I came across a set of videos this past week on Youtube of a new series called “Group” that depicts a group therapy experience and it totally blew me away. The series, I discovered, even has a real life clinical social worker as the group’s leader, and he does a phenomenal job in the role. My husband was watching it with me and he turned and asked if it was a real group, which I feel is a pretty ringing endorsement of the acting and the writing.
We enter “Group” in the middle of when the group has been meeting for what appears to be quite some time. The group members have friendly banter between each other and they clearly are comfortable in the room, both with each other and with the group’s leader. The first episode shows us the entrance of a new group member, and we see how the group responds to his presence, sniffing out if he is safe for their environment or not.
Reading about group therapy in preparation for a class I’m about to teach, I can identify that this group is in what a lot of therapists call “The Middle Stage.” The Middle Stage is where the conflicts of the group come out, and a successful group leader uses these conflicts to illustrate how they are symbolic of the needs of the members of the group. The conflict of this first episode shows us that the group has already obtained some cohesion. Members have developed comfort enough in each others’ presence and enough internal reflectiveness that they feel they can call each other out for how someone’s comment made them feel, without shrinking back or apologizing. The group later alludes to times that they have gotten angry at the group leader, “Doc” and they speculate about what or who the group leader means to them in symbolic terms. For some members, they feel like Doc is a Dad-figure, for example. It is in these types of relationships forged in group therapy that members can play out their previous traumas and relationship wounds in restorative ways.
Rarely if ever have we seen people communicate in this way, and that’s because it’s basically impossible to create this type of complete honesty without the stability, structure, and direction of a group therapy experience. Even those of us who have been in group therapy or have been in groups that were stated for these types of purposes will likely notice that the experience in “Group” is so, so much deeper than what we’ve had. If you have had a group therapy experience like this show, I am happy for you. Most have not.
As I’m reading about group therapy and realizing that quality groups are really the exception rather than the norm, I feel a little hopeless about the prospect. A lot of us have actually been further injured by group experiences rather than finding them restorative. It’s probably the greatest emotional risk we can take, to embark in this type of experience, because we’re asked to completely bare ourselves and to also be exposed by others as they do the same thing. It’s a great responsibility and a great freedom.
As I recall the groups in which I’ve been a part, I can remember specifically many instances in which I felt I was excluded or punished by the group for disclosures. We would be invited to share our struggles, and I would venture forth with mine and receive in response a barrage of blaming and shaming questions that told me clearly that I was inadequate for the position I was in. Or I was violating the group’s norm that we were supposed to humbly excuse ourselves with qualifiers like, “I don’t know,” or “maybe,” and I hadn’t done it well enough. I would be invited back into the fold of the group when I made these little verbal bows, scraping my face low on the floor in supplication to everyone else so that they could pick me up. The further isolating factor of these kinds of experiences is that if you bring up their existence, you are doubly excluded from the group for the crime of violating the group’s established norms. I learned not to talk anymore and found groups excruciating, because I was caught between the desire to share and take part and the fear that if I did share, I would be penalized. I have to this day a strong distaste for any group or setting in which it is verbally stated that “this is a safe place” because so many of these “safe places” were only safe for some people in the group and not for others. Doublespeak makes me sick.
I guess the reason for me to write this now is, I spent a lot of time in supervision, in classrooms, and in groups where I was led to believe that there was something wrong with me because I didn’t want to play along with strange or unhealthy relationship norms. I remember going to therapy initially because I was convinced that I needed to have a better relationship with my supervisor at work. When my therapist reviewed our therapy goals six months later I realized how ridiculous that notion was because I had come to understand that my work supervisor was incredibly abusive and cruel. I went on to feel I was a bad therapist because I was part of a therapy group where I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t part of their clique, that I said the wrong things, and that I didn’t know as much as they did. It was only after I had healthy distance and respectful relationships that I could compare these unhealthy experiences with that I could see them for what they really were. I think now about the peer group I use for therapy consultation and laugh at the idea of what people in this group would say if they could watch a video of me in these other groups.
I realize that not everyone is as fortunate to have the wealth of group experiences and therapy that I have. That’s why shows like “Group” are so good for the world. This is what groups are supposed to look like. This therapist talks to the members, affirms them, notices them, and cares about them the way that a therapist is supposed to do. The group has made its own rules, ones that are agreed upon by the entire group and not just nodded through by some members while others write them. Doc notices when someone isn’t speaking, when someone’s face doesn’t match their words, and when someone isn’t sharing who they really are, and he gently nudges them towards authenticity. He makes mistakes and openly accepts them. He doesn’t bear the sole responsibility for caring and modeling what love should look like, the group comes in and helps him out too. Maybe most of us will never have this type of experience in real life, but at least we can see what it might be.