In my favorite Harry Potter book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and his friends learn to confront a boggart. A boggart takes the shape of its adversary’s worst fear and is banished through a spell and laughter. Under Professor Lupin’s capable tutelage they emerge victorious. The boggart cycles through each student’s immediate, internal fear before they render it riddikulus.
I can only imagine that my professor took a page out of the Harry Potter series when constructing his lesson plan. On the first day of class for Clinical Practice with Groups our professor passed out notecards and told us to answer the question: “When it comes to working with clients in a group setting, what is one situation that terrifies you?”
After collecting our fears, he told us that each week he would randomly select one for a role play. Volunteers from the class will play out the fear while the selected individual acts as facilitator. In this controlled environment supported by our classmates we would face our fear and learn firsthand how to respond. We weren’t expected to get it right, but we were expected to improve our practice and realize that we can survive our fear.
When he told us this, my stomach plummeted. While I understand the benefits of role play, it is the one thing in social work school that I despise. I just can’t get into character. Like a one-speed bike at a race, I have all the necessary components — two wheels and a seat — but willpower alone will not help me shift into another gear. Additionally, I get so distracted by the observation component that I often struggle to stay in the moment. My mind constantly wonders, “Am I doing a good job? Do people think I’m doing this right? Am I failing? I’m definitely failing.” I get tangled up in trying to do what others think is right and essentially put on a good show. All of this and we haven’t even gotten to the part where I have to live my worst fear in front of all of my classmates. Something something showing-up-to-class-without-your-pants nightmare level.
We went over all of the platitudes — we’re all in this together, this is a safe space, failure is okay, even expected, etc. Regardless, after that first class, the activity haunted me. On the subway home I turned my fear over and over again in my head like a stubborn Rubik’s cube. Reading assignments took twice as long since I would get lost imagining different scenarios. I practiced phrasing in my head like, “your opinions are very important, and you will have a chance to discuss them in a bit, but first I want to hear from some other folks.”
My worst fear, by the way, is that someone will say something awful — sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, etc. — with the conviction of your most bigoted and outspoken family member on Facebook. It’s not the content that scares me but the way it will disrupt group dynamics and shatter the sense of safety among group members. My fear is also couched in my responsibility to the group. I have to reel it back, address it, and re-instill trust that will foster constructive and empowering dialogue. Part of the tension exists in the question of authority and facilitator leadership. As facilitators we are supposed to promote self-determination of the group, which means that the group guides the discussions and defines their own opinions, roles, and goals. So if there’s something that I don’t agree with, that disrupts the group, to what extent should I step in and lay down the law?
Over the next week I was tightly wound in anticipation of this role play. I debated with myself whether it would be better to go first and get it out of the way (hopefully with greater sympathy from classmates) or the possibility that I would go last. Not that it was even up to me, but I still analyzed it to bits.
As it turns out I was not the first to go, though I may have had a glass of wine before class just in case. In the first role play my classmate, a high school teacher of 10 years, worked with a tough crowd of high school youth. In this scenario they were mandated to attend a group due to behavioral problems. While imperfect, she held her own, at times tapping into her teacher persona. The response was positive and the feedback constructive. Our professor then took the role of facilitator and modeled an alternative approach. I had to admit it was helpful to observe both role plays to get a stronger sense of dialogue, demeanor, and affect.
Over the next week I continued to mull over my scenario. When I walked into class on week three, the professor told me that my card had been pulled and I was up. A mercy killing, I thought. In a show of solidarity with my palpable anxiety, four classmates volunteered immediately to play the group members. We discussed my fear out in the hall and then I returned to class while they hashed out the details. Surprise me, I told them.
My head was swirling when the professor started class. I felt my focus fade in and out like a radio stuck at the edges of two station signals. The professor, a very good man and experienced facilitator, asked us to re-cap the previous week. I tried to process my upcoming task and rein in my harried thoughts.
Fast forward through the lesson and suddenly I was pulling up a chair, my classmates arranging themselves in group formation. Pumping myself up, I cheerfully described my fear to the class. I provided a scenario (residential facility, adults in substance abuse treatment, Relapse Prevention group), and watched the professor give the ‘go’ signal.
Launching in, I hit all the marks: I asked for folks to introduce themselves, repeated their names back to them, and set up a discussion topic. Things were moving smoothly, tepidly coming together. I felt comfortable in my use of silence and people shared their experiences and began drawing connections with one another. And then it shifted.
One group member asked me a question accusingly and another jumped in with a snide comment, launching another sharp response. The banter escalated quickly as I tried to intervene. I reminded them of the importance of allowing each other to voice opinions. “Ramp it up!” I heard my professor chime in. They volleyed back and forth, blurring together like a two-headed monster in an angry monologue with itself. I cut in and asked them to take a moment and, for a second, everyone paused. But the moment passed and they were back at it, shouting over one another. I heard the other group members voice discomfort but my head was whipping back and forth too quickly to acknowledge their needs. My mind raced, pulling blanks. I was ready for this exercise to end.
Glancing around the class in despair, I discovered everyone else was enthralled with the chaos. It seems cliche to say it was all happening in slow motion, voices and actions distorting, but my reality was beginning to warp. Finally the professor called it and everything stopped. All of my emotions — the building anxiety from the past few weeks, the pressure and responsibility, the sense of powerlessness that I felt at the end of the exercise — shuddered to a halt and suddenly spilled forth. In a moment I was fighting through tears and a legitimately ugly cry.
I tried to keep it together but it wasn’t happening. My classmates, all truly lovely people, hugged me and procured tissues from their bags. I tried to signal that I was fine, just overwhelmed, and we trooped through the feedback portion. My professor provided suggestions and we discussed (or rather they discussed while I blubbered along) different levels of authority and when to use them. We considered what items from that interaction could be addressed in the group and what to reserve for individual discussion. The whole time I tried to get a grip and focus on the conversation. I wasn’t sobbing, but I also couldn’t speak without shuddering through the words.
It felt like neither sadness nor hurt, but more like a tidal wave of emotion that I couldn’t hold back. Class wrapped up as I focused on my breathing and tried to quell the hiccups. I took the subway home with my classmate, one of the volunteers who had played the confrontational group member. She asked me about what that experience was like.
I identified my main frustration as the sense of powerlessness. I felt I had tried so hard, poured out my whole bag of tricks, and yet I was ineffective. The boggart had merely deflected my riddikulus charm and splintered my conviction. There was also the sense of failure to accomplish what I set out to do and some disappointment with myself. Among those feelings lay the tightly coiled anxiety, winding slowly over the past few weeks and then more quickly the moment class started. The shock of that release had been sudden and unexpected.
I told my classmate about the karate tests when I was younger that left me in tears of frustration. As I moved up in rank they would get increasingly challenging. One portion was an impossible situation, which you were expected to fight your way out of, or try to. I remember I had to write a character (mine was ‘strength’) while being held down. One hand held a calligraphy brush while my legs and other arm were pinned by three different people. A fourth person held a piece of paper, usually just out of reach. I was never hurt but I couldn’t control the tears that inevitably came during such a challenge. It had been a long time, but the feeling was familiar.
My classmate told me about a recent experience when she was walking home and a group of guys began whispering catcalls at her, leering and invading her personal space. She confronted them but they were unapologetic, even though one had a young daughter with him. She told me that when she got home she broke down, crying on the couch in the dark. We talked about vulnerability, and how some interactions can leave you feeling weak and stripped of your self-determination.
Walking home from the subway I still felt jumbled. There was optimism, relief, and self-efficacy because, for the most part, I had done admirably. I felt supported and cared for by my classmates who have all grown close over the past year. But the tears kept sloshing forth like waves crashing over a pier in the aftermath of a storm. It was during one of these moments that I walked face-first into the sudden spray of an overzealous sprinkler. I laughed, wiped the tears and sprinkler water from my face with the tissue I was still clutching, and then blubbered a little more. Riddikulus.