In this and other blogs I try and describe and discuss what it is like being in a therapy group. Here, I focus on the phenomenon of mirroring in groups which is an important group analytic concept, process, and experience.
Mirroring and Early Development
To understand why mirroring is important in any therapy, it is helpful to understand its role in early childhood development. Early in life, the baby relies on the care giver/s to provide ‘mirror reactions’ – that is, responses mirroring back their self. An obvious example might be a baby smiles and a parent mirrors back the smile they see the baby making. This helps the infant develop a distinction between ‘what is me’ and ‘what is not me’. In other words, a sense of self. Many of us have not had enough or effective enough mirroring early on in our lives and one of the key therapeutic elements of all talking therapies seems to be the corrective experience of having oneself mirrored back.
The Therapy Group as a Hall of Mirrors
Mirroring is a particularly important experience in group therapy and Foulkes (a founder of group analysis) likened groups to ‘a hall of mirrors’.
In a therapy group, members constantly reflect their responses to each other, while at the same time see themselves reflected, or not, in the behaviours and communications of others. As an individual in the group over time these reflections and reactions help to create a picture of oneself in relationship to others. As Foulkes put it:
A person sees themself, or part of themself – often a repressed part of themself – reflected in the interactions of other group members. They see them reacting in a way they do themselves, or in contrast to their own behaviour. They get to know themselves … by the effect they have upon others and the picture they form of them.
Foulkes p 110 Therapeutic Group Analysis (my changes from masculine to neutral pronouns)
To give a picture of mirroring at play in a group, below is a fictionalised account of a fictional group discussion between 4 members A, B, C, D
A is talking about his childhood and his experience of his disapproving father. B comments that the way A describes his father reminds her of sometimes how he is in the group. A goes quiet.
C says to B that she felt she came in too critically towards A, she often seems to be down on him. B says that A reminds her of her own critical father.
C says she is always much more struck by A’s vulnerability and wonders why B can’t see this. She’s worried now that he’s become silent.
A says he’s remembering last week an argument with his son who was angry he was always on his back. He realises he can be like his father at times.
D points out how C herself had jumped in to defend A. C wonders about it in terms of her own father who she felt was bullied by her mother. C says she envies how B seems to be able to say what she thinks. She always feels she needs to protect the other person.
A recognises he can be disapproving sometimes in the group and in his family. But he has never thought of himself as vulnerable. He feels moved by C’s protection, but it also feels new and strange to him.
In this vignette you can hopefully see the analogy of the hall of mirrors at play. The group members are constantly reacting to each other. The more the group allows openness and spontaneity the more can be revealed.
For example, the members reveal two different aspects of A seen by B and C. A is familiar with one but unaware or in denial of the other. He is moved when his vulnerability is seen but also disconcerted. B and C while having genuine but different responses to A also then recognise the parts of themselves or not that they are seeing in him – and for C what she also sees in B.
Responses to Mirroring
Mirror reactions can reveal ‘truths’ which may then be responded to by the individual in a range of ways. Mirroring in group therapy often operates at a complex and spontaneous level and can go on consciously and unconsciously, verbally and non-verbally. This experience is then hopefully utilised therapeutically by the group and the group therapist.
In my constructed vignette, the group members’ observations and responses are conscious and easy to verbalise. They are all able to make use of their responses to each other and the discussion is constructive and productive. It’s perhaps easy to see how their insights could lead to further therapeutic explorations in relation to past and current relationships. In a live group session however, responses to feedback can be more varied and complex.
“affect, understanding or intuition seen in or associated with others, can reveal truths about the self that may be welcomed, opposed, taken flight from or attacked.
Schlapobersky p 255 From the Couch to the Circle: Group Analytic Psychotherapy in Practice
Some ‘truths’ are deeply unconscious and like in the case of A can feel disconcerting when exposed. Others are harder in other ways to receive and may take time to be utilised, if ever.
The process of mirroring is only one aspect of what goes on in groups. However, it plays a key role in the group therapeutic experience. Many people seem to find group therapy particularly helpful for their confidence and sense of identity. While this will be down to many factors, mirroring between group members plays an essential part, helping the individual develop a sense and understanding of who they are.
Further reading by Claire Barnes