Group Therapy – Conflict of Communication Style

Last Friday, I had a difficult group session. Every time I go to group, I get triggered and I often leave feeling unsettled or sometimes even outright upset. It’s just that the things we talk about are very difficult things and a lot of the times, we bring up issues that everyone identifies and relates with.

The Friday before the week of Thanksgiving, I ended the session by saying that there is something important that I want to bring up in the next session. What had happened was, just moments prior to that, Kyle had shared something that had upset him. Like always, I jumped in to offer my empathy by relating to him and showing him that he’s not alone. When asked what his response was to my show of empathy, he told me that he wasn’t listening – that he couldn’t. I felt invalidated at that moment. So I brought up at the end of the session that it seems like every time I try to empathize with Kyle, he rejects my efforts. I talked about how I thought this wasn’t a big deal but since it’s been coming up more and more, and because I had been keeping it buried inside, that perhaps it was time we talked about it and processed it.

So, last Friday, after some hemming and hawing, we finally got to that point of opening up about the issue that I had brought up. We’ve had 2 weeks to process it because we were all on Thanksgiving break so group didn’t meet. Kyle confessed that he had been very nervous and stressed about the topic – he said that he had wished that he didn’t have to talk about this topic.

Since I was the one who brought it up, I was given the onus to explain what was so upsetting. I provided some context – some of the past things that had happened in group. I talked about how every time Kyle is upset, I would try to empathize by showing him how I relate to his story and how it’s affected me, in hopes that he’ll see that he is not alone and that I totally get it. I said that it was how I’ve always related to people whenever they’re upset or distressed. I explained that it was how I would like others to relate to me because I want to know that I’m not alone in how I feel (because I fundamentally think that I am a legitimate outcast of society, and that’s why it’s so important to me to feel like there are others on my “side” too).

Kyle then offered his perspective of the issue. He told me that whenever he’s upset and he’s sharing his story, he is often in such a distressed mindset that he can’t even listen to anyone else. He also said that he doesn’t want to – “It’s off-putting to me,” Kyle had said. “It’s off-putting because here I am telling my story of why I’m upset and another person chimes in and says that they’ve gone through the same thing, and that they know how it feels. At that moment, it’s like they’re trying to steal the spotlight from me! I’d rather someone just say that ‘things suck, the situation is bad, and I’m sorry’,”

Another group member, Sam, chimed in and called him a hypocrite for saying that because in the first few sessions of group, he had said that he didn’t want people to relate to him that way. Kyle’s defense was that over the course of group (we have been at it for 2 semesters now) that he had changed his mind about how he wants others to relate to him and how he wants to relate to others.

As I listened to him, I had a smile on my face. I didn’t want him to think that I disliked him or anything, although I felt a little offended that having someone share their story was like having them steal the thunder from him. It offended me because my purpose was to comfort – not to steal anyone’s thunder. If I’d wanted to steal the spotlight, I’d be the only one talking and I’d not let anyone else talk.

When it came to my turn to speak again, I decided to go with the truth. I said to Kyle, “You know, as you were speaking, I have to say… What you said made me angry. It made me feel angry at least… I felt angry because I didn’t like how you didn’t take into account that everyone communicates differently. Everyone has their own way of showing their empathy and for you to say what you said, made me feel like how I did it was wrong and that the only way you want anyone to relate to you is through your own way. That the ways others relate to you aren’t good enough… If all you want is for me to say, ‘Well that sucks, I’m sorry, man’, I could do that. However, that’s just not how I relate to others. To me, saying that sentence is very insincere and I hate hearing people tell me that things suck and that they’re sorry because to me, it feels like they didn’t even try to understand how I feel in that moment. It’s like they didn’t even put in any effort but rather, they just say, ‘Oh that’s tough shit’ – what it implies then is that I’m supposed to just move on…”

J, the lead psychologist, then said to me, “Jules, I want to challenge you on that… I want to challenge you on what you said about how all Kyle wants to hear is ‘Oh that sucks, man. I’m sorry’ because I really don’t think that’s what he’s saying… That’s not how I interpreted it”

I looked at Kyle, and said, “Well, that sure sounds like what he’s saying to me…” because I truly did interpret it to mean that.

Jenny, another member, chimed in and said, “That’s how I heard it too… That all they wanted was to hear that simple sentence and that’s all they need. I want to apologize too because like Jules, that’s also how I relate to others. I tend to tell them how an experience has affected me and how I’d like to relate to them…”

I felt a little relieved to know that I’m not the only one who empathizes with others this way – in lengthy expression of sadness, and relating my experiences to them.

I then said that I wouldn’t have known what Kyle needed – that I wouldn’t know what anyone needs.

Brandon said that as he was talking, he was thankful that I showed him empathy and that he takes empathy from anyone and in any form. “But if I were honest,” he said, “I think I’d much rather have just heard you say, ‘I’m sorry but that’s really rough’ and be done with that because my mind was at such a turmoil that I couldn’t even think straight anymore, so it was very hard for me to follow what you were trying to say. I tried very hard to listen to what you and Jenny said but it was just so difficult to do so…”

“But I wouldn’t have known that!” I said, feeling my anger rise again. It was so hard for me to accept that I can’t always fulfill what others need because I really can’t read people’s minds. “How can I change who I am at my core to fit others? I can’t always be on my tippy toes and try to act differently than who I really am. This is how I show others empathy. Why should I have to change myself to fit others?”

Sam said, “Now I want to challenge  you on that. You’ve been in relationships before, right? In relationships, don’t you change how you communicate depending on how the situation is?”

“I’m not saying I won’t change my tone or how I say something, but that I won’t change who I am fundamentally. That I’m not about to change who I am to suit others…” I defended.

Jenny then offered, “Well, I think maybe what Sam is saying is that sometimes we just need to know when to back down and put our own ego aside. That we just have to say simply to the person, ‘I validate your feelings’. I know it’s hard because I struggle with that too, but I think that might be what is needed at that time…”

I shrugged. I felt defeated – I felt like my point wasn’t being made and that no one understood what I was trying to say.

“Jules, it sounds like things are so black and white for you – that either you help a person feel better, or that relationship is over…” J said, gently.

It was hard for me to look at her in the eye, the way she was doing to me.

“Yeah… You’ve just talked about how you always try to empathize with others. But you take it all on yourself. It bounces back to you and becomes a negative thing. You can’t anticipate what others need but it seems like if you can’t, then you must not have done enough. You’re so hard on yourself, Jules!” Sam said.

At his last statement, I started tearing up because it hit me that I do take things on myself and that I take so much responsibility for others, even when it’s not necessary. I articulated this through sobs because I couldn’t control my cracked voice and my emotions. I tell the group how I feel like everything’s my fault, or that everything’s my responsibility because that’s how I’ve been raised – that was the model of behavior I was shown. I was always punished for my brother’s sake and because I was never given affirmation, I never knew when what I did was ever enough. So I have never felt enough. Not for anyone.

This feeling creeps into other aspects of my life – and right now, it’s something that I feel with Cherie sometimes. I often ask her why she would fall in love with me, when I don’t think I can ever give her enough. She would chide me and tell me that I’m silly – that I’m worthy, and that I deserve to be loved. She would always say things of that flavor to comfort me.

T then asked me if I felt like the burden had been taken off me now that we’ve talked about how I don’t have to take on everyone’s responsibilities in communication. At that time, it did feel like a load had come off my chest. I did feel a lot calmer knowing that I couldn’t have anticipated how Kyle needed to be comforted.

After group ended, I felt fine for a little while but then later, as I shared with Cherie about what had happened, I started to feel unsettled again. She gently shared with me that sometimes, some people just need someone to sit there with them without saying anything. That sometimes saying things make things worse. She shared her experiences in her training as a pastor that sometimes, all people need is someone there. She reasoned that perhaps Kyle is one of those people, but then also added that she thinks that Kyle is also someone who doesn’t want empathy and that I should not keep pouring in energy and effort to comfort someone who doesn’t want to be comforted. She told me how big of a heart I have and how I feel so deeply for everyone, and everything. She also told me how painful that is for me and how painful it is for her to watch me suffer through so much anguish for others.

I listened carefully to her – as I always do. I realized that she’s right. That really, I invest so much into people that don’t want my efforts. That I also don’t know when to keep quiet. That hit me the hardest because I know that it was something that I had been trying to practice in the first group I had joined. I had since forgotten that. Cherie gently encouraged me to start practicing that again.

“I know it’s hard for us people with ADHD to do that. To sit still. To be silent… But sometimes, that’s what is needed, my love,” Cherie had said.

I will definitely try to practice that more.

After all this, another feeling had also come up – it’s the feeling that I don’t really want to continue with this group any longer. Initially the reason I had even joined this group was because it’s an ongoing group – an experiment of sorts by CAPS to see how a group that doesn’t change in terms of who the members are would work and if that would be beneficial for other groups to do the same. I wanted to be able to talk to the same people without establishing prior context – however, lately I’ve been feeling jaded by everyone’s contexts. It doesn’t seem like anything’s changed in terms of what brought us to group and that to me, is getting stale. I’m hearing the same stories repeatedly and I’m getting tired of it. That said, I’m sure if I bring this up to S, he’ll ask me what I can challenge myself to do in this situation – how can I make this something that will benefit me in the long run… Perhaps the experience of being “called out” and experiencing people’s challenges really is at the core of this issue (of me wanting to leave), and perhaps I really am just stretched too thin with group… I’m not sure what the real reason is.

All I do know is that I definitely have to talk to S about this to see what his views are. For now, I’ll deal with the uneasy feelings myself and see what comes next.

 

 

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