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BION AND EXPERIENCES IN GROUPS

by Robert M. Young

In Bion's view. what matters in individual and group behaviour is more primitive than the Freudian level of explanation. The ultimate sources of our distress are psychotic anxieties, and much of what happens in individuals and groups is a result of defences erected against psychotic anxieties, so that we do not have to endure them consciously. Bion says of the group, My impression is that the group approximates too closely, in the minds of the individuals composing it, to very primitive phantasies about the contents of the mother's body. The attempt to make a rational investigation of the dynamics of the group is therefore perturbed by fears, and mechanisms for dealing with them, which are characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position. The investigation cannot be carried out without the stimulation and activation of those levels... the elements of the emotional situation are so closely allied to phantasies of the earliest anxieties that the group is compelled, whenever the pressure of anxiety becomes too great, to take defensive action. (Bion, 1955, p. 456). The psychotic anxieties in question involve splitting and projective identification and are characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, now as group processes (p. 457). According to Bion, the move from the individual to the group does not raise new issues about explanation. He says a little further on, 'The apparent difference between group psychology and individual psychology is an illusion produced by the fact that the group brings into prominence phenomena which appear alien to an observer unaccustomed to using the group' (p. 461). Work groups and basic assumption groups At the heart of his ideas about groups is the observation that although groups are normally set up to pursue sensible and realistic goals -- he calls this the work group -- they inevitably from time to time fall into madness, which he calls basic assumption functioning. Bion specified three types of basic assumption functioning - dependency, pairing and fight-flight. .Such groups have aims far different either from the overt task of the group or even from the tasks that would appear to be appropriate to Freud's view of the group as based on the family group. But approached from the angle of psychotic anxiety, associated with phantasies of primitive part object relationships... the basic assumption phenomena appear far more to have the characteristics of defensive reactions to psychotic anxiety, and to be not so much at variance with Freud's views as supplementary to them. In my view, it is necessary to work through both the stresses that appertain to family patterns and the still more primitive anxieties of part object relationships. In fact I consider the latter to contain the ultimate sources of all group behaviour (p. 476).

I have worked a lot in groups. Indeed, for a period I did so as a matter of political faith. My experience was that, sure enough, from time to time each group would fall into a species of madness and start arguing and forming factions over matters which, on later reflection, would not seem to justify so much passion and distress. More often than not, the row would end up in a split or in the departure or expulsion of one or more scapegoats. This happened all over the place -- in high school, college dormitories and societies, university departments, teams making tv documentaries, collectives editing periodicals, communes, psychotherapy training organizations. Every time this happened to groups of which I was a member I thought it was either my fault or that I had once again fallen among thieves, scoundrels, zealots, dim-wits or some combination of the above. When I read Bion I finally had a theoretical perspective on these processes. Moreover, he said that such debacles were inevitable, and they inevitably rope in the leader or facilitator. The trick is to be able to think under fire, to keep some part of your mind able to reflect on experience while having experience. If the group -- or at least some of its members -- can learn from experience and apply that learning to new situations, they can, just about, keep some semblance of the peace. In my opinion, Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, has this ability, as does Nelson Mandela. As the case of Mandela shows, one does not have to be a career diplomat to keep ones head. Gandhi was a passionate campaigner but was renowned for his equanimity. What one has to do is avoid the pit of paranoid-schizoid functioning and strive to remain as much as can be managed in the depressive position. According to Melanie Klein, our minds are always in one or the other of two positions. One involves extreme splits, brittle guilt, blaming, hating, scapegoating, paranoia and the tendency to aggression and fighting, whether verbal or physical. The other involves granting that life is not just extremes but consists of things all mixed up, some good, some bad: the middle ground. In this frame of mind guilt is not punitive but reparative. One is not in a manic state but a rather subdued, depressive (not to say depressed) one. Miracles dont happen. Hard graft is ones lot. You have to sit on your extreme feelings and live and let live. I offer here John Steiners brief characterisations of the two positions which have come to be seen as the basic modes of feeling between which people oscillate: As a brief summary: in the paranoid-schizoid position anxieties of a primitive nature threaten the immature ego and lead to a mobilisation of primitive defences. Splitting, idealisation and projective identification operate to create rudimentary structures made up of idealised good objects kept far apart from persecuting bad ones. The individuals own impulses are similarly split and he directs all his love towards the good object and all his hatred against the bad one. As a consequence of the projection, the leading anxiety is paranoid, and the preoccupation is with survival of the self. Thinking is concrete because of the confusion between self and object which is one of the consequences of projective identification (Segal, 1957). The depressive position represents an important developmental advance in which whole objects begin to be recognised and ambivalent impulses become directed towards the primary object. These changes result from an increased capacity to integrate experiences and lead to a shift in primary concern from the survival of the self to a concern for the object upon which 2

the individual depends. Destructive impulses lead to feelings of loss and guilt which can be more fully experienced and which consequently enable mourning to take place. The consequences include a development of symbolic function and the emergence of reparative capacities which become possible when thinking no longer has to remain concrete (Steiner, 1987, pp. 69-70; see also Steiner, 1993, pp. 26-34). Quite a lot of what happens in a Bionian group is strange, quite a lot (for the outside observer) is funny. It may begin with a long silence. Something is expected of the leader or of someone. This finally gets said, and the leader may say, It appears that something is expected of me and revert to a silence which sorely tries the patience of the group members. A member may offer a hypothesis about what is supposed to happen, and this is likely to be contradicted by another. People who have not spoken are challenged and do or dont speak. Some speak too soon and too often. There is often a search for something, something believed to be hidden and meant to be discovered. Members seek the approval of the leader, others seek alliances, some have strong feelings of love or hate or comradeship; others get cross or cry. Occasionally someone leaves, usually to return, sometimes not. Someone bids for the role of leader and gets sniped at. And so it goes: anxieties expressed, a process with no definitive end point, reflecting upon and hopefully learning from experience. In particular, one is invited to notice how much of what one feels and concludes comes from the inside, from projection. What one projects often has an external target, and the target usually responds and displays some degree of what he or she is accused of. This is the psychological mechanism called projective identification (See Young, 1994, ch. 7). The projector is vindicated. In the group, however, there is an opportunity to notice this process, reflect upon it and take back the projection. Learning to take responsibility for ones projections and take them back is the essence of successful psychotherapy and of the experiential learning that occurs in Bionian groups. People have often marvelled at Bions apparently gnomic or off-the-wall utterances in groups. My guess is that he was simply declining projections by not taking up whatever the projecting person was trying to put into him. He would thereby be inviting them to think about their projection and perhaps take it back into themselves and stop casting him in a role that he was unwilling to play.

Lit.: Bion, W. R. (1952). Group Dynamics: A Re-view. Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. vol.33, reprinted in M. Klein, P. Heimann & R. Money-Kyrle, eds., New Directions in Psychoanalysis. Tavistock, 1955, pp. 440-77; reprinted in Bion, 1961, pp. 141-91. Bion, W. R. (1961). Experiences in Groups. Tavistock. Segal, Hanna (1957) Notes on Symbol Formation, Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 38: 391-97. Steiner, John (1987) The Interplay between Pathological Organizations and the ParanoidSchizoid and Depressive Positions, Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 68: 69-80; reprinted in Spillius, ed. (1988), vol. 1, pp. 324-42. 3

Steiner, John (1993) Psychic Retreats: Pathological Organizations in Psychotic, Neurotic and Borderline Patients. Routledge. Young, Robert M. (1994) Mental Space. Process Press, esp. chs 5, 7, 8; on-line at http://human-nature.com/rmyoung/papers/paper55.html