Leaving a group: the emotional side

I got several comments after my last post in various places about how I hadn’t talked about the emotional part of leaving a group. And they’re all right, I didn’t.

There’s a couple of reasons for that.

One is that I come from a stereotypically British family: talking about emotions at all, never mind mine in specific, is something I pretty much had to learn as an adult and proto-adult. (How I learned is an interesting story not relevant to this post). It’s still usually not the first thing I think of when talking about a subject.

But there’s another reason: I believe, quite strongly, that we can’t fundamentally control our emotions, but that we can (and often should) control what we do about them, or how we act based on them. So, when it comes to something like leaving a group – where we generally have advance warning – we do have some chances to decide how we’re going to act.

Besides, my idea of witchcraft – and magical practice in general – is that each choice shapes our future possibilities. That means we sometimes have to stop and not act purely in the moment, in order to give us more options down the road.

But back to the emotions.

Feeling loss is normal when things change

And that’s even more true when it’s something we care about very deeply – whether that’s a job we really wanted, a friendship or romantic relationship clearly going in different directions, or a religious or magical group not working out for us.The thing is that that feeling doesn’t have to – and honestly shouldn’t – dictate how we act.

Doesn’t mean we’re not still hurt, feeling lost, or just plain miserable. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t do things to help that (we should!). Just that those feelings really shouldn’t drive our decisions.

So, go ahead, spend time with your loss. (And I’ll have some more on that in a minute). Just be aware of how it’s influencing your decisions, and take extra time to sit with decisions about that group or the people in it. Give yourself the gift of the best possible choices you can make, not just the first ones that spring to mind. (This is an excellent time, in my experience, to go talk things out with a trusted friend, to journal, or to use ritual techniques to bring questions to your Gods or other entities you work with or honor.)

It’s not just about now

The other part is that we’re not just concerned (or shouldn’t be!) with how we feel right now – but also how we’re going to feel in a few months, years, or even decades.

As I said, the Pagan community is still a pretty small place.

Even if you decide to go be solitary from now on, or even if the group in question is very private, there’s still a surprisingly good chance that somewhere down the road you’re going to bump into someone from that group somewhere. It could be in person – at your local Pagan store, or even a local library branch or grocery store. It could be online. It could be any number of other places. And if you and the group are both even slightly involved in the same general local physical community, the chances of being in the same space (and quite possibly potentially in the same public ritual space) get a lot higher.

A little bit of attention now can make all of those future interactions much much easier. There will probably still be some awkwardness, but it’ll be much better than the alternatives. (As anyone who’s had both maturely-handled romantic break-ups and horrible ones already knows, probably)

This is also where the ‘did you make any formal ritual oaths about any of this’ comes in. Because breaking those will generally have a major impact on you for a long time. Depending on your theology and practice, that might be this lifetime, or it could be many lifetimes to come. Personally, that’s generally worth avoiding if there’s other ways around it, even if they’re not pleasant.

Take care of yourself

Be a little selfish. Do you really want a group’s actions to goad you into doing something that, a few months from now, you’ll regret? You can’t take that action back.

I am, these days, divorced. There were points in the divorce where people around me thought it would be quite reasonable for me to throw very major fits about certain of my ex’s choices. And believe me, I certainly agree. But when it came down to it, by the time I was clear that the relationship wasn’t fixable, and by the time I’d looked at my role and choices, and my ex’s role and choices, I realised something.

He wasn’t worth feeling guilty over. I learned a lot from the relationship, there were some good pieces. And there’s also a lot of things that I know now I never want to do again. And some things I will be very clear I won’t tolerate in a relationship – friendship or romantic. (Also, throwing a fit wouldn’t have made anything better really, and would have wasted energy I could use for better things.)

But I also realised that there’s some things it wasn’t worth dirtying my own soul with. A friend of mine has sometimes described the concept (she learned it via Feri training, but I’ve seen something similar in various other places) as everything we do – magic especially, but anything that changes us, which is magic, really – seasoning the cauldron at our center like we’d season a cast iron pot. The more we build up in that seasoning, the more effective and efficient the pot is – but we build up a specific *kind* of seasoning. Our cauldron is not exactly like anyone else’s, because each of us has different priorities, experiences, and choices.

We can certainly go and do things that go against that seasoning if we want. But if we do so, we’re sort of stuck afterwards. We can scrub out that bitterness or that anger or that nasty comment with some work and elbow grease and the cleansing metaphor of your choice. But we know we’re also going to take out all the other stuff, the stuff we’re pleased with and proud of as well, and it’s going to take us a good deal of time to build up the seasoning we like again. And until we do that, certain things are going to be a bit harder for us – they’ll take more attention, we won’t have as much of that internal cauldron inclining us in that direction.

The other choice is that we don’t clean it out – but that we risk it being there tainting everything we do for a while, until we’ve done enough other stuff that overrides it. That usually, in my experience, takes a number of repetitions of the way I’d prefer to do things, not just a couple.

There are times this makes a lot of sense: minor commonplace situations where we know a bunch of similar opportunities will be along in a bit. There are times where it doesn’t – how many attempts at finding a magical or small religious group are we going to have this year, this decade, this lifetime? How many romantic relationships, ditto? With those more rare examples, waiting for new choices to overwrite the old ones is probably not a great call.

Making peace with the loss

There are honestly all sorts of options here, and which one someone picks will depend a lot on the situation, their personal inclinations, and some specific needs or desires. But some that spring to mind:

Journal and/or discuss

There will probably be some venting and ranting in here: I think that’s generally a healthy and necessary part of the process, at least for a bit. But focus on getting the emotion moving through your psyche so you can do something with it, rather than getting stuck on ideas of ill-wishing the people involved. Once you get things moving, it’s often very helpful to talk to a trusted friend about what worked, what didn’t, what you wished had gone differently.

It’s also very helpful to journal about it, so that you can have your notes to go back to so you can avoid similar situations again. For example, should you decide to look at another group in a year or two, looking at your notes of what really frustrated you last time can help you avoid making the same kind of choice again. Or you might look, be delighted at how much you’ve grown, and decide you can deal with a group with a particular similarity much better now.

Do a parting ritual on your own side.

Some groups may strongly encourage a parting ritual (and as I said previously, there are some good reasons for that). But there’s no reason you can’t also do one for yourself.

Put on all the symbols, tools, items, etc. that were used for group work or were gifts from the group. Take them off and pack them away, one by one, gently – because you’re touching pieces of yourself, too. Leave them out of sight for a period of time – six months or a year is often a good time – and reevaluate then.

Some things may be too personal to do anything else with: these could be kept as a reminder, or destroyed appropriately. Others might hold very strong (and painful) memories for you, but not for someone else: you might pass these on to someone who’ll make good use of them. (“This is the coffee mug I always brought with me for coven discussions, wah!” is not necessarily a sacred tool, but is going to remind you of those discussions.)

Another option is to lay out an altar or shrine with objects, images, or other items related to the group, and then remove them, one at a time every few days. You might journal as you remove each one, or simply reflect for a moment before packing it away.

Consider rededicating some items to a new ‘you’

This is something where you might want to let them rest a bit first – but if you have items you still really treasure, but have some lingering memories, this can be a great choice.

I have a set of necklaces made for me by a dear friend who’s a jewelry maker as a gift from her and from another friend for my wedding. Post-divorce, I didn’t want to give them up, but I didn’t quite feel right wearing them as was, either. So, I, the jeweler friend, and several people from my group at the time did a ritual in which we rededicated them for a new goal.

Basically, I handed each of them one piece of the set: three necklaces, one pair of earrings and asked them to hand them back to me with a verbal gift of whatever they thought I needed them to hold. In our standard trad circle, though I did the deity and ancestor calls, rather than anyone else. It worked wonderfully, and while I don’t wear that jewelry all the time, it’s a powerful reminder to me of the possibility of change.

Give yourself space

Just like rebound romantic relationships are probably not the smartest idea anyone’s ever had, rebound magical relationships are not a good move. Give yourself time to heal, time to try out some different stuff, time to establish your own pattern and choices again, before you go looking. This is a great time to look at public rituals or other events in your area, or to vary where you’re spending time online talking about Pagan stuff (or whatever the topic is.)

Promise yourself that you’re not going to make major new commitments – to a group, to a deity – for a period of time, and extend that time if you see fit. Note that this doesn’t mean you can’t explore and try things out – just that they should be short term commitments (three months, six months, maybe a year) not longer. If it’s the right thing when you’re ready for longer, you’ll know.

Do different stuff

It’s an especially good time to go do stuff the previous group wasn’t at all interested in (but you are), within reason. I spent a lot of my post-divorce first few months eating meals my ex disliked, listening to music that drove him up a wall, and generally delighting in the fact I didn’t have to drive him anywhere or share the car. I spent my first few months after hiving having very simple altar set-ups, and relatively simple rituals (within the confines of the trad specifics), and doing things that generally weren’t a good fit with my parent group’s size or members.

It’s not that any of the other things were wrong or bad – just that I needed to go do something Very Different for a while, in some way. Giving myself appropriate ways to do that helps avoid the sudden spontaneous desires that later turn out not to be a really smart idea. And it helped me be aware that I really was reacting to the new freedom, not that I hated everything about the past choices. In both cases, I came back much more into balance after a couple of months, and then made long-term decisions about those things that I think are a lot more centered and thoughtful.

Build your own

I’ve only made a handful of suggestions here – there are many more out there. You might find ideas by looking at books for people who’ve gotten divorced, who’ve lost a loved one, or any number of other areas. Something else might spring to mind.

The real goal, in my experience, is to not make rash major decisions (things you can’t undo, or things that will have a major effect on your life for years to come). Pretty much everything else can be worked out down the road. Yes, it hurts, but hurts get better, as we begin to build a different life for ourselves. The more we make conscious and aware choices about that, (again, in my experience) the faster we heal.

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