If you think about it, emotional problems often arise when things go wrong in a social situation (called a family!) and so it makes sense to tackle them in another social situation, but this time one where the causes can be explored and the problems rectified. That’s what group therapy (group analysis) aims to do. Providing a friendly, safe, non-judgemental and completely confidential environment, a group can be a powerful instrument to help the individual. I am one of the very few trained and qualified group analysts in private practice in Surrey.

‘Me, in a group?’

People are sometimes daunted by the prospect of joining a group. The thought of talking about personal matters in front of strangers may be off-putting. But the reality is frequently that group analysis can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience where such fears are dispelled. Of course, like individual therapy, there’ll be times when it’s painful but the bonds between and the support from the group members can be strong.

Group analysis has the same objectives as individual psychotherapy: inner healing, change and growth. It can be effective across a similarly wide range of problems and particularly so where those problems centre on relationships. It can also be an excellent means of self-development and boosting confidence.  Like individual therapy, group analysis works with the unconscious as well as the conscious mind.

The Setting

A group of up to eight people, plus a psychotherapist (the ‘group conductor’) meets once a week for an hour and a half. The members sit in a circle around a small table. There’s a mixture of women and men and a range of psychological difficulties. As with one-to-one therapy, there’s no set agenda and people speak spontaneously about whatever they wish. They don’t meet outside the group and don’t know each other’s surnames or addresses but they gradually get to know one another very deeply. They become ‘intimate strangers’.

How does group psychotherapy work?

The strength of group analysis lies in the fact that it combines the presence of a psychotherapist with the frequently remarkable skill and insight of the group’s members. They rapidly become experts on each other. Eight pairs of eyes and eight minds can spot and understand a lot. People start to see themselves through the eyes of others and receive valuable feedback. The paradox is that, while individual group members may be struggling with their own problems, the group as a whole functions healthily. As group analyst Dennis Brown puts it, the group can help a person ‘discover how their behaviour or attitudes may be self-defeating, and how they lend themselves to be misunderstood and to misunderstand others’.

A laboratory of life

A group is a laboratory of life where things happen that also happen in the outside world. The difference is that the pause button can be pressed and unhelpful thoughts, interactions and behaviours explored and modified. Put another way, what went wrong in a person’s original family group gets repeated but this time healthier ways of being can be found.

So it is that, with time, a deeper understanding may emerge of oneself and of how one relates to others whilst actually practising new ways of relating. Many other processes are also going on in group analysis. There are too many to list here but among them are: the discovery that one’s not alone in what previously seemed to be a unique problem; the experience of being accepted for who one is; the sense of belonging that the group fosters; and the help received in putting into words things that were previously unformed and out of awareness.

All these elements of group analysis may bring about immense relief and, together with the other factors I’ve described, significant change.