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.

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Leaving a group

This is a question that’s come up in two different places recently, which usually is enough to make me consider a post here. (One was a question from someone online about how to approach that conversation with a group she’d been working with, the other was a conversation with my student about my expectations around that once someone commits to being a Dedicant, just so we were both clear.)

The following applies to a group that someone’s made a significant ongoing investment in – I’m talking about becoming a formal student, member, or whatever else, here, rather than showing up when you feel like it, basically (that’s a whole other set of guidelines.)

Basic principles:

In general, I think that it’s good to avoid burning bridges unless you absolutely have to. Even if you think the people in a group are the lousiest people on the planet, the Pagan community is still pretty small. Chances are decent that you’ll end up crossing paths with them at some point down the road, or talking to someone who’s worked with them, or whatever.

Thus, while a good parting doesn’t need to be ‘happy and cheerful’ (it’s okay to have hard or hurt feelings), handling it maturely and thoughtfully, taking the high road, and tying off loose ends as much as possible has long seemed the best choice whenever you can. It will give you the widest range of future options in the community both immediately and in the future.

Existing commitments:

The first thing to do is stop and think for a minute, because it’s going to simplify the next steps a lot. Different groups, traditions, and paths have different ways to part, and different things to keep in mind, but here’s things to look at:

Have you made any commitments, agreements, or oaths…

about how parting from the group happens or should happen? For example, students in my group are asked as part of their Dedicant oath that if they decide the group isn’t a good fit for them, they will return to the group for a formal parting if at all possible. This is a recognition of the very real personal and energetic ties formed at Dedication (and at Initiation, etc.) and is meant to give everyone a chance to tidily resolve those energetic loose ends.

Having been on the other side of someone just disappearing a number of times, I was very clear on why this was a good idea even before I hived. Avoid breaking oaths. (If it’s a truly abusive setting, or there are good practical reasons you can’t do whatever the preferred mode is, see later in this post.)

Do you have any upcoming commitments to the group?

Are you currently mentoring someone? On the list to lead or create a ritual in the next 2-3 months? Have you taken on ongoing responsibilities for any task? Is there information about how to do something that lives in your head in the current use, and is not yet down on paper?

Take time to figure out some ways to handle that. You don’t need to find an answer for everything, but it is a useful thing to be able to hand the group leadership a clear list of what they need to find alternatives for, and how to maintain what you’ve been doing.

For example, I was the technology-answering person in my group for several years before I hived. I spent the time to write up the clearest directions I could about how each tool the group used worked (how to add an event to the calendar, someone to the mailing list, etc. etc.) They still asked questions about specifics, but it helped a lot to have a reference.

What will you say?

If other people ask you why you’re leaving the group, what will you say? Someone will probably ask, and it’s a lot easier to have an answer to this one if you think about it in advance. Good answers are generally brief, and avoid anyone’s dirty laundry. If you’re parting because you just want to go another direction, a cheerful “They’re wonderful folks, but I found myself going off towards [other thing].” can work well. If hte parting is a bit more fraught, something like “We were clearly going in different directions.” or “It wasn’t as good a mutual fit anymore.” or something general and simple works well.

(You may find that you do want to talk specifics: in general, I’d suggest this only with people who specifically ask you about the group because they’re interested in it themselves, and who ask you for your direct experience. Move forward, in other words, rather than getting stuck venting about what didn’t work.)

Think of what you want to say to the group members.

This may be more than one set of things. You may have things you want to share with the group leadership, but you should also consider what you want to say to other group members who may not hear all the details of why you’re making this choice. Again, focus on tying up loose ends rather than casting blame or getting stuck in past problems.

Consider the outcomes:

Are you considering leaving, but aren’t sure yet? Or are you really sure that it’s the thing you need to do? Is there anything that might change your mind?

If there is, this would be a good time to arrange to talk to the people who could do something about that – probably the group’s leader or leader’s. Make sure they know it’s a serious conversation (not a casual catching up) so they can plan appropriately.

If you know nothing’s going to change your mind, that’s okay too. Just make sure you’ve thought through each of your concerns first.

I do encourage people to take time with this step. Sometimes we feel pushed to leave a situation because it’s pushing us toward a change we’re not sure we want to take, or we’re hitting old baggage that we haven’t fully unpacked yet. If we don’t deal with that, we stand a good chance of hitting the same problem over and over again in other settings. If we deal with it a bit – even if we end up leaving that group anyway – we’ll be in a better place in the long run. That’s worth quite a bit of self-examination, I think.

It’s also possible that a group isn’t the right place for us right now – but that in a couple of years, either we change or the group changes (or most commonly, both) and it might be worth considering again. Being really clear about why you left helps make it a lot easier to see if coming back is the right choice down the road.

Communicate

Do not assume the group leadership are mind-readers. It’s not a good assumption. They may know you’re unhappy, or want to explore other areas, or just are struggling to deal with a complicated schedule, long drive, or something else practical, but they may not realise all of what’s going on. Having a clear conversation with them will help you as well as them.

You might have this conversation in their home, but it might be easier to have it in some neutral location like a coffee shop. (preferably somewhere that no one in the conversation has really strong ties to: don’t pick the HPS’s favorite morning stop!)

Maybe they have a solution you haven’t considered (if you aren’t set on leaving). Even if they don’t, it’s courteous to give them a clear explanation if you can, so that they can consider if they might want to change things in the future for other people.

Go into the conversation with an idea of what you want to say (which could range from “I’m really unhappy with how things are going, here’s what I think would change that” if you’d consider staying, to “I really don’t think things are working out, and I think I need to leave the group.”

They may have stuff to say. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) put up with abusive language, harassment, or anything else like that, but otherwise, you might consider staying – again, there might be something that you hadn’t considered that would at least make the parting easier for everyone).

Practicalities:

You will want to communicate any of your existing obligations. A list is handy here, that you can give them. Something like “I’d signed up for the May moon, Mallow might be a good person to handle this thing I’ve been doing and here’s directions on how I’ve been doing it, and here’s the books I borrowed from you.” Obviously, they may make their own choices, but at least you’ve done your best to point out the places they need to double check.

You may also need to ask the group for items, if, for example, they hold your measure as part of your commitment to the group, or it’s common for members to leave some items in the covenstead. (If this is the case, you probably want to think about how to get them back: depending on the situation, you might ask them to bring them to the conversation, to return them at a parting ritual, or to mail them or otherwise get them to you or make them easy for you (or a friend) to pick up.

Sharing with everyone:

You should talk about how to communicate your decision to leave to the group. Will you return for a parting ritual (at the next moon, Sabbat, or some other time?) Will there be a general announcement?

Will you want to continue talking to people in the group for any other reason (social events, overlapping circles of other interests, etc?) It might be good to talk about how to approach that. A good option is to give the group leaders time (a week or so if it’d be by email, the next obvious event if they’d do it in person) to communicate the decision, and then follow up privately with the relevant people. Again, don’t do a lot of venting and focusing on the bad parts, but do take a minute to say things like “I wish you well with Group, and I still look forward to getting together for horror movies every so often if you’re interested.” or whatever your shared interests are.

This is the thing I most regret about my hiving, actually – we all sort of knew when my last ritual with the group was going to be, but we weren’t as clear about it to students and prospective students as we might have been. I wish that I’d asked directly for some sort of announcement, or been  clear that I’d like to send something brief. I think it’s worked out okay, but people were a bit uncertain for a while whether I still wanted to see them or chat in other ways, or what was okay to bring up – and a simple email at the front end would have made that much simpler.

All that’s left at this point is to do the parting ritual if there is one, and to move on with your lives. Hopefully, by taking time to part well, you’ll have a much more pleasant experience if and when you run into each other down the road.

In really lousy circumstances

Sometimes leaving a group is absolutely necessary – but you know that one or more people in the group might be anywhere from totally inappropriate to emotionally abusive or even dangerous about it. (This last one is very rare, but just like romantic relationships going bad, sometimes other interactions take turns we really didn’t expect.)

Obviously, don’t do things you feel are unsafe (and do your best to catch this kind of situation in advance and get help if you need it.) Don’t go meet people if you’re pretty sure they’re going to gang up on you without any meaningful conversation. If you’re not sure, but want some options, think about bringing a friend from outside the group (who can sit with you, or at a nearby table) and help keep things on a more civil tone, or get help if they turn really nasty. (And again, meeting in a public space like a coffee shop helps a lot. Mall food courts generally have an active security presence, if you’re concerned about safety.)

If you feel you can’t discuss your leaving in person, sending a very simple email (no explanations needed if you don’t feel they’d be useful) is a good move: it helps make a clear break with the group. You may wish to consider turning your phone ringer off, asking a friend to check messages for you, or even staying somewhere else for a few days, just to help with the initial outburst of either questions or strong emotion.

Centering, grounding, and cleansing and/or warding your personal space might all be reasonable choices as well – not because most people will energetically attack you effectively (because most won’t!) but because it will help firm up your identification as separate from the group mind. And of course, if you have any realistic concerns about physical risk, talk to the police or other appropriate resources.

I’d also strongly advise packing away any tools, jewelry, or other items that are particularly strongly associated with the group for a while in this situation, and taking them out of your living space entirely for a period of time. In six months or a year or whatever you can come back to them, cleanse them if needed. They’ll have much less overwhelming emotional resonance for you, and you can deal with them in a more thoughtful way.

Pagan values – informed choice

Last month, Pax declared June to be Pagan Values Blogging month. I’ve been thinking since that announcement about what I wanted to talk about. One of the obvious choices, given my professional interests, is the power of information.

And it’s not just information alone – I’m not talking about trivia here, information disconnected from action or change. But in any path that places a heavy consideration on personal responsibility (as many Pagan paths do in one form or another), information allows us to make choices that are based on more than personal preference at a given moment.

To make informed choices, we need information.

And, of course, the kind of information we need varies based on our goals, the topic, and our past level of experience. The information that’s going to be most helpful to one person may not make much difference to someone else.

We may need basics. Useful starting places, relevant safety considerations, ways to find support and community if that’s helpful or wanted – and directions to go as we want to learn more or deepen our understanding. We also need to make sure the basics are in context – that they don’t leave out entire areas of a topic.

Helpful information includes:

  • Resources that have helped other people – and how. Not just a list of books or websites, but some commentary on why someone liked them, recommends them, or found them helpful with specific questions.
  • Ways to connect with broad resources, both locally and online. One risk when someone’s getting started is that they find only a tiny subsection of what’s out there. Participating in broad community settings (a large and active online forum, a local community event that attracts people from many paths) helps avoid that.
  • Context – exactly how a specific practice or idea fits with other ideas (or doesn’t, as the case may be.) If there’s a ritual shared, what’s the background for this ritual? What do you need to know to get more out of it, or adapt it to your particular needs?

We need information to help us understand the risks and benefits. While outright persecution or discrimination is relatively rare for Pagans these days (and there are good support systems in place in many cases), it’s probably no surprise to anyone reading this that there are some risks and considerations. Learning more – gaining information – about what that looks like for other people helps us make better choices for ourselves.

Helpful information in this area might include:

  • How other people navigate talking about their religion with family, friends, and with work or casual acquaintances. Our circumstances are unique, but many types of situation have come up before, and knowing how these went can help us make more informed decisions in our own life.
  • Accurate and appropriate information about effects of various things – whether that’s herbs, specific practices, or anything else. Many things in Pagan practice have a lot of benefits, but some of them are not things to try for the first time the day before an important presentation at work – as they can have lingering effects. (and some can have serious health considerations.)
  • Experiences other people have had with specific practices, tools, or other things that impact not only what we do, but how we do it. Again, these help us decide for ourselves what we should explore in more depth – and how to plan for that experience.

We need information that helps us avoid reinventing the wheel. There are lots of different groups and individuals out there, many trying to do similar things. While we should continue to explore that amazing diversity and range of goals, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel every time. A little research or a conversation about something can help us avoid common prior problems – and save us time and energy so we can go further with our goals.

There are lots of examples here, but a few that spring to mind:

  • Group dynamics – how to avoid the most common problems in group settings. Group drama can eat a tremendous amount of time, momentum, and energy, leading to nothing useful getting done. Knowing how to avoid the drama and deal with different preferences or opinions effectively can make a huge difference.
  • Ritual planning for a particular group size. For example, there are some things that have been found to work reliably and well in large groups, and some things that regularly fail. Knowing those in advance of ritual planning helps create better rituals!
  • Scale – what works for an individual is often different than what works in a group of 5-10 people, or what works in a group of 20, 50, or a few hundred.

We need information that directly impacts our choices. What we do. Who we do it with. How to figure out the where, how, when, and why that sing to our souls (barring things like legality issues, of course.) We need to learn to ask questions that help us figure these things out. Our answers may not be like anyone else’s specific answers – but we need to figure out the places we do overlap, and when cooperation, learning, or sharing resources are truly helpful

Related to that, we need to value choice.

There are many, many people out there. Many paths. Many practices. Many beliefs and philosophies and worldviews. There’s no way that any single person has the ability to do everything, know everything, or be part of everything that’s out there. On a purely practical level, we only get 24 hours in a day, and we have a number of things to do during those hours – sleep, work, taking care of our household chores – before we get into any optional activities.

One thing I’ve found critical in my own path is valuing discernment. Between a demanding job and coven commitments, and other things I want to do, I simply can’t be at every public Pagan event in the Twin Cities (there are lots and lots!), or welcome every person who expresses interest into my coven, or answer every question in an online forum that comes my way. I need to set some limits and make choices in order to honor and value my other commitments (to my profession, to my friends, to my own well-being).

Instead, I use information – about my own needs, about what’s out there, about what might be most helpful to others, about what it will take to improve skills I want to get better at – to make  informed choices about where and how I spend my time. When one of those things changes, I adjust. (For example, I’m about to go on summer break, which changes all my schedules from my school-year life. I can stay up later, do things during the day, work on a single project for hours at a time, and so on – but I also need to make sure I’ll be able to go back to work in August fully recharged for a demanding year!)

Some of that information is clear-cut: I’m already committed to be at something that Saturday, and can’t be in two places at once.  But some is less concrete. Whether I think a person is a potential fit for my coven, or for a role in a particular project can be somewhat nebulous. I personally use a combination of past experience, my knowledge of myself and the things I can work best with, a dollop of ‘what’s going to stretch me, my skills, or my interactions without being either overwhelming or miserable’, and my intuition – but it’s definitely an art, not a science.Knowing myself, though, is pretty critical.

Informed choice is also about balance.

And that means balance between work and home (or hobbies and home, if someone doesn’t work), religious life and practical needs (cooking, cleaning, kids, etc.), and recognising the choices we make and their consequences.

We can’t truly begin to balance these things (and many more) unless we know what they mean – how much time and energy they require to do well, how often we want to do them, what they mean for our interactions with family, friends, or the broader community. There are places in my life I’ve made different choices because my personal preference would affect friends in way I didn’t like – or change my relationships with tradition mates. I value those relationships, so I found new ways to handle that issue. However, the only way I *could* figure out that I needed to do that is by being informed about what was at stake – and what my options were.

I suspect I’m going to be coming back to balance a lot in the coming year: one of my obvious big challenges this next work year is to balance a demanding job (which requires a lot of specific skills and attention to detail) with a religious life that requires some of the same – but also the ability to turn that off, fall into the experience, and be open to very different possibilities. Yet, I also know that it’s that balance (and dynamic balance, in particular) that’s going to save me, and make doing more of what I want possible.