Sketch by Bert. Steve speaking:)
I run a therapy group.
Last week one of its members left the group, suddenly and without explanation.
I announced it at the start of our next meeting. “How’s everyone feeling about this?” I asked.
The group fell silent. I watched each of them turn inward. They looked like they were searching for something.
I let the silence go on for a bit, and then told them something all group therapists know.
“When someone leaves group it’s experienced, on some level, as a death,” I said. “Someone’s here, and then they’re gone. It comes as a shock, seeing that empty chair, even when you expect it. It’s worse when you don’t see it coming.
“And it’s not unusual for group members to take responsibility for this sudden absence. They may wonder if something they said or did made that person leave. Or if they should have said or done something to get that person to stay.”
I paused. No one said anything.
“Just notice,” I finished, “if anything like that comes up for you. If it does, tell the rest of us.”
Group went on pretty much as normal after that. But my eyes kept flicking back to the empty chair.
I’m the group leader.
What had I said or done that caused this defection?
What had I failed to say or do to prevent it?
Then, while driving home, I felt myself step back from these questions, and remember something we all do as kids.
We do it whenever life hands us an empty chair — some sort of loss, or some unexplained pain or problem.
Like when mom and dad fight. Or one parent drinks. Or a parent’s depressed. Or someone falls ill. Or there’s not enough money. Or someone doesn’t seem to like us. Or we are abused.
“What did I say or do to cause this?” we wonder. “What didn’t I say or do to prevent it?”
To an adult mind these questions may sound irrational. We know the explanations for such things lie elsewhere.
But the questions aren’t irrational; they’re defensive. They’re the kid’s way of staving off confusion and helplessness — trying to fill an empty space with some sort of explanation.
Confusion and helplessness are so painful that kids would rather take the blame than go on feeling helpless and confused.
It’s a way of, yes, taking control of their feelings.
It’s a largely unconscious reaction, and it can be costly. Many of us spend years — decades, even; lifetimes, even – burdened by feelings of guilt, shame or inadequacy rooted in these false explanations.
It’s sad, and it’s unnecessary.
So, dear reader, I invite you to try some history-reframing.
Marinate these questions, please:
~ What empty chairs did you experience as a child?
~ What explanations did you use to fill them?
~ As you look back now, do those explanations still make sense? Are they realistic, given what you’ve learned since then? And are they fair to the child you used to be?