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Some Key Aspects to Learning About Oneself and One's Interactions with Others

By Michael Korson, MFT, CGP

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal ("No Joke: Group Therapy Offers Savings in Numbers," March 24, 2009, by Kevin Helliker) indicates that, given our economically challenging times, more people are turning to group therapy, some for the first time. The article correctly points out that group therapy is less expensive, "at least 50% less expensive," than individual therapy. Now that more people may be interested in group psychotherapy, I'd like to highlight some of the key components of this way of doing psychological work.

An essential aspect of being in a group is the experience of commonality. While many participants come to the group because of nagging issues that leave them feeling isolated and alone - as if everyone else but them is busily and happily living their lives - a common experience obtained in the group is to see that in fact they are not alone, that others experience similar struggles. Particularly in the early stages of group development, the group searches for common experiences. The "universalism" of group experience helps a person feel better, less isolated, and more supported.

Any group, including the one that I currently facilitate for those dealing with depression, has an interpersonal context - people relate with other people. In this way, the group is a laboratory for participants to learn about themselves through their interactions with others. Participants get to examine first-hand why they tend to be triggered by a certain person, why they tend to dominate, or withdraw. And when conflict or emotional reactions arise, the group offers the opportunity, under the facilitation of the group leader, to work out issues and in the process developer greater self-awareness and tools to apply to other relationships.

Groups often evoke issues a person brings from the very first group experience for all of us: our families. It is a common experience for participants to see themselves reacting as if to parents or siblings, having learned certain behavioral patterns and expectations of others. Another group participant may, in the way that she seems critical, remind someone of a critical mother. Or the way a man seems sullen and removed reflect how someone's father was distant. In the group, unlike in a lot of family situations, a person can address these issues and actually find other ways to relate other than in old habitial ways first learned in the family.

From studying one's reactions to others, participants learn important lessons about themselves. I often point out to a participant that the reaction he has to another person may very well shed light on feelings he has about himself. I have found that what we come to reject or be triggered by in another person is often something in ourselves that we don't appreciate and have not yet accepted. If a person feels critical of another member because of her assertiveness or sense of entitlement, perhaps that person has not found these attributes in himself. The group provides not only an opportunity to learn about oneself, but to put in practice new ways of being.

The article in the Wall Street Journal quotes a therapist from Brigham Young University who makes the incredibly important point about the healing potential of group therapy: "By the group we are wounded and by the group we are healed." This therapist is pointing to the origins of many people's issues which occur through relationships. Perhaps it is the experience of being fundamentally disappointed and let down by ones family; maybe it's the experience of being abandoned or abused by others. Individual therapy provides the opportunity for healing in the relationship with the therapist; group psychotherapy provides it in the relationship to all group members, including the facilitator.

I have been offering groups now for the past 8 years and am very excited about the healing potential of group psychotherapy. While I have seen through the years that it is not for everyone, I have also seen people engage in the group process, become bonded, struggle, and grow with the group. And that has been a very satisfying experience.

Michael Korson, MFT, CPG
126 Church Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
(415) 646-0997


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