When I mention to colleagues that I am a group therapist, many will respond with pleasant, though puzzled curiosity. This reaction is not surprising, given that we are taught that group therapy typically functions as an adjunct practice, used to enhance or support the “core” individual and/or couple’s therapy. Group therapy is often viewed and sometimes practiced as something akin to a therapist-led support group, focusing on a specific concern or issue common to all of the participating group members.
The questions colleagues ask inevitably expose very reasonable and understandable assumptions about what group therapy is and can be. People will say things like, “Oh yes, therapy with others who are like you, that’s helpful,” or people will ask, “What is the topic or theme of your groups?” It is a reasonable assumption that therapy groups are always made up of clients with similar concerns. For example, clients going through divorce, women diagnosed with depression, men with anger management problems.
I love taking the opportunity to share with colleagues that I practice Social Therapy, a creative, powerful and effective style of therapy that takes an entirely different approach to group. Our groups are ongoing life development communities. The groups are made up of people of diverse ages, genders, sexual orientations, and class backgrounds. Each individual has different reasons why they came into therapy, and that is one of the primary strengths of the Social Therapy approach.
Why do group therapy this way?
– We want to help people get out of their heads and into the world. Given that the world is made up of all kinds of people, we want our groups to reflect that.
– The focus of the Social Therapy group is not to fix a particular person’s problem or focus on someone’s diagnosis/illness identity, but rather to help people work as a team to develop, grow and create new ways of responding to the issues of our lives and relationships.
– Working together in a diverse team encourages people to learn new skills that will help them to live life to the fullest. A diverse grouping of people creates a richer environment for people to develop and evolve into who they can become.
I am passionate about this revolutionary and highly effective approach, and love the hard complicated, joyful work of this kind of group therapy. Challenging assumptions about what group therapy is, and what it can be, creates dynamic and lively discussion with fellow professionals. It gives us an opportunity to explore ideas such as: What is helpful to clients? What is help? How do we develop, grow, heal and respond to the emotional difficulties we face? During the course of these conversations, I like to ask thought provoking questions such as: What if it is helpful, even transformative, to be in a therapy that is not solely about you?
The Social Therapy approach comes out of 30 plus years of rigorous study and practice by a professional community that is interested in working with people in the most humane and creative ways possible. This requires us to focus on the relationship, who and how we are in the world, and how we want to be in the world with others. It is the development of a community therapy, for and with everyone interested in growing and discovering new ways of feeling, seeing and living.
We are a creative, social species. For example, we constantly create scenes with other people in our day-to-day lives at work, at home, without being told first how to do it. We live with one another, not on islands by ourselves. So working on our emotional healing and growth as a team, socially, is profoundly useful. In the activity of group members building the group together, the group relationships are a rich and direct way to help us discover new ways of being together and new ways of relating to ourselves.
This is somewhat radical because our approach is not working to help people adjust to what is or further solidify their illness identity. We challenge the fundamental assumption that we have to know our problems, get to the bottom of what is wrong, etc. before we can be helped.
What if learning skills to live differently with others is key to helping us transform emotionally, regardless of whether we ever know the answer to why we have this or that problem? This approach is simultaneously invigorating, constantly creative, very hard and demanding. After all, we are socialized to want to hang on to our “this is what’s wrong with me” identity and to focus on what’s not right with others.
However, when people work as a team to support the group’s growth and each other’s growth, there is a necessary focus on the other: How are you? What do we want to talk about together tonight? What you are sharing makes me feel-, etc. We have a shot at learning new, intimate and authentic ways of being together.
So, ironically, practicing a therapy that is not solely about you is very helpful… to everyone!
Jennifer Bullock, M.Ed., M.L.S.P., LPC | The Philadelphia Social Therapy Group