Why isn’t there a structure in Group?

Why isn’t there a structure or a theme or something in Group? It feels like there should be…

A colleague of mine likes to joke that we try to avoid “shoulding all over ourselves.”

Why should there be a structure? What kind of structure would you like?

Some groups are more structured than others. In the groups that I run, other than a designated start and end time and an agreed upon contract, I try to be as unstructured as possible.

Why?

The short answer is Here-and-Now.

What is Here-and-Now?

Here-and-Now refers to the immediate thoughts, feelings, sensations and intuitions that you are experiencing in the present moment. In Group, we try to understand these reactions as interpersonal communication–some kind of information that you consciously or unconsciously want the group to know about you.

Imposing a structure, such as turn-taking or spending a certain amount of time on a particular exercise, suppresses the Here-and-Now.

Here’s an example. The group decides to go around and “check-in,” each person sharing whatever is relevant to them. Suzy talks about her fear that the other people at the barber shop are judging her. This reminds you of your sister calling you judgmental last week. Your curiosity is piqued, you’re intrigued, wondering if an interaction with Suzy might help you with your strained relationship with Sis. Before the thought if fully formed, Roger is talking about his dog needing pancreatic surgery. That’s less interesting to you because you want to speak with Suzy. Then William is talking about his mother again and now it’s hard for you to remember what exactly you wanted to say to Suzy. Even if you do remember, you’ll need to wait for five other people to share before you can explore your desire.

Now, this may happen even in an unstructured group. It can be very hard to break into the flow of conversation and say what you need to say. But at least in an unstructured group, you’re allowed and encouraged to do so. Every piece of structure hampers the immediacy of the group. Sometimes structure may be necessary, but it’s in the immediacy that we feel most alive.

What is Group Therapy?

What is Group Therapy?

People ask this over the phone, thinking Group might be for them. They ask at parties and networking events. Sometimes group members themselves ask.

What do you think it is? I ask them.

Well, like a support group?

Not quite.

The main difference in the groups that I run is that they are process groups.

What is a Process Group?

A Process Group is a space where members are invited to express their immediate, here-and-now thoughts and feelings towards and about other members. If your first reaction to this is “why would anyone subject themselves to such an environment?” you are not alone.

In a process group, members are encouraged to abandon many of the social norms of polite discourse.

Group members are asked to put into words any and all reactions they have including anger, sexual attraction, fear, hurt, and affection. As group progresses, members learn to express their sentiments in a way that focuses on their own experience:

  • “I feel frustrated and angry when you yawn while I’m speaking.”
  • “I feel hurt and scared when you yell at me and call me that.”
  • “I feel very attracted to you.”
  • “I feel a lot of affection for you and I’m angry because I think you’re making a bad decision.”
  • “I want to say something but I’m anxious that you will judge me.”

This feedback about members’ effect on other people is hard to come by.

Friends, family and acquaintances are rarely so direct, preferring either to avoid unpleasant conversations, or relying on unhelpful habits of criticism and blame.

Even individual therapists may struggle with sharing a perspective that is difficult and uncomfortable for their clients to hear.

Process Group members learn to access and express their own emotions and to comprehend and respond to the emotions of other people.

They discover how they might sabotage relationships and explore how to create and sustain intimacy, to ask for what they need and to receive it.