We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups and even alone in gender.
Maya Angelou (as cited in Rutan, Stone & Shay, 2007)
We are born into groups. Our original group is our family where we adapt relational styles of interacting and intimacy. These manners of relating to others stay with us into adulthood. But as our world grows around us so does our group experience. Unfortunately, many of these same adaptive behaviors learned through childhood interactions become outdated, and keep us from growing into our truer selves, or maintaining deeper relationships. In turn we may experience life feeling hindered in some way, and unable to reach our full relational potential.
Furthermore, when feeling stuck in old behaviors, our societal tendency is to retreat to a “safer” place, rather than challenge ourselves to resolve conflicts. Sadly, what feels safer in the moment may perpetuate isolation and frustration with others. In actuality it was the interaction with others that helped create such maladaptive behaviors, so it makes sense that others will be needed to form new, healthy ways of connecting (Rutan, Stone & Shay, 2007).
Group psychotherapy can be a place to explore our relational styles in real time with others who are motivated to grow. It can be a place to give and receive honest feedback in order to gain insight about our own behaviors, and build a stronger sense of safety with our peers and within ourselves (Yalom, 1995). Of course, joining a group can be stressful. For some, the thought of disclosing personal information or emotional reactions in front of strangers can be frightening and overwhelming. It is common to talk ourselves out of such an exposing commitment. Although such questioning is understandable, an opportunity for growth will be missed if we allow our fears to stand in the way.
In an attempt to better illustrate such an internal conversation, I have explored 4 common statements that potential group members contemplate that can stand in the way of the help available. I have followed each statement with reasoning which promotes taking the risk of group therapy.
I have nothing to offer a group.
Despite how individual human consciousness can be, there are common or universal themes to all of us. For instance, the most common secret we keep from others is a deep conviction of inadequacy or incompetence (Yalom, 1995). Thoughts such as, “I will be found out if others really get to know me” can be understood by a majority of those around us. With this in mind, simply offering beliefs of inadequacy with other group members will promote safety, connection and cohesion. In this manner, expressing the basic feeling of “I have no idea what I’m doing in here or what I really want from this” can be one of the most integral aspects of the group process.
Its only once a week, how can I feel comfortable with strangers?
Given enough time group members will act in a natural fashion. We will interact with fellow members as we do with others in our social and familial spheres. In this way, members will create the same interpersonal patterns as we have experienced throughout our lives (Yalom, 1995). As the group increasingly becomes a social microcosm for each member, interpersonal learning can take place. Group then becomes a safe place to experiment with new behaviors. The more spontaneous the interaction within group, the more rapid the authentic behavioral change will happen outside of group. In this way, the psychological time the group spends together far exceeds the weekly (physical) time spent in the therapy room.
I can work out my own issues, by myself and with my friends or family.
As stated above, many of our earliest learned behaviors are established by interacting with family and friends. In this we form role dynamics with those closest to us. As we grow, these roles become further solidified. We establish unconscious expectations for each of us to stay in the roles we have co-created. Therefore, one person’s desire to change would change the entire family unit, or circle of friends. In many cases, this desire for change can be met with resistance from the people in our lives.
Thus, group therapy is created with a “new family” where roles can be established, explored and changed again and again. Furthermore, for many the vulnerability of behavioral or emotional experimentation feels safer in the group context (rather than with preexisting relationships). Having no connection with members outside of the group therapy session allows for a deeper safety and purity within session. As a fundamental sense of trust grows within the context of the group, members will begin to feel a more authentic self outside of the therapy room as well.
What can a group offer me; I don’t need anyone anyway.
Another universal belief that increasingly isolates us from each other is one of interpersonal alienation. We, despite appearances, believe that we cannot love another (Yalom, 1995). In this belief we defend against hurt, rejection and truly caring for even those closest to us. To care brings forth the potential for loss. We remain isolated and unaffected by others. In this we resist the help from others that we need (Rutan, Stone & Shay, 2007).
Group cohesion, or the attractiveness, care and belonging members feel for a group, has been said to permit growth more than any other aspect of group dynamics (Yalom, 1995). A feeling of belonging and care for one’s group builds acceptance, intimacy and understanding. In turn a deeper sense of internal safety exists, even during times of struggle. The group therapy experience can nurture the ability to care for another. Ultimately, it is this ability to care for others, and to acknowledge our need for others, that creates desired change in our lives.
Rutan, J. S., Stone, W. N. & Shay, J. J. (2007). Psychodynamic Group Psychotherapy. New York/London: The Guildford Press
Yalom, I. D. (1995). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (4th edition). New York, NY: Basic Books.
By: John Peloian, PsyD Psychological Assistant (PSB 9402067)
Supervised by: Susan Frankel, Ph.D (PSY 14552)