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Mike Harris, LPC, LAC

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Group therapy tips: Exploring self in context of others

Posted on June 21, 2014 at 5:00 PM

Therapy groups are powerful beings in and of themselves full of pulls toward induction, acting out, and other forms of what is called “action.” Specific groups form their own culture and seem to have a mind of their own sometimes called the Group Mind, Group Ego, or Group Conscience (Freud’s superego applied to group theory). I prefer Group Mind because it is more inclusive of our humanness.


Therapy groups are talking groups rather than action groups. This is why the part of the clinical frame that describes what we are in the group to do—to put our thoughts, feelings, and impulses into spoken words rather than actions—is key.


In support groups, we share. In therapy groups, we connect by doing our best to follow the clinical frame in real time.


A person who attended one of my groups put it in a reflective question: Am I monologuing or dialoguing? Individual therapy is about monologue and group therapy is about dialogue.


Don’t expect your experience or advice to change someone or to help someone feel better. Expect that to bore most people in the group because they have been cut out of the communication. The group became irrelevant to them. You’re having an impulse and the feeling behind the impulse needs to be explored not the advice or recommendation necessarily shared. The bored or disconnected group member needs to bring this up too; otherwise, he or she will likely not come back to the group. Group therapy in the here-and-now is rarely boring.


Keep in mind that someone else in the group may be having a similar experience that you’re having at the same time. This type of resonance is normal and it is useful to discuss. Sometimes you may be surprised to hear someone say exactly what you are thinking. I don’t fully understand this but it’s pretty cool and sometimes freaky when it happens. We’re not as solid as we would like to believe, and this is probably a good thing.


Support groups are about stories, other people, events, etc. Therapy groups are about us and what is happening in the room, how we impact others in real time, how others impact us in real time, and how our internal world impacts us while in the group. Exploring why we are having the memory that would typically be shared in a support group and seeing how an association with someone in the room is bringing our past into our present internal world is more appropriate for group therapy. Now we can work on developing internal boundaries and emotional regulation—what is called “discriminating awareness” in Buddhist Psychology.


I tend to use an interpretation to make the content of a story relevant to the whole group or an individual who was spacing out. Psychodynamic group theory suggests that every communication in the group is somehow connected to the whole group or a statement about the group. However, we may not understand the connection in the moment.


The talking time is shared making the energy flow around the room so no one is holding more of any particular emotion than anyone else. Then we learn how to verbally discharge emotions in skillful ways that bring others closer to us rather than overstimulate ourselves. Use the spin of the group to help stay emotionally regulated.


The group has what I think of as an orbit or spin based on communicating what is occurring internally rather than each of us taking our turn to tell someone what he or she should do. This is why I often interrupt and ask, “How are you feeling right now?” when this scape goat dynamic manifests before it turns dark. 

The group becomes a deeper richer experience when around 80% of the communications occurring in the group are real-time group related material. We’re making statements describing how we are feeling toward group members, sub-groups of group members, to the group as a whole, and to the group therapist(s). Therefore, group therapy requires a major commitment.


Then we move beyond history and symptoms and dive into our fabric of character and personality and by doing so we begin to rewrite our futures.

Categories: group therapy

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1 Comment

Reply Cordova James
10:52 AM on October 17, 2014 
On "discriminating awareness", once you develop internal boundaries, how do you maintain and STRENGTHEN that boundary? Trying to learn how to regulate emotion without losing care!?
I get what your sayin about real time talk to include ALL versus stories or advice that alienate. Thank you.