Change, Liminal Zones and Groups by Deborah Sharp

I’ve always been interested in Greek and Roman myths, archetypes and the idea of a liminal space, where the old rules don’t apply and there is room to try on new identities. Physical liminal zones, outside of the city limits, were used for rites of passage for adolescents growing into adulthood. They required a Master of Ceremonies that would lead the participants through a series of rituals signifying specific landmarks which symbolically allowed the change required to be full members of society. Often these rituals were terrifying, but fruitful. They offered the chance to unearth parts of the self and bring them into the light, fostering integration and creativity. Through facing their fears, participants grew into new versions of themselves while forming lifelong bonds with the other adolescents in transition. Although the Master of Ceremonies would announce the official transition at the end of the period in the liminal zone, it was the participants themselves who announced themselves ready for the change. But these kinds of transformations do not only occur in adolescence, or in Greco-Roman times. What better analogy could there be for what happens in therapy groups?  

In my own life, there have been many liminal zones and liminal periods, which have always led to groups, either those I joined, or those I formed.

Group members identify what that they would like to change in their lives and set goals around those visions. They enter the group room, a liminal zone, and the leader facilitates a relational experience for each member and for the group as a whole. Connections within the group generate emotional responses, and members ultimately come together as a cohesive unit where they can feel safe enough to make desired changes. These growth experiences are sometimes terrifying, frequently difficult, often deeply meaningful and transformative. There may come a point where a member decides their goals have been met and they are ready to take the changes outside of the group room. The group leader as Master of Ceremonies can validate their readiness and ensure that group and member have the appropriate parting rituals that honors the work that has been done and the loss to the group as a whole.

In my own life, there have been many liminal zones and liminal periods, which have always led to groups, either those I joined, or those I formed. While talking to a friend recently it became clear to me that I have a unique way of approaching change and encountering new experiences. I seem to lack what others understand as a healthy fear of change. This might be an inborn characteristic enhanced and reinforced over my lifetime by the experience of adapting to new circumstances. Or perhaps it is because I have faced so many different types of change throughout my life and therefore have a learned behavior or reaction. In any case, when faced with a completely new set of experiences, culture, or tasks, and especially when faced with a new social group, fear is not my predominant feeling. Mostly, I feel curiosity, determination, a little excitement, and confidence with a tinge of resignation that enables me to just do the next thing and be alert to what I need to learn to be successful in the new arena.

This was also true when my parents and I moved away from Spain when I was four years old. My father was reassigned to a job in upstate New York. Going to the plaza in Madrid had been a highlight and when we arrived in New York, I looked forward to going to the park to meet other children my age. I remember the feeling of pleasant anticipation and expectancy about the excursion. However, I discovered that the children in the park didn’t speak Spanish, much less the Spanglish that was my patois at the time. I remember them laughing at the way I talked. I experienced an awful feeling of having done something wrong but not knowing what it was. At the age of four, my reaction was to stop speaking entirely until I could figure out what language the kids were speaking. Eventually, I began speaking again, this time exclusively in English.

My work as a labor coach taught me how to drop down into deep connection with relative strangers. This ability to connect later became a touchstone for me in my therapy work with individuals and with groups.

That incident was the beginning of a pattern and a script for me on how to enter a group. First, recognize that change has happened and that this is a whole new world. Avoid making a fool of myself if at all possible. Determine what element of the new environment is the most important. Withdraw, or stay in wait and watch mode, long enough to get myself rearranged in a way that will match with the new group, and then enter with my best guess about what will be effective and engaging. Most of the time, it works, leading to my sense of confidence. And in the times when it doesn’t work…well, I can survive that also, a good fact to know about myself.

As a young mother, I served as volunteer coordinator for an organization called The Childbirth Connection while apprenticing to become a lay midwife.  The Childbirth Connection, formed by a mother, provided labor coaches to unaccompanied women in labor in area hospitals. Again, I found myself in a liminal zone, where young women “crossed over” to become mothers with the assistance of their doula and doctor as Masters of Ceremony. My work as a labor coach taught me how to drop down into deep connection with relative strangers. This ability to connect later became a touchstone for me in my therapy work with individuals and with groups.

My ability to connect with relative strangers also served me well in my next transition, or liminal zone, one that no one would enter willingly. When my second daughter was diagnosed with a particularly difficult form of Leukemia at age 7, connection with the other parents, especially the other mothers, made it possible to endure the one thing every parent fears. My first instinct was to look to the parents of other children who had been living with this terrible experience in order to understand the culture and rules of this new world we had entered. I felt a sense of urgency to learn how to support my daughter on her journey as well as how to support my other children. I knew that we would only have one chance to get this thing right, to help us cope with the unknown that lay ahead. Joining an informal network of connection with other parents as well as structured support group meetings gave my family and me a framework within which to face the many painful changes we faced throughout our journey.

Support and connection with this community of families helped my other children to feel less alone in their experiences and, later, in their mourning. Some of their closest connections and fondest childhood memories came from this community. My own way of coping with the tragic loss of my daughter was to dive back into the community, serving as Executive Director for Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation in Austin. Helping other families in the way that we had been helped was healing to me and felt like the right way to honor my daughter’s life.

And, under my leadership, we formed even more groups! We made sure there were groups for every part of the journey with childhood cancer. Once families had stabilized after an initial diagnosis we welcomed them into our New Diagnosis Group, a formalization of my experience connecting with other parents. This Psychoeducational Support Group helped parents learn how to negotiate the medical system, how to help their children, how to care for themselves. A monthly Family Meeting provided a space for families at all stages of the journey to gather, share food, and share their stories.  These self-help groups were about building community and support structures, sharing wisdom with each other in difficult times.

For the siblings of cancer patients, who often felt left out, we developed a week long camp, Camp Grey Dove, funded by donations. For one week each summer, siblings had the opportunity to experience their own liminal zones, where they could share deeply with others who became like family, or like the kind of friend you could cry and laugh with. The kind that has shared a difficult journey with you, that can say the unspeakable, a constant companion at your side.

Although some children stayed on treatment for many years, we walked with many as they finished their courses of treatment. For post-treatment care, we offered psychoeducational support groups. The group helped parents understand their own mixed emotions as well as how to help their children navigate this often confusing period. And, for families of children who did not survive their diseases, we offered a Bereavement Group. This was a time-limited weekly group followed by monthly meetings. Many bereaved parents continue to attend the Family Meetings, continuing to connect with those who had witnessed their most painful experiences.

My own experiences participating in and leading these groups confirmed for me the healing power of connection between human beings. I wanted to expand my group leadership skills with more understanding of theory and method, which led me from social work school to my current role as a Senior Counselor at the at the University of Texas as well as to the development of my private practice. Through AGPS, I have been able to continue my education, as I learn deeply and experientially in trainings, conferences, institutes and with other group leaders, by example. Having just returned from this year’s AGPA Annual Meeting, I feel inspired to continue to grow in my groups, and in my group leadership skills, by studying in the reading program of the Center for Group Studies, joining a consultation group, and by attending every AGPS training I can sign up for!

As I have stepped into the role of President-elect this year, it feels like I have entered a new liminal zone and notice the attendant curiosity and excitement that is my first response to change as well as a touch of nervousness. In reviewing the list of previous Presidents, it is humbling to think that my name will be added to that list. Harkening back to my early experience in the park in New York, I don’t want to look foolish. I worry that I won’t have the kind of time that is required to meet the needs of the organization, or that I may stumble in my eagerness to do a good job.

My emerging vision for our organization includes a commitment to maintaining all that  has been good and fruitful at AGPS over the years, continuing the visions brought forth by previous Presidents.

I reassure myself that this experience is different. This time, rather than waiting and watching, I am determined to listen and connect. Now, I have a community in place, with mentors and a team, groups, a board and AGPS members to help me understand what is most important to the spirit of the organization and where we want to head over the next couple of years. Fortunately, current AGPS president Dave Kaplowitz has promised to help me understand the role more completely, and I am so grateful for this transitional year of training.

My emerging vision for our organization includes a commitment to maintaining all that  has been good and fruitful at AGPS over the years, continuing the visions brought forth by previous Presidents. At the same time, I want to support innovations in our organization, as our Equity and Diversity committee led by John Cooper takes root, as we look at how to better support and incorporate agencies and agency employees into our fold, and as we continue to provide offerings relevant to both our more experienced members and to those who are new to practices or to groups. I hope that you will all join me in that liminal space as I navigate next year’s transition to leadership of our growing community of lifelong learners, teachers and believers in the power of group.

Deborah Sharp, LCSW, CGP runs a variety of groups at UT EAP for faculty and staff, and in her private practice where she specializes in chronic and catastrophic illness and disability. 

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