Eyes cast down, she walked into the group room and sat in her usual chair. Touching her shoulder and wincing with pain, Emma listened as others in the group spoke. Although clearly distressed by the amount of pain she was still enduring from her recent surgery, she sat there suffering in silence. I asked where she had learned what she was showing us in the Here and Now in group – suffering silently, unable to talk about what she was experiencing or to reach out for help and support.
Quickly, memories of the origins of this pattern emerged. Growing up in her abusive family, she had had to adopt a posture and attitude of just silently enduring and not asking the family or anyone for help. To have voiced anything would have just led to more pain. As Emma shared this, she started to cry and realized that she needed to talk and needed our support. When she was done she said, “I feel lighter. My shoulder doesn’t even hurt as much.”
That is “THE MAGIC OF GROUP.” This is the phrase that I learned many years ago when I became interested in learning how to do group therapy well. I have been a student of the art of group therapy for over thirty years and have facilitated countless groups over that time. I have also taught group therapy to graduate students as the Clinical Training Director here at the Center for Creative Growth in Berkeley and as adjunct professor at the JFK University Graduate School of Professional Studies in Pleasant Hill, California. And these titles notwithstanding, I can honestly say that I am still a student of group therapy, still aspiring to help “the magic of group” happen each time in group. I’d like to share with you a few things at the core of group therapy. Of course words are no substitute for personal experience. But perhaps I can point the way a bit.
First, a few inspirations that pointed the way for me. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I was blessed to be part of the Teen Work Camp at Twin Links Camp in the Catskill Mountains outside New York City. About 50 of us from a wonderfully diverse set of backgrounds lived in big tents. We were from many ethnicities, classes, and faiths. Sometimes we would work to help the younger kids, sometimes we would sing gospel and protest songs, and sometimes we would go on trips, like Marches on Washington. But the most amazing part for me was that we would have daily group with a cohort of gifted counselors and our even more gifted Director, Morris Eisenstein, a Professor of Social Work at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. We were helped to bring out our unspoken thoughts and feelings about race, sexuality, and various deep personal issues. This was “the magic of group” personified, and I am sure it was an early influence in my choice of profession.
I also wish to acknowledge and recommend to you the work of Irvin Yalom, author of The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. I have read and taught his masterful book many times, and it always has more gold nuggets to help me polish my craft. I was also fortunate to spend five years in a consultation group with Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., founder and former director of the Stanford Alcohol Clinic at Stanford University Medical Center, who studied directly with Yalom at Stanford, and who now is the Director of the Addictions Institute, an outpatient counseling and therapy program in Menlo Park, California. This also gave me hands on training and more personal group experience.
As vividly depicted in the vignette about Emma, one of the most important things to help the Magic come out is the idea of being aware of what is happening in the Here and Now. The Here and Now includes what each person is feeling, thinking, imaging, and sensing in his or her body. It also includes all the feelings that each person is having being with each other person, including the facilitator, as well as with the group as a whole. Creating a group culture of Here and Now awareness, both quietly within each group member and in their expression with each other, a therapy space is co-created where members experience their struggles as well as their strengths more fully and directly. This is a process that a group cultivates over time together, to help people feel safe to share more and more of what they are experiencing. By doing all this, one opens up the potential for the magic of group to happen.
The second aspect that sets the stage for the magic of group to emerge is recognizing the element of reenactment. The therapy group becomes a real life laboratory for the clients to learn about themselves and their patterns and to experiment with more satisfying ways of feeling, thinking, and being. If someone is in group for a while, they will eventually start experiencing some of the same issues in the group room that they do in their lives. For example, if they tend to feel rejected in their personal relationships, they will eventually feel rejected by someone in the group, even if the other group member did not actually reject them. Our job as group facilitator is to create a safe, nonshaming, nonhurtful space for these feelings to eventually come up and be expressed by the group member. With all of our help, the member can express the feelings, explore the sources of these feelings, and find a healing path. Now that person and her or his actions and words are seen for what they actually were – it is as if a projective and distorting veil has been removed. When all this happens, there is a warm and satisfying feeling that spreads through the room, and this is one way that we know that the magic has happened.
The Here and Now orientation of the group is a key ingredient to help this magic happen. Of course, group members come in each week wanting to share about the painful or difficult things happening in their lives. They want to be heard and cared about regarding these things, and that too is an essential part of group. They need to share and unload their burdens, as well as receive support for their specific issues.
But group can be so much more than this and so much more satisfying to the group members. The skillful group process leader can also bring the group into the Here and Now, and help the members see how the issues they are suffering from in their lives can be helped through our exploring how those issues and experiences are replicated in the group itself. Yalom puts it brilliantly when he says that the group therapist “relentlessly” asks him or herself: “How can I bring what the group member is sharing into the here and now process of the group?”
One simple way to do this is to come back to the same question often: “What are you experiencing right now?” This mantra helps orient the group into the Here and Now, where the complexities of our issues and our aspirations exist within our personal experience. Sometimes when I don’t know how to proceed, asking this question helps guide me, and helps me to allow the group process to come to me, instead of working too hard to come up with something good or effective.
No matter what state people enter the group room in, they typically leave feeling a positive shift. They may come to group tired, or discouraged, or anxious or angry. But by the end of the group there is often more well-being in the room and life-affirming states like compassion, love, happiness, humor, calmness, and more personal empowerment to face the difficulties of life. Moreover, even when group members don’t do any direct work of their own during a particular group, they often benefit from witnessing the deep and moving work that another member does. They can learn and practice healthy compassion and often learn important wisdom lessons about life for themselves.
In addition, many of our issues in life descend from our early relationships, and so it makes sense that by working on our issues in a relational space, progress can be made. For example, depression often stems from or is associated with early feelings and experiences in the family; to bond with group members over time can offer deep healing and growth regarding depressed states. The key element here is connection; through healing connections in the here and now of the group, through recognition of shared, human struggles, group members come to feel more connected to each other, and less separate or alone.
Building upon this basic core of group therapy, one can facilitate many different kinds of groups about many different themes. The flavor of the group differs depending on the theme, the personality of the therapist, and any other modalities of therapy that one wants to weave into the group. At the Center for Creative Growth, for example, we have a Women’s Group that pulls from the Expressive Arts and uses drawing, psychodrama, sand tray, and writing to help accomplish group members’ goals. We also have a Men’s Group that features Gestalt and Inner Child Therapy. And we also bring in somatic and body- oriented awareness and movement into our groups. Throughout the Bay area, there are groups that focus on many topics, such as cancer support groups, grief groups, depression groups, and others. From my point of view, whatever kind of group it is, it is important that the therapist is trained in facilitating the Here and Now process of that group.
I hope that I have given you a taste of the magic of group. I know there is so much more, and I encourage you to study group, be part of a group, or learn to facilitate a group, whichever of these is appropriate for you. Wishing you The Magic of Group!
Daniel Lesny, MFT is the Clinical Training Director at the Center for Creative Growth, and has primary responsibility for the Center’s intern training program. He has been a staff therapist at the Center since its founding in 1982, working with a broad range of issues. He currently sees individuals, couples, and families, and also facilitates two psychotherapy groups: Living Life Fully and the 20-Week Inner Child Healing Your Past, Transforming Your Future Intensive Group Program. Daniel is also an Adjunct Faculty Professor at the John F. Kennedy Graduate School of Professional Studies. He teaches courses in Group Process, Development, Partner Abuse and Elder Care, Hypnotherapy, and Community Mental Health at the Pleasant Hill, Berkeley, and San Jose campuses.