In my experience, when exploring joining a therapy group, people often ask what it will be like. I thought it might be helpful to write a fictional narrative to give a flavour of the therapeutic experience of being in a group. This ‘case’ is not based on a real individual although some of the conflicts and difficulties will undoubtedly feel familiar to many. To keep this blog as a short read, I have simplified the details, and have focussed on just one aspect of a person’s history, difficulties, and group experience.
Joe would always say his childhood was fine. Nothing bad or traumatic happened. No real problems. As an adult, however, Joe felt increasingly alienated in his life and relationships. In particular, he had struggled to maintain long-term relationships, which was causing him pain, disappointment and worry about the future.
After his last relationship ended in a familiar way, Joe came into therapy with a sense of loneliness and emptiness. Through discussing this with the therapist, Joe came to feel that a group might be helpful for his difficulties.
Once in the group, Joe found that by listening to the way others talked about their experiences, and hearing their feedback to his own, he could start to formulate some different perspectives on himself.
Particularly new for Joe, was an insight into the ways he had felt neglected as a child. Joe began to connect old memories and recall new ones which gave a picture of a lonely child overlooked by two busy and distracted parents. It was a shock to recall this vulnerable and neglected younger self.
Joe was immediately struck by the supportive and open atmosphere in the group. At first, he found the curiosity and empathy that other group members showed towards him strange. Over time the other members pointed out how often he dismissed his emotional experiences, and the ways that he avoided being taken care of in the group. Joe realised this was the first time in his life where he felt his emotional needs might be important.
Accepting that his early experiences might have been difficult and impactful was the first step for Joe. He began to realise how he had developed an emotional independence as a means of survival and had therefore set out to deny the needy part of himself. Keeping his needs at bay also required creating a distance between himself and others. Joe was desperately fearful of this defensive system falling apart, and of being thrown back into the loneliness of his childhood.
A few months in to being in the group, Joe had an important insight that his relationships often began to fall apart around the same time that he started to feel an emotional commitment. Joe’s break-through was heightened by being able to link this to what he was discovering about himself and the feedback he was getting about the way he pushed people away in the group.
As time went on, Joe was able to open-up more in the group. He explored the patterns of relationships failing and was also able to learn from others who also reflected on their own historical and current relationship struggles, as well as developments and successes.
Making External Changes
After about 18 months Joe was feeling settled in the group. He had started a new relationship, and with the support of the group was more conscious of what was getting stirred up in him and mindful of his impulses to escape the intimacy this person offered him.
The group had helped Joe get in touch with the painful experiences of his childhood that he had tried to deny and avoid. He found himself increasingly in touch with emotional needs that he had not had sufficiently met as a child. This made it harder to tolerate the times in the group where he felt unheard or overlooked. The more Joe opened himself up to his need, the more he felt wounded and frustrated when it was not met.
Joe announced very suddenly that he was going to leave the group. The group members questioned the timing of this decision and Joe agreed to give it more time and thought.
The group and therapist helped Joe to think about the parallels with the times in his life where he tended to finish a relationship just as it was beginning to be. Joe realised that the frustration and upset he had been feeling in the group was bound up with intimacy. He started to see that leaving at this point was another way of avoiding the frustrations of having intimate relationships. Being able to make a link between what was happening to him in the group and his pattern of relationships helped Joe to properly understand himself on a profound and deeper level.
3 years on, Joe is still in the group. Last week the other members and therapist were delighted when he told them he and his partner have decided to get married.
Joe benefited enormously from the therapy group from the outset and had been able to make significant progress and changes in his life, However, it was when his ‘problem’ manifested in such a live way in the group that something was able to transform on a deeper level. Joe’s frustration with the group was a turning point in his therapy as he had to confront pain reminiscent of his childhood and see how his habitual strategies of ‘ending’ relationships was a way of avoiding the reality of intimacy.
Further reading by Claire Barnes