Encountering the Intolerable – A View from Groupwork


Our instinctive response to the intolerable is to turn away.  And so we structure our lives in ways that help us evade those aspects that we would rather not face – whether with:

  • apparently trivial strategies (eg. distracting ourselves on social media, reading, watching tv, going to the gym, etc); or
  • more problematic strategies (eg. drinking, drugs etc); or
  • constructing our whole lives (our relationships, careers, free time) precisely in a way to avoid a certain unbearableness of life that we can’t even put our finger on.

Strangely however, consciously encountering the intolerable reduces our need to build structures or to run, and so, approach our lives in more authentic and creative ways.

The intolerable in Group Work

Group work can be daunting at the best of times.  In a therapeutic group/workshop, a microcosm of our social world is created, and the challenges of being-in-relation-to-others are often highlighted.

Depending on who we are, the intolerable creeps up on each of us in our own idiosyncratic ways, for eg:

  • for some, speaking up in a group is intolerable, for others, the intolerable is to not speak.
  • For some, witnessing or being part of conflict is intolerable, for others, the intolerable is feeling that nothing is happening in the group.
  • For some, it is taking initiative that is intolerable, for others, the intolerable is following what others want to do.

In the workshops on sex and sexuality that I run, I’ve noticed that in addition to the unbearable aspects of the process of a group, the people who attend also often encounter the intolerable in the content of the workshop topics:

  • Shame is probably the most common intolerable experience of sexuality – and so we hide aspects of ourselves that might induce shame, or we try to rebel against shame by creating an identity of shamelessness.
  • Vulnerability – either in ourselves or others. We therefore either present a strong, invulnerable persona and/or attack or feel disgust at others’ vulnerability.
  • Being in a state of desire/need/lack – being sexual is intrinsically troubling: it shakes us up, and makes us look beyond ourselves for something to satisfy us. Being sexual means that on some level, we are not self-sufficient.  Some therefore split and segment their sexuality into more controllable compartments, while others sexualise almost all aspects of their lives.

Of course, the irony is that talking and writing about the intolerable enables us to escape it through intellectualisation.  So, the invitation is to allow ourselves to encounter it and experience it and by being more acquainted with the intolerable in our lives, reduce our need to protect ourselves from it.

                                          Phoebus Ebbini is a psychotherapist and a coach, and runs fortnightly workshops for gay/bi men in East London on the topics of sex and sexuality.  To attend or to find out more about his workshops, please visit www.openconnection.org.uk