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Individual Challenges, Norms, and Roles: What People Bring to Group Therapy

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When people come to group therapy, they bring a lifetime of emotional accumulation. They are bringing more than just themselves- they are bringing a lifetime of experience, societal influences, and individual challenges.

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Norms are the unspoken rules (or agreements). You may not even realize it, but we all look at others to determine where we fit into the world. Sometimes these environments can be positive and beneficial to our well-being, but life is imperfect; most of the time people don’t grow up in ideal situations that allow them to flourish freely.

Your life is heavily influenced by the roles you fall into – roles that are seen, taught, or assumed.

Roles can be both beneficial and limiting. It’s common for people to put themselves into the same role in a group as they were in growing up, such as golden child, black sheep, scapegoat, caretaker, quiet observer, peacemaker, etc.

Having roles can be a good thing because it can help stabilize groups and build resilience, but there’s always another side. Roles can also lead to people being marginalized because they are in a minority, or hurt in some way by the limitations of the role. For instance, if you are in the role of the emotional conduit, the person who feels all of the feelings for the group, that can be exhausting and very limiting and an exploitation of one’s sensitivity.

That’s why group leaders distribute roles within the group to build more resiliency. Think of it like cross-training; if you have more than one person who is able to do the same job, the organization seems to do better. Group therapy is more effective for the individuals and the group as a whole when several people are able to share the role of feeling feelings in the group (for example). If this is done properly, the group will evolve to be able to support its members during tough moments.

Again, a lot of these roles are learned from one’s family and then get expressed in everyday activities.  Take the example of attending a potluck or family dinner. Are you the first one to arrive to set up the party? Or are you the last person to show up, after most people who have already left. Do you bring a beverage? A delicious dessert with a lot of fluff? Something of a small portion? Expensive meats of high quality? Something messy? A healthy salad? Something perfectly put-together? Or do you bring nothing but are so charming that nobody notices? Which one of these is you?

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our actions illustrate the roles we play out in our lives. We’re programmed by our families, societal norms and roles, work, personal experiences, and everything around us. One of the many great benefits of group therapy is being able to acknowledge these roles, work through them in a constructive way, and explore different roles.

For example, one of my groups had a woman who was very funny and brought relief and entertainment to the group. When that woman was sick one day, another woman in the group took up the role of entertainer. She was usually much quieter and may have felt there wasn’t any space for her in the group when the other person was holding the role. However, when there was more space for her to take on this role, it allowed her to relax into the group more and feel more at home. If the norms in the group are too tight, then it is harder to distribute the roles.

Groups are structured according to what the members need to flourish. There are different ways that groups can be structured. There is top-down hierarchical structure, conductor or orchestra style, consensus model, and the matrix model.

In a hierarchy the president never talks with the person of the bottom level of the hierarchy, and the matrix model puts the focus on building connections. The conductor style encourages independence but provides guidance, while the consensus model encourages interdependence and collective group problem-solving.

Over times, groups can become resourced to support its members in more significant ways. As groups grow, members can develop greater emotional collateral with each other.

Who we think we are is often heavily influenced by our past experiences and societal conventions, we fall into particular routines and patterns of behaviour. By becoming more mindful of how your past beliefs, feelings, and memories are impacting your life, this increased awareness can help support the spaciousness needed for you to decide exactly who you want to be in the present moment. Group therapy can help you in the process of breaking down these roles, and what you discover underneath is your true self.

Article written by Ivan Skolnikoff

Ivan Skolnikoff