by Lucy Howell, LCSW
The thought, “this would be so much easier if I were alone” has crossed everyone’s mind at some point. In life, we find ourselves vacillating between wanting to be part of group experiences and wanting nothing to do with group experiences. It is an awful truth of being a human that we are born completely defenseless and therefore entirely dependent on others in order to survive. While this dilemma alone is enough to see the human condition as just a smidgen rigged, remember that we also do not get to choose who we will be dependent on (parents) in our most defenseless state. So there we are: 5 hours old, no skills, completely reliant, and we didn’t even get to interview the people who take us home from the hospital.
Fast forward a few years and we get to start making some choices in who we rely on. We start making friends in school, we bond with members of our community, and our family relationships evolve. The difficulty all humans have in groups at one point or another is when another member engages in a behavior that threatens our sense safety. No wonder humans get so dysregulated by group relationships: we are hardwired to rely on others, but what happens when we feel like others turn on us? The natural urge is to eliminate the threat by terminating the relationship somehow. This can be especially difficult in a group of three because of its particular vulnerability to issues surrounding that “odd man out” feeling.
DBT of course asks us to mindfully attend to relationships through balancing objective, relationship, and self-respect effectiveness. Ideally, we use these skills along with observe and describe to make sense of our dysregulated feelings when we feel threatened. Sometimes we inform someone in the group that their behavior hurt us, while other times we privately acknowledge the bruise and agree to let go.
Establishing safety in groups takes time. If you have had strained relationships with your primary groups (family, school, friends) then you might already be aware of your own vulnerabilities in these dynamics. Do folks in any of your group relationships know about them? Do you have a sense of what bothers you in groups and also what you enjoy about them? How do you stay safe and maximize the benefits of being part of a group?
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