Dancing in the Shadows by Laura Bryannan

Chapter 5


Once your group has formed, it's most important to set up some ground rules on your first day before beginning your actual work together. Ground rules provide structure and guidance to the women participating in the group. Without the proper structure, women will not feel safe enough to let their hair down and open up to each other. Here are some basic ground rules for a survivor's group. An expanded discussion follows.

All members should understand that there will be times when they will want to skip group. This urge should be resisted if at all possible. Explain that there are powerful forces at work trying to keep them stuck in their fear and pain. The old ways may not bring happiness but they seem familiar and safe. Processes like the ones described in this book will certainly stir up one's psyche in unexpected ways. Thus, staying with the group can literally become a battle between the part of you that wants to grow and the part of you that wants to stay stuck.

I've seen women who stomp into group that evening, grumbling and enraged they are there: they're mad at their abusers, they're mad at themselves that they need help, they're even mad they didn't skip group! In my experience, the resistance these women are feeling is a signal that something big is going to happen for them that night. Some of the most important breakthroughs I've seen have been in women who pushed through great obstacles (sick relatives, car breakdowns, getting ill, intense apathy or anger) to get there that evening. So, all the women participating should understand that making a commitment to the group will not always be easy, but the payoffs will be there if they can stick it out.

It's very important to create an atmosphere of safety in a survivor's group. This is hard to achieve when women are popping in and out and not participating regularly. Thus, there should be some understanding about what the policy is for missing sessions. Life happens, and it is not always possible for everyone to attend each session. When friends are working together, this may not be a problem.

However, when working with a group of strangers, I've found it best to ask someone who has missed two sessions in a row to leave the group. Usually, if someone has missed two sessions they are not really ready to work on this issue--something very understandable considering the amount of pain involved. The safety, love and intimacy levels of a group intensify after each meeting. After a few sessions the group's energy will leave the straggler behind, so to speak. Thus, it's not useful to either the straggler or the group to attempt to reintroduce someone after a period of absence.

The environment in which you conduct the group should be considered sacred space (sacred in this context means a special space set aside for the undertaking of healing, development and maturation--indeed sacred things!) Let everyone know that the stories and experiences expressed in this space should remain there and not shared with lovers, friends, etc.

Ask everyone to take responsibility for alerting the group when they're feeling scared, angry, or experiencing a flashback. Sometimes the group will go off in directions that are upsetting to someone. If that person sits and stews about it, the group has no chance to remedy the situation. The upset person has also lost a chance to explore the feelings in her body within the context of the group.

Tell the women to express their problems with "I" statements rather than "You" statements. For example, "I just got scared when you said that," rather than, "You scared me." This keeps everyone in touch with their own experience and reduces the chance of perceived criticism.

Verbal (and, of course, physical) attacks on group members should never be tolerated. Whether your group has shared leadership or one person facilitating, someone must be willing to step in and intervene should something like this occur. It often helps to remind the angry person to direct their feelings toward their perpetrator(s), not the group.

Initiate a policy of "Rescuing Only by Request." State that if someone is feeling scared or sad and would like a hug or other loving touch they should ask for it; otherwise, the policy should be "Hands Off." When a fellow group member is crying it is very hard not to give them a hug, touch their hand, stroke their hair, or offer reassuring words to them. In fact, women are taught that if we don't do this we are somehow being remiss as compassionate people.

However well intentioned, this kind of intervention often takes the person right out of their experience. Instead of exploring and releasing their pain, they're now paying attention to you. It may take that person years to get back in touch with that particular bit of pain that you "compassionately" pulled them away from. In addition, many survivors have a great aversion to being touched, so don't assume that hug or caress will be welcome unless the woman tells you so.

Finally, each woman should bring a notebook with her to the group's meetings. After a process is finished, each woman should make notes on the experiences, insights and ideas she received before sharing with the group. Doing this will help ground these experiences and give them permanent physical form; sometimes we get so wrapped up in another woman's discussion of her process we forget what happened for us! The notes made after each meditation or exercise can be referred to between sessions, and can serve as a testament of your group work for years to come.

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Last Updated: 1 feb 99
Laura Bryannan