Irvin D. Yalom
Wednesday night's group went the way existential group therapy is designed to go. We all lived our roles as we do in the real world. We had the quiet artist one who smiles and listens. We had the seething store manager who is caught between a condescending boss, unteachable subordinates, and disrespectful patrons. There was the action-oriented businessperson whose hair-trigger anger has been honed by years of litigation. One member's anger-to-forgiveness ratio was relatively low. Another member was balance on the love's tightrope between betrayal and abandonment. Some felt imprisoned by their moods, others by their corporal bodies. Several members were physically missing but no less present. There was the socially anxious extrovert, the optimistic depressive, the agoraphobic team leader, and the recovering addict who trusted the prescribing physician to a fault. Finally, there was the wounded healer, the designated leader who would rather serve by following.
That was the cast of characters. All the world's a stage, of course, and our little slice of it, an almost too-cozy consult room, lined with chairs, love seats, and sofa, with lights dimmed and voices hushed, had no audience save for ourselves. Instead of a curtain rising, hoisted by unseen forces, I closed the heavy door, marking the opening scene of our 90-minute improvisation. Thus began a drama, a comedy, and a history, all rolled into one, a study in post-modern realism.
The action began with introductions, old members to new ones and vice versa. By describing the week we had each had we revealed our individual modus operandi, the way we function "out there." As always happens, the way we function "out there" is also the way we function "in here," on our own private stage. In some groups, cross-talk is discouraged, if not forbidden. In ours, an open discussion is a must. If you have a question or comment, you speak it. If a response to what you have said moves you to either explain, defend, push back, or appreciate, then you do that; openly and honestly. We all waited for the plot to thicken, and it did. We hear stories of conflict out in the world, but conflict in the room, in the here-and-now, is what we need to see for our play to have substance. The out there stuff has come and gone. “This is this,” as Robert DeNiro’s character, Michael, demands in “The Deer Hunter.”
I had intended to talk about balance in this piece. How in group we had discussed the way a “healthy” person uses both brain hemispheres to makes sense out of this existence and to navigate between and through the obstacles we encounter. I was thinking about how clients endeavor to manufacture the ideal product of any therapy: wholeness. But in introducing this topic, I couldn't help but be distracted by the process—forgetting the product entirely. But why shouldn't I? Life is only a process, after all, isn't it? We never get there, wherever we think “there” might be. We bring to group--and to the other parts of our life--our despair, our curiosity, our compassion, our very selves, and we act out our roles--now a hero, now a villain, now a jester--the best we can, hoping to portray our message honestly (or at least fool the critics and get some good reviews). We come alone, in whatever costume seems to fit, but we leave together, wearing the experience.