Article contributed by Barney Straus, LCSW, CGP, FAGPA
I attended two two-day IGPS conferences in 2013 and 2014, From Shame to Encounter: A Relational Gestalt Approach to the Impact of Shame on Therapist and Client, featuring Bruce Aaron, MSW, and Exploring Barriers to Intimacy in Group Psychotherapy, featuring Ronnie Levine, PhD. I knew when I registered for each event that I would find myself in dual roles during the two days. A fair number of the attendees at each conference would be current, former, or future students of mine. This meant that I would need to be cognizant of what parts of myself I wanted to share with those with whom I have some degree of authority over.
Graduate classes in group psychotherapy usually include a substantial experiential component (Shumaker, et. al., 2011). Various ethical challenges result from the myriad dual roles such hands-on learning entails, especially when the teacher also serves as process group leader (Davenport, 2004). However, this model also provides numerous benefits (Davenport, 2004), and I have decided to adopt it in most of my classes. In wanting to further avail my students of opportunities for experiential leaning, I have consistently recruited them to IGPS training events. While students frequently report having benefited from attending such events, I have had to consider the implications of my own attendance at conferences at which my students are also present.
As teachers, and as therapists, we function as surrogate parents to our students and therapy clients. Just as it would be inappropriate for a parent to “dump” her problems onto her children, it is likewise inappropriate for a teacher or therapist to unload personal problems onto those she has agreed to help or nurture. Lesczc (2004) has noted the psychological harm that can result from such role reversals. I find that I am faced with internal role conflict when I attend conferences along with my students. As conference attendee, I want to be open and forthcoming with my thoughts and feelings, but as my students’ teacher and process group leader, I want to remain constant in my role. Pepper (2007) has described the likelihood that shared attendance at growth-oriented training events will disrupt of any transference reactions that have developed between students and their teachers.
As I reflect on my experience at both conferences, realize that I benefitted personally and professionally through my attendance, as both events were very well lead, though I remain unsure about just how my presence may have impacted my students During the first plenary at the fall conference, Bruce Aaron oriented attendees to a Gestalt approach to shame. He said that shame “draws us inward,” and isolates us from our fellows. He went on to define shame as the result of a rupture between our needs and how those needs are received. The implication is that when our emotional needs are rejected or go unfulfilled, we are left feeling ashamed of ourselves, that we are objectionable or bad. Of course, the more meaningful the relationship, the greater the shame that results from the rupture. It follows that if a youngster’s emotional needs are snubbed by his parents, the resulting shame can be life-altering.
Conference attendees were invited to explore their own shame in small breakout groups that met four times throughout the two days. The conference planning committee honored my request to be placed in a different breakout group from my students, again the intention being to protect them from having to be burdened by shouldering my emotional journey. It was nearly impossible to resist the regressive pull of the material that Bruce presented. Bruce and my small group leader at the conference, Dr. Harold Rice-Erso, PhD, helped me to connect the dots between my formative years and shame that I have carried into adulthood.
Freed from the risk of unduly burdening my students, I was able to delve into the origins of my own shame, and I received ample support for doing this work from Dr. Rice-Erso as well as from my fellow group members. I certainly would not have felt as free to do this kind of processing had my current students been present. To me, to do so would have in effect turned them into “parentified children.” I am serving in a role that is intended to support their growth and development; to reverse this paradigm would be do them and myself a disservice (Lesczc, 2004).
While breakout groups were used during the fall conference, Bruce also led several processes with the entire membership. It was during these periods, as well as during most of the weekend with Dr. Levine, that I found myself feeling especially aware of my dual roles of conference attendee and teacher. Bruce went on to define shame as the opposite of pride. He suggested that shame builds upon itself, as many of us in the United States are ashamed to feel shame. He them moved the group into a very provocative exercise called “Take A Stand,” during which volunteers in the center were asked to position themselves in the room according to how they felt about various topics. The questions quickly progressed from fairly superficial (“I am comfortable with my current age.”) to quite personal (“I feel good about my sex life.”) Bruce said that the questions were designed to evoke shame within conference attendees. I think I was feeling more scared than I was ashamed. One of my students had volunteered to be in the center during this exercise, and I felt protective of her and the other students who were in the observing group, as well as of myself. With whom do I wish to share my feelings about my sex life? That is, generally speaking, a very short list of people, including my spouse and my therapist. What would broaching this topic in a large group be like? To me it felt unsafe, but that may be because I, like others, attach more shame to sexuality than I do to aging, physical health, or just about anything. Was it okay for me to be learning about my students’ feelings about themselves in this context, or was I being voyeuristic? Again, I would not have wanted to impose my own complicated feelings in this area on my students.
Dr. Levine was quite provocative with the entire membership during her two-day event. She would shift easily between lecturing and engaging in Q & A sessions, with the questions coming mostly from her toward the membership. I recall that I felt protective of my students when Dr. Levine would question them, and in effect, put them on the spot in front of the entire membership. In being drawn back into my surrogate parent role, I was wanting to protect my students from being exposed or humiliated in front of their peers, and in front of me, too!
The dual role dynamics that are so present in teacher-student relationships, apply to other relationships as well. For example, many members of IGPS serve on committees together. Some of us have been patients of one another at various times, or we may meet in consultative contexts as well. The dual role issue is ever-present in my classrooms, where students invariably have some kind of connection to each other outside of the classroom. What does it mean to be vulnerable in front of one another? Is doing so a strength or a liability? I think those of us who favor group work generally see such willingness as a bridge to growing closer to others, and ultimately, increasing mutual respect between us. Still, there may be a concern that if we share too many of our psychological demons, our professional colleagues will shun us. I have not found this to be the case. Nevertheless, I do want to maintain clear and appropriate boundaries in my relationships with my students.
In the context of potential shared attendance at IGPS conferences, I have, at various times, done this by 1.), Choosing not to attend conferences at which my students will be present, 2.), requesting to be placed in a different small group than my students, and 3.), remaining cognizant of my dual roles while attending such conferences.
Davenport, D.S. (2004). Ethical issues in the teaching of group counseling. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 29 (1), 43-49.
Lesczc, M. (2004). Reflections on the abuse of power, control, and status in group therapy and group therapy training. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 54 (3), 389-400.
Pepper, R. (2007). Too close for comfort: The impact of dual relationships on group therapy and group therapy training. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 57 (1), 13-23.
Shumaker, D., Ortiz, C., Brenninkmeyer, L. (2011). Revisiting experiential group training in counselor education: A survey of master’s level programs. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 36 (2), 111-128.