Why Group Therapy Works, Part 4
by Sam Bearer, PLPC
We’ve already looked at how group therapy is a great way to help individuals make changes in their lives by choose to be radically vulnerable with the other group member, fostering in himself or herself an outlook of unconditional positive regard, and allowing the very personal, negative feelings about himself/herself or others to be shared and eventually challenged by the other group members.
This final piece focuses more on how the group can invest and intervene in the individual member’s life. Following the individual work of being open, the group now has the opportunity to disrupt radically the emotional foundations underlying each member’s coping behaviors that got him or her into therapy.
As the group gently and slowly does this work of disrupting the members’ coping behaviors, the internal dynamics of personal guilt and shame frequently rise to a conscious level. At this point, every man I have seen who comes through our groups retreats back into his comfortable style of relating. It is nearly impossible in the early stages of work for the man himself to see this happening and do anything to stop it. Often, he can no longer differentiate his personality, style of relating, and identity without an outside perspective or help. It is no longer a conscious choice. He may not have even noticed it happening. But, I am willing to bet 99 times out of 100 that some other member in the group noticed.
The group is meant to be that outside reference point.
Once again, vulnerability comes into play here, because the group member who noticed should be willing to appropriately, with unconditional positive regard, call out his group mate. This reintroduces all the dynamics of the personal work from part one: vulnerability, maintaining unconditional positive regard, and personal investment. It also adds to it the gut check of interpersonal conflict. The group members are doing exactly as they should when they can reflect back both the positive and negative they experience in relating to each member. This work engages members both internally and externally at once. This may seem obvious, but it is so important, not to mention difficult. We do this kind of thing in our lives all the time. However, we are rarely fully engaging our awareness of both pieces simultaneously. It takes hard work to build up this new skill. Like learning a new language, we have to take many fumbling attempts to communicate this new way, and we usually struggle at it for a while. The safety created in the group should promote and celebrate these attempts as well as normalize the experience as something everyone in the group is fighting to do better. It takes time as well as higher levels of concentration, self-awareness, and intentionality than we generally are used to.
It needs to be said here that this process, in therapy as well as practicing these skills in life, will take some time to sink in.
This is especially true when you consider there are years if not decades of reinforced acting out behaviors that a client wants to change. It is likely to require a proportionate amount of time and effort for this new way of relating or sense of self to take shape. Other factors that might increase the length of time and work to be done might be connected to and complicated by experiences of abuse or trauma. Though the progress may be slower than an individual may like and expect, small changes over time add up to big changes. These small steps along the way should be highlighted and celebrated as part of the greater changes each client wants to see in his or her life.