Group Dynamics – This Was NOT the Post I Intended to Write…

I don’t like groups.  I never have.  There’s something about group dynamics that I find more than a little frightening.  Too often groups develop an entity all their own and while it may beautifully reflect many individuals within the group, it never reflects all.  The loudest voices are often perceived as having the “best” or the “right” ideas and others who are not as loud or are just in the minority fall into line or if they don’t, are seen as threatening renegades and nonconformists.  Aspie Kid wrote an incredible post last week about something related to this, The Power of Suggestion on his terrific blog Aspie Kid: Perspectives From the Autism Spectrum.  While his post is not about group dynamics per se, it is about how easy it is to convince people of things when they perceive the source to be trustworthy or “in the know”.

Studies have been done regarding the power of suggestion and how groups can influence individuals to do and think just about anything.  Below is the famous Asch Experiment done in the 1950s; it is truly incredible, as well as troubling.  It’s important to note, this experiment has been done repeatedly, but always with neurotypicals.  I would be interested to see the results if it were done with Autistics.

More recently Kazuo Mori and Miho Arai redid the Asch Experiment but had each participant wear glasses that showed them the same image, yet each saw different things, thereby making them believe the answer they were giving was correct, unlike the original experiment where all but one participant was told to choose the same answer regardless of what they actually believed.  They also used both men and women and found that the results when using women replicated Asch’s, but did not with the men.  (That women were more likely to cave and agree with the group or majority view despite what they “knew” to be true is a whole other post!)  You can read more about that experiment ‘here‘.  Further studies showed that when the participants were acquainted with one another they were even more likely to go along with the majority than when they were strangers to each other.

Seventh grade:  I was the new girl at a new school with new kids and teachers in a new home.  I was extremely unhappy and had been for many years, though I had little self-awareness.  It was just before Easter.  There were only a few months left before summer vacation, but I couldn’t imagine how I would get through the year.  In my desire to “fit in” I told a great many lies.  I had been doing this for years.  The lies were so easy and seductive.  Words that were understood by the other kids in this small junior high school to have been fabricated.  I was shunned and ate my lunch alone by the chain link fence bordering the oval track where I excelled at running the mile, mostly because almost no one else was willing to run the mile, they were much happier running the 50 yard dash.  I found a shred of solace in running, and eating my lunch alone next to the oval track made me feel safe.  I cannot remember much of that year except that despite this I was surprised to be invited to a slumber party by one of the “in” girls.  Everyone was friendly at first and I let my guard down.  Without even meaning to I told more lies, all the while ignoring the tug in my stomach that I shouldn’t.  Lies were so comforting to me.  I preferred the lies to the truth, because I could no longer sort out what the “truth” was.   

The following morning all the girls gathered in a group and told me they wanted to talk to me.  I knew what was coming.  I froze and sat staring out the large window of the large house nestled on a hill.  I heard their voices, angry, accusatory, hurt, but it was just noise swirling around me as I gazed out that window at the fog as it slowly, slowly receded over those Northern California foothills, burnt away by the morning sun.  Each girl repeated a lie I’d told.  Each girl repeated the things I said, often behind the other’s back in my attempt to be liked, to fit in, to be like one of them.   My mind went numb.  I left my body.  Much later, I do not know how much actual time had passed as time stopped, my mother came to pick me up.  “How was the slumber party?” my mother asked.

“Fine,” I answered as the car sped away from those girls who I was clearly not like toward our home where I would at last be safe. 

In the refuge of my room later that day I felt something click deep inside.  I understood that I would never be safe.  There was nothing and nowhere I could go.  That day was the beginning of a long, painful slide into self-injury, bulimia, anorexia and addiction to quell the beast within.  There is nothing like addiction to shut the world out.  Addiction is the ultimate “lie”.  It is a living lie and betrayal of self.  I didn’t have the means to see that my actions had brought me hardship.  I did not understand yet that there was another way of being.  I didn’t have the necessary tools to guide me because I had long ago forfeited my self, there was no me to find or return to.  There was no “I”.  Addiction helped me forget the truth.

It is impossible to live in this world and not be part of a group. (Unless you are a hermit.)  We humans tend to crave companionship, whatever our neurology.  Yet we have a terrible time actually getting along peacefully with one another.  It took me thirty years to figure out a way to be with myself that I didn’t hate.  Slowly as I practice honesty, being kind and of service to others I was able to very slowly, very tentatively become a part of.  Groups can be wonderful.  Together we can accomplish and do what no individual can. I am a part of a number of groups that I have come to rely on.  But when groups become hotbeds of strife and gossip, where people forget that the groups principles are more important than any one individual’s grievance,  I know I must leave them.   I spent far too many years betraying my “self”.  I know how this ends.  And it isn’t pretty.

The Freedom Tower, taken this morning.   It represents the full scale of what we humans are capable of – to destroy or create… it’s up to each of us to decide.

Freedom Tower

34 responses to “Group Dynamics – This Was NOT the Post I Intended to Write…

  1. *hugs* – we’d miss you quite a bit if you did… though actually about 3-4 months ago, I was in the same position considering leaving, I just didn’t talk about it. But then the dynamic shifted again and it was no longer super scary and unhappy. People calmed down, realized why it was they were there again, and it was fine. Sometimes shit happens, sometimes we need to take time away. But just know you would be sorely missed if you disappeared over this particular little flare up. And as you said, no one ever agrees with each other 100% of the time. But it’s our ability to work through those disagreements that makes a group great.

    • Aw… E. Just left a comment over on that group so no else thinks I’m referring to it. I LOVE that I am apart of that group and a number of other wonderful groups that I rely on. No no no no… not ours. That one is good and safe, plus YOU’RE there! Sending you *hugs*

  2. (((((Ariane)))))

  3. Love and support to you.

    I scrape by socially, willfully avoiding any and all confrontations, cliques, and kerfuffles. I never leave, but I also feel as if I am never THERE, either. This tenuous balance works for me, but at times, I teeter. I am glad to have my family and visual journals to fall into.

    I wish you peace. As always, I value you.


  4. Ariane that was so honest it was hard to read. You always seem so strong. Thank you for sharing with us. Obviously I don’t know for sure but I would be surprised if my autistic son went along with the group. He is always brutally honest even when I try to explain that sometimes it’s not a good idea. You have me thinking again on that one. Again thank you.

    • Thank you Ciara. You know, brutal honesty has it’s plusses and minuses in a society dominated by so many who cannot and are not honest. If we lived in a different society, one that really appreciated honesty, I think it would be a relief. (My personal view, obviously!) 🙂

  5. We have a lot of history in common, Ariane. Thank you for writing this. At several distinct points in my life I have thrown myself into groups and lost myself in them as I tried to be a part of them, just to have a group. I wanted to have people that I could call “my people,” but having people always involved changing myself, or just feeling like I was caught in a powerful and scary current with no clue what I should do. I have always been one of the quieter voices, and that combined with not having an intuitive sense of “how to be,” always having to figure out how I to act as compensation for that, and never wanting to upset anyone or do anything wrong has made life…complicated: easy to judge from the outside looking in on what seems, without intimate knowledge of the whys and hows and options and processes, to be simple and strange, but very difficult and complex and agonizing on the actual inside. It has only been recently that I have realized that the desire to have “my people” didn’t come from inside of me. Realizing that has taken away the bad feelings about not having a group, because the bad feelings weren’t from me, either. I’ve stopped trying to find a group and I have been feeling better, not for that reason alone, but it’s certainly part of a complex and much-needed period of articulation, understanding, and healing. Thanks again. I hope you have a peaceful day.

    • Thanks so much for this Em. (I call my daughter Em!)
      It is so difficult navigating the stumbling blocks of life and what is and isn’t acceptable, all those subtleties that are so confusing and change depending on the person’s privilege. I don’t envy anyone those years, just grateful to have made it out alive!
      Loved reading your comment!

  6. I understand this too well.
    Thank you for such a honest post.

  7. I hover at the edges of groups mostly. I find them hard to navigate and often exhausting.

    That video clip is scary. It takes so little to get the “subject” to go along with the group. The absence of overt peer pressure says a lot about the kind of pressure to conform that we intrinsically bring to group situations.

    • I couldn’t believe the guy caved after the second go around. I was silently screaming, pick the one you know is right!!
      I understand the hovering and I do too, at least until I feel comfortable enough to do more.

  8. I can’t imagine my life without you Ariane or your ever so eloquent words. I would also miss everything Em is accomplishing in her journey and what would Richard do without his “Full time Goddess”?

  9. Lord do I hate groups sometimes. And you’re right about them having an entity of their own–there are groups of people where I like all/most of the people in them, but put those people together and it’s another story. And I struggle with finding my own place rather than shifting to the sidelines. I’m generally okay with talking to people 1-on-1, but more than that and it starts getting iffy (until about 7 or 8 people, when sub-groups start to form). And the peer pressure–aside from the normal issues with it, I never quite understood what was expected of me, so even caving in usually backfired.

  10. Love your honesty!

    I choose to create. Which means me choosing to be a part of a group who highlights my strengths. Being a part of a group who is dynamic because it allows each individual to be who they are. Being a part of group who asks you to showcase your talents and unique abilities, instead of asking for conformity. Being a part of a group that builds togetherness. And then “together we can accompolish (create) and do what no individual can.”

    I really liked this post, because I sadly do get sucked in to the group who makes me forget who I am sometimes. This was a great reminder for me. Thanks again!!

  11. ((((one more)))) Plus, I get to give you a real one. Maybe Groucho Marx was right: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

  12. I understood this, know the back story, and felt stressed even though I stand on the outside of “the group”.
    It doesn’t really matter what group it is, I’m rarely in it, and if I have some cursory membership, I’m still not *really* one of the group. This crosses neurological boundaries and is about me, not “them”. Perhaps I, within myself, don’t know how to connect to more than one or two other people at a time. Past that, I feel disconnect with such consistency, it can’t possibly be just an autistic issue (right?).
    As always, thank you for your open honesty.

    • I don’t think it is just an autistic issue, because I share those feelings completely. I have always felt tremendous disconnect from most groups. It can be incredibly stressful.. I should have found you Bridget! We could have sat together and had a nice long conversation. I would like that.

    • There’s also the question of whether the group in question tries to be inclusive or not. I’ve had several groups of ‘friends’ (and I use the term very loosely for some of them) that never tried to push me away, but never really tried to include me in the group either. I felt tolerated, like they were letting me hang around but didn’t particularly care whether I was there or not. And while I’m sure part of it was me being socially oblivious or obnoxious, I’ve definitely had a lot of relationships where I was the only one who seemed to put any effort into them.

  13. Thanks for mentioning me!!

    Yeah, the Asch experiment was another one of many interesting ones. You mentioned, “It’s important to note, this experiment has been done repeatedly, but always with neurotypicals. I would be interested to see the results if it were done with Autistics.”

    There was a study of autistics a year or two ago that showed that autistics are less likely to change their behavior if someone is observing them. It was the study where they observed people making charitable donations. Kind of similar to the Asch experiment. And autistics generally did not change their behavior if someone was watching. Seems like a good thing to me. For some reason they titled the article “Insensitivity to social reputation in autism”. ( I wonder what the title of the article would have been if the results had been the other way around. But anyway, I digress….

    Your story reminded me of this. “To thine own self be true.” It has a double meaning if you think of “true” to mean either “truthful” or “faithful”.

  14. That group you mention was never a cohesive group, nor a bonded group, nor a particularly friendly one. It’s a shame some people can’t see the bigger themes of group dynamics and what it means to silence others. ((hugs)) I’m with you.

    • Dearest Brenda, I feel compelled to admit something… I cannot tell you how much I wanted to make a grand, dramatic exit. It took every fiber of my being to not make a final pronouncement, a kind of manifesto of the “truth” about that group and why I was leaving. I imagined it in minute detail. I imagined the brilliance of my words, how I would write with insight and wisdom and then, after hitting the “send” button I would remove myself with a dramatic, furious, flourish! And I would be bathed in the glorious, vindicated light of triumph. Except I knew the instant my mind latched onto this fantasy that this was exactly why I had to leave. These impulses of mine lead me down a dark and ultimately miserable path of more enveloping darkness and bad behavior (my own!). So quietly I just clicked on the little button saying, “are you sure you want to remove yourself from this group” and poof it was all gone. I sat there for a moment and then I felt the thing I had least expected feeling – relief! Profound relief!
      Thanks for all you do, Brenda. Building bridges, building bridges even when some of us are too fragile to.

  15. Pingback: Group Dynamics – This Was NOT the Post I Intended to Write… « barryjsamson

  16. The Asch conformity experiment has been done with autistics:

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