Wow… I just walked out of the most intense group therapy session ever. I’ve got stress muscle soreness all over my shoulders and neck – the trademark physical sensation I feel when I’m extremely stressed and anxious.
What caused this? – you might be curious to know.
It started out innocuously enough. (Since I’ve been using so many initials and it’s starting to get confusing who’s who, let’s give my group members actual names – of course, they’re not going to be their real names).
It started when Brandon said that he was upset over the Westboro Baptist Church showing up on campus. It was unsurprising seeing that Brandon is gay and that he had been raised in not only a conservative but also abusive household. He was forced into conversion therapy and somehow managed to survive it – albeit he was broken and traumatized from it. Brandon is an intelligent guy – and I relate to him in many levels – so I was unsurprised when he launched into a tirade about how despicable people are to not be empathetic towards him, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in general. He talked at length about how he felt like nobody cares to listen to his views – that nobody cares about him.
I added to his line of thought by talking about how I felt when I was at the counter protest and about how despite the fact that I was only there for 10 minutes, that it had impacted me in a way that I never thought it would – it made me wonder if God hates me and is therefore punishing me for my sins. I told him that I related to him and how he felt. I told him that he is right in saying that people so cruel to want us to die just because of our orientations.
When J (the lead psychologist) asked Brandon how he felt when I expressed my empathy and agreement, he told her that he felt good to know that someone understood him, his position, and how he felt. He expressed that he hadn’t felt the same from any of his friends or even family. That no one truly understood how he felt.
I chimed in and told him that no one truly will understand because unless they’ve been through something similar, it’s a very difficult concept to address. After all, how many people can say that they’ve had to grapple with ideas of their faith and their very being? How many people can say that daily, they wish that they were normal, or that they weren’t judged for who they can’t help but love? Not many people can say that unfortunately because people like us are still in the minority.
From there, that was when it happened.
For the first time in 2 semesters, our group walked into a conflict. It wasn’t on purpose.
Kyle meant well. We all knew that – he was always someone who is very kind, and honest. We’ve promised each other that we would all be honest with each other while we’re in the safety of the group therapy room. We promised we would say what was on our minds. And Kyle did that. He told Brandon that he felt that he could understand what Brandon felt but that he could also see why the WBC protestors feel the way they do. He told Brandon that he just simply can’t pick sides because both sides are right in their own way – who is he to say that one is more right than the other.
Brandon was upset because he didn’t understand why Kyle could say that. He didn’t understand why Kyle felt that the WBC could be right in their beliefs. J intervened and asked Kyle what he felt. Or why he said what he said. Kyle explained that he just always thinks that way – that that’s his opinion and that he can’t take sides.
“Kyle, in this case, Brandon was asking for some empathy. That you feel for him…” J said gently.
“Please, just be empathetic for me. Feel empathy for me. Just feel empathy for me,” Brandon pleaded.
Kyle didn’t understand what Brandon was asking for. In his mind, his opinion that he should be impartial was his way of communicating his empathy. He didn’t understand why Brandon was upset and why J was pushing him. I decided to speak.
“I’m curious, Kyle… Where did that come from? I mean, did you pick the impartial side because you feel like you can’t be judgmental of either side? Is it because you don’t want to feel empathy for Brandon? Or is it just because you can’t reach that emotion?” I had asked. I was genuinely curious. I didn’t mean anything cruel by it at all.
Kyle responded negatively, “Why is everyone saying that I don’t have empathy? I feel like everyone’s just focused on me right now. That you’re all on me…”
J intervened again, asking Kyle what he was feeling at that moment. Kyle couldn’t answer. He tried to answer, several times, but kept coming up short. He told us that he was just so stressed out that his thoughts aren’t being articulated and that we were all just misconstruing his true meaning.
The exchange continued and I started to feel extremely distressed and uncomfortable. I started getting the stress-related muscle soreness that I often feel when I’m stressed out and anxious. I knew that we were in the middle of a conflict – I didn’t like it and I wanted to withdraw. I caught J looking at me several times, like she was keeping an eye on me or something.
J managed to get Brandon and Kyle to a point where they were both able to express how they felt rather than what their opinions were on the political issue. J stressed that we weren’t interested in the political issue, however important they may be, but rather that we wanted to know what Brandon and Kyle were feeling instead.
That was when Kyle just broke down and cried. When J asked, “Kyle, do you often feel this way? That people don’t understand that despite you having shown empathy, that people would say that you didn’t?”
He said that he has experienced that numerous times – that he didn’t understand why people would think that way.
Moments later, he started sobbing.
“Is this why I always feel so alone? Like no one cares? Is it because I can’t show my empathy? Is it because my friends, family… My ex… Thinks that I’m just brushing them off and not showing them empathy? But that’s how I’ve always communicated. There’s little difference between opinion and how I feel…” Kyle said, between sobs.
“It’s hard, Kyle. It definitely is. I mean, it’s so much easier to push people away with a well-intentioned but intellectual comment, than it is to tell us how you feel at any given time. I recognize that because I know that I do the same exact thing myself. I mean, it’s hard… It sucks. It makes you feel so vulnerable… And I get it, you don’t want to be vulnerable. But that was why I asked the question I did earlier. That was why I was curious. I was wondering if you were doing what I usually would do myself. It seems like you do…”
It was quite a breakthrough because Kyle stopped sobbing and became thoughtful. He started to realize what we were all trying to say – that none of us felt his emotions whatsoever. We heard his opinions, but that was it. We didn’t know how he felt.
“Do you think this is what you need from the group? That in the future, you want them to help you recognize that you’re not showing your feelings?” J asked, “Now I know it’s been hard and you can say that you’re done… But, if you’d like, do you think that’s what you need?”
After some thought, Kyle said that he sure did. He said that he felt that he had been stagnating for a while now. That it was because he didn’t want to keep doing this anymore – this hard work. He said that he felt the same with individual therapy as well.
We continued to process a few other thoughts and emotions from the group about this interaction for a few more minutes. I admitted to the group that I felt so distressed that I had wanted to withdraw but I was glad that I stuck with it, no matter how uncomfortable it was.
J then said, “This is hard work!” She sounded almost triumphant. She sounded proud and impressed at the same time. “You did hard work!” She said loudly, looking around the circle.
She was right. We did. We didn’t shrink away. Instead, we pushed each other to the precipice of a breakdown. We pushed Kyle harder than we’ve ever done.
J admitted that she was pushing very hard. That she was doing it because she knew that we would benefit from it, that Matt would benefit from it. T – the co-facilitator – spoke up and said that he felt that the group had been teetering on the verge of a conflict for a long time now but that we’ve never really been ready to embrace that. He was right. We have been close to conflict many times but we’ve never really followed through with it. Somehow, one of us would break away and that would be the end of that.
Today though… Wow… I’m proud of us. That was impressive. That was hard work. I’m still left reeling from the session – an hour after it’s ended, I’m still feeling like I could curl up in a ball and cry. I still have the stress aches… Unfortunately, I have to put that in the back burner and go to work now. I have to stop here. I have more thoughts about today – about how J had been courageous herself for pushing because I noted that she had looked like she was emotionally struggling with the decision to push Kyle as well…
I am just so impressed by the people I interact with – especially these people that I trust my life and secrets to. I feel so fortunate to be a part of this group!