Some of the most profound experiences in my life have been the experiences of group process when I was a voluntary counsellor with Life Line many years ago. The process is well known to psychologists and has been extensively documented by people such as Irvin Yalom, Carl Rogers and M. Scott-Peck. Which does not mean that those who know about it actually apply it.
When any group gets together for some time, there is a tendency to perpetuate the hypocrisy that is the norm of our society. We tend to play a role, in other words we pretend to be who we would like others to think we are. Often unconsciously, we try to suss out others in order to decide where we ‘fit’ and how we should act. Scott-Peck (A Different Drum) calls this phase ‘pseudocommunity’.
As the pretence wears off, ‘negativity’ starts emerging. Participants start irritating each other. At first, however, there is usually a powerful group norm to suppress the emerging negativity. We must at all costs stay ‘nice’!
Many groups stay in this phase. If well facilitated, however, at some point the negativity comes into the open. It only needs one person to say something ‘negative’ in order to trigger others’ pent-up negativity. Often this progresses into an intense phase of negativity. This is phase two: the expression of negative feelings.
Having experienced and facilitated many such groups, I have come to the conclusion that the duration and the intensity of the second phase seems inversely related to the extent to which the negativity is accepted (not judged). The more we fight and resist the negativity, the more it is perpetuated.
To the extent that full expression of negativity is allowed, it comes to an end. Often groups experience a kind of ‘emptiness’ at this stage. Scott-Peck calls this the third phase.
What happens then is truly a miracle: genuine positive comments start emerging, and the group as a whole achieves a deep sense of cohesion, or true community. Participants really start listening to each other, and individual differences are tolerated and appreciated.
The following serves as an example:
My partner and I were invited to speak to a group of black teachers about democracy. This was around 1990, when intense emotions abounded.
While Peter, my partner, delivered his speech, I observed the group. Occasionally someone yawned. It soon became clear to me that very few people were actually listening to what Peter was saying. I could sense an intense resistance.
And so I interrupted. I asked the group, “What does what Peter has been saying so far mean to you?”
One or two hesitantly negative comments were expressed, and then all hell broke loose. Who were we whites to come and talk to them about democracy?! We who suppressed the blacks and drove around in our luxury vehicles while they had to live in poverty?! (I couldn’t help glancing outside, where my Conquest was parked between a few luxury German cars.) And so on.
For probably about 15 minutes or so we were lambasted. All we did was to listen. “So what you are saying is …?”. “You seem intensely angry …?” Et cetera. We neither defended nor attacked. We did not apologize for who we were and merely let the feelings be.
And then it stopped. One by one positive comments started emerging. “Actually I think you may have been right about …”. “Perhaps we should think about … a bit more?”
Soon the meeting ended. Afterwards many people came to speak to us. They begged us to come and speak to them again.
Carl Rogers: “The more paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up. It is a very paradoxical thing – that to the degree that each one of us is willing to be himself, then he finds not only himself changing; but he finds that other people to whom he relates are also changing …”
We had a similar experience when facilitating a discussion group between the Afrikaner Vryheidstigting and the ANC Youth League in 1992. Participants were so engrossed in discussion, really listening to each other, that we had extreme difficulty trying to get them to end. It was a direct ‘confrontation’ between black and white, and one of the most dramatic examples of reconciliation I have ever witnessed. I blogged about this earlier.
For me, the principle of group process had and has enormous implications. It demonstrated to me that we humans have a deep need for connection with all other human beings. We want peace. None of us inherently want to hurt others or be destructive. And yet our very efforts to achieve cohesion sabotage us!
When we start expressing what we truly feel – in other words when we become authentic – it seems at first as if our fears were justified: we seem to have ‘hurt’, angered or saddened others. And so normally we retract again: rather be ‘nice’.
If our feelings are accepted without judgement, however, we soon come to the stage where we realise that the anger, guilt, hurt or whatever it was that we felt so intensely simply evaporates: those feelings are not who we truly are!
Then who we truly are (at least at that point) can emerge. And that is ALWAYS Love. I have ‘counselled’ (what an arrogant word!) many individuals, including a murderer, rapists, people that have been raped, and many other ‘criminals’ and ‘victims’, and facilitated many groups, and ALWAYS I saw emerging a magnificent core of love.
What, then, is the problem? Why, if we all want peace, do we so consistently sabotage our own need for peace?
The answer came to me clearly: Judgement, which is borne of fear.
From the day we are born we are ‘educated’ to be ‘good’ and ‘nice’. We are not allowed to feel sad (“Don’t cry!”) or angry (“I hate you!”), and so we suppress these feelings and eventually even deny that we have them. More and more I see three-year olds coming to preschool acting out their suppressed frustrations in the form of aggressive behaviour. Now it seems to be the nature of the human ego (that which we think we are) to project what we don’t want to see in ourselves (because we have learnt that it is “not nice”) on others. “Jimmy hurt me!” or “white boys are always rude!”
And who are the easiest people to project our negativity on? Those most different from us. People from a different generation (“The youth of today!”) or of a different sex, but especially those with a different skin colour.
Who of us has not at some stage felt ‘racist’ feelings towards others of a different skin colour?
Emotions that are suppressed have effects. What you resist, persists. We have seen what happens to ‘nice’ priests (and many other ‘nice’ people, such as paedophiles) when sexuality is suppressed. Pornography can be seen as the direct result of millennia of suppressed sexuality. Worldwide there is an obsession with racism, but does it diminish? Does legislation help? No. It becomes worse.
And so our very need to be ‘good’ or ‘nice’ leads to ‘evil’. In early childhood already the love that we are is soon overlain by fear, judgement and mistrust (especially of ourselves). Only by realising that all our ‘negative’ behaviour is merely the result of the suppression of our ‘not niceness’, which ultimately is merely nothing, can we re-discover our true nature and our inherent connectedness with all life.