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Peer groups, Cumbria spring group – second morning: early stages of a group, self-disclosure, & emotional awareness

I wrote yesterday about arriving at this year's Mixed Group here in Cumbria.  Now it's the second morning.  Yesterday was the first full day of the group.  How was it?  As I've written before "Process groups tend to move through a series of developmental stages.  These can be described in a variety of ways.  Tuckman presented an early description which still contains much that is useful.  His sequence was forming (orientation and dependence), storming (intra-group conflict and differentiation), norming (interpersonal intimacy and cohesion), performing (work and functional role-relatedness), and adjourning (loss and autonomy).  It is important to emphasise that all stages of group development contain useful opportunities for learning and that one stage is not necessarily any better than another."

So partly yesterday I think we were finding our footing, feeling our way in.  Because many of us know each other well, we can often do this "stepping in" quite quickly.  However there are also genuine, rich differences between how different people feel about what works for them, about how they want to spend time, about the kind of sharing & interaction that feels most valuable for them.  As the Wikipedia article on Tuckman's group stages comments "Every group will next (after norming) enter the storming stage in which different ideas compete for consideration ... Team members open up to each other and confront each other's ideas and perspectives. In some cases storming can be resolved quickly. In others, the team never leaves this stage. The maturity of some team members usually determines whether the team will ever move out of this stage ...  The storming stage is necessary to the growth of the team. It can be contentious, unpleasant and even painful to members of the team who are averse to conflict. Tolerance of each team member and their differences should be emphasized. Without tolerance and patience the team will fail. This phase can become destructive to the team and will lower motivation if allowed to get out of control. Some teams will never develop past this stage ... (if) members ... resolve their differences ... (they) will be able to participate with one another more comfortably. The ideal is that they will not feel that they are being judged, and will therefore share their opinions and views."

OK.  The Tuckman comments seem a little over-sure of themselves to me, a little over-sweeping, but some truth, some value in this map.  And so, I think, this was part of what went on yesterday.  A feeling in ... how are we going to spend time, what subjects "qualify" for attention, how safe is it to bring in issues that are difficult or charged for us, how OK is it to talk about interpersonal hitches, and so on?  And there was some precious work ... one theme seemed to be about how men and women relate to each other.  Societal pressures, early experience in our families, personal difficulties/traumas/conditionings, our current life situations.  And we came at this in a cluster of ways ... some of us individually talking/experiencing/opening up about difficulty/patterns relating with women, relating with men.  Some sense of how deep is it OK to go?  Some sense of is it worth stirring up some old pains?  And the suggestion that if a pattern gets in the way of leading one's life fully, brightly, bravely then it may well be worth digging down and exploring and working to transform it.  But, as some people suggested, what if I'm not even aware of how old pains distort my experience and behaviours?  Can friends help me with this?  Can they point things out to me?  The Yeats quote "A friend is someone who sees the potential in you and helps you live it" is relevant here.  I've used the metaphor of the group as a pebble-grinder before ... that over the four days, or over coming back to these groups year by year, we bump and rattle and slide over each other.  Slowly many of our vulnerable areas will get jarred or highlighted.  Slowly we can share, realise so many others have overlapping/similar issues.  We can risk being seen more fully and so often finding that this ... far from driving others away ... actually brings us closer together.  Being seen, understood, being deeply accepted and cared for, transforms, helps us to feel really OK about ourselves.  As Sidney Jourard put it "We camouflage our true being before others to protect ourselves against criticism or rejection. This protection comes at a steep price. When we are not truly known by the other people in our lives, we are misunderstood. When we are misunderstood, especially by family and friends, we join the "lonely crowd." Worse, when we succeed in hiding our being from others, we tend to lose touch with our real selves. This loss of self contributes to illness in its myriad forms".   Increasing self-acceptance can change everything ... not to sit in some kind of self-satisfied haze, but like a musician who begins to believe in themselves, a singer with confidence, so we can start better to sing our song in the group, in relationships, in the world. 

And I continued to dip back into this question of "How do I know what I'm feeling?"  It seems to me that so often these descriptions are very simplified.  It's like explaining a complex landscape by just describing a few, maybe only one, foreground object or colour.  And I think, with many of the stronger emotions, this rather simple, primary-colours, way of looking at emotional states may serve us pretty well.  A little more nuanced and potentially helpful is the "Understanding our reactions" form.  But dipping down deeper, consider the brilliant neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's comments "Of the ideas advanced in this book ("Self comes to mind"), none is more central than the notion that the body is a foundation of the conscious mind ... the special kind of mental images of the body produced in body-mapping structures, constitute the protoself, which foreshadows the self to be ... the body is best conceived as the rock on which the protoself is built, while the protoself is the pivot around which the conscious mind turns." And he goes on to say "I hypothesize that the first and most elementary product of the protoself is primordial feelings, which occur spontaneously and continuously whenever one is awake. They provide a direct experience of one's own living body, wordless, unadorned, and connected to nothing but sheer existence ... all feelings of emotion are complex musical variations on primordial feelings."

And "What does it take for a living cell to stay alive? Quite simply it takes good housekeeping and good external relations, which is to say good management of the myriad problems posed by living ... Life is a precarious state, made possible only when a large number of conditions are met simultaneously within the body's interior. For example, in organisms such as ours, the amounts of oxygen and CO2 can vary only within a narrow range, as can the acidity of the bath in which chemical molecules of every sort travel from cell to cell (the pH). The same applies to temperature ... it also applies to the amount of fundamental nutrients in circulation - sugars, fats, proteins. We feel discomfort when the variations depart from the nice and narrow range, and we feel quite agitated if we go for a very long time without doing something about the situation. These mental states and behaviors are signs that the ironclad rules of life regulation are being disobeyed, they are prompts from the netherlands of nonconscious processing toward minded and conscious life, requesting us to find a reasonable solution for a situation that can no longer be managed by automatic, nonconscious devices ... Unfortunately, although the essentials of life regulation (the process of homeostasis) have been known for more than a century and are applied daily in general biology and medicine, their deeper significance in terms of neurobiology and psychology has not been appreciated."  So Damasio is suggesting that it's high time we more fully appreciated the psychological importance of the inner biochemical environment that is provided for the "society" of "multiple, cooperatively organized unicellular organisms" that we're made up of.

And, he would suggest, part of the answer to "What am I feeling?" is a read-out, a message, from my biochemical inner environment, from the very liquids that bathe my cells.  And in the six slide handout "Emotions & feelings" I quote from earlier Damasio work - his rather wonderful book "The feeling of what happens" - where he talks about the multiple levels of the internal emotional landscape.  There are, he states, the six primary/universal emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust).  There are also what he calls the secondary/social emotions (pride, shame, guilt, embarrassment and jealousy).  There are background emotions (excitement, energy/fatigue, wellness/sickness, harmony/discord, relaxation/tension, stability/instability, balance/imbalance).  And finally he suggests there are moods, drives and motivations, saying moods are made up of modulated & sustained primary, secondary or background emotions, while drives & motivations express themselves  and are detectable through background emotions.  Mm ... now there's a more complex, nuanced, layered landscape of "What am I feeling?"  But how practically useful is this fuller understanding? 

And see tomorrow's post for more on all this ...


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