The Power of Groups
Groups can replicate the family dynamic and be very uncomfortable places to be. They can also be incredibly healing places too. I used to avoid groups like the plague because I found that my old stories of inclusion and exclusion played out again in the groups I was part of. This was particularly true for me when I was doing my Masters Degree in Change Agent Skills and Strategies when the group itself was called a ‘crucible of learning’.
What I experienced was an environment that felt ‘unsafe’ for me. Some people appeared to be like my family members when I projected my feelings on to them. I in turn became the projected focus for others. I experienced the course as highly volatile with arguments breaking out at any moment. I also realised that what I regarded as openness and strength was regarded as weakness and vulnerability by others.
The main thing I took away from the programme was that the emotional instability of the group members detracts from the learning process. That is unless of course your learning happens to involve group dynamics. Up to this point I had been aware that some groups that I ran involved some underlying individual and group emotions.
After the Masters programme, I realised that to enable the groups to focus on the subject matter rather than have a negative group experience, I would run the courses with much clearer boundaries.
This involved treating everyone with equality including:
- Giving participants equal ‘air’ time
- Avoiding open group discussions, which enabled some participants to dominate
- Moving people into smaller groups by numbering them rather than asking them to create their own groups thus avoiding popular cliques or revealing people that no one wanted to work with.
- Enabling the quieter ones to process their thoughts and ideas in smaller groups before voicing them in the larger group.
- Encouraging the more experienced or knowledgeable participants to share their experience with the participants who were less familiar with the topic.
As a result of these changes the groups became more relaxed and I was able to accelerate the speed at which the participants learnt and increase the level of challenge.
Now as a member of a painting group, a reading group, a lunch club group and a meditation group, I find the company of others to be loving as well as healing as I am able in Thomas Lewis’s language to limbically resonate with the other members. As he says in A General Theory of Love:
‘Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them’.
These groups have played a major part in my learning to accept myself and others. Sometimes I learn things about myself that I didn’t know or value. And sometimes in groups I learn things about myself that I did not want to know. I have also been glad that someone had the courage to tell me about negative aspects of my behaviour in a kind and honourable way.
In groups with virtually no rules but with loving people, participants learn to be accepted and loved for DOING NOTHING apart from being an active participant in the group.
Other groups that heal have very clear processes like Alcoholics Anonymous and all its variants that use the 12 step programme. Here the structure provides the safety and lack of judgement that is required for healthy emotional (or limbic) development. The requirement for regular attendance also creates the repetition that limbic development requires.
And of course my meetings with my friend Veronica to explore relationships was a clear example of how working together in a structured and well intentioned way changed not only our relationship but improved many of the relationships that we were involved in.
As I have said before the very nature of limbic development means that it has to be undertaken with other people. Even if you acted on everything I suggest in this book, you can’t limbically develop on your own.
This is a very simple exercise I did with Veronica to replicate pre verbal limbic development, which demonstrates this point.
Since most of limbic development occurs when we are babies I suggested that we did 3 things that replicate an attentive/attached mother’s care. These were:
- To hold each other’s hands for one minute
- To look into each other’s eyes for one minute
- To give each other a deliberate hug for one minute.
We wrote down how we felt before the exercises and then after. Although both of us felt a little nervous before doing them, this is what we found.
After we had moved our hands into a neutral position, I started to slowly feel the energy flowing between Veronica and me. This would be the kind of rhythm that would flow naturally between a bonded mother and her well attached child.
When I was looking into Veronica’s eyes, I felt a resistance and then I felt the resistance disappear and I felt her ‘let me in’. When we talked about it afterwards Veronica said ‘yes’ she was resistant and then realised that for the exercise to be useful she had to let go and let me in. I was amazed that I had felt that shift and that I could feel such subtle changes in someone’s state by looking closely in someone else’s eyes.
When we did the deliberate hug, for the first 15 or so seconds we felt very strange – after all it’s not that usual to hug someone against a stop-watch! However as the time went on we began to feel out bodies and our hearts merge and to feel as though we were ‘one’. When the minute was over we were not in a hurry to let go of the warm and peacful feeling this had been created between us.
I should point out that Veronica and I had known each other for years and had been working with each other on relationships quite a few months before we did this. This is a deceptively intimate exercise, which shows the power of limbic development in the pre verbal years to create an environment of trust where the world is regarded as a safe place and full of adventure.
When learning limbic development and the skills of loving it is important and only effective if you do this within a safe and secure environment with at least one other person.
My next blog will talk about adventure and the importance that it has to relationships.
This blog is part of a book called ‘The Evolution of Love’ if you would like to follow the story from the beginning please go to the blog I posted on 20th June entitled’ The Evolution of Love’ and read backwards to now.
With thanks to Jo Grant for permission to use her photographs
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