He Left Out the Best Part of the Story
Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us” (Kelly, 1953). Everyone has a story. By that, I mean we all put a spin on the events of our lives that fits the script of who we tell ourselves, and the world, we think we are. For better or worse, (usually for worse) for many group members that script has been unconsciously written to accentuate their failings rather than their strengths. In the Preface, I wrote that in individual therapy patients present their story; in group they play it out. Often group members believe the script is really who they are, but it’s not. In the trade, it’s called the toxic introject, the incorporation of the critical parent’s voice into the group member’s self-image.
Allow me to contradict myself here. Throughout this book, I have repeatedly said that the task of the group leader is to foster authentic emotional communication between members, but sometimes the facts of the case matter. They matter in the sense that members are responsible for their decisions, and ultimately it’s in their best interest to take control of their lives by acknowledging their part in how their lives play out. One advantage of seeing a patient in both individual and group therapy is that I get to see how members play out their spin. While I would never betray the confidence of information shared in an individual session in group (without the member’s permission), sometimes, I’ve come close. As a compromise solution, when I believe that the group member’s spin is heavily weighted toward the negative, and that our relationship is solid enough for me to balance that spin with something positive, I have said to the group member/individual patient, “You’re leaving out the best part of the story.” With that, I’m banking on the member’s commitment to honesty and that they’ll come clean. On such occasions, I have said, “Why can’t the story of your life be just a chapter?” Here’s an example.
Donald was dogged by self-doubt. In his individual treatment, he struggled with such questions as “Do I measure up to other men?” and “How do I judge myself?” His marriage was on the rocks, and he was smart enough to know that he was as much responsible for its failure as his wife. Donald had good reasons to feel plagued with doubt. He had been unfaithful to her and she knew it; but they hid behind their children, and claimed to have stayed together for the sake of the kids. Donald was in his mid-thirties, and from the outside looking in he had it all, the trappings of a successful man. He was a good provider with high-paying job, a beautiful trophy wife, three adoring children, the house in the suburbs with two cars in the garage, a beach house with a boat. Still Donald was unhappy in his marriage, and so was his wife. He complained that she didn’t love him enough. She complained that he didn’t love her at all. When he asked me the famous question that Freud asked himself, “What does a woman want?” I advised him, “Check it out with the women in the group.” He agreed.
At the next group session, he asked the group, “What do women want? I can’t seem to please my wife. She wants me to read her mind. I can’t do it. In fact, I don’t want to. But I feel guilty about it.” Sophia was reassuring. “You’re a good provider. That’s important to a woman.” Marsha wasn’t so reassuring and the conversation turned to his infidelity. She said, “You’ve been unfaithful. How can she trust you? A woman wants honesty.” I asked him, “Is this helpful to you?” Donald replied, “No, not really.” I said to the group, “I think Donald is asking a different question. Remember that old chestnut: ‘If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there, is there still a sound?’ Well, that’s been updated. If a man is alone in the forest and there’s no woman around, is he still wrong?” Peggy didn’t miss a beat. She said, “Yes.” Roz sardonically asked, “What was he doing alone in the woods in the first place?” Fred replied, ” That’s a no-brainer. He was looking for some peace and quiet–away from you.” We all laughed. Before continuing with the group interaction, there’s the back story I must tell.
In Donald’s previous individual session, he told me of an incident that took place the night before. During the middle of the night, his youngest daughter, aged 6, crawled into bed with him and his wife, complaining of a bellyache. With that, she began to throw up. His wife panicked at the sight of vomit and turned her back on the scene. Donald took care of everything. In a calm and competent way, he comforted his daughter, washed her up, cleaned up the mess, and threw the soiled bedsheets in the wash—all at 3 AM. The point of this story is that despite his doubts as a husband, there was no doubt about his love for his girls. He was a devoted, caring, loving father and he showed it. He was a stand-up guy as a dad and he daughters told him so. The following morning when the little girl woke up she hugged him and said, “You’re the bestest daddy.” Now back to the group.
I turned to one of the men, Phil, and asked, “What’s your reaction to all this?” He said, “I feel compassion for Donald. I struggle with the same self-doubt.” It was then that I said to Donald, “You’re leaving out the best part of the story.” He looked puzzled and asked, “What do you mean?” I said, “Tell the group what you told me in your last individual session.” He said, “What did I say?” I said, “May I tell the group?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Tell them about what happened with your daughter the other night.” After he told the story, Charlie asked me, “It’s a nice story, but why did you want him to tell us this?” I answered Charlie’s question by turning to Donald and said, “Your daughter’s unsolicited compliment to you is the greatest gift a child can give. And when she’s older, she will give you another wonderful gift. Your love for her as a child will put her in good stead for choosing a loving man when it’s her turn to marry.” A tear welled up in Donald’s eye. He said, “I’m so relieved to hear that. I feel very warmly toward you. Your words are reassuring. I’m just where I should be. I’m in the right place in my life.”