Connecting Through Political Upheaval by Stacy Nakell

While reflecting on change with the writers in this issue, I have been struck by the enormous impact of the change in American leadership this year and its reverberations in my life and practice.

I was comforted by my engagement with many AGPS members on Inauguration Day at our annual meeting. Though our topic was technology, we made time to talk about the shock to our systems as Donald Trump took over the office of President of the United States. I felt less alone as many of us shared surprise, fear, and deep concern.

As editor of The Voice, I encountered much resistance when I tried to assign to other authors an article about this national change. Left to my own devices, I decided to try to write the piece myself. I stopped and restarted several times. The topic feels dangerous. I’m probably not alone in hearing statements from clients like “I unfriended my mother (or sister or friend) because of who they voted for.” These revelations remind me of the toxic effect political differences can have on relationships. I tread carefully in these areas with my groups, mindful not to allow members to be scapegoated for unpopular beliefs. After a few tries, I became aware that I really didn’t want to put myself out there on this topic. I wanted to give up!

Then, I remembered Alejandra Spector’s plea and challenge to AGPS members in the Winter 2017 issue of this newsletter: not to avoid the difficult conversations and to stay engaged. My social work background reminds me that I need to take action in the service of social justice. I know that I cannot be silent when I have something to say.

I am determined to accept Alejandra’s challenge. I would like to facilitate a conversation with all of you, to talk about the range of feelings we are experiencing during our new president’s first year. I would like to hear from you when you agree with something I say, and, equally, I would like to hear from you when you disagree.

Within the current political climate, I have been frightened in ways I have not before, about my country, and its democratic principles, however flawed, however fragile.

I want to be clear that I’m not talking about people’s decisions about political affiliation. Those are very personal choices, based on individual core values and beliefs. Instead, I am talking about the shifts in our government created by the election of Donald Trump specifically. The past several months have been among the most divisive I have experienced in America since I have been alive. There is something non-relational about current events. Truth is not always truth, impulsivity is the norm, lines between in-groups and out-groups are being drawn. Within the current political climate, I have been frightened in ways I have not before, about my country, and its democratic principles, however flawed, however fragile.

As I sat down with one of this issue’s authors, Deborah Sharp, she shared some wisdom from her years facilitating groups for UT faculty and staff about the critical components of healthy change – transparency, clarity, incorporating the old into the new. This framework helped me to understand why Trump’s transition to power has been so deeply unsettling for many people. He has injected a fundamental insecurity in the ground beneath our feet that is difficult to verbalize. Two attempts to institute a ban on travel from majority-Muslim countries as well as unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a viable replacement appeared to be chaotic and had the effect of deeply polarizing communities along political, ideological, socioeconomic, ethnic and religious lines.

To steady my mind within this whirlwind of rapid and disheartening change, I turn to some of the theoretical frames that guide my life and practice.

My background in philosophy offers some comfort regarding the dynamics of societal change. I have gained an understanding that societies tend to expand and contract, much like individuals. A period of growth and change is often followed by a pulling back toward that which is more familiar, if dysfunctional. This perspective helps me to extend compassion to those who have felt left behind by recent progress and to maintain faith that the political wave will move once again in a more peaceful, respectful direction.

Looking through a relational lens, I am acutely aware of the importance of preserving attachments between people in communities, as well as of the dangers of scapegoating. As therapists, we understand that when a group of people is described by a single word, such as “illegals,” each person in the labeled group is stripped of their identities, their stories, their humanity. As history has shown us time and time again, when leaders utilize our instinctive fear of the “other” to turn us against one another, we head down very violent and dangerous paths.

To steady my mind within this whirlwind of rapid and disheartening change, I turn to some of the theoretical frames that guide my life and practice.

Many of us have already seen first-hand in agencies and private practices the cost of the non-relational policies enacted by the administration thus far. Deportations have ripped apart families and protections for LGBTQ people are being eroded. Progress toward greater accountability for our police officers in minority communities and away from the privatization of incarceration is being reversed, and hate speech has been normalized.

Writing this list, I feel a sense of despair. Where does this leave us? What can we do? How can we use our understanding of groups to help ourselves, our colleagues, and our clients make sense of these difficult times?

I was encouraged that the day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of people of all races and genders chose to come together in solidarity, in groups, through Women’s Marches all over the country. Voice committee member Gianna Viola had the opportunity to attend the Women’s March on Washington. She reflects on her experience in terms of the small and large group process she experienced:

My comfort zone includes the intimacy of small groups of friends and loved ones. I have long been curious and a little fearful about the implications and responsibilities inherent in my larger and less intentionally chosen group memberships. Members of these larger groups have needs and values that conflict with each other in ways that can result in suffering, sometimes inflicted callously or knowingly. It isn’t always clear to me how best to participate as a member of these groups amid feelings of anger and fear, which tend to lead me toward hopelessness and despair.

Our recent national elections were one example of such a situation. I wasn’t sure how to manage my heavier feelings around those events. I didn’t know how to balance knowns and unknowns about a wide range of people’s behaviors, experiences and motivations, while staying connected. One reason I attended the Women’s March on Washington was to try to learn something about that very question. And my biggest takeaway was about the usefulness of small groups in helping me to enter the large group.

Though this was an exciting opportunity, I also felt a little sad and apprehensive. While friends and family back home found solidarity with each other on that provocative inauguration weekend, I opted to leave my community behind to be with hundreds of thousands of strangers. Fortunately, the friends who welcomed me in DC had some great instincts about the developmental process that can facilitate engagement with a large group. They hosted about 10 friends, family, neighbors, and travelers, feeding us well, housing us comfortably, and providing us with all of our needed supplies. We had ample time to bond with each other, and in due time we headed out together to join the sign-carrying masses. Like attuned parents or skilled therapy group leaders, our hosts had provided a secure base from which we would explore and make our marks on the larger world that day. Throughout the day, we were not always in physical proximity as a group, but our bond helped me to feel safe, energized and empowered to truly enter the larger group.

Many of you are political activists of some sort, on varying scales, in different venues, and some have become more so in the months leading up to and since the most recent national presidential election. For those like me who continue to explore effective ways to enter our larger groups to promote change, I encourage you to consider ways in which smaller groups in your own lives and practices can facilitate that experience.

I was recently reminded of how group therapy can help members challenge stereotypes and create sub-groups to incorporate vulnerable members. This year, I added a young adult male, G, to a therapy group with others in their later twenties, thirties and forties.(1) I sought consultation from several trusted colleagues about the age gap, especially given G’s recent transition to adulthood. Would other group members attack him? Would he fit in? Was it a good idea? Would my group fall apart? After years of individual therapy with me, G was ready and willing to join a group, and, given that he had many core issues in common with the current members, I decided to add him to my Monday night group.

I am comforted by the fact that, as group therapists, we know how to heal ruptured relationships…We know the power of unity in the face of division.

I sat with a lot of anxiety for G’s first few sessions. Members both suppressed and expressed their concerns and discontent about my inclusion of someone so young, with such a different set of life concerns, into the fold. After some ruptures and repairs, group members began to relax some of their resistance. As the leader, I drew their anger toward myself and helped them to put into words some of the reasons they were upset with me for bringing him in. This included feelings triggered by his stories, as group members re-experienced some of the painful experiences of their younger, less healed selves. Later on, G was able to verbalize his own anger at others when he felt talked down to, and to explain that he liked it better when they talked about their own experiences than when they told him what to do.

I am comforted by the fact that, as group therapists, we know how to heal ruptured relationships. We know how to create sub-groups, how to look under the surface for connections to prevent the isolation and scapegoating of our most vulnerable members. We know the power of unity in the face of division.

I would like to invite you all to use the comments feature at the end of this essay to share your reactions, as well as examples of ruptures and connections around these issues in your own lives and practices.

(1)Permission granted from group members to include this vignette.

Stacy Nakell, LCSW, CGP has been in private practice in Austin since 2007. She specializes in work with those struggling with Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs) such as hair-pulling and skin-picking. She has been a trailblazer in the use of psychodynamic techniques, including group therapy, for this population. Her article A healing herd: Benefits of a psychodynamic group approach in treating body-focused repetitive behaviors was published in 2015 in the International Journal of Group Psychotherapy. She is currently writing a book about her approach.

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