Periklis Antoniou Photo

Translation: Paraskevi Bassioti, MSc Counselling Psychology

Abstract

The present paper refers to the experiential record of my personal experience as a participant in sessions of a large group that took place in a one-year University Program of Clinical Retraining in Group Dynamics in Athens from September 2014 to June 2015. The emphasis is on the issues of silences, of the scapegoat and on the closure of the large group. The title of the presentation intentionally contains adjectives seemingly contrasting, as I intend to highlight the paradox of my experience within the large group. It is referred to as a large group due to its composition (it consisted of many members, approximately 40), as well as a small, time-limited one, with several restrictions and resistances and because of its educational nature, but maybe not only because of that.

Key-Words: large, group, experience, process, dynamics, silence, scapegoat, closure.

 

Foreword

The present paper refers to my participation in the Interdepartmental University Program of Clinical Retraining in Group Dynamics in Psychiatric Facilities, that was co-organized by the Department of Psychology of the Faculty of  Philosophy of the University of Athens and the A’ Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Athens and took place in Athens from September 2014 to June 2015 (172 hours in seven 3-day courses for a year). The training program consisted of lectures, theoretical presentations, group supervision sessions, experiential sessions of the small group (35 sessions of 90 minutes each), experiential sessions of the large group (14 sessions of 90 minutes each) and group sessions of theoretical process. It was addressed to psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, occupational therapists and other professionals working in psychiatric facilities. The specific program combined a thorough theoretical examination with experiential training, and its objective was to offer participants a cognitive as well as an experiential understanding of the group’s dynamics and processes. It therefore required personal involvement and exposure, with all the difficulties that this entailed. In my paper I will be focusing on the sessions of the large group, emphasizing the issues of silences, scapegoat and closure.

From the very beginning I identify several restrictions. The first one is how hard it is to put into words the experience, when what you lived has now ended and memory has retained or even constructed its own important aspects, withholding others. Furthermore, language carries its own restrictions and it cannot easily convey the richness and the complexity of the experience. Let alone when what happens in the outside reality (I refer to the crisis we experience that constantly connects us to the uncertain, the obscure, the unpredictable and the volatile) distracts you and it is difficult to concentrate.

Finally, I would like to clarify that the title of the presentation intentionally contains seemingly contrasting adjectives to highlight the paradox of my experience in the group. The large group has stirred contradictory emotions in me and as a result, at times it seemed to drag out and perhaps then I was feeling tiredness, exhaustion and rather a lack of meaning, while at other times I was experiencing it as short, mainly when things were rolling in a way, there was flow, and mostly when we reached the final session. It is referred to as a large group due to its composition (it was consisted of many members, approximately 40), as well as a small, time-limited one, with several restrictions and resistances and because of its educational nature, but maybe not only because of that.

 

Relating and the Group

The self… is a complex structure… shaped

by infinite and endless influences and exchanges

between ourselves and the others.

Therefore these others are, to be precise, part

of ourselves… we are members of one another.

                                                   Riviere, 1927

Individuals develop, evolve, are being shaped and mature within relationships, in groups, the primary one being the family. Through our “belonging” to all the processes that develop in the various groups we are integrated into, we shape ourselves and we simultaneously acquire a way of being with others. In order to exist, we need the other and the group, but also the group needs our participation in order to exist and ensure its continuity. In the group, each one brings and represents their own personal history within the social context they live in, but also what takes place at this particular moment in the group.

As Navridis (2005) points out, the group is constitutionally at a threshold, at a point in-between. At the intersection of the inside with the outside, the subjective with the objective and the social with the mental. And with this capacity it plays a very important intercessory role, in the sense that it provides us with an actual stage on which we perform and renegotiate our relationship with our internalized primary group, that is the family, as it has been recorded as a representation and exists within us, a relationship that is largely unconscious and fantasized. Therefore, the group is a mental space of inter-subjective meetings, where the intra-mental, the inter-subjective and the social coexist and where each member contributes to the creation and function of the mental reality of the group, while the group itself, through its own processes, contributes to the reconstruction of the mental reality of its members.

In the group, two opposite unconscious tendencies develop simultaneously: the need for belonging, that pushes the individual to completely identify and unite with the others in an undifferentiated and idealized “we” (ignoring any differences). In this phase, the members of the group share the experience that together they constitute a unity which sets them apart from all those outside the group, and this gives them a sense of omnipotence and delusion (Anzieu, 1984). Furthermore, another tendency leads the individual to distinguish from the whole, perceiving themselves as autonomous, independent and differentiated with their own wishes and needs. The similarities among the members of the group reinforce closeness, while the differences introduce distance.

The experience of the group condition as noted by Foulkes (1948) and Bion (1961) moves and reignites early symbiotic, psychotic anxieties that cause a lot of distress and confusion, let alone when the group is of a non-directive type and consists of many members. Initially, what is usually created are awkwardness, a feeling of unfamiliarity and fear of the unknown, which intensify regression and trigger intense anxiety and the fear of disintegration. Often, the members of the group have the fantasy that they will lose their individuality and their relationship with reality. More specifically, Bion (1961) has demonstrated three unconscious mental mechanisms that function as defense reactions against the psychotic anxieties and are intrinsic in every group, regardless of its composition. He named these mechanisms “basic assumptions” and compared them to the mental state of a project group that is based on logic and reality acceptance. The “basic assumptions” are the following:

a. Dependency, the dependent position: The group depends on a leader, who is expected to protect it.

b. Fight – flight, the schizo-paranoid position: According to this hypothesis, the group is formed in order to fight against an enemy or flee.

c. Pairing, the symbiotic position: The group exists to be led to a pairing, mainly between its leader with one of the group members, hoping that a new entity, a “child” or a “messiah” will be born from this union, who will save the group.

The common denominator of these three mechanisms is the mass dichotomies and the projective identification, the loss of distinctness between the selves, depersonalization phenomena, reduction of reality control and the lack of faith in the progress through the mental work. Essentially, the “basic assumptions” are used by the group members as techniques for coping with difficulties and avoiding thwarting. In other words, these mental mechanisms prevent, through regression, the development of team spirit and undermine the process of learning from experience.

So, the group often has to contain the ambivalence that is related with the interaction between the members’ tendency to support the group coherence, that is the group to continue its work, and the members’ tendency for catastrophe, that is the group to be disintegrated.

Moreover, in the group the discovery of dissimilarity is accompanied by the painful acknowledgment of the other as different, a stranger who threatens the ego with extinction. Confrontation with the others within the group is experienced unconsciously as a threat of physical dismemberment, mental fragmentation and loss of the ego identity that causes severe anxiety (Anzieu, 1984). The “other”, the “stranger” is experienced with fear, since they often represent a different viewpoint of the world that destabilizes or even threatens our own individuality, and as a result we defend ourselves by withdrawing towards them, in order to protect our survival, or even by prefixing our ego.

However, it is important, as accurately highlighted by Dalal (2007), that we “let the stranger into our home”, accommodate them, we could say, and let them affect us to the extent that they will enrich our own experience and the way of thinking about ourselves and the world.

The issue that arises in every group is how the differences can become a source of power and transformation, since they are essential for our evolvement. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1969/2004) stressed, it is the differences between people that make the dialogues necessary and potential: “The Other is always more than one can perceive”.

And as Bakhtin (1990) points out, “In what way would it enrich the event if I merged with the other, and instead of two there would be now only one?” And he continues: “And what would I myself gain by the other’s merging with me? If he did, he would see and know no more than what I see and know myself; he would merely repeat in himself that want of any issue out of itself which characterizes my own life.  Let him rather remain outside of me, for in that position he can see and know what I myself do not see and do not know from my own place, and he can essentially enrich the event of my own life” (Bakhtin,1990).

According to Bakhtin (1990), “I can identify myself only through the response I find in the eyes of the other”. Comprehension is an active process of reaction that is created through participation in conversations, through the peculiarities of the interlocutory exchange of the members at that particular time and not inside one’s head, but rather in the interpersonal space between them (Βakhtin,1984, 1986).

A group context tests our ability to tolerate uncertainty and doubt and our capability to negotiate similarities and differences. The difficulty and the challenge is therefore to remain in open communication, despite our underlying fears that we will be devoured in proximity or that we will be isolated at a distance (Agazarian, 2014).

 

The Large Group

Chronologically, the concept of the large group is initiated in 1946 by Tom Main who, in his article “The Hospital as a Therapeutic Institution”, created the term “the therapeutic community” and began to see the psychiatric hospital as a big therapeutic group. The principal pioneer of the large group’s idea in the therapeutic communities was Maxwell Jones (1953). At the same time, the concept of the large group, as a tool for behaviour observation, develops within the scope of the sessions at Tavistock.

At the other end of this use of the large group, as a tool for the harmonious function of an institution on matters of relationship dynamics that develop, Foulkes used the group-analytical theory for the study of large groups that allows the analysis and the interrelation of the personal with the group and the social. The large group for him is not only concerned with what happens in the here-and-now, but it reflects, at a transference level, what happens in the organism, in a conference or on a social and cultural level in broader society (Foulkes, 1964). Within this context, the large group allows the study of the social dimension of the individual in relation to the personal mental structure of each member. And according to Pat de Mare, the large group is a “microcosm of society” and helps the differentiation and the integration of both the personal and the group identity (Schneider & Weinberg, 2003). The large group provides the context for the exploration of social myths (the social unconscious), in order to bridge the gap between the self and the socio-cultural environment (Pat de Mare et al., 1991). The large group’s members learn how to be good citizens in the group and/or in society and develop emotions of belonging in a larger whole and not only in personal sub-groups (Pat de Mare et al., 1991). Pat de Mare connects the use of the large group with democracy in ancient Greece and its emphasis on the citizen concept. He believed that the large group (he suggested a medium size be better, for example 20 to 40 members — large enough to represent society and small enough for all members to see each other and participate) is a space of containment and transformation of hatred and aggressiveness through dialogue that gradually leads to the transcendence of individualized narcissism and the development of the co-dependent friendship/citizenship, a form of coexistence and solidarity, a kind of “Communion”, as it is perceived in the Greek Orthodox Church (Pat de Mare et al., 1991).

 

“Our Small Large Group”: An Experiential Record

The fact that one is dealing with the unknown, is getting in touch with something they don’t know about and they don’t control, is a difficult situation. On the other hand, it is even harder to metabolize this fear of the unknown and transform it into an experience of exploration and knowledge.

The first experience in the large group involved confusion and discontent for the many different unknown people, the strangers, the unfamiliar ones. I wonder: “What am I doing here, a stranger in a strange land, how do I get to know and connect with all these strangers?” (basic assumption of flight, according to Bion). But at the same time, I was eager to explore how we were going to produce relationships, how we were going to relate with one another and find meaning in this coexistence. After years in the educational system as a trainer who welcomes new trainees every year and participates by interacting in the co-creation of educational-experiential groups, this was a good chance for me to see things from the trainee’s perspective, hoping to enrich and broaden my knowledge and experience through the experiential process of interaction.

In the initial phase of the large group, intense conflicting emotions and many questions arise: “What kind of a group is this with so many members, what is the purpose, what is the meaning, how do we start, what do we say, what don’t we say, who determines what we say? Who are we that compose it? Are we laboratory animals under observation? Are we trainees who will observe the group’s dynamics we are going to co-construct? Who has the responsibility for what we will create? Where did we come from? What connects us? Were we chosen — and under what conditions? Or did they accept everyone in order to meet the needs of the educational program? How do we start, from where?”

If I look inside me, fear of exposure in front of the odd strangers dominates. Fear about whether the things I am going to say will remain without response, if they will be accepted and acknowledged, if some will identify with my thoughts or my emotions, that is, if I speak in such a way, so that the others identify something from themselves in my words or, conversely, if I too would meet with the words, thoughts and emotions of the others.

Many members (I didn’t identify with them), experiencing intense anxiety due to the emotional atmosphere of ambiguity and uncertainty that dominates in the group, turn to the leader, to provide answers and help us out of the difficult position. Bion’s basic assumption of dependence prevails. The leader seems to be the omnipotent wise man who has all the answers and can guide us in this threatening unknown universe.

A play that I saw (after the training program had ended) in the Athens Festival, “The blind people or the sound of the small things in a big dark landscape” by Maeterlinck, comes to my mind. The plot is as follows: A group of blind men and women was stranded alone and helpless in a forest, as the abbot who accompanied them in a walk outside the institution that looked after them suddenly dies, leaving them in the hands of the gods. These congenitally blind people, who have no names but their identity is determined by external characteristics, initially do not realize the death of their leader and seek him desperately, and while he doesn’t appear they try to communicate with each other with brief sentences to ease the fear and make sure that they aren’t alone. Time goes on, night is falling and the fear for the unknown elements of nature grows bigger. Some women are praying incessantly, others are looking for a way back to the safe and familiar place of the asylum, a baby is crying in his blind mother’s arms. At some point of their anticipation, they accept that the one they are waiting for doesn’t exist and they acquire the knowledge that no one will come to save them. However, they don’t act. Lost, abandoned and helpless, they remain locked in inertia and a desperate silence dominates around them.

During this phase, perhaps trying to get out of the inertia, we open the windows of the room to let the light in, as if we are afraid to see in the dark. Afraid of what? Our blindness? Afraid to turn within us, to the unknown dark and unexplored self or to our coexistence with the dark strangers? What dominates is the need to do something and not to talk about what we feel or what we have difficulty in accepting about ourselves or the others or even to reveal these in front of the others. Teenage-like revolutions follow, accompanied by attacks to the program and the leader and the eternally repeated Shakespearean question of “to be or not to be”, what is the meaning of the large group? How are we going to define it? What is the reason for its existence?

Initially the large group seems to be defined in contrast to the small group. Is it all that the small group isn’t? While relationships in the small group empower you, the large group seems to be the receptor of all negative projections. Dichotomies dominate: the idealized good, small group and the unbearable, bad, large group. What do the small groups have that the large group doesn’t? Or what is the small group of the large group or even the large group of the small one? Are we wondering if there is a large group that can fit us in with our bad and good emotions?

In due course, we experiment with various things. Is it to kill our time? To sidestep our differences or to find meaning in our coexistence? At times we count chairs to count presences, or rather to denounce the absences that create —mostly negative— emotions and are usually experienced as a bad object within the group, and then we remove chairs to deny the absence of the missing members, meaning that we pretend they don’t exist, thus shrinking the distance, the void left by the empty chairs. At other times we look to denounce the perpetrator(s) who removed the empty chairs and therefore the presence of the absence in the group. Aren’t the absentees considered members of the group? What kind of group is this that expels, rejects its absent members? Aggression is thus diverted to the present member(s) who removed the chairs, while we feel an understanding for the absent members who, after all, aren’t in a position to justify the reasons of their absence. Then we leave the empty chairs in place, but the void, the distance grows. Who regulates the closeness or the remoteness? When does the distance shorten and when does it grow? What do we say for those who are absent that they don’t say themselves? And what do they say (through their absence) that we don’t say?

After some meetings, things become a little more pleasant, less scary and devouring in comparison with the beginning of the large group. Play makes its appearance. We place bets, we bet on prediction. Up to how many will show up today? Do I want to play? Do I want to stay out? Do we play in order to leave the fears outside, to soften them, to dispel them? Do we play to avoid boredom, tediousness from the burden of the things we don’t say and we avoid to name? Do we play hide-and-seek with the forces of our unconscious, with the underlying power of our censorship? Does our anxiety find an expression through dramatization?

Why is it that what took place in our small groups were almost never discussed in the large group? As if there was an unspoken prohibition that exacerbated the difficulty of the small sub-groups within the large group to talk and converse meaningfully. How many groups talk with one another in the large group? And where do the things that we don’t say go?

 

Silence in the Large Group and Silence of the Large Group

Theoretically, within the large group you can talk about whatever you want to. Paradoxically, this much-desired offered freedom triggers intense censorship (to the members and the group itself, as a collective entity). Let alone when the large group’s members are mental health professionals, so the less you say the less you are in danger og being exposed to the experts’ look and their readiness to interpret and categorize.

As Navridis (2005) claims, censorship in the group and censorship of the group have as permanent trigger the presence of the others and mostly, the presence of the leader. The Other represents the unknown, the one we don’t know about, either inside us (in our unconscious) or the other as alterity, and this is why they provoke intense anxiety. Sometimes this anxiety is diffused through a prolonged and ambiguous silence that says a lot more than what it tries to cover. This is why it is described as eloquent. Silence, in this case, comes as an answer to the difficulty of sharing thoughts and emotions in the group. There are, of course, many types of silence that emerge over a group’s lifetime. In the present paper I focus more on the silence associated with censorship.

Silences are periods during which what happens isn’t articulated with words. It is articulated in non-verbal ways or acting out. Silence is communicated physically with looks, movements, noises. Silence corresponds to a primitive, pre-verbal way of communication that relates to regression, since on one hand it presupposes it, while on the other hand, when prolonged, it makes it even deeper and it is never the same, neither in quantity nor in intensity (Navridis, 2005).

Some members of the group, for reasons that concern their personal story, undertake to represent the silence of the group (silence as a role). These members identify with emotions that circulate in the group but cannot be articulated or heard (Navridis, 2005).

The group seems to experience a splitting among those who talk and the silent ones, who are often experienced by the talkative members as suspicious and angry, as if they threaten the group’s identity; as a foreign body; as if they were other strangers to whom often negatively charged emotions, that impede the group’s work, are projected. In essence, the group as a whole has difficulty perceiving the silence of the silent members as its own product of unconscious interaction, namely something that the group itself creates, co-constructs and does not come from the outside but from within the dynamics of the group itself.

As far as I can remember, initially silence was for me a safe shelter to connect with myself and actively listen to what happens within me and outside of me. It was as if I had the need to find a space inside me to converse with myself before going out to the group. Silence had the importance of defending the uncertain, as if I was seeking space and time to figure out what was going on. In this phase, I probably perceived the talking of the other members as noise, as chatter, or they gave me the impression that they talked because they couldn’t tolerate the silence, the void and the distance among us. Or on the other hand, I couldn’t bear to be distracted from the conversation with myself. How much, in this phase, was I listening to the others when they were talking? In due course, I began to feel that silence was pressuring me, it became defence and denial to expose myself, most possibly out of fear of how I would be heard, if others would like what I said, if I would face disagreement, and much more. In this phase, silence was at risk of becoming an absence, a fear of expressing thoughts and therefore, denial of communication with others. And as Bakhtin (1984) says: “for discourse itself as for the human being, there is nothing more terrible than a lack of response”. How will we meet, if we don’t talk? If we don’t respond to what the other says? How will a space of communication and exchange be created?

I am contemplating how terrifying freedom of expression can be (in both senses, initially scary, before silence becomes speech, but also fascinating when it finally becomes speech, position). On the other hand, I had begun to be moved by some words and I felt threads of connection with members of the group. I was realizing how hard it is to talk, when you really have something to say and not just to show off your ego, but also to be silent and listen not only to yourself but also to what is said from the other group members and to be heard without being interpreted or misinterpreted, or also how hard it is to defend something you feel or think, even when no one else perceives it the same way.

One last observation that will give me the chance to link with the next subject is that in our group you could often feel there was an intense censorship, an underground strictness about what is allowed to talk about (hence the silences that imprisoned emotions and thoughts) until, at some point, an intense emotional outburst took place that led to one group member being made into a scapegoat, even though they had left the group.

 

The Scapegoat’s Role in the Large Group

The scapegoat, as a phenomenon of group dynamics, is the member that becomes the expiatory victim of the group (possibly due also to some idiosyncrasy of their own) and on whom the group attributes the blame for its difficulties. It is a collective defence mechanism to which the group resorts in order to deal with anxieties, through the use of splitting and projection. As Moureli (2010) remarks, from a group analysis point of view the creation of the scapegoat consists in transforming the group members’ inner mental conflict, which concerns unacceptable or unbearable emotions and wishes, into an interpersonal conflict. Such a conflict could involve emotions of hostility, inadequacy, dependence, guilt etc. Through this mechanism, the source of anxiety is limited, being personalized as the person who becomes the scapegoat. In some cases, Moureli (2010) continues, the scapegoat does what the rest don’t dare to think consciously, but wish to do unconsciously. What they detest or are afraid of in the scapegoat they detest or are afraid of in themselves; that is, whatever is attributed to the scapegoat is that what unconsciously concerns the group in one way or another.

So our group, in a meeting around half way along its course, took it out with anger and rage on E., who had done supervision with Kaes and who later  left the training program for personal reasons. She was accused in absentia by some members of the large group for being unprepared and very shallow regarding the management of her clinical material, wasting too much time and thus tring us out. E.’s behaviour seems to have brought us before a narcissist wound, as she discredited our image and our scientific image in the eyes of the distinguished teacher and analyst, Kaes. She embarrassed and disappointed us. She hadn’t met our expectations and our high standards, which were perhaps what prevented us from daring to come forth and expose ourselves as well, through the presentation of the clinical material. So, in order to “take vengeance” of her, we transformed her into a container for unloading and unburdening our negative and aggressive instincts, projecting onto her all the weaknesses and inadequacies (that we didn’t dare to confess for ourselves), as well as our own unacceptable, censored aspects. A question that arises also from the following is ultimately: “Did she waste us (our time) or did we waste her?”, “Did she leave or did we exclude and expel her as an unwanted element?”

In an unconscious way, E. became the expiatory victim, in order for the equilibrium of the large group to be restored. Through her we found a convenient discussion topic, the group livened up and its coherence was (seemingly) reinforced. Probably in this way we maintained our group illusion, according to Anzieu (1984), by projecting the negative aspects away from us. Essentially, we confirmed and we deluded ourselves that we were completely exempted from everything we blamed her for and attributed to her.

It should be noted here that there were also silent voices defending E., that weren’t heard in the large group, but in the small group. S. (a participant in the training program) reported to the small group how badly she felt for the way some members of the large group had behaved towards E. She remembered Tennessee Williams’ play “Suddenly, last summer”, which in very broad terms refers to a dark case of cannibalism of a homosexual poet, Sebastian Venable, by some impoverished young men during the interwar period.

On the other hand, I was thinking how convenient it was for our group (but also, extremely disappointing) to take it out on somebody who wasn’t there to defend their own reality and position. Wasn’t it the same person we were attacking in the back that stepped forward and offered to bring a topic for supervision, getting us all out of our difficult and passive position?

Talking about E. (who, we should note, is a relatively young colleague who is still building up her professional experience) as a stranger, a foreign body, something that is outside of us, what was it that we couldn’t accommodate inside of us or what did we renounce inside of us, by assigning the role of the scapegoat to her? Because, as Seferis says: “the stranger and enemy, we’ve seen him in the mirror”. Maybe we dealt with her as a problematic member and we avoided looking inside and among ourselves in order to touch issues that concerned the life of the group or even of ourselves, such as competitions, conflicts, need for attention, acceptance and recognition, as well as our difficulty to mourn that we can’t know everything, that we can’t treat everything, that we aren’t omnipotent and omniscient and that there will always be aspects of our soul that will elude us.

If containing means learning through non-action, as opposed to learning that takes place through action (Agazarian, 2014), then I am probably thinking of the large group’s lack of capability to contain and transform its aggressiveness through dialogue. Therefore, in an unconscious way we became just like the families who come to us, the professionals for therapy, and nominate one member as problematic.

 

Closure of the Large Group: “The Sweet Nostalgia of the Future”

Every group that comes to its end experiences a feeling of mourning and separation anxiety and this is why an element of nostalgia and sadness dominates, sometimes less and sometimes more obviously.

The last meeting of the group for me is summarized in the phrase “the sweet nostalgia of the future”. A phrase that particularly touched me, maybe because it contains many elements, seemingly contrasting, yet somehow able to coexist.

This sentence seems to summarize the vacillation between the hope that we lived the experience of the large group, we tolerated coexisting with all the fears and anxieties, experiencing a shift –where the stranger became a little more familiar, or we found traces of ourselves in them– and at the same time, the disappointment for what we didn’t dare or didn’t have time for and so we lost the opportunity; at the same time we realizing that although what we lived, said, felt and did may have been a lot less than what we could have done, we still managed to get there, and we hope that in the future we will do it better. What is going to be accomplished in the future, making the most of our present experience, will give us more capabilities to meet with ourselves and the others. Therefore, nostalgia doesn’t remain attached to what has been lost irreversibly (a painful reality which we certainly need to mourn for), but becomes a promise and an urge for something that we are going to seek in the future.

After all, the mental process of self-seeking through our relationships remains incomplete, inexhaustible and perpetually evolving.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot, 1943

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