I recently took a fresh look at the online conversation around group therapy. Sadly, it was much as I’d expected.
It’s not hard to see where the cliches portrayed on sketch-comedy shows and in countless movies have come from. In fact, while surfing through videos on YouTube with the tag group therapy it was genuinely hard to tell which were intended as actual informative videos produced by group therapists and group counselors and which were parody.
Check out this video and tell me…
…does it look so different from this one?
The first video was produced by Irvin Yalom, who literally wrote the book on group therapy. What emerges clearly from these videos, and from the literature as a whole, are a few firmly held beliefs about group therapy. Here are a few of those themes:
Group therapy is for individuals with serious mental illness.*
[*Italics intended to convey sarcasm.]
While the conversation around psychotherapy as a whole is pretty focused on pathology, most people don’t have too hard a time imagining individual therapy being helpful in all kinds of ways, not just with [capital P] Problems. Not so for group therapy. In New York City, at least, it’s easy to imagine just about anyone going to (individual) psychotherapy or counseling–but not group therapy. What both the popular conception and the expert-derived images around group counseling have conveyed is that it’s only for people with really serious problems.
Group therapy is organized around a particular theme or marker of identity.
If we accept the premise that group counseling is for people with really serious problems then it’s easy to see how group therapists would typically put people with similar kinds of serious problems in a therapy group together.
There are several things that are troubling about that. First, the assumption that putting a group of seriously depressed people together, for example, exclusive of anyone who’s not seriously depressed, seems, well, pretty depressing. People who aren’t struggling with the same things we are have a different outlook that can help us move out of our own difficult place.
Second, the assumption of themed therapy groups is that people only fit into one category at a time. If I’m in a therapy group for recently unemployed managers, can I not also be a new mom or struggle with shyness? The theme of the therapy group inevitably limits the scope of what can be worked on.
Lastly, a tendency towards homogeneous psychotherapy groups means creating groups that don’t look an awful lot like the world we all live in outside of the therapy group. Imagine, for example, stepping off the streets of New York City, with all of its diversity, into a therapy group where everyone looks the same. Building with people who are different from us is a remarkably important life skill. Why would we want to organize therapy groups that take this opportunity away?
Therapy groups are support groups.
I.e. they’re not real therapy. The popular conception (which didn’t just fall out of the sky, but rather evolved straight out of Psychology and Social Work textbooks) is that the best most groups can do is provide support.
That’s a shame. Therapy groups are creative, curious, tough, honest, loving, challenging, inventive and inspirational. Therapy groups bring a diversity of resources. They have depth. Yes, therapy groups are supportive, but framing them as mere support groups profoundly limits the possibilities.
Obviously I think the Group Therapy Cliche is unfortunate.
I’m a big fan of group therapy and I lead two weekly therapy groups where having big problems isn’t a prerequisite for admission. The therapy groups aren’t organized around problems, or themes, or identity at all. And while I’m sure the participants would all characterize them as supportive, we do some pretty serious therapy that leads to some pretty serious growth. We’re ordinary people engaged in the activity of creating our lives.
Every week we get together for an hour and a half (or so) and challenge the cliches. Maybe we need to start making videos.