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Over the course of twelve weeks I have taken part in an experiential group therapy experience facilitated by Jonathan O’Neill (Jonathan). The groups focus began with individual goals, a contract for set behaviour and group rules. Each session began with a check-in, which consisted of each person answering a question and stating how they are feeling. Sessions consisted of interpersonal interaction and completing tasks aimed at facilitating this. My goal for the experience was to become more comfortable within a group, because I prefer one-on-one conversations.
Personal worldview and potentially relevant life experiences
Each person enters a group with a personal background and worldview. I am Caucasian, female, and somewhat attractive. I am twenty-something. I am a single parent to a three-year-old boy. I have a strong background of intimate partner violence and abuse. I have a work background in marketing, and criminology as an undergrad. I have done a lot of work with myself and self-study on emotional intelligence and human motivation, as both are personal interests of mine. Some dysfunctional beliefs that I had included: a). that groups are scary, b). I will not fit in to a group, c). groups are shallow and boring, d). deeper topics that interest me are only discussed in one-on-one interactions, e). men who exhibit dominant tendencies are something to be fearful of, f). men will become angry or defensive if they are confronted or feelings are discussed. Some functional beliefs that I came to group with include: a). that no-one is responsible for my emotions, b). a strong believe in individual autonomy and personal responsibility, c). the knowledge that abuse is illegal in Australia, d). a belief that honestly and openly sharing is vitally important for growth and development, e). conflict is not something to fear even though I feel afraid of it.
Prior to experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV), I had a strong sense of my emotional separateness to others. Following my experience of IPV, I have noticed myself becoming enmeshed with other people. I have found my empathy and intuitiveness to be somewhat over-active and invasive.
I was coming to group with some positive experiences of emotional intelligence. I have had several interpersonal situations where I have successfully resolved conflict. However, I have a tendency to avoid my own feelings and over-emphasise other people’s. I think that coming to group with a few small experiences of success in acknowledging my needs and feelings, and successfully confronting other people have been helpful – because I have the knowledge that it is possible.
Other experiences which may have been relevant to my experience of group include some family-of-origin dynamics. I have one sister, who is two years older. My sister has accused my father of child sexual assault (this situation remains unresolved). I experienced over-identification with emotional state of my mother and taking responsibility for her emotional well-being as a child. As well as conflict with my father and an unwillingness to bow down to his tyranny as a child.
I have a strong belief in individual autonomy and personal responsibility. I experience a genuine feeling of love for myself and all other human’s. According to my YSQ-L3 scores, I have some emotional deprivation (30%), unrelenting standards (39%), and approval seeking (27%) tendencies. According to Myer-Briggs personality test I consistently score ENFJ personality as an adult. This means that I have a strong capacity to lead and cooperate with people, but also some fears of rejection and unrelenting standards.
Relate group theory to group experience
According to Yalom and Lecscz (2005) an experiential counselling group includes members taking part in self-disclosure, emotional identification and discussion, and confrontation. In my experiential group, the facilitator encouraged this by asking questions. I experienced each of these intended experiences within the group.
According to Cummings (2001), taking part in an experiential group is important for counselling students to be able to empathise with clients. During the first week I experienced the strong pull of anxiety when having a group of people face me listening to my words. I felt afraid and also exhilarated. I think this experience could be quite universal, where there is something emotive about having a group listening and expanding on ideas about personal experience and development. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to experience it, and I believe that my empathy for clients has expanded immensely. My experience is intended and evidenced in the literature (see for example: Akos, Goodnough, & Milsom, 2004; Cummings, 2001; Guth, & McDonnell, 2004; Kline et al., 1997; Yalom, & Leszcz, 2005).
My experience of Jonathan was of him being assertive and tactful, it did not matter what he was saying, it was said in a way that could be accepted by most people. I felt admiration for this skill when I saw it and experienced it. Knowing what to say, and how to say it, and being assertive and diplomatic is important for a group facilitator (Corey, Corey & Corey). An example of this behaviour in the session was during week seven, Jonathan responded to Ash’s criticism of Darryl, as I recall he said “We’re human, and that means being full of contradiction”. Amazing! This is one example of thousands.
One role of the group facilitator is to demonstrate appropriate interpersonal responses. Emotional management and appropriate response are important to interpersonal relationships (Ehrenreich et al., 2007). I believe this skill will be assisted in next semesters class which includes experiential group facilitation. As a group facilitator (and as a human), I would love to be able to model Jonathan’s tactfulness and ability to respond assertively.
In counselling, the concept of counter-transference refers to a thought process which is usually unconscious, and involves a counsellor experiencing thoughts and emotions towards a client, related to past-experiences and relationships. Counter-transference is considered to be negative to the therapeutic relationship. Since beginning this course, I have learned about and begun considering my own biases more intentionally. Transference, refers to the experience of clients whereby the therapist is considered to be a central figure in their lives – often their parents (Weiner, 2009). Within the group I experienced transference to both male and females as parental figures. According to Corey, Corey, and Corey (2009) this is often the intention of a male and female facilitator in group therapy.
During our experiential group, I felt a strong connection to Jonathan and considered him to be the group paternal parent, however he did not exhibit the lex talionis that I have come to expect from a father figure. I also experienced feelings towards Darryl as a negative Mother figure, and Joanne as a loving Mother figure. This may be something that I could work with in future sessions. I am grateful to have positive parental figures. As a counsellor, I will need to mitigate my negative reactions (Fauth, 2006; Gelso & Hayes, 2002), and at the same time utilise the transference and counter-transference as a potential opportunity to uncover relational dynamics in therapy (Levenson, 1995).
Key learning events
My experience as a participant was extremely beneficial, I am amazed at how much I took from it in emotional and interpersonal self-knowledge.
The first experience of serious conflict occurred during week nine, Darryl expressed a negative emotion about Jonathan describing his overwhelm with marking. Skye and I interpreted what Darryl said as a criticism. I expressed that I felt scared, and that Darryl reminds me of my mother. My mother shares negative feelings she has frequently, I feel irritation towards my Mother, perhaps I was putting that onto Darryl.
This experience leads me to consider how I perceive my Mother. When Darryl said “I wasn’t criticising I was sharing my feelings” it surprised me, and I wondered if my mother perceives herself in the same way. Being able to connect with Darryl and feel love and support for her in subsequent weeks, also helped me to know that it is okay to challenge someone (even someone who reminds me of my Mother).
The interaction between Darryl and Jonathan also allowed me to consider my aversion to conflict. Especially when the person who is being challenged is a man. I observed Jonathan’s empathic, and assertive response. This was a key learning event for myself, in that it is evidence that assertiveness and challenge do not lead to violence.
Another key learning event for me occurred during week three discussing emotions. I asked Jonathan how we can be a victim if we are responsible for our feelings, I remember him kind of saying that other people do still have a responsibility. Jonathan said something like “Yes nobody is responsible for your feelings, but often when we are hurt by things others have done”. At this time, my eyes began leaking, I was not sure exactly why. I think it was the relief of being validated by a man for some of the personal pain I have experienced in my life that was caused by violence and abuse perpetrated by others. Where I may have taken more responsibility for the situation that perhaps I needed to. It was quite pleasant for me to have somebody else validate my experience.
During the entire experiential group, I experienced a strong reaction to Ash. I believe this is because he exhibits what I perceive as strong masculine tendencies. Ash has also at times in the group expressed a negative mood, and casually mentioned violence for example in week two, during check-in he jokingly said “I feel agitated, in the past it’d make me wanna smash someone”. I think that having a person who exhibits these qualities, behave towards myself and other group members with respect and love was helpful to reduce my fear of violence and aggression.
The level of fear of violence that I experience is proportionate to the level of violence I have personally experienced; however, the fear I experience is not proportionate to the life I presently experience which is free of violence. During group, Jonathan consistently demonstrate non-reactiveness and assertive response. Assertiveness is actually useless in the face of physical violence. However, it is extremely useful in all other situations. I feel conflicted about this, because of the strong feelings I have towards the uselessness of assertiveness in violent situations. I think actually seeing the effectiveness of assertiveness has helped some of the deeper parts of my mind which are still afraid.
Further learning and development
An important part of the learning experience was becoming more comfortable with groups, and group therapy. I have achieved this goal without question. I am astounded by the benefits of group, and the difference in experience from individual therapy.
I am aware that I still feel somewhat rejected and fearful of being disliked, both by the experiential group, and in general group situations. I find that I need to stop myself from thoughts of my own inadequacy and the things I perceive about myself as being fundamentally flawed. I was speaking with a fellow student at Notre Dame who is studying psychology as well as counselling, and she said that for some people who have experienced complex trauma, many years of therapy is recommended, maybe I need that. I expect that as I grow in my friendships within my class, and am able to receive the feedback that I am okay, my fears and inadequacies will continue to reduce. I take many small steps to increase my friendships, and talk to new people. I think taking these risks is positive for me.
Prior to my experience of IPV, I think that I had been able to separate myself from other people’s feelings. I found myself able to respond to situations with an average level of assertiveness, and I was trying to educate myself in emotional intelligence. I found life and people generally easy to get along with. During my experience of IPV, I found that I was required to merge into another person’s experience in order to reduce the violence that was being directed towards me. I find myself at times still merging with other people, and fearing the consequences of their negative emotions. I still feel somewhere deep within, that at any moment – a person may lose control of themselves and seriously physically injure me. I know that this is obviously true, it could happen; however, the level of fear I feel is not representative of the likelihood that it will happen now.
The experiential group experience was beneficial to my fear of violence. I recall being afraid of Darryl’s challenge of Jonathan, I was expecting his response to be negative. The experience of a positive response has given me a new experience – which I believe has calmed the deeper parts of my mind somewhat. I expect that as I continue to experience positive responses like Jonathan’s, my fear of violence will continue to reduce. During semester break, I have arranged to meet with a Psychology student who is working on a mindfulness certificate, so she is willing to work on mindfulness with me for free! I think that this will further develop my skills of non-reactiveness.
Perhaps next holidays I will join a therapy group – so that I can learn more about positive confrontation, further reduce my fear of violence, and further increase my positive experience of assertiveness. I have achieved my goal of becoming more comfortable in a group, and in seeing a clear benefit to group therapy.
- Akos, P., Goodnough, G.E. and Milsom, A.S. (2004) Preparing school counselors for group work. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 29, p. 127-136
- Corey, M. S., Corey, G. & Corey, C. (2010). Groups: process practice (8th ed). Belmont, CA: Books/Cole Cengage Learning.
- Ehrenreich, J. T., Fairholme, C. P., Buzzella, B. A., Ellard, K. K., & Barlow, D. H. (2007). The Role of Emotion in Psychological Therapy. Clinical psychology : a publication of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association, 14(4), p. 422–428. Doi:10.1111/j.1468-2850.2007.00102.x
- Gelso C. J., & Hayes J. A. (2002). Countertransference management. Psychotherapy, 38(4), p. 418–422.
- Guth, L.J. and McDonnell, K.A. (2004) Designing class activities to meet specific core training competencies: A developmental approach. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 29, p. 97-111.
- Kline, W., Falbaum, D., Pope, V., Hargraves, G. and Hundley, S. (1997) The significance of the group experience for students in counselor education: A preliminary naturalistic inquiry. The Journal for Specialist in Group Work, 15, p. 83-87.
- Levenson, H. (1995). Time-limited dynamic psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
- Wiener, J. (2009). The therapeutic relationship: transference, countertransference, and the making of meaning. Texas: A&M University Press.
- Yalom, I. D. and Leszcz, M. (2005) The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (5th ed.) New York: Basic Books.
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