Here is the first chapter from my new book, “Some People Don’t Want What They Say They Want–100 Unconventional Interventions in Group Psychotherapy”
Phrases that Inhibit Spontaneous Interaction
If the goal of the group contract—Say how you feel toward the other members and why you feel that way—is to promote progressive emotional communication, there are several words and phrases that automatically shut the process down. While quite acceptable in everyday parlance, the following don’t pass muster in group psychotherapy, because they reveal nothing about the interpersonal feelings between group members. The aim of group is for members to express spontaneous emotion in the here and now, not the there and then (nor the now and then either).
In this chapter, I present a list of my all-time favorite spur-of-the-moment-interaction stoppers. It’s a partial list of some of those phrases that inhibit spontaneous communication. Any phrase that tends to water down a forceful expression of feeling is example of this phenomenon. Throughout this book, I demonstrate how I disrupt the use of these phrases (and plenty more) with unconventional interventions.
1. When group members react to each other by saying, “That’s interesting,” I say, “Interesting is such an interesting word.” In other words, you can do better than that. “Interesting” says nothing about the member’s emotional response. It’s a non-communication and, in the context of group therapy, it means nothing.
2. Members avoid emotionally intimate interactions by flattening a feeling. When complimented, instead of saying how they feel toward the other, they may say something impersonal. When John told Pam, “I love you,” she replied, “Thank you.” I said to her, “John made himself vulnerable when he told you that he loved you. But you didn’t match him and make yourself equally vulnerable. You gave him nothing emotional back. ‘Thank you’ is what you say to a waiter when he hands you a menu.” Pam corrected herself and said, “I feel touched and flattered.” I said, “That’s much better.” Clearly personal, she was acknowledging his feeling toward her and letting John know that his words had a profound impact on her, quite a difference from “Thank you.”
3. Another non-feeling word is “uncomfortable.” When a group member says, “I feel uncomfortable with what he said,” I reply, “Uncomfortable is not a feeling. It’s a reaction to an unwanted feeling. What’s the unwanted feeling?” This also applies so statements like, “I feel numb”, I feel paralyzed” or “I feel frozen”, I feel defensive”. These are all reactions to unwanted feelings.
4. “I wish you felt differently.” Wishing is an id function, a fantasy, perhaps, something in the future. Members frequently have a wish for themselves or another member; it’s an imagined experience and therefore not a feeling. When group members get lost “futurizing” about how much better their lives will be at some distant time and place, I will ask them, “And what are you going to do in the meantime?” We all are of two minds about almost everything: we want to change but we resist it at the same time. When group members’ response to my question is vague and clearly ambivalent, I ask the more pointed question, “What are you getting out of your unsatisfying life situation, just as it is?” Invariably, the answer is “Nothing.” But I never believe it. Although I realize that the person is truly unhappy, there is always some emotional investment in the status quo, even if it is a neurotic one. In the trade, this is known as secondary gain gratification.
5. “I want to say that I’m angry.” Similar to “I wish” statements, “I want to say…” is about a future event. To a group member making such a statement, I say, “So say it.”
6. When a group member says, “I’m curious about why you said that,” I respond, “Curiosity is intellectual; it’s not a feeling.” When a member says “I’m curious” to another member, he is hiding behind the mask of his thoughts, avoiding exposing his vulnerability. It is an attempt to gain control over an interaction by placing the other member in the position of exposing feelings while the “curious” member takes no emotional risk at all.
7. “He who tries, fails.” The ego does not recognize the word “try.” You either do it, or you don’t do it. Either a person acts or not. When a group member says, “I tried to…..” I reply, “He who tries fails.” Some members don’t understand what I mean. By way of example, I explain, “If someone tells you that they tried to have an orgasm—did they have an orgasm? The answer is obvious. No, they didn’t. They either had an orgasm or they didn’t.” As in real-life relationships, group members tend to shy away from committing themselves to intense emotions for fear of being seen as weak, or of feeling rejected. Members will dilute their feelings with sentences that begin with “I guess” or “I think.” These are examples of the same ilk. One of my favorites is the ambivalent lover’s bet-hedging statement, “I think I love you.” It is the classic line of the non-committal paramour.
8. My all-time favorite is “I feel that…” because the word ‘”that” is a sneaky way to couch a thought as a feeling. A group member once said to me, “I feel that you’re crazy.” I replied, “You may be right, but that’s not a feeling. You’re diagnosing me in the service of your hostility toward me.” A feeling statement is comprised of three words—“I feel _____” (fill in the blank with an interpersonal feeling such as love, hate, irritated, disdainful, enraged, frightened, lustful and so on ). As soon as a member says, “I feel that…” they are off a feeling and onto a thought. A group member who wasn’t sure which was which came up with a clever solution to the problem. Carla, frustrated with my correcting her for saying, “I feel that…,” or correcting her for straying from an interpersonal feeling toward a group member and giving a thought instead, printed out a list of emotions from the internet. After that, when she strayed, I said, “Consult your cheat sheet!” Jamel liked the idea so much, he told Carla, “Next week, bring a printout of the list for everyone.”
9. There are intrapersonal feelings and interpersonal feelings. Intrapersonal, or self, feelings are akin to taking one’s emotional temperature in group. Such statements as “I feel sad,” “I feel empty,” “I feel depressed” are self-feelings. They are intrapersonal statements, and are not interpersonal communications. To a particularly affectless and verbose member, I directed, “Say only sentences with three words. The first two are ‘I feel…’ to be followed by an interpersonal feeling.”
10. Some members use their intelligence to avoid feelings. I have said to overly intellectual group members, “Brilliance is a defense against feeling.” To those members I also say, “That’s a wonderful analysis but what’s your feeling toward Jeffrey?”
The list of spontaneous-interaction stoppers could go on and on. But, at this point, I trust that the reader gets the idea. In the following 99 chapters, examples of unconventional interventions are presented that bring group members, and the group as a whole, back on the right track.