God guard me from the thoughts men think in the mind alone. He that sings a lasting song, thinks in a marrow bone. - W. B. Yeats
We had the third session of this "Opening up" group last night. I wrote last week about the second session. There are seven of us in this group - six other participants and myself. My impression over many years of group work done in different time chunks (evenings, single days, weekends, residentials lasting several days) and in different group sizes (approximately four to forty participants) is that the larger the time chunk, the larger the group size that it's realistic to work with. I'm talking here about interactive interpersonal groups. Obviously if one is teaching skills to a structured group (especially if one limits sharing by group members), one can work effectively with much bigger numbers than this. There are also psychodynamic interpersonal groups that "work" with over a hundred participants. Somewhat different kinds of issues seem to come up in different sizes of group - there are different lessons to be learned. Three people hardly even qualify as a group. Four to maybe mid-teens (higher numbers here preferably put into bigger time chunks) seem quite "family", while above mid-teens pushes towards "village". I've written previously in some detail about my experience of working in a four day peer group of 37 people.
Well yesterday our group of seven was further diminished as one member was abroad for the week and another was ambushed by a baby sitting crisis. Only five of us. Maybe it was no accident that in this smaller group a couple of people used the evening to share more deeply - than we've reached so far in the group - about what has been going on in their lives over the last months and years. To me it really does feel a privilege and a gift to be trusted like this - to have a person talk so openly about their life and the struggles they have been going through. As the song goes "To know you is to love you". I can feel my heart open and, as facilitator particularly, I'm at times also trying to sense "Is this person getting their needs met? How does this relate to how they might open up to friends or family in their larger social network? Are there any patterns here to help with? Are there new experiences/learnings to acknowledge?" It's not dramatically different from working as a one-to-one therapist, but the pool is bigger to swim in. There's more going on.
Many group therapists like to work with a co-therapist. This is an issue well explored in Irvin Yalom's great book "The theory and practice of group psychotherapy". I personally much prefer to work as a solo therapist for a bunch of reasons - organizational, personal & therapeutic - but I can see many benefits of working with a colleague, especially in one's early years in groups. Important too not to be stupidly arrogant here. Often the most helpful interventions aren't made by the "therapist" anyway. It's one of the many joys of groups - the way that we can all help each other. In some situations, caring and challenging between group members can be more powerful than anything the therapist can offer. And a group member who finds that what they're saying is valued by those listening - this then loops back to validate & nourish the speaker as well. I'm reminded of O'Laoire's "An experimental study of the effects of distant, intercessory prayer" where those doing the praying seemed to benefit at least as much as those being prayed for. A more recent example is Barbara Fredrickson's fine study showing that regular practice of loving kindness meditation (with its focus mainly on wishing others well) produces very worthwhile wellbeing benefits for those practising the meditation. As the Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying "If you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion".
Sharing more deeply: the group bonding more strongly. A couple of apparent paradoxes I've regularly come across in groups. One is that participants often fear sharing much about themselves because they're concerned they'll be judged and rejected. In fact the opposite is usually the case - the more one vulnerably, bravely, honestly shares about oneself, the more one is typically accepted and cared about by others in the group. Another paradox is that the more one plunges down into deep, personal, emotional experiences - the more these experiences can transform (in almost Shakespearean terms) into archetypal challenges that others can more easily resonate with.