We are thrilled that Jeff Hudson, a highly experienced and respected group psychotherapist from Austin, Texas, will be joining us Yankees (not the team, the region, folks) for our annual Conference this June.
Jeff will be leading the Sunday Demonstration Group entitled Emotional Availability in Group: Expanding the Capacity for Intimacy in Group Members and Leaders.
What follows is a transcribed interview with Jeff. We hope this will encourage you to register for our wonderful conference - soon!
1) Jeff, we’re really glad that you will be coming in June to NSGP’s annual conference. Would you tell us when and why you became interested in group psychotherapy?
I’m excited to be coming to Boston. My interest in group psychotherapy began in the mid-80’s. At that time I was in graduate school in music and was also in a classical analysis with an analyst who recommended that I join a therapy group. Given a difficult family background and a history of feeling very much like an outsider in most groups, I remain somewhat baffled that I took her advice and joined a group. However, her recommendation changed the course of my life. With the exception of one year when I relocated to Austin, I have been a member of a weekly therapy group ever since. My group membership has been one of the most enriching and healing experiences that I have had.
2) At this year’s conference, you are presenting on “emotional availability in groups.” What is the importance of a group leader’s emotional availability?
Through unconscious communication our patients may sense what feelings we are open to experiencing and those feelings that we would prefer not to feel. As we become open to feeling a greater range and intensity of emotions, we increase the possibility that our patients will do the same. It is neither necessary, nor possible, for a group therapist to be open to all emotions at all times. Actually, there are times in groups when the emotional stimulation is so great that it may be difficult for a group leader to know what they are feeling. We also rely on group member reports of their emotions to know more about our own feelings. What is helpful to group members, however, is to be working with a leader who is open to the full range of human emotion. When this is not the case, group members will omit more and more aspects of their emotional life.
3)What practical benefits does an “expanded capacity” for emotion have in both group leaders and members?
An expanded emotional capacity has helped me to improve my ability to contain strong emotions, especially at times when I feel provoked. Improving my containment allows me either to assist the group in addressing the need of the moment or to formulate my own intervention. Hyman Spotnitz, the founder of Modern Psychoanalysis, emphasized that some patients need to experience highly specific feelings in psychotherapy in order to progress. The leader’s emotional capacity also allows them to provide an emotional response that a patient may need to function cooperatively in group sessions.
For group members, an expanded emotional capacity frequently results in a diminished fear of feeling and an increased capacity for tolerating the discomfort that is a natural part of group, love, and work lives. People become more capable of living with immediacy, so that interactions are not overly influenced by past hurts or fears of the future. Other practical benefits include greater interpersonal effectiveness, decreased psychological symptoms, improved resiliency in love and work, and the capacity for experimenting with new ways of thinking, feeling, and communicating.
4) What do you think is the biggest barrier to intimacy in groups?
This is an excellent question, because as group therapists we routinely experience and work with barriers to intimacy. On a basic level, a primary barrier to intimacy is the fear of feeling something you don’t want to feel. People have visceral memories of the hurts that have occurred in relationships, the ways they have been injured by, and have injured, others. Over time our lives may be structured to avoid re-experiencing these hurts. Yet, we are instinctively inclined to repeat, so we must contend with both a fear of repeating past difficulties and an unconscious wish to do so. Ultimately, it is not intimacy that people most fear, but the hurts that have happened in intimate relationships.
5) What strategies do you use to expand a person’s capacity to become more intimate in the group setting?
One way I work to expand a person’s capacity for intimacy is by creating an atmosphere where people feel invited, rather than required, to say more about their internal feelings and feelings toward others. Over time I titrate my work with member emotions to match their level of openness. When clients encounter obstacles to being more open, I respect their reluctance and invite them to explore their fears of what will happen if they communicate more freely. I also use myself as a model of what it means to be emotionally alive and open to engagement. As I have understood my own process of change, I have come to appreciate that it is frequently more effective to join resistances than it is to try to remove them.