On feeling safe – paradoxes of group life

A frequent complaint to be heard in many group situations is the remark ‘it doesn’t feel safe here’.

So common is this utterance that I wanted to give some time to exploring its implications for the dilemmas we face in working with groups of all types.

The remark is most likely to be heard openly voiced in the experiential setting of training and psychotherapy groups . However I suggest that it is a common phenomenon in the politics of all groups, often expressed more covertly as an internal dialogue or within a subgroup, which configures before and after meetings.

The questions raised through this complaint are therefore also relevant to the politics of the workplace as well as to the challenges of experiential group work. The remark concerning safety in the group setting is often spoken with a tone of admonition as if responsibility for feelings of safety lay elsewhere and outside of the participation of the speaker and often, although not exclusively, with some figure of authority such as a course leader, therapist, chairperson or parental imago.

The implication is that if only the ‘feeling of safety’ prevailed that full and uninhibited participation in the group’s activities would ensue.

I am not suggesting that there are no factors that need to be taken into consideration for the functioning of social life. Clearly people are capable of psychological and physical violence towards one another. However the fear of loss of oneself in the group setting relates not only to an apprehension, which may or may not be presently real. It also arises from a panoply of factors including individual histories and an inevitable struggle over what can be allowed to come into relationship with others and how that performance is to be managed.

In my view, these dilemmas take place in the context of the everyday politics of human interaction. Here we find ourselves caught up in the ongoing process of paradoxically forming and being formed by each other in terms of whom we can be and how we are to be seen.

This process of being together (the co-­‐creating of the dynamic flux of identity) can never be fully controlled. I am here connecting the desire for the feeling of safety with a strategy of control aimed at the preservation of a particular definition of who one ‘is’ in the presence of others.

At a functional level, the ability to influence one’s relationships is critical and perhaps life preserving. When dysfunctional, the desire to control may become unrealistically inflated and lead to difficulties with participation in group life. The latter may include the sustaining of a veneer of comfort and mutual affirmation through the avoidance of difference and exclusion rather than an

engagement with the struggle for recognition with its attendant potentialities of shame and social negation. Similarly, symbolic grooming through platitudinous ritual certainly has its place in group formation and the amelioration of social tension. However we also need to go further with each other in our human search for the development of meaning and this does mean having some capacity to tolerate a feeling of risk to the sense of who one is both to oneself and to the potentially shaming eyes of others.

However I am not suggesting that this is an either/or dichotomy in which functionality and dysfunctionality mutually exclude each other. Again paradoxically these features are present in the lives of all groups although not necessarily articulated or given meaning. I also believe that they represent a developmental process, which leads us back to Freud’s formulation of ‘his highness, the baby’.

What Freud was drawing attention to was a developmental stage in which ones visceral and emergent psychological needs are unconditionally and perhaps omnipotently met. Of course the process of leaving the intrauterine world and of becoming a person does not always go well. In fact one cannot become a person in the sense of a social being without the troublesome intrusion of the life world and its other beings.

This intrusion, initially in the form of wider family and sibling relationships tends to colour and influence later participation in adult group life. For example family dynamics may get enacted in workplace situations where relationship tensions sometimes recall earlier developmental themes. Eriksson suggested that these early themes might revolve around issues such as trust versus mistrust and shame versus autonomy. In other words our participation in group life with its attendant dilemmas of safety is imbued with a history of previous experience, which for all of us will differ. The attitudinal disposition towards the group in terms of safety will therefore also necessarily differ. It is the negotiation of these differences, which may ultimately be the creative work of the group or what S.H.Foulkes expressed therapeutically as ‘the theatre of ongoing change’.

What I am suggesting is that the tensions encountered in our theatres of change may evoke desires for safety, which can be unpragmatic, anti-­‐developmental and based on a regressive return to the state of his or her highness the baby. This is unpragmatic because; if not based on existential threat, then it may create a too defensive bubble of self, impervious to the challenges of forming and being formed by others. This in turn attempts to fix our ever-­‐present process of becoming a person thus making it difficult to engage in a deepening of experience in what it means to share the world with others. Thus paradoxically, safety of the individual through social development may be enhanced through some toleration of not feeling safe. This may prove anathema in a culture with powerful fantasies of immortality and eternal youth in which we can all aspire to have everything and lose nothing.

The foregoing is a prelude to a seminar discussion on Hertfordshire University’s Doctor of Management Programme at the Roffey Park Institute.

Nicholas Sarra April 13, 2012

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