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Group Analytic Psychotherapy: what is it?

Introduction

Group Analysis is a therapeutic approach that is rooted in psychoanalysis but draws upon systemic, gestalt and sociological perspectives. Originating in the therapeutic work of S H Foulkes in the 1940s, it emphasises the social nature of human experience and aims at a healthier integration of the individual within his or her network of relationships.

A basic premise is that many of the difficulties with which, as individuals we can find ourselves struggling have their roots in relational disturbances occurring in our group of origin – the family – and indeed in wider social and cultural interactions. The therapy group thus becomes a medium in which group members have an opportunity both to experience and to think about the way they feel and behave in relationship with others. With the interest and support of the group, members become, over time, better able to identify both their strengths and their difficulties and, where appropriate, to try more creative and productive ways of managing and of relating.

As with individual psychoanalytically-oriented counselling/psychotherapy, free flowing discussion is encouraged within an unstructured but confidential and boundaried environment. There is no formal agenda. Instead, themes emerge as communication in the group develops. Sometimes these themes are evident in the material an individual or cluster of individuals present, and sometimes they emerge in the relational dynamics that become alive in the group itself. Sometimes the group (including the therapist) may give a lot of attention to a particular individual, while sometimes the group-as-a-whole is given more focus. The constant shift from individual to group to individual is one of the dynamic interplays that characterises a group analytic approach.

The role of the therapist/conductor

The group analytic therapist tends to be referred to as ‘the conductor’ rather than, say, ‘leader’. This reflects a strong democratic principle at the heart of group analytic therapy and an understanding that the therapist’s role is not to initiate discussion or to overly direct the group but to respond to it in ways that help the group make sense of the stories that are told – of the motifs that resonate and the harmonies and dissonances amongst the voices that emerge.

Just like an individual therapist, the conductor may, at times, make interpretations (suggestions about what is going on or what is ‘really being talked about’ or ‘not talked about’). Conductors tend to do this less, however, than therapists working in the context of one-to-one therapy. This is because their role is to enable the group to do ‘the work’, rather than creating a dependence in which the group relies on the ‘leader’ to do it. In short, the conductor seeks to encourage the development of a group culture which facilitates:

  • free discussion
  • the sharing of experience
  • reflection upon that experience

Together, these strands of individual and group work prompt changes at the level of feeling, thought and behaviour that can be profoundly helpful and liberating.

The role of the other (client) members

The role of the other members of a group analytic psychotherapy group is slightly different to that of a client in individual therapy – or rather, slightly more complex. This is because members of the therapy group are there not only to get help but to give it too. Giving help, however, doesn’t mean ‘playing therapist’ and not giving of yourself. Indeed, what soon becomes clear in a therapy group is that what is most helpful for the work of the group is for individuals to be most themselves – to be open, honest and to contribute as personally and as fully as possible. It is through the sharing of experience (of how we think and feel) in relation to our past and our present (including the relationships that develop in the group) and through creative reflection on that experience that individuals and the group-as-a-whole grow.

Undertaking therapy of any kind is rarely easy. Amidst the times when members can feel hugely supported by the group and grateful for the insights and developments gained, there will, almost inevitably, be tough times too; times when the experiences emerging feel particularly difficult or painful or when it simply seems that little is happening. This is part of the ebb and flow of working therapeutically and of working therapeutically in a group. Each member’s commitment to the group is therefore of paramount importance; a commitment that is demonstrated at its most basic level by regular and punctual attendance. In a culture of such commitment, and in the consistency, reliability and safety it promotes, members are better able to trust the group as a place to which difficult feelings can be brought, expressed, explored and worked through.

Confidentiality is another important aspect of securing a safe boundary to the group and every member of the group is asked to respect the privacy of every other member and to treat what any individual might say in the group as confidential to the group.  Further, group analytic therapy groups are known to work best when they are ‘stranger groups’; that is, when members do not know each other socially or associate with each other outside the group. Sometimes, of course, people do bump into each other outside the group. The important thing is that this is kept to a minimum and that, should it happen, members bring such meetings and interactions to the notice of the group.

Group analytic groups can be anxiety provoking at times, particularly at the start, when everyone is new. These anxieties are often worth exploring in the group as they can offer important opportunities for learning for all. Over time, however, most people find that the lack of restrictions characteristic of a group analytic psychotherapy group provide a freedom that fosters psychological exploration in rich and rewarding ways.  

Notice of Absence

If for any reason you are unable to make a meeting, it is important to let the group know as far in advance of your absence as possible. If, for any reason, you are unable to give the group advance notice, please let the group’s conductor know as soon as you can so that the group can be informed.

Missed Sessions
 
The cost of a missed session is the same as an attended session. 

Contract, Frequency, Duration & Size of Group

Members joining the group are asked to commit to attending the group for a minimum of one year.  In the event of leaving the group, members are asked to give the group a minimum of two month’s notice (excluding breaks).

Group Analytic groups meet either once or twice weekly, usually with three breaks during the year (at Easter, over August and at Christmas/New Year). Meetings last for one and a half hours.

Group size varies but will not exceed 9 members, including the conductor. Usually, the group will be between 6 and 9 members.

Use of confidential group material by the therapist

All therapists are either required or strongly advised to have regular access to supervision. This is where the therapist works with another professional to think together about the individual and/or group they or working with. In addition to supervision of my own work with you, I am also involved in teaching and research. These contexts require use of examples drawn from confidential settings and I might wish to use some aspects of our work together. Should I do so, I should take every care to respect and protect your privacy and any material used would be appropriately disguised to ensure anonymity.

As part of our agreement to work together I will seek permission from you, prior to you joining the group, to use such material in these very particular contexts and we will have a chance to discuss this. You may also raise this issue for further discussion at any time during the course of the group should you wish to do so.

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