Why Join a Psychotherapy Group? 2 Scariness


Our felt experience of groups as scary and exclusionary:

We all will be able to point to experiences in groups that confirms the truth that groups can be scary. It may arise from our everyday experience of not fitting in with a social group or work team or from our past experiences in school or college. It may arise especially in situations where we are not known personally at all but others are pre-judging us on our outward appearance – our gender, our skin tone, our sexuality, our age, our clothing, our language or accent or any one of the numerous other signifiers that a group reads as ‘You are one of Us, you belong here’ or ‘You are Other, you don’t belong here’. In such situations, a group of people can feel like a gang – a gang that doesn’t welcome strangers.

The answer to the conundrum of how this most scary of situations, a group of strangers meeting for groupanalytic psychotherapy, could be the most helpful to us, is the unequalled potency of groups in shaping our experience of the world and our sense of our Self.

We are social beings and our Self is formed in a social matrix:

“We are social beings first and foremost” is the key principle of SH Foulkes, the founding father of Group Analysis in the 1940s, and one that has been borne out by decades of research in the fields of sociology, psychology, attachment theory and neuroscience. We are not born with a sense of Self – it arises from how we are regarded and related to by our parents, our family (our original group) and other significant figures in our life; we internalize the emotional ‘messages’ we receive about ourselves and are fortunate if they are predominately accurate, positive and emotionally supportive. This positive experience results in a ‘secure attachment’ style that is generalized to other relationships.

When however these messages have been mis-attuned and unsupportive of our Self, we unconsciously develop psychological and behavioral strategies for reducing our emotional distress. This may take one of several forms of ‘insecure attachment’ styles.

Attachment styles can be understood as the ‘solutions’ that we have developed for getting our needs met from our primary and secondary ‘caregivers’. We will have been born with rudimentary attachment programmes common to all mammals. These are our innate, biologically-based instinctual goal-corrected action-programmes. We are born helpless to meet our needs but wired with crying and behaviours that elicit distress in ‘goodenough’ caregivers until our needs and distress are assuaged and soothed. Those earliest relationships shape our neuronal pathways and emotional regulation and become our templates for intimate relationships and for when we feel helpless or distressed from any cause, external or internal, including our own thoughts.

In conventional psychoanalytic terms this process is described as a set of drives to meet human needs and defences against psychic pain. In systems theory, the process would be described as a biological organism seeking to maintain or restore homeostasis. In common parlance we might say that we feel safer staying with what we know – even if from the outsider’s viewpoint that way of being is uncomfortable, neglectful or even abusive to our Self.

Groupanalytic psychotherapy reveals in vivo the cognitive and behavioural strategies that we deploy in relationships. In a therapy group, we notice first how we think and feel just the same about some things but so differently about other things – especially our view of ourself. We often discover that we judge ourselves more harshly than others and are surprised by others’ understanding and compassion for us, and for our experiences and thoughts and behavior. Areas of our life – both external and internal life – that we might only have regarded as shameful and have kept secret from others come to be viewed from other perspectives.

Once we are revealed to ourself, through the multiple mirrors of fellow group members, we understand better the distortions in our thinking and resultant behavior that has originated in our ‘singular’ mind. The process of therapy in a group, by the group including the group psychotherapist, gives us a choice to continue our strategies for managing relationships, if they remain functional, or to test out and learn new ones if they are not.

In my next article I want to say more about what happens in a psychotherapy group and how therapy in a group works at several levels simultaneously.

Marcus Page

Group Analyst, NHS Consultant Psychotherapist (retired) UKCP reg 5616