Group Psychotherapy Column: Sex, Drugs, and…Politics

Tevya Zukor, Ph.D.
Tevya Zukor, Ph.D.

More than 65 years ago, Rock ‘N Roll was invented as its own musical genre.  From its inception, many people were confused by this new-fangled music and feared that simple exposure might compel one to engage in sinful thoughts, or even worse, sinful behaviors. I can only imagine that somewhere in the early-‘50s, the following group transcript may have existed:

Member 1: If Marilyn Monroe marries a guy like Joe DiMaggio, what chance do I have of ever finding happiness?

Member 2: Not that your love-life isn’t important, but has anyone heard this new song on the radio – “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets? I got to admit, it’s pretty catchy!

Member 1: That’s the DEVIL’S MUSIC!!!  How can you listen to such filth?!? First you’re swinging your hips to the son; next thing you know you’re sleeping with every suitor who comes a’ calling. Harlot!!!

As absurd as this notion may seem in the modern era, the birth of Rock was a tumultuous time for American culture.  Many people thought that the messages contained in rock songs were “Un-Godly” and contrary to traditional biblical values.  Fans of the music were just as quick to dismiss these fears and often had no problem telling detractors to shut their word holes and let them Rock Out in peace!

Cultures shift and evolve, but human behavior is much slower to change. While it is certainly rare to still find someone who adamantly believes Rock music is the primary cause of all the world’s social ills, we have simply shifted the blame from music to whatever the new fad of the moment may be. We continue to re-package and re-brand the supposed cause, while keeping the effect (ie. “The destruction of all that is Good and Holy”) the same. The human mind is conditioned this way. We understand the world works on a cause-and-effect basis.  The worse the effect, the more we fear not understanding the cause. To prevent this from happening, we are more than willing to invent any cause that can mitigate our responsibility for the effect.

“Why was that woman assaulted?”
“You saw the way she was dressed!!”

“Why was that teenager shot?”
“He shouldn’t have run. If he would have just done what the officer said, there wouldn’t have been a problem.”

Hopefully, anyone reading this column can immediately understand the logical fallacies and the immoral conclusions of the two statements above. However, we can also probably agree that we have heard other people; whether friends, family, or so-called celebrities; espouse such victim-blaming attitudes. We are quick to judge these people – we often think of them as stupid, worthless, or something worse. We question their heritage and their upbringing.  We sleep soundly in the knowledge that we are right and they are wrong. We are enlightened; they are ignorant.

The reality is that issues of equality and fairness are as old as humankind. Societies have wrestled with what it means to be just and civil since the dawn of time. Again, the exact circumstances change with the times, but the underlying questions endure. People are passionate about these discussions because it taps deeply into our beliefs about what it means to be a “good” human being.

The stakes are high, which means people are passionate.  With intense passion, we are often driven to try and convince others to our way of thinking. After all, if we are certain we are right, then why would we want our friends to be wrong about something so important?

In our pursuit to be “right,” we often forget to be civil…and that is where all of us mental health practitioners and group psychotherapy clinicians have a vital role in bettering the lives of our clients.  Somewhere in the vitriol and passion that emerges around social justice issues, people forget that their “enemy” is another human being with drives, passions, and motivations that make them more similar than different to us.  Just as we do, these people on the other side of the issue also have people who love them and care about them. They want good things for their loved ones, just as we want for ours.

Group therapy has often been described as a microcosm for the larger society.  The skills that group members learn translate into the real world because group is a reflection of that real world, but on a smaller scale. The benefit of group is that it can also be a social laboratory – a place to explore new and different ways of being with other people. However, as is true in the larger world, group is also a place that when core beliefs of members clash, conflict often emerges. Conflict can be destructive, but it doesn’t have to be. Fortunately, unlike the larger world, there are facilitators in the group and our role is to assist members in navigating challenges that might otherwise be overwhelming.

I work at a university; which means all of the members of my groups are college students – the “best and the brightest” who are motivated to learn and grow and share that knowledge with the world.  However, in recent years, I have noticed an alarming trend. Specifically, there seems to a disturbing lack of civility when disagreement is involved. The old expression, “Reasonable people can disagree reasonably,” seems to have been replaced with, “I’m right and you’re wrong. Either change your position or accept that you’re terrible human.”

I have seen conflicts emerge in group that have become personal very quickly.  I think back to a few years ago when I was running a process group at a fairly conservative university.  One of the group members was facing a personal crisis in their life.  She had recently learned that she had unexpectantly, and unwantedly, become pregnant. She was torn about what to do. She knew that one day she wanted to be a parent and that having children was important to her identity, but she was also concerned that having a child at that point in time could not only derail her ability to graduate college, but might also lead to a poor quality of life for her child; as she did not have the means to support a family.

The woman truly did not know what to do.  She considered having an abortion, but also contemplated adoption or keeping the child and raising it on her own. She recognized that each option presented the possibility of some wonderful positives, but also some terrifying negatives.  Finally, when faced with such a significant, life-altering decision; she did what we would want almost anyone to do in that situation – she brought this dilemma to the group; not because she wanted the other group members to make the decision for her, but because she knew that she would need support and compassion from people she had learned to value – no matter the decision she ultimately made.

Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending…and I honestly have no idea what choice she ultimately made regarding her pregnancy.  The reason for this is that the young woman; who was seeking support, empathy, and kindness from her cohort; instead was greeted with divineness and judgement.  Within minutes of her sharing her situation with the group, one member told her, “You’re not a murderer, so I know you won’t get an abortion.” Another member asked her how she got pregnant if she wasn’t planning on having a baby. A third decided to shift the focus of the group away from the woman’s particular situation and instead to the larger issue of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body.

While each of these three group members were passionate about their perspectives and points of view, none were able to adequately attune to the woman’s primary purpose for disclosing to the group; which was her need for support and empathy while navigating the most challenging situation she had ever experienced. Within minutes, the woman was in tears. She had been seeking support, but instead found hostility and judgement from people she valued.  Shortly after her disclosure, she ran out of the room in a panic.  Before any of the facilitators could intervene, she had left the counseling center and would not return e-mails or phone calls. She would not respond to repeated requests to meet and process what has happened.

It is one of the saddest moments I have ever witnessed in group.  For weeks, I could not stop thinking about this young woman who was trying to make the best decision she could in a brutally tough situation. Instead of finding solace and support, she was driven out of the group and further isolated at the very time she needed connections and empathy.

In the aftermath, I wondered what I and the other co-facilitator could have done to assist this young woman. Was there some intervention that we missed? Was there an opportunity to refocus the group to the emotional needs of the woman rather than the alternate agendas of the three other group members? Like most moral conundrums that emerge in group, there are no easy answers or ideal solutions to such complicated issues.  Ultimately, my co-facilitator and I had to accept that while we may have acted differently with the benefit of hindsight, there are no guarantees that this situation would have ended any better (or worse).

As often happens, I hadn’t thought about this situation in years…until a colleague shared a story about something that occurred in their group last week. A young man on the Autism Spectrum arrived for their first group of the semester.  He was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, in support of Presidential candidate Donald Trump. Another group member, upon seeing the hat, immediately stated that she would not participate in a group with a bigot. She explained that her parents immigrated to the United States from the Middle East and that her entire family was proud to be American. She deeply believed that if Donald Trump were to become President, her family would risk deportation. She was scared; afraid of this possibility for her and her family. Instead of remaining in the group, and possibly talking with the new group member about his reasons for supporting Mr. Trump and using it as an opportunity to learn and educate, she walked out of the group when the facilitators refused to ban the newest member, or at least insist that he remove his hat.

These two situations have one thing in common: People who most needed the opportunity to process their intense feelings of sadness, rage, and potential loss never got the opportunity. The attitude of “My beliefs are right, so I will not tolerate those that are different” ended up winning the day at great cost to the members who may have simply needed some support and understanding.  While it may be easy to blame people for their close-minded attitudes, the truth is that we are products of our environment. We grow up and develop in the context of a larger society.  When our current political system reinforces divides and differences; when society tacitly accepts that it is okay to demonize and shun those who disagree with us; it is hard to blame the group member for being a product of that environment. After all, they are simply behaving in a manner consistent with their years of upbringing.

If we, as group facilitators, want these scenarios to have a different ending, then we need to model the change that we believe to be important.  We all have an obligation to teach and encourage discussion. Conflicts do not have to be dogmatically reinforced and highlighted, but instead can be explored and gently challenged. We need to set a clear message for our groups: Disagreements are not automatically personal. People can still like and care for one another; even when we do not share every value or belief.  We know that our similarities are far more important than our differences, but we must forgive some of our clients who have never received this message…and we must teach them a better way.