How group therapy taught me to survive oppression

There is no guide to how to discuss your most painful experiences with strangers. Group therapy becomes a microcosm of the world.

7 April 2015
 Living Well Dementia.

Talking about other peoples' issues forces you to examine your own pain and grief. Credit: Living Well Dementia.

Growing up in a Muslim and South Asian household, the notion of shame was drilled into me at an early age. In Urdu there is a term for being without shame, it is “besharam”. For a Muslim woman, not many insults could be more damning.

Societal shame plays the same role in silencing women of colour. Often, we can't speak about the depression or the anxiety we may be feeling: our silence is valued above our lived experiences. People of colour, particularly women, must always be strong.

By denying our pain, we are denied our humanity. To accept someone’s pain and distress is to empathise, to see similarity in them. As Zellie Imani writes: “only white people can suffer from mental illness or behaviour disorders. The rest of us are disposable. Suspended, expelled, locked up, or killed. Recognising mental illness for whites and refusing to recognise it for blacks, is a refusal to recognise the humanity of black people.”

I am a forced marriage survivor, and carry the legacy of “shame” from my family - in the context of this white hegemony. That's why I started group therapy.

I have been attending group therapy on a weekly basis for 20 months: it is a two-year programme. Extensive one-to-one therapy wasn’t able to address some of the more acute bouts of depression and anxiety I experienced. Our group started with six members but there are now four. In this time the group membership has remained the same, apart from the two people who left. This continuity ensures the participants can build trust and support one another and learn how to manage intimate personal relationships. There are currently three women and one man and I am the only person of colour.

Starting group therapy is overwhelming. There is no guide to how to discuss your most painful experiences and feelings with total strangers. The therapist does not start the discussion and her intervention is minimal.

Group therapy is one of the most intense forms of therapy and is often suggested by health care professionals when individual therapy has not been effective. It can be deeply triggering. It forces you to confront the issues you are seeking to suppress, such as historic abuse, neglect and abandonment. 

In individual therapy it is easier to avoid these difficulties: you control the discussion. But in a group, experiences your suppressed feelings can be mirrored by others. In talking about their issues you are forced to examine your own pain and grief.

Perhaps because of this, group therapy started off feeling very unsafe. It was the lack of control and not trusting others to respond in way which felt supportive. In many respects the process is similar to navigating any new relationship. 

In particular, group therapy mirrors the structural inequalities in the outside world. Most recently, victim-blaming/perpetrator-defending opinions were voiced, not by a man, but by a woman, who described an incident of being violent against her son when he was a young boy. In describing the incident of violence, there was no remorse, just an attempt at justification. She suggested her child should have behaved better.

Victim-blaming is a common feature of patriarchal societies. Women often internalise and espouse the idea that victims of violence are in some way to blame for the acts committed against them. Talk show host Judy Finnigan's mantra on the acceptable rape - in which she argued that footballer Ched Evans' victim did not experience 'bodily harm' - is a case in point. I once held similar views, holding myself responsible for the forced marriage and the shame I had brought on my family. It is only when your consciousness is raised that your passivity is transformed into resistance and activism.

Having to be part of these discussions reflects the structural inequality women of colour face. As well as the explicit racism and sexism we experience, there are daily micro-aggressions. It is the comments and the assumptions about us. This happens when I, as an Asian woman, am patronised and belittled in the workplace, assumed to be much more junior than I am. Of course there is nothing wrong with being of a lower grade – the problem is society's attribution of value to higher-waged professions, which women of colour are presumptively excluded from. We internalise these feelings: we become disempowered or alienated. 

In this way group therapy becomes a microcosm of the world. It has taught me about survival. Through such intense exposure, week in and week out, being exposed to some of the harshest views in a mixed gender environment, I have learnt to survive. At times I have been deeply triggered, but I went back. I survived the days in between and I went back. 

Therapy has taught me that not all struggles are mine to fight and sometimes self-care takes precedence. I have realised I can engage in the fight for justice without being overwhelmed by every individual battle. It is this learning that has given me the potential to rise above the daily micro-aggressions. 

The fight very much continues. But through group therapy, I have learnt to do it on my terms, keeping my energy for the most worthwhile causes. In this way, group therapy has taught me how to survive as a women of colour in this world.

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