Emulate those you admire but look at yourself when you starting resenting others

I have often wondered about the impact of role models in my life whether it be the role played by my parents, siblings, teachers, friends or other significant others. I have benefited from the insightful work of Alfred Adler, and his ideas about the birth order, especially since I am from a large family.  My personal family constellations can be very dynamic when I have to interact with other people, which is usually every day. But I also speculate about the nature nurture aspect of personality such as whether I have predisposed genes to certain behaviours. However, that might be an issue for another day.

I benefit from acknowledging the feelings I get when I engage in group process.  Indeed, group-work affords the opportunity to reflect upon my own stuff in a way that can be very dynamic and potentially trans-formative.  It can be like walking down a hall of mirrors where I am seeing reflections of myself in each participant in the group. In group-work the key seems to be to reflect on experience while having experience rather than getting caught up in the emotion.

Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (1897-1979) is famous, certainly in the therapy world,  for his ideas on group processes, but he was also a major contributor on the treatment of psychosis and on thinking, as well as developing psychoanalytic theory on art and creativity. Bion is arguably the most original and the most intriguing psychoanalyst after Freud and Klein.

So, what does Bion say about groups? Essentially groups are set up to pursue sensible and realistic goals, what he calls the ‘work group’, but groups will inevitably descend into madness every now and then.  For Bion this is called the ‘basic assumption’ functioning and he theorised that there were three types of basic assumption functioning.

The three types of basic assumption functioning for Bion:

  • dependency there is a clear leader, who assumes a “parental” role but resentment at being dependent may eventually lead the group members to “take down” the leader, and then search for a new leader to repeat the process,
  • pairing two people, regardless the sex of either, carry out the work of the group through their continued interaction,
  • fight-flight the group behaves as though it has met to preserve itself at all costs; the shared unconscious assumption, often carried out through action. The leader for this group is the one who can mobilize the group for attack, or lead it in flight.

From my family constellations I have a tendency to fight for attention, to become the scapegoat and/or to resent power imbalances.  Meeting the first child in the birth order and the only child can be an interesting reflection for me.

What one projects in groups invariably has an external target, and the target usually responds and displays some degree of what they are being accused of (a process called projective identification). The projector is vindicated. However, there is an opportunity to notice this process in group-work, to become reflective and to take back the projection. Thus, learning to take responsibility for your own projections and take them back is the essence of successful psychotherapy and of the experiential learning that occurs in Bionian groups.

From a Kleinian perspective, one’s minds are always in one or the other of two positions: paranoid-schizoid functioning or depressive position. The paranoid-schizoid state entails extreme splits such as guilt, blaming, hating, scapegoating, paranoia and the tendency to aggression and fighting, whether verbal or physical. The depressive state involves accepting the middle ground where guilt is not punitive but reparative. Therefore, one is not in a manic state but is in a rather subdued, depressive state (not to say depressed). In this state miracles don’t happen but hard graft is one’s lot. You have to sit on your extreme feelings and live and let live.

The goal is to avoid the pit of paranoid-schizoid functioning and strive to remain as much as can be managed in the depressive position.

For me, group-work can be like walking down a hall of mirrors. As I mentioned earlier the key seems to be to be able to reflect on experience whilst having experience.  In other words rather than getting caught up in the emotion of whatever you are going through it is better to try and witness it.  Say, for instance, that you are being attacked in a group. It can be more useful to reflect that you are being attacked and try to uncover what is going on within yourself rather than developing feelings of hostility towards others in the group.

You might just learn more about yourself in one session that you do in a multitude of individual therapy sessions.   The Chinese have a proverb that says something like Emulate those you admire but look at yourself when you start resenting others. Perhaps there is some truth in this sentiment ……

Resources

Group-work in psychiatry
Different types of group therapies
Group processes
Group therapy for psychological trauma