A Different Kind of Performance

by Christine LaCerva

Several readers have contacted me about my recent blog entries that deal with the work with children in our multi-family groups. They want to know more about performance and play. Do adult groups do performances as well? Do they play? If so, how?

In fact, performance is one of the foundations of our group therapy approach, no matter how old you are. Performing is our ability to be who we are and — at the very same time — to be who we are not. It’s often easier to see it when we look at children. When a child says his or her first words, there is a group response, usually by the family. The child is performing as a speaker, and we want more. We’re excited, and relate to the child as becoming — becoming a speaker, a communicator, a member of a community that shares a language. It’s a joyful experience that transforms the lives of both the child and the adults who are living life with her or him.

Now here’s the kicker: the same is true for adults. We are all capable of taking the risk to try things we have never done before. It could be as simple as making a decision about how we’re going to handle something that usually throws us. For example, I know that when I get home and my work day has been difficult, I can often take it out on the person I’m coming home to. What if I decided to do something new — a different performance of turning the key, opening the door, and saying  “Hi, how are you? I had a really rough day. Can we work to have a good evening together?” It’s simple and it’s hard at the same time. We have the ability to decide we’re not going to focus only on ourselves, but instead, perform the activity of being giving to someone else. Performing with others is a social and emotional activity that can help us develop. If we continue to perform — to use our creative capacity to do new things and to do old things in new ways, it can create possibilities and transform our relationships.

One of my adult therapy groups has ten members who have been working together for a year. In a recent session, they created a challenging and provocative performance.

The session began with Cheryl saying she had something important to tell the group, that something was happening to her. She said she knew something was going on the previous weekend when she had bronchitis, her back went out, and she hurt her foot.

The group asked Cheryl what she was talking about. “Over the last few weeks,” she said, “I’ve realized that every time I open something up in here, Christine shuts me down. She isn’t interested, she doesn’t want me to go on...”

The group was clearly uncomfortable with what Cheryl was saying. As the therapist, I was taken aback, since I couldn’t remember shutting her down, and had no idea what she was referring to. I felt defensive and wanted to speak. But I decided not to make any assumptions, and see what the group would do with this.

The group began to deconstruct what Cheryl was talking about. Diane said, “I know that’s since you came back from your trip to Europe, you’ve been getting sick, one thing after another. I thought you were having a reaction to your vacation being over and going back to the daily tasks of everyday life. I don’t mean to psychoanalyze you — it’s just what I was thinking.”

Andrew shook his head. “I’m thinking that one of the things we’ve been talking about here is taking ourselves more seriously,” he said. ”Are you saying that you’re mad at Christine because she’s making demands on us?”

Cheryl said, “I know this sounds confusing. I don’t know if I’m mad at Christine. I think I’m both thrilled about our work in here and kind of mad all at the same time.” Others in the group nodded. “I’m beginning to see that I’m getting something unexpected in this group — something I know from all my twenty years in traditional therapy that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.” She started to cry.

The group began to explore this new performance that Cheryl was doing. Some felt confused by what she was saying. They wondered what this unexpected thing was that she was “getting” from the group. As the therapist I appreciate how difficult it can be to try to describe the experience of not quite knowing what’s going on. Several times, Cheryl said she didn’t know how to talk about this.

“Why do we have to know how?” I asked. “Let’s keep building with what you’re giving us.”

Cheryl looked at me. “That’s helpful,” she said, and was silent for a moment. “Okay. I think what’s happening is that I’m not a patient anymore. I’m now a non-patient member of the group. Does that make any sense?”

“It doesn’t have to!” I said. “Making sense isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as far as I’m concerned.” The group laughed.

Cheryl continued. “You have to understand — I’ve been in therapy my whole life. I’ve always been a Patient, with a capital P, especially when things get tough. But now, even with a 102° fever, bronchitis and a bad back, I didn’t go back to the ‘poor patient’ performance I always do — OH, POOR ME! I NEED HELP.” She looked at me. “I didn’t know that was possible. You and the group have given me this.”

Other group members urged Cheryl to tell them more, that they were with her but still weren’t sure what she was saying. Andrew said, “What do you mean when you say that you were mad at Christine, that she shut you down? I hear that you feel really strongly about it, but I haven’t experienced it myself.”

Cheryl looked thoughtful. “Remember how a few sessions ago I was telling the group about planning to go to my college reunion — that I was feeling crazy and frightened about seeing the man who rejected me back then? I thought I would be humiliated to see him. I framed everything I was saying with ‘Oh, I’m so passive, I’m so tortured, I can’t make decisions.’”

Cheryl paused as the group remembered this extended discussion. “So eventually we asked Christine what she thought. And she just said, ‘So if you don’t want to go, don’t go.’”

Cheryl looked at me. “You refused to relate to me psychologically. I began to perform — we both did. I wasn’t ‘the patient’ and you weren’t ‘the therapist.’ We were performing something else,  something that’s not psychology.”

Andrew nodded. “You’ve been busting your ass to break out of a very painful history — from making demands on your parents, to beginning to look for a job, to being in group therapy after 20 years in individual therapy.”

“Exactly,” Cheryl said. “That’s what I’m saying. This group — it’s working. I can see how in individual therapy being a ‘patient’ is what you’re supposed to be! What I mean is that you just weren’t very engaged by my ghosts, my fears. You’ve basically been listening and listening and finally you said ‘I hear you and now what?’”

Cheryl looked around the room. “Do you all get what I am saying?”

“Yes,” I said, “I think I do. You’re developing.”

Diane smiled. “We did that!” she said. “Maybe we should all be working on not being patients.”

Cheryl smiled. ”Yeah, we did that!” She turned to me. “She’s not a patient anymore... but you’re still a therapist, right?”

The group laughed.

Understandably, many people come to therapy to “get help.” At the Social Therapy Group, we think that the activity traditionally thought of as “getting help” usually means becoming a passive consumer of the therapist's insight. In social therapy we work to do something else — to build an environment in which people can work together to create something new. What we create together is emergent, continuously creative, driven by new conceptions of collective performance, and at best, it’s transformative for everyone. It’s an environment of discovery, and ultimately we discover how we can create new emotional performances by working together.

What new performances would you like to be able to create? Leave a comment and inspire us.