Peer process groups, often referred to as “family groups” by our membership, are an integral part of the fabric of AAP.
These groupings are leaderless, and vary in size and composition. Participants may differ in age, gender, length of membership, and geographic location.
With enthusiasm, our elders recall the burgeoning of these early groups, describing them as providing a culture and community of intellectual excitement and experimentation. First initiated by Paul Frisch, Academy members began to demonstrate their work in process groups with each other, providing opportunities for intense personal and professional growth. Initially these groups met over the course of one meeting, but eventually the same members began to reconvene over several meetings to deepen the work that could be accomplished. In time, these ongoing meetings resulted in the development of the long-term peer groups that exist today.
The differences among the groups are many. These include origin, size, ages of members, longevity of contact, and frequency of meeting. For example, some groups have existed for 40 years while others have joined together more recently as newcomers.
The journey to find one’s place in a group is as important to personal growth as is the destination. This search is often complex and can involve attachment style, temperament, and character structure. Some groups are open and some groups are closed. The sheer number of members, the depth of personal work, and life cycle events within a group frequently determine the group’s availability for new members. It is a common myth that the only way to participate in this process is through invitation to an existing group.
Given that the peer/family group process is highly valued, and while access can be complicated, it is crucial that new groups continue to develop. For example, these new groups could be formed from newcomers joining together, from continuing an open process group, or from the blending of two previous groups. It is possible to begin a group with only two members.
Regardless of inception, the inherent value of these ongoing groups cannot be overestimated.
Through the provision of a safe container, members can engage in corrective emotional experiences, leading to their personal growth and professional development.
Written by Membership and Retention Chairs: Nelia H Rivers and Barbara Thomason
September 9, 2017
Beginning a Group: Personal Reflections
By Grover E. Criswell:
We were in a Summer Workshop in Houston, Texas in 1975 and the leaders framed the opening experience, breaking everyone into small alphabetical groups. Cleaves, Compton, and Criswell, soon joined by others, especially Carole Light, who had been put into a group with her therapist. We became the core of a new ongoing group. Three of us were new members in another established group, but decided we liked continuing with this group because we were all about the same age and were beginners in the field of psychotherapy. We held each other to great accountability in finding our truth and having the courage to speak it, holding each other’s feet to the fire and growing in the process. We learned from the wisdom of each other and the interactions in the group. What began as a peer group has over all of these years become a deep bonding into a family of choice, where we have felt known, confronted, engaged, supported, and deeply loved by each other. A major factor in my becoming the person and therapist I am has been this group.
By Ed Sharp:
At my first Summer Workshop in Park City, Utah in 1996, an effort was made to soften the anxiety of new membership by holding a group meeting of first time members that included a cameo appearance by an experienced AAP member. The options outlined were to either accept an invitation into an existing family group, remain in our circle and start a group of our own, or choose to not be in a group at the time. Thus started a period of scrambling and attrition that lasted about six years – during which members spun off to other groups or other continents. When we had dwindled down to four members, we decided that it was our responsibility to make this family thrive and be one in which we desired membership. The group transformed as we took responsibility for our experience. From that time on we began a conscious shaping of our group and have grown to eight members that meet for two weekends a year outside of academy meetings as well as during academy meetings. There can be benefit from joining a group with a history. There can also be benefit from forming a completely new group and taking the time to develop norms. Time floundering is not always wasted time. What works in a newcomer’s group also works in an existing older group. Key ingredients are the willingness to be authentic, tolerate uncertainty, and love.
By David Loftis:
Having arrived as a brand new member at Stone Mountain in 1984, I was told that some groups were open and wanting new members. I was one of the fortunate members in that I knew quite a few members, both long-standing and new (like myself). When the time came for grouping, I, along with a buddy, decided to show up at one of the “open” groups. As it happened, there were several of us “newbies” that had made the same decision, the result being that we more than doubled the size of the existing group. The existing group members spent at least an hour expressing how overwhelmed they felt with the change. After listening to their ambivalence, one of us said, “Let’s start our own group.”, which we proceeded to do. That core group has expanded and contracted for more than 30 years now. Today we are a group of 12, meeting for several hours during Summer Workshop and one weekend in the winter. We do not meet to “group” at the I&C, but usually have a dinner together on one of the open nights. There was a period of time when I considered leaving to join another existing group, but decided it was best for me to stay and learn more about how to thrive in a long-term relationship. This has been the right decision for me.
By Pat Webster:
When I joined the Academy and came to my first Summer Workshop in late 80’s, early 90’s, I somehow quickly ascertained that belonging to a Family Group (they weren’t called Peer Groups yet) was mandatory for a rich experience in the Academy. I dutifully went about trying to join one, assisted by a fellow newcomer, Joel, who was quickly asked to join a family group. I asked to join two or three; I was rejected by all of them. What can I say? I’m a sleeper in a new and large group. After three or four years, one group stood up in the SW cafeteria, and said that they wanted new members. It didn’t feel like a good match for me; however, they really, really wanted me. And I was lonely. And wanted some “people” to be “my people.” I joined with a three-year commitment, saying that I would explore any issues of ambivalence that might contribute to my reticence to join. I stayed for ten years. During that time, I had many rich experiences and came to care about many members in that group. Then, one SW, I knew it was time to go. One reason is that I’m somewhat introverted, I would often become really irritable in response to so much interpersonal contact at SW’s and I&C’s without time for rest, processing with myself, and integrating.
By Rhona Engels:
During Opening Experience of my first Summer Workshop, the open family groups were asked to stand. Bewildered, I let my roomie take my hand and lead me into her family group. I felt welcomed but sensed I needed something else. The following day, I approached Gladys Natchez, whom I’d gotten to know as a fellow New Yorker. We were in the dining room just after lunch. “Gladys,” I pleaded, “Where do you think I belong?” She grabbed my hand and walked me over to Fred Klein. “You belong with him…with them,” she said, and walked away.
O the fearlessness of youth! “May I join?” I asked him. “Come to our cottage this afternoon and we’ll see.” Scared, excited, intrigued, I found the cottage. Silence. The shades were drawn. Nervously, I knocked to no avail. “What the hell,” I thought, and opened the door.
Inside, there were 17 men and women all seated on chairs around the perimeter of the room. Everyone appeared to be sleeping, as if they’d been sprinkled with fairy dust. Dumbfounded, I made my way to an empty chair on the far side of the room. No one moved; no one seemed to notice. At some point, I got up sufficient courage to say “What the hell is going on here?”
Like 17 sleeping beauties, everybody woke up, and started to speak very animatedly as if nothing had happened, and as if I weren’t there. I was in!
I haven’t missed an I&C or Summer Workshop since. I haven’t missed our yearly winter meeting in March until this year, the year of coronavirus, but we just met … in April, virtually.
By Lee Blackwell:
My relationship with the Academy started with my doctoral supervisor inviting me to the 1974 Southeast Region meeting in New Orleans. There, I met David Hawkins, Gladys Natchez, Harry Blum, and others, and did some work on myself. After taking Gestalt Therapy training with Irma Lee Shepard, Earl Brown, Edward Smith, and others, my next meeting was the 1978 I&C in Monterey, California, and I joined. With young children at home, I limited my attendance to the Western Region meetings, and did not make it to another national meeting until the 1985 Summer Workshop at Airlie House. I had become close with Naomi James who invited me to join her family group, but I had just met David Loftis and we hit it off and he invited me to his group. I went to Naomi’s group, but it was already large, 14, and there was a lot of vocal resistance to new members. Before it was decided, I left and found David’s group, which had only met for a year, and was welcomed. I have cherished being held by my group ever since.
By Lyn Sommer:
As a graduate student, I attended my first I&C in 1980, and proceeded to fall completely in love with AAP’s amazingly personal professional home!
Having professors at Georgia State and mentors in DC who were Academy members helped me to feel a bit more comfortable in an atmosphere of perpetual risk and adventure. From there, I attended ten consecutive I&Cs, while moving to Washington for internship/work and private practice. Each AAP meeting compelled me with growthful, though at times cautionary lessons, as I was learning to be a therapist. In 1990, I finally became eligible to become a member, so I decided to take the leap and come to summer workshop for the first time.
I was never courted by a family group, however I had observed a lot over a decade of I&Cs, and I elected to join the most ‘challenging’ peer group for me. The decision was sealed when I watched two members of my future family group have a prolonged heated argument in the corner of the dining room. Their intense animation yielded a shared moment of affection. I knew that I needed to learn to argue and find resolution, as opposed to fearing conflict at the expense of connection. My intuition proved correct, and I have traveled almost three decades with my cherished peer group.
By Gary Frankel:
By the fall of 1982 I had just enough therapy and supervision to be profoundly aware of a deep need to connect with peers with the long view in mind. Back then, I was was just beginning full time private practice with several dear colleagues. At that time, one of the glaring holes in my ongoing professional development was regular participation with a professional organization. Encouraged by my mentors and therapists I went to my first AAP Institute and Conference.
Other than my wedding and the birth of my children I had never been so nervous to show up to anything. Within the first day of being at the conference, the term “showing up” took on a whole new meaning. It meant being authentic in the moment, with all the thoughts and feelings I could muster. I had never been at a conference like this! I was challenged, stimulated, and provoked to think about what I meant and felt.
The natural extension of this (or as I think about it), a place to safely practice, was a peer group. Opening night I was aware of my friend/ colleagues group, so I decided to drop by. What an eye opening experience. I was hooked.
By Carole Light:
When I joined AAP in 1971 I don’t remember groups being “closed.” People wandered in and out, committing for one meeting…or not…and taking heat upon leaving, or working your way in.
That seems to have lasted quite a while until groups started getting “ named”: The Washington group, The Atlanta mafia, The Huggers, The Sluggers, and others. Strangely, I was in a “sluggers” group, a character assignation I would never have associated with the me I knew.
Through the years my sense of self changed, I grew in so many ways, personally and professionally. I owned my power, learned to express anger, and forged deep, forever, family feelings that in many cases are the deepest, strongest bonds in my life. I met and married my husband, Alex, in that family group. We decided to stay in the group as a couple after we married and thereby subjected our marital relationship to receive feedback and stretching in interactions with group perceptions.
Our group has morphed into an all women’s group as we are in our 70’s.
We were initially a male dominated group, but we lost our men, mostly to death, and have visited and revisited the issue of where we go from here.
By Linda Tillman:
Often it’s all about timing. I joined AAP as an older person toward the end of my career. I was in practice with three presidents of the Academy and knew many AAP members from Atlanta. Surely finding a peer group would be easy. But I was in the Academy without a peer/family group for five lonely years before a group asked me to join them. From the outset, they defined themselves as “family group light,” only meeting at summer workshop. I pushed for more meeting time, but the culture was firmly established. I was glad to have a group, but I wanted a different experience. I left the group, expecting to find another group easily. I ate dinners with peer groups I liked, and always told a member that if there ever was an opening in their group, I’d like to be considered. When that never happened, I decided to examine the facts. I catalogued the AAP members not in peer groups over the years since 2010. I discovered that existing groups rarely have openings. Between 2013 – 2017, of 57 AAP members without groups, only six joined existing peer groups. To have the complete AAP experience I wanted, I needed to form a group or join a newly-forming group. I decided to join a new group in which I will be the oldest member by 12 years, at least. I will miss being with true peers who are dealing with health, retirement, etc., but I will be a part of the beginning of a family.
By Elizabeth J. Gomart:
Finding my own people at AAP was a priority after I attended my first AAP event in 2012 as a scholarship recipient. Brian Cross, my husband, and a long-time member of AAP had years of history with so many AAP people — colleagues, former therapists, supervisors, group members, co-therapists, etc. After three years of attending AAP events, a few of people with whom I had attended a series of open process groups started talking about creating our own Family Group. We took a leap of faith and I asked for a meeting room to meet at the 2016 Summer Workshop. Our first meeting was held in a magical stone barn with white Christmas lights strung around the room. Even though I sometimes wish that I had joined an existing group, I decided to put my energy into imagining a multi-generational diverse group that would be the kind of posse I want to belong to. Starting a new group with new members is like reinventing the wheel in many ways. On the positive side, we all get to have a say in how the group develops. The difficulty is that our learning curve is steep. We have had so many firsts: fights, secrets, invitations, try outs, and rejections. The process has drawn us closer, clarified our edges, and helped us grow. And we have also been able to pull on senior members who have offered us support and good will, wanting us to succeed and find a place of our own.