I remember the experience of taking my first group therapy course in graduate school, 27 years ago. I still see the syllabus in my mind's eye, listing the dates when each of us would lead a simulated therapy group in class. We all dreaded it--dreaded messing up and looking stupid and incompetent in front of our peers. Perhaps I dreaded it more than most, because I was possessed of the rock-ribbed certainty that it was always my job to fix people, solve problems, do it right and do it fast, with no mistakes allowed. Not surprisingly, on the day when we began (I was in the first round of guinea pigs), I was in a cold sweat, almost panting with anxiety. Now I was faced with a situation that not only could spiral out of my control, but could make me look like a bumbler. What a catastrophe!
Then, as we got ourselves situated in our circle of chairs, our professor, John Gladfelter, introduced the task. "Here's the assignment. I want you to be the worst group therapist you can be. Just be as bad, as incompetent, as you can possibly manage." What?! I was stunned for a minute. When I realized he meant it, I felt my tension draining away like dirty water from a sink as I thought, "I can do that!"
How did it turn out? No one actually tried to be a buffoon. But with the pressure off, and with no need to strictly adhere to vague and ill-defined rules we still hadn't grasped entirely, we all witnessed moments of creativity and intuitive wisdom shining through. More than anything, we relaxed. Even I relaxed, as if given a reprieve from having to do everything perfectly. In relaxing, we could actually meet people on their own terms, see and hear them as they really were, let ourselves connect with them rather than funneling all our energy and attention into squelching or hiding our own fears. We got a taste of the healing power of human contact. And we experienced the freedom of spontaneity--of not being under the gun to predict and control everything that happened in our tiny little worlds. Gladfelter had brought our fears of what might happen into the present, by making it the assignment. In the present, the group had new liberty and power.
Now, as a therapist, I want to help clients discover this same kind of freedom--freedom from the anxieties that imprison them. And I now think that, rather than trying to suppress the symptoms of their anxiety, clients can better free themselves by engaging with their symptoms in a spirit of welcome and open-minded curiosity: "Hello, symptoms. Who are you and what are you trying to tell me?"