What if I don’t want to share in my recovery group?
Most of know the relief that comes from sharing our story with other people. There are many explanations for why sharing can be therapeutic. One psychological mechanism that may be behind the relief we feel when sharing is what psychologists call, “systematic desensitization.”
Systematic desensitization is a process by which we become comfortable with what used to scare us. For many of us, what scares us is the fear of social rejection that might happen if people really knew the gritty details of our stories.
By telling our stories, a little bit at a time, we slowly become desensitized to the fear of rejection. Each time we tell the story in a safe environment, we are disproving our worst-case scenarios. Our fear spikes as we share, and then we are relieved to be accepted. It’s as if our brain says, “Huh? Turns out the group didn’t hate me and tell me to never come back. Maybe I am not so bad.”
Whether through desensitization or some other mechanism, telling our story is often helpful for a few reasons. First, it helps us stop beating ourselves up with unnecessary self-loathing. After all, if others in the group don’t hate and scorn me, maybe I can lighten up on myself. Second, by becoming less fearful about our secrets, we can turn our attention to fixing what is wrong instead of wasting time on covering up. We’re only as sick as our secrets, I’ve heard it said.
But sharing isn’t always therapeutic and it can make things worse. How is it not always therapeutic? The idea that sharing fixes things gained a lot of popularity in the 60s and 70s, when therapists often encouraged clients to let go of their “hang ups” and express themselves. This terrible advice led to more couples separating as a result of marital therapy. Turns out it’s not a good idea for spouses to let the other have it with thoughts that they had been “holding in.”
Another myth about sharing is that “letting off steam” is healthy. But, “letting it out” doesn’t reduce the pressure. In fact, grumbling and complaining about perceived injustices doesn’t decrease anger. It throws more wood on the fire and stokes it.
Finally, if you share something and don’t feel accepted you might wish you hadn’t shared. The same can be said of sharing something and becoming so emotionally dysregulated and anxious that you can’t believe you are being accepted. To understand how this could happen, imagine that you are speaking in front of a group and become incredibly anxious. The group might have liked what you have to say, but you are so focused on your dry mouth and churning stomach that you miss how everyone is smiling and paying attention.
What can you do to maximize the therapeutic benefit of sharing and minimize the risk?
· Just listen. Going to a group and listening to others can increase your empathy for them, and you might learn to be more kind to yourself at the same time. Also, hearing other’s stories and watching them be accepted might be the first step in your own journey of systematic desensitization.
· Share a little by little. By doing so, you keep your emotions at a manageable level and you can accurately gage how the group is going to react when share some more.
· Share with a trusted friend instead of with the group. This probably feels less risky. And the give and take involved in a one-on-one conversation allows your friend to reassure you and comfort you in a way that a group can’t.
· Speak in generalities. You don’t have to say everything. Even hinting at what is going on might help you obtain some benefits from the group. You could say something like, “I am struggling with temptation,” or “I have some interpersonal problems.”
What’s the bible got to say about sharing?
God speaks to us through his law and he confirms that we have every reason to feel guilty, afraid, and ashamed. Reading his word reminds us that we deserve rejection. Knowing this can make us fearful to share. We think, “if we are that bad, maybe it is better to keep our secrets buried.”
But we also learn that Jesus was rejected and despised on our behalf.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Isaiah 53:3
Jesus is one person you can share everything with. He knows what it is like to be rejected. So he is uniquely empathetic to our experiences of shame and rejection.
Jesus does not reject you. He took his desire to accept you all the way to the cross. He was not spared one bit of the pain and agony you deserved for the secrets you have.
Jesus, the beloved son of God, received all of that suffering and rejection so that we could become accepted. The father cast him out so we could be brought into the family of God. He was cut off so we could become children and heirs.
Not sure if you want to share in group? That’s ok. But don’t miss out on the soul-cleansing, heart-healing love of Jesus. Rest in Jesus and his care.