The Teen Talking Circle Project

By Linda Wolf, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2000

Jean is the author of The Millionth Circle: How to Change Ourselves and the World: The Meaning and Maintenance of Women's Circles (Conari Press Publishers, 2000).

Linda: Jean, what kind of advice can I give to teenage girls who are just in the process of learning that they can be safe enough to go through the conflicts that arise in girls circles? And what sorts of conflicts do you see arise over and over again?

Jean Bolen: I think the reasons for the strengths of women’s circles and the difficulty of women’s or girls’ circles are the same as what arises in friendship. I think that women as a gender are supportive of each other, tell each other their stories; they tell a trusted friend what is really happening in their lives and we do that from the time we are quite young. And often -- and especially for teenagers in about middle school – just around then – the best friend becomes very, very important. [This time is] a major transition, as their body is changing, as they’re concerned – maybe for the first time – as to how they look from the outside and how they are or are not measuring up. It’s also a time where people are afraid of being judged, and are often judged and teased and ridiculed. It’s not an easy transition time, and if you have a best friend with whom you can share really what’s going on, it makes an enormous difference in making that transition.

The kinds of problems and the kinds of strengths that women have in circles are very similar. First of all is:what is said in confidence is held in confidence. [A circle] can only be a growth space if you can do that, and so the first sense of it is honoring – and really honoring – that you are being given something sacred when somebody tells you something vulnerable; that if it got out as gossip, for example, it would be very detrimental. But if it is kept in the circle and everyone hears it and has a sense of growing compassion for what this girl is going through, then she is healing something and doesn’t leave it out and become a “persona”. It’s so easy to [become a “persona”], especially in the teenage years – to stay real is hard at any age. But it’s around the teenage years that you learn to become un-real. A true circle of peers would be a sanctuary where you could let others know what is really happening, what you’re questioning; you might put a very confident face on in school but really, no one is really confident in this age group.

So when teenagers share their concerns and anxieties it’s a revelation that others feel the same way. And each person then is a mirror for everyone else in the circle in reflecting back and learning how to do that. How do you tell somebody something that, if they knew it and changed, would make a big difference in their lives? How do you say if kindly? It is what you learn to do in a circle as you watch others do it and if you sort of don’t do it very well, another friend might chime in and interpret it in a fuller range. That’s what a circle can do.

A circle has problems when a problem arises with a member in the circle and people are afraid to bring it up. And then, the meetings after that become increasingly “fake” and pretty soon people don’t want to be there. Or meetings happen in which everyone except one person considers it a high priority and she comes late or leaves early or isn’t fully present during the meeting and resentment grows and safety leaks out – things like that. I mean, those are very common kinds of difficulties that arise in circles. And a circle like a friendship or any relationship, including in a major way dysfunctional families, is a place where you can break the pattern or not, [the pattern] of saying what is really going on. The Alcohol Anonymous model [speaks of the] “elephant in the living room.” Do you speak up about what is really the problem? How do you do it? How do you keep it in the circle and not just gossip – or not even gossip, but just talk about the problem outside?

Having a perspective, having some kind of point of view, really matters, which is why I’m really glad about The Millionth Circle. It is a very little book in terms of size, but the principles are all there and it also is written in a kind of poetic style, because I think of poetry as reaching the more feeling and related side of our brains, actually, and the more poetic side. So hopefully what it will do is it will allow someone who’s in a troubled circle to muse about the problem and for the circle as a whole, when it gets into trouble, to go into silence. And this is the difference between a group and a circle, as I’m defining it – is that it resembles a shape of a wheel with an axle center being the invisible but honored spiritual center. I would like, for example, girls to experience a sacred space that is not a religious space and to understand that where trust is, where vulnerability is, where one makes time to share what really is dear to you, as well as hard for you, – is a sacred place.

Linda: Right, whatever we hold sacred we take care of…I know you agree with the model we’re using in the Daughters Sisters Project cirlces, where the adult facilitators walk the thin line of being facilitators as well as participants. I mean, in all of our teen circles we adult facilitators share honestly about every subject that comes up. We share what we’re going through in our marriages, in our sex lives, on our paths – with drugs, with our parents – We talk honestly about our fears and our longings to be liked and to – you know – want the girls to like us, too. We talk about the troubles we’ve had in our own teenage years. And eventually, after the group has gone on for a while, interpersonal conflicts start to surface, even between the girls and us.

What I’ve discovered in some of our groups is usually in the beginning we’re, the facilitators, are considered the “good mothers” and then after a while we become more real ourselves and may do something wrong, may say something wrong, may be in a bad mood, may be defensive in a way that threatens someone... And with teenage girls if you lose their trust in any way it’s very difficult to rebuild. It’s difficult to get that back, and then we become the “bad mother.” It happens in all relationships, I know, when the honeymoon is over.

But how do we help teens understand that we can get past that in cirlces where there’s this mixed generation of people – where some of us may be more confortable and used to sticking in there when there’s personal conflict, instead of running away, being willing to stay open and work through issues?

Jean: I would suspect that something of the nature of the potential problem has to be introduced. That you get introduced to the concept of the circle and it includes what an experimental model this is and yet how potentially positive an experience it could be. And this cross-generational quality is different and yet what it offers a younger woman is a model of someone older who has gone through [these types of conlficts and worked them through]. And I think in women’s circles it’s the modeling of other women that provide – you know, you can learn from listening to someone else’s experience, what not to do. (laughter) You could also learn from them: “If she could do that, I could, too.” So there’s some practical how-to’s that you get from watching peers and there’s also some courage that you get from watching them.

I think that teenagers have a defensive, judgmental potential that needs to be acknowledged and often just goes with the territory. That this is what makes parents find it so difficult sometimes – that a teenager will suddenly turn on them for their imperfections , which are inevitable. Now, you know, to understand that it’s a growth phase, to stop idealizing a grown-up makes it possible to grow up yourself. But do you have to trash that grown-up for being imperfect? You don’t really have to if you get what the picture is.

And for the facilitator, too, to understand from the experience of other facilitators, that you get to this point and it can happen and you can feel like the kid you were in high school yourself when the girls – the “in” girls – didn’t like you. And so what happens to you is, you get to feel it all over again. And how you react when you feel it all over again may not be the greatest role model in the world. (laughter) And so, I can empathize with that.

Linda: Yes, it’s hard sometimes to get across to teens that we’re just like them. I think we, all people, walk around all the time no matter what we’re doing or what we’re talking about with an inner dialogue that goes something like this: ‘I hope they like me, I wonder if they like me, I want them to like me, I don’t like them, I think they don’t like me’…etc. etc. I heard in Japan they have a new button devise that lights up in different colors and tells people by whatever color lights up, ‘I like you, I’d like you to like me’, or ‘I’m not available’ – It sure would help with dating possibilities! Here’s another question: What do you suggest we do in a circle when somebody doesn’t feel safe, and they don’t want to work it out and go through the process to feel safe, and they say they want to leave, quit the group?

Jean: Well, it all depends. There is no one set formula about – that she has to stay or she is supported to leave. Those of us who’ve done psychotherapy know that this is very common and it comes up and it is important first of all as an expression that something hurts or has been outgrown, and what is it? And if, as you’re saying, it’s prefaced by: “I don’t trust you,” -- I think when somebody says something like that, one of the guiding principles of The Millionth Circle is that that might be time for the circle to center. That means that each person and the circle as a whole goes into some kind of inner silent place where prayer for clarity or just meditating and going into a centered place, realizing that what she said [is a “shock” to the circle.] I think, you know, if someone says “I’m going to leave,” it sets off every gong in every girl in that room who has been left by a mother, by a father, by a boyfriend, by a girlfriend – and so, it takes them off center, just as whatever provoked the girl in the first place to say I’m leaving probably did that.

So, to first of all want her not to go. If it’s at all possible, I think that it’s important that it be conveyed that she is free to make this choice because women have real difficulties leaving bad relationships. And so they ought to learn how to leave a bad relationship, too. If this circle is bad for them, then it would be bad for that girl to stay, but the work of staying in the circle because the circle members want to have some closure, some shared reality, that this is a good thing. Can you work through a good ending is one of the major lessons in life and it would be kind of nice to learn it when you’re younger. So, if you sit there and hope that the right perceptions and words come and that people get centered. And what is often amazing about people is when the space is given for them to come up with something deeply meaningful, how it sometimes – and not out of the ordinary – it’s amazing the wisdom that people have.

And so sometimes it’s a matter of spending a number of [meetings]– a meeting like that – using a talking stick, where people really listen and talk about their reaction to what has been said. Often the girl who is leaving has no idea what bells and pains and all she sets off in the other girls. Or that she matters and they want her to stay. So something – you know, that would be, for example, a beginning place.

And then, when she leaves, I think that a last meeting should be designated as the last meeting, if that is what it’s going to be. And that [there be] some sense of ritual closure for everybody.

Linda: Normally we think of the circle as a place of partnership, equality as opposed to the hierarchical paradigm, but are you familiar with Ken Wilber’s argument for hierarchy?

Jean: No, I’m not.

Linda: Well, it seems to me that is our circles, especially with the facilitators being adults, even though we are somewhat equal with each other, we are still the “leaders” so to speak. So I feel that in our circles we have both the circle as well as the hierarchy – they co-exist together, they have to for it to be a healthy circle…

Jean: Yes, they exist together. That’s what we call a functional family. The parents aren’t children, they have to be parents.

Linda: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. Do you have any last suggestions about – or just some wise thing that you’ve learned doing circles that would help us on our journey?

Jean: Well, I think a circle, a good circle, is like a good relationship. You know – maybe you’re lucky in your first love, and your first circle is really wonderful. But maybe it’s not, and it doesn’t mean if the first circle experience – whatever it is – that you judge (especially if you’ve had a bad experience) – you don’t want to say “Well, that’s that. I’m out of here as far as that kind of relationship…ever,” you know? And certainly it sometimes is true with people if they’ve been betrayed by a friend they walk away saying “I’ll never trust a girl, a woman, again. If they’re betrayed by a guy, they have a very negative sense about ever trusting again. And the circle is like that, too. That if it’s been a bad experience it leaves her wounded and maybe she’ll never, ever think about coming back to a circle again. And one of the things that I’m trying to say in The Millionth Circle is that the particular form of relationship that a circle is, is special, and is a growing medium and is a real sanctuary and support, if you can learn through your other experiences until you are in one that is like that.