’t know how long I stonewalled it with my wife. Ah, those were the good old days. The more that was demanded of me, the more I withheld. Thinking back about all the ways I defeated her, all the times that I took her best shot and gave it right back. Oh, you should have seen her. How mad I could get her. It was a thing of beauty. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it even to this day. Let them try and make me. Let them try to get me to jump through their hoops.”

When you weren’t openly defiant, you were passively going through the motions. But that outer shell of compliance didn’t fool anybody. It only served to separate and further distance you from the group. I know that’s what made you feel most comfortable. But the group knew how lonely you were. The group knew how scared you were to admit to yourself and to them how badly you wanted to be a part of things. Instead of admitting it to yourself, you shut the group out. You kept everybody at arm’s length. All in the name of holding onto a piece of turf that was no longer worth holding onto. But you persevered. And when the group didn’t fall for the nice guy act, when they kept insisting that you get involved, you went to Def Con 5.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. You tried, you really, really tried,  but you said the group just wouldn’t give you your space. So you came out swinging. You squeezed off a double barrel blast right between the eyes. You unleashed the holy trinity--anger, judgment, and blame. You showed them who they were messing with.You dusted the group off the plate.

And the way you did it was slick. You set it up so that your anger was seemingly justified. Yes, I did say that you were suppose to express your feelings. But...how you did it, how you set them up, it was a thing of beauty. When no one was watching, you switched the tables. You made the group out to be the perpetrator, the victimizer. You gave them an education in how they let you down, had done you wrong. 

And who could quibble with your logic. Afterall, who did these people think they were? You looked at your life and compared it to theirs. It made perfect sense to you. You took an inventory of what you had accomplished and stacked that against what they had to show for their lives. You concluded that you didn’t really have anything in common with the other group members. Why he was a recovering alcoholic, emphasis on alcoholic. She was out of work, emphasis on loser. Look at how that one dressed, emphasis on call the fashion police. Look at the rock on that one’s finger. You’re a professional and where did he say he went to school? Excuse me!

I know you gave the matter a lot of thought, focusing on who they were, never able to get over how long they had been in the group. They must have had something awful wrong with them to be in therapy for so long. You on the other hand, you just wanted to learn, to grow, to be more of who you already were. But what was with the rest of them? Why did that one cry all the time? Excuse me, but wasn’t she just a bit too needy? Sure this was therapy, but my God, give me a large break. And that one never said anything. Why did she even bother? She must have really been dependent on therapy. Not me kiddo, I’m in and outta here, lickety-split. Boy, this one just didn’t get it. Give me five minutes with him. I’ll gladly tell him exactly what his problem is and save everyone else the trouble. The one with the big mouth. Did she ever shut up? Did she ever stop complaining? I can see why no man stays with her. And him, brother, that shirt and those shoes. Attention, that’s all he’s after. But I won’t be falling for that trap. Let the other bozos get sucked in. Hey, call the bomb squad on that one in the corner, the one no one will sit next to. Talk about angry, defensive, hostile, a ticking time bomb, a heat seeking missile just waiting to acquire a target. Well, it won’t be me.

Trying to figure out how you could possibly make a place for yourself in the group, that was in your face from the get go. Afterall, he’s so... and I’m only... She’s so much more... and I’m so much less... He’s so witty and me, I always get the punch line to a joke wrong.

It seemed like the role you had been auditioning for your whole life had already been taken by somebody else in the group. Now how would you ever be able to make room for yourself in your new family? “Pardon my elbow in your ribs, but, I’m suppose to be the caretaker in this family. Hey you, Mr. Teflon. Listen buddy, no one’s ever been able to make anything stick on me either. We’ll just see who’s going to be the hero of this clan. Roll over Beethoven, I’m the problem child in this crowd. Sure, you do that victim thing really, really well, but, I’ll see you your victim thing and raise you my self-righteousness. And you, Carnak. Oh great one. So knowing and so wise. I’ll have you know that I’ve read all four volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. So put that in your smoke and pipe it!

Would you ever have guessed that you were that competitive? Would you ever have guessed how entering new relationships could get all those juices flowing? Comparing and contrasting. Evaluating. Keeping track of how you matched up against everybody else. Keeping score. Listening to what was said and thinking, “I feel so dumb. I don’t even know what to talk about.” Grading and ranking each comment you heard while thinking to yourself, “I could never come up with an insight like that.” Making sure you kept track of who talked to whom and sighing to yourself, “It seems so easy for them but the cat’s got my tongue.” Timing how long who talked to whom, fretting to yourself, “I’ll never get a chance to talk with those two going on and on?” It never escaped your notice when somebody ignored you, observing to yourself, “He talks to everyone but me.” How many times did you lament, “What am I, chop liver? Does he think he’s too good to talk to me?” Not once did it escape your notice how those two were always looking at each other the way they did, leaving you to question, “Does she like him more than me?” And of course you always saw the bossy one as a challenge, “I’ll show him who the boss is.” Remember how lost you felt as you watched everybody turn to her for comfort, leaving you to question “With everybody always sucking up to her, what possible use can I be to anybody in here?”

How long did it take for you to figure it out? How long did it take for you to wake up to what was really going on? At first, you just didn’t get it, what your compliance, defiance, hostility, withholding, and distancing was about. I never could get you to see that digging your heels in, both your passive compliance and active defiance, your judgmentalness, the never-ending comparing, it was just your way of protecting yourself, to insure that you would remain separate and uninvolved? How long did it take before you connected to that place within yourself, the place that was ground zero for the internal battle field, the push and pull, the approach and avoidance, the underlying source of the war that waged on and on in your head--whether to actively participate or merely quietly observe, become a part of the group or remain an outsider, trust or withhold, dig your heels in or surrender, ultimately, to join or drop out of the group.

When did you finally realize that those devices were merely coats of armor designed to protect yourself from the far greater truths about yourself? How lonely it was for you to be an outsider in the group. How terrified you were of the depth of your feelings. How badly you wanted to be accepted and cared about. How paralyzed you felt to even consider surrendering a fraction of your willfulness. The terror you felt about losing your sense of self if you became actively involved in the relationships of the group. How awkward it felt to not have a clue as to how you should participate in the group. Did it surprise you at all, how desperately you clung to all of your tried and true ways for fear that you would appear inept and inadequate in front of other people? Did you ever appreciate the irony, the paradox of what you were going through, joining the group to transform yourself but actually using the group as a forum to hold onto every last fiber of who you were? Did you ever imagine the depth of fear you had about letting another human enter your life and actually care about you? Could you have ever imagined how vulnerable you felt when challenged to expose those parts of yourself that you felt so much shame about? Did you see the connection between your overintellectualized approach to the process and your overwhelming dread of giving up your independence, jeopardizing your autonomy, and surrendering your will?

Layer on top of layer of fear. That’s all it was. Experiencing your vulnerability. Admitting your fears. Taking ownership of your humanness. Letting go. Trusting at least one other human being. Living life without your willfulness. Touching parts of yourself that you so long ago abandoned. Bumping into bruised, wounded parts of yourself that you had left for dead. Awakening the neediness you had detached from three lifetimes ago. Looking to others to do their part, to fulfill within you the longing for meaningful human connection that you had gone so long without. Appearing unsure of yourself, that horrible sense of inadequacy bubbling to the surface. Not knowing where you fit in, doubting that you ever would or could or would even want to.

But you were hiding from more than your fears and insecurities. There was a level beneath the fear that you didn’t want to get near, to touch, to taste, much less feel. The self-loathing, all the judgments you held about yourself, dreading to see certain parts of yourself in another person, not wanting to experience them within yourself. How could you possibly face the music? Afterall, you had spent your whole life running from yourself, from the feelings, from the ugliness of your humanness. You had numbed yourself to your own self-inflicted wounds. Why would you stop now and [re]claim those orphaned, cast aside aspects of who you were, as being truly and wholly you, with a group of strangers looking on, no less?!

I had no trouble understanding why you would back away from the journey. It was easy enough to read your mind. “If healing meant exposing my emotional and spiritual wounds for all the world to see, no thanks. I think I’ll go back to the safety of reading my books, doing my private meditations, take in the occasional lecture, sprinkle in a workshop here, an audio tape there. Hey, those twelve-step groups may be the way to go afterall. At least there I could hide out and do as I please. There must be some other way that doesn’t hurt so much, that doesn’t make me experience what hurts. Why now that I think about it, my last therapist wasn’t really that bad.”

It happened, didn’t it? I told you it would but you didn’t believe me. As soon as you walked into that room for the first time,  boom, you entered the twilight zone. Fifteen seconds after walking into the group, your unfinished business reared its ugly head, your past came to life in glorious, wondrous 3-D. It was almost as if you had developed double vision. I saw you trying to rub the blurred images from your eyes. You couldn’t get the ringing in your ears to stop. Listening to that woman speak, all you could hear was your sister’s voice. As you layed your eyes on that man in the corner, you superimposed the image of your first husband on him. Shaking hands with the gentleman sitting next to you, this creepy feeling came over you, it was almost as if your father had arisen from the dead and taken up membership in this group. A mustache here, an inflection in the voice there, perhaps an arched eyebrow, similarity in tone of voice or age. Whatever the cue, no matter the stimulus, that room quickly became populated with the significant people from your past and present.

And the more crowded the room became, the more anxious you felt. The more anxious you felt, the more you disconnected from what you were experiencing. The more you disconnected, the less aware you were of the grip your fears had on you. Run. Hide. Disappear. Whistle while you walk past the graveyard. Detach from your body. Withdraw into the safety of your own mind. Joke. Talk non-stop. Speechify. Intellectualize. Comply. Deny. Throw a Tupperware party. Minimize. Defy. Rationalize. Use Groupspeak. The list would be shorter if you just told me what you didn’t do to create a space of emotional comfort and safety for you in the group.

What happened is easy enough to explain. But no amount of explanation could bring you the amount of comfort that taking flight brought you. Simply, you, in that room, no longer were grounded in the present moment. In those first fifteen seconds, your hopes, your expectations, became polluted by your fears, by the memories, by the reactivated emotions, by the blurring of your past with your present.

It was as if each person in the group had an angel from your here-and-now sitting on their right shoulder, a ghost from your past sitting on their left shoulder. As you looked at the man sitting across from you, you could hear the angel on his right shoulder say, “Welcome, I’m happy to have you here.” But then you saw the ghost sitting on his left shoulder beckon towards you and say, “Get involved with me and I’ll abandon you, just the way your mother did.” Next to him sat a woman, nodding in understanding as you told your story. The angel on her right shoulder said, “I understand what you’re going through. I’ve been there myself.” However, the ghost sitting on her left shoulder motioned towards you and said, “Make yourself vulnerable with me and I’ll betray your trust, just the way all your lovers have in the past.” Then there was the gentleman in the corner, much more reserved, but no less welcoming than any of the other group members. The angel sitting on his right shoulder said, “It’s cool that you’re here. I hope we can play together.” But that pesky ghost sitting on his left shoulder winked at you and said, “Look to me to fill your emotional needs and I’ll shame you just the way your parents did.”

And so it went as you looked around the room. You were greeted with messages of warmth and welcome from the angels perched atop the right shoulder of the group members. However, you received a far different vibration from the ghost perched atop the left shoulder of each group member. “Fall for my charm and I’ll abuse you, just the way your uncle did.” “Get involved with me all you want. I still won’t give you what you want from me, just like your father.” “Try to get close to me and I’ll treat you as if you’re invisible, just like everyone else in your life has treated you.”

There was no way of stopping what you were experiencing. Your only choice was to stay connected or run from it. It overwhelmed you, just as it overwhelmed everybody else who had preceded you into that room. Everything was activated. Each and every last one of your personal, interpersonal, and spiritual wounds were stimulated. You tried to grin and bear it. You tried to ignore it. You tried to make it go away as best as you could, just as you always had done. But all to no avail.

You were warned. We prepared for it. But still, it took you by surprise. You had emboldened yourself with the thought that you had already worked through, most, if not all of those issues. You had assured yourself that you were invulnerable. You believed that you were immune to experiencing the frailties of the human condition. You convinced yourself that you had managed to drown it all out. But there they were, those monsters staring you in the face one more time, laughing and taunting you, letting you know that they weren’t through with you, even though you had sworn that you were through with them. Walking into that group room for the first time, it all came rushing back, awakened by the opening bell, surrounded by all your reincarnated ghosts, haunted by the voice of Karen Carpenter singing in your head, We’ve Only Just Begun.

And now it’s about to begin once more for somebody new in your group. Whether this is soon to be your first day in group or you’re already in the group, preparing to welcome a new group member, there’s much self-examination for you to undertake in order to safely and successfully integrate a new member into your group. If you don’t take the time to [re]connect with your first experience in the group, if you don’t take the time to [re]connect with what it will feel like for you to welcome a new group member, then you’ll miss an important opportunity to be present to all that you can learn about yourself and how you experience starting and deepening a relationship.

Bringing a new member into a group can be an overwhelming experience for all involved. Although the above piece was written from the perspective of a new group member, everyone in the group will experience significant aspects of what I just wrote about. There’s absolutely no crime in having such an emotionally provocative experience. The crime is not attending to the experience, not noticing what the experience awakens in you, and not using the group to explore your awareness of what has awakened within you as you go through the experience of either being new or welcoming a new person to your group.

Why is welcoming and integrating a new group member into the group such a rich experience, pregnant with opportunity? Entering a relationship, any relationship is a simple act that provokes so much from within. A simple act that awakens the ghosts from your past, evokes the pain from your emotional and spiritual wounds, and stimulates the most vulnerable aspects of who you are as a human being. A simple act that superimposes the sum total of your past onto your present. A simple act that separates you from your authentic Self and spiritual center. A simple act that transfigures two kind, friendly souls into defensive, frightened, judgmental combatants. A simple act that transforms an otherwise competent, self-assured adult into a state of insecurity and self-consciousness. A simple act that brings forth from within every tactic of evasion, control, and denial that you have devised to prevent you from experiencing the intensity and rawness of the moment. A simple act that teases, tantalizes, and frustrates the core of who you are as a human being--a person longing for meaningful human connection, coveting the acknowledgment and acceptance of the people in your world, craving emotional fulfillment, hungering for the admiration and appreciation of others, all the while demanding power and control of your universe.

But the obstacles to welcoming and integrating a new group member into the group are not insurmountable. If each group member acts in a responsible, conscious fashion, a new group member can be safely and successfully integrated into the group. What is the responsibility of each group member, whether they’re joining or welcoming somebody new to the group?

Each and every one of you has a very simple responsibility to fulfill. Act congruent with the Group Therapy Contract. Acting congruent with the Group Therapy Contract is the single most important determinant of your success with group therapy in general as well as safely and successfully integrating a new group member in particular. Because congruency with the Group Therapy Contract is the single determining factor of your success with safely and successfully integrating a new group member, it’s important that you understand completely and wholly every aspect of the Group Therapy Contract. Therefore, it is each one of yours responsibility to read the Group Therapy Contract completely, thoughtfully, and thoroughly. It is each one of yours responsibility to ask me any and all questions that you have about what’s expected of you and what it is that you’re agreeing to.

Why is acting congruent with the Group Therapy Contract the single determinant of your success in group therapy? The Group Therapy Contract is the internal compass of the group process. The Group Therapy Contract always points in one direction, due North. The needle of the compass never strays, never deviates from that due North direction. When you’re incongruent with the Group Therapy Contract, you can conclude one very simple fact--you’re not headed due North. And if you’re not headed due North, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get to where you claim it is that you want to go. There’s only one reason why you would not be heading due North at any time in your group therapy experience. That reason would be because you haven’t fully embraced and incorporated the backbone of the Group Therapy Contract into every choice you make. The backbone of the Group Therapy Contract is the foundational value system. I know. I know. Foundational isn’t a word. But work with me on this.

The foundational value system is like the rudder of a ship. Without understanding, embracing, and incorporating the foundational value system into your active participation, you’ll have as much success participating in the group as you would steering a ship at sea without a rudder. There are five values of the foundational value system. The five values are: 1.) reciprocity; 2.) presence; 3.) beginner’s mind; 4.) reverence; 5.) honoring the old...nurturing the young. Let me emphasize the following. Understanding, embracing and incorporating these five values into your active participation is critical to your success and the success of every group member.

Because we’re focusing on how to safely and successfully integrate a new group member into your group, I want to first discuss with you the value honoring the old...nurturing the young.

Honoring the old...nurturing the young is one of the five values of the foundational value system. It’s importance to each and every one of you is that it provides a blueprint for how best to integrate a new member into the group. As a way of explaining honoring the old...nurturing the young, let’s first look at honoring the old and then, we’ll look at nurturing the young.

The first element of honoring the old is honoring what the group means to the current group members. Nobody participates in any kind of experience for any length of time without developing a strong attachment to that experience. It’s unlikely that any of the current group members would come out and say it, but, I think if you asked them, they would begrudgingly tell you that their group, the role that the group plays in their personal transformation, and the people in the group are important to them. 

You, as a new group member, have only one obligation. Treat your time in the group with the utmost respect and honor that it deserves. You, as a new group member, need to honor what the group means to the people whose lives you’re about to join and treat the group with similar honor. The best way you can do so is to honor your commitment to every aspect of the Group Therapy Contract.

The second element of honoring the old is being respectful of the journey that the current group members have already embarked upon. You’re about to say hello to a group of people who have been blazing their own trail and in so doing are enabling you to begin your journey.

I have always thought it important to honor and respect those people who have blazed a trail that has enabled me to pursue the path I am on. When I think of the qualities that those people possessed, being out there ahead of me, making my way all the more easier, I am truly humbled.

As a new group member, you need to be mindful of a simple fact. The current group members have been involved in the group for quite a while. It’s easy to question that, even judge it. For it’s only human to minimize and discount things that are potentially scary to you. So you may find yourself judging the group and its current members. Afterall, there must be something really wrong with anybody who’s been in therapy for a long period of time or there must be something wrong with the therapy itself. Yet, if it wasn’t for the courage of each group member, if it wasn’t for the vision of what they want their lives to be, if it wasn’t for their commitment to that vision, there wouldn’t be a group for you to join.

Let me share with you what I have learned about the comings and goings of people in long-term group therapy. People do not continue in long-term group therapy because there’s something wrong with them. Believe me, the sense that I need to be fixed, wears off very early on in one’s therapy. People continue in long-term group therapy because they have a vision of what they want their life to be like and they believe that long-term group therapy can play a significant role in facilitating that transformation. It takes courage to ride the emotional roller coaster ride of long-term group therapy, not dependency on your therapist. It takes commitment to shadow box with your ghosts and demons, not an addiction to being in therapy. It takes hope and faith to actualize the totality of your dreams, not perpetually being stuck because one is a terminally broken patient who can’t survive without therapy.

Honoring rather than judging what the current group members’ membership in this group means about who they are will enable you to more easily adapt to the culture of the group. Celebrating what they have accomplished on their own journey of personal transformation will open your eyes to what’s possible for you. Experiencing and living gratitude for what opportunities are being created for you because of the trail they have blazed prior to you joining the group will enable you to open your heart to receive all that the group members have to offer you.

The third element of honoring the old is acknowledging to yourself the value of what the current group members have to offer you. The current group members have imperfectly, just as you will, wrestled with much of what you’re about to take on yourself. You, as a new group member, will be continually tested by the demands of participating in group therapy. Your courage will be tested. Your openness will be tested. Each and every week your commitment will undergo much trial and tribulation. Your limits and faith in your vision will be tested as well.

Such a journey, when done by yourself, can be lonely and overwhelming. That’s one way people benefit from group therapy. They don’t have to go through it alone. The lessons that you need to learn can be greatly enriched by what the group members’ own experiences can offer you. The current group members have learned, mostly the hard way, much about themselves and much about group therapy. They have equally so ignored their fair share of things that they need to learn. There’s much for you to learn from the wisdom of their hard fought lessons. It will be up to you, as a new group member, to either be open to those offerings or turn your back on them. Until you acknowledge to yourself the richness that is embedded in the collective experiences of the current group members, it will be impossible for you to open yourself to their gifts.

The first element of nurturing the young is modeling behavior that’s congruent with the Group Therapy Contract. The Group Therapy Contract is a carefully crafted blueprint for how to succeed in the group. The new group member will be looking to you to see if you have embraced all aspects of the Group Therapy Contract or merely pay lip service to it or even openly defy it. If you actively model congruence with all aspects of the Group Therapy Contract, the new group member will see that the contract is more than just empty words. If you ignore the Group Therapy Contract, their doubts and suspicions about the Group Therapy Contract will be confirmed and they’ll dismiss its importance, just as you have.

The behaviors and attitudes that you model will establish the norms for the new group member. The new group member will be watching you, watching to see how much or how little the group means to you. The new group member will be gauging how seriously you treat your time in the group. If you take the group and your participation lightly, so will they. If you take the contract of the group lightly, so will they. If you take the people in the group for granted, so will they.

Just remember, as you sow, so shall Ye reap. If you want your group to remain strong, if you want your group to safely and successfully integrate a new group member into the group, the responsibility falls upon each and every one of you to properly model the behaviors that will insure the new group member’s success. That will require each and every one of you to step out of your zone of comfort and deal in new ways with the stress that integrating a new group member creates.

The second element of nurturing the young is being mindful of the drama that’s about to unfold over the next few weeks and months for all those involved. You have previously gone through it yourself. No one can possibly know better than you how difficult it is to join your group. No one can possibly know better than you how much easier or how much more difficult you can make the new group member’s life as they tackle the job of joining the group. Don’t treat the changing of the guard lightly. It deserves your fullest attention, your heightened sense of presence, your complete involvement, and your most conscious participation.

What is the drama that’s about to unfold? You’re about to start a journey with somebody new. That somebody new comes to you because they want something better for themselves in their lives just as you did when you joined the group. In joining the group, the new group member is going to feel overwhelmed by all the emotions that are stimulated by being an outsider confronted with becoming an insider. On the other hand, the current group members, in welcoming a new group member, are going to be overwhelmed by all the emotions that are awakened by having their safe world turned inside out.

I’m not suggesting that anybody should ignore the understandable human feelings that you’ll experience stimulated by welcoming a new group member or being the new group member. Quite the contrary. In fact to do so, would run counter to the Aspirational Contract of the group, to examine and express how the present moment is impacting each group member. It’s only natural to feel uncertain, even frightened about a new group member’s entry into the group. It’s only human to approach a new group member with a raised eyebrow, a furrow in your forehead, an I’m from Missouri and you’re going to have to show me attitude.

No, nurturing the young, is not about ignoring or being immune to what’s happening to each group member. I would be disappointed if you didn’t take the time to consider what impact having somebody new will have on you and the way the group conducts business. How could you possibly not feel threatened by a new group member, all the questions that such an occasion must raise? How will they fit in? How will they change the chemistry of the group? What role will they play in the group? What impact on my role in group will their presence have?

I fully expect each group member to have questions, even reservations about any new group member. Who is she? Will I like him? How is she going to fit in? Is he smarter than me? Is she more successful than me? Is he more attractive than I am? Will I have to compete with her for my favorite group member’s attention? Does he have more problems than me? Is her past more f---ed-up than mine? Will everybody else forget about me? Will the group ever be the same? Will I ever feel as comfortable in the group as I do now? Will I still have enough time to talk about what’s important to me?

Although the current group members have already lived the experience of being new to the group, many slept their way through it. For those of you who slept your way through that experience, you should read and re-read the above account of what being a new group member is like. Whatever your perspective, whatever your level of awareness, whatever the depth of understanding you have about what it means to be a new group member, welcoming a new group member is nothing that ever becomes old hat nor should it be treated as such.

The third element of nurturing the young is responding to the new group member with openness and empathy. You need to take the time to consider what the new group member is experiencing and approach them in that context. If you have trouble recalling your first days in the group, read the first half of this pamphlet and familiarize yourself with many of the issues that I raised. I promise you it’s an accurate portrayal of what you went through when you joined the group and it’s an accurate portrayal of what you’ll be going through as you welcome your newest group member now. Think about some of the following issues. How can you best welcome them? How can you best include them? How can you best teach them what you already know about the group? How can you support them through their time of transition? How can you do all of this and still attend to your own experience? I concede that yours is not an easy job that lies ahead, but it is a job that you have prepared for.

When you stop and think about it, honoring the old...nurturing the young is what your group therapy is all about. It’s about openly, yet, respectfully exploring the differences and issues that exist between people. It’s about living congruency between your words and actions. It’s about giving voice to your authentic Self without disrespecting others in so doing. It’s about opening yourself to new experiences without having your fears stop you short of your goal. It’s about letting go of your old ways of protecting yourself and finding new ways to live in your world, perhaps in a more vulnerable state than you currently do. It’s about letting people be where they are, even if where they’re at brings discomfort to you. It’s about surrendering the willfulness of my therapy and embracing the humility of our therapy. It’s about letting go of the entitled demands of me and learning how to live in the cooperative energy of we. It’s about falling down and picking yourself up rather than blaming everybody else for your struggle. It’s about confronting the hard things in your life rather than running from them.

As you can see, honoring the old...nurturing the young is more than just a value of the foundational value system. It’s the solution to the most challenging task of your group experience--welcoming a new group member. The first few weeks and months after somebody new has joined the group can be a turbulent time for the group. How the new and current group members work through the issues stimulated by their initial experiences with each other will set into motion long standing patterns of behavior that can either enrich or impoverish each one of yours group therapy experience.

So that I am better able to discuss with you the other four values of the foundational value system of the Group Therapy Contract, I have written a second pamphlet, Honoring the  Old...Nurturing the Young: Part 2. Please read Honoring the Old...Nurturing the Young: Part 2 carefully, thoughtfully, and thoroughly.



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 498-5622.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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