An Introduction to Group Analysis

By Jarlath Benson

The carefully designed and moderated psychoanalytical group most resembles a sensitive resonating membrane which tissue-like intersects the individual per­sonal and the social collective. It embraces and mediates the intra-psychic and the interpersonal and enables its members to discriminate and select between behaviours and possibilities which originate within the family or are tribally derived; transferential or archetypal; personal and social; psychological or politi­cal; are analysable or best left alone.

The analytic group experience occupies a space in between the regressive or repet­itive and that which is emergent and coming into being for the first time. It is thus a borderland creation and a place between before and after.

The analytic group can provide access to a deeply personal and inter-subjective nether region which lies between the worlds we come from and the worlds we wish to live in. Passionately woven from time past, time present and time future by all the members, the analytic group marks the boundaries between the inner and the outer worlds, between the imagination and fancy, between the traumatic and the desirable, and offers experiences which distinguish and make a difference, which evoke and provoke and dare us to disturb our universe by confronting and extending our Self.

In order to illustrate some of the basic principles of Group Analysis, I want to tell you a story about a man who dreamed of a visit to the realms of the afterlife. This man was accompanied on his tour by a wise guide. Coming into the first realm, the dreamer found himself in a large, warm hall and saw in front a group of men and women sitting around a large cauldron filled with steaming and wonderful smelling broth. But the people were cursing and swearing and looked thin and undernour­ished. When the dreamer looked closely he noticed that the people had spoons which were over 3 feet long and though they could each fill their spoon with the broth, whenever each person tried to turn the laden spoon to their own mouth, they only succeeded in tipping the steaming contents over themselves and each other. “Where is this?” asked the astonished dreamer. “This is Hell,” said his guide.

They moved into the next hall which was identical in every way to the last and again there was a group of men and women sitting around a cauldron of broth with the same long-handled spoons. But this group appeared nourished and contented and were murmuring and buzzing good-naturedly. The dreamer looked closely and saw that each person dipped his long spoon into the soup, but instead of trying to feed himself, each turned to a neighbour across the cauldron and gently fed them. Everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. “You don’t need to tell me where this is,” said the dreamer, “Surely this is heaven.”

I think this little story illustrates some of the central premises of Group Analysis very well as we shall see.

You may know that Group Analysis was developed by a Viennese-trained psychoanalyst called S.H. Foulkes. He saw that in modern culture, the sources of identity and continuity traditionally derived from Family, Neighbourhood and Church were diminishing in their stability and dependability. Mass media, education and transportation, whilst bringing benefits, created a vast array of choices – profession, mate geographic location, even our gender – and there were fewer guaranteed relation ships and sources of identity. Individualism indeed, has become so dominant that social connections are poorly formed and if formed, soon unravel under stress. This creates a new, pervasive type of ambiguity and uncertainty, resulting in disabled relationships, feelings of inadequacy, emptiness and difficulties with intimacy and dissatisfying ways of living.

Foulkes could see that modern humans needed help, not with the structure of their being but with the process of relating and acting authentically, and so he set out to develop a group treatment which would provide ‘Ego training in action’. Foulkes was attracted to the group approach because he passionately believed that the essence of the human being is social and not separate. For him, the individual was the basic biological unit, whereas it was the group which was the basic psychological unit.

Foulkes, like Fairbairn and Sullivan, viewed the person as meaningless in isolation The only meaningful context is the interpersonal field and the person can only exist and be understood in terms of his relationships with others. This is why in our little story, Hell is depicted as consisting of separated individuals suffering in the presence of plenty, because they disregard the existence and creative possibilities of others. Neurotic suffering reflects isolation and blocked communication and the inability of the person to express aspects of their experience and self to others. Foulkes created a method of Group Analysis whose central figure is that it encourages and trains individual members to actively participate in the helping process. The core issue involves having to assume responsibility for one’s own difficulties and their resolution, while recognising and accepting that other people are needed to achieve this.

The basic motivational force in group analysis is the search for and establishment of relations with others because humans are ‘constructed’ in such a way that expression and gratification of needs brings an individual into relationships. But needing others and managing the business of closeness and intimacy can be disturbing for many. The human has to negotiate seemingly irreconcilable paradoxes. The person desires merger but fears engulfment, seeks autonomy but fears isolation. Relating to others and being authentic can be a confusing and overwhelming business. That is why you can see that in our little story, the Group Analytic Heaven consists of individuals who are working through their exaggerated independence or infantile dependence and are learning to be interdependent.

Learning how to be interdependent and co-creative is a requirement of all healthy and effective groups and consequently Group Analytic principles are applied in a wide range of settings such as teams, organisations and institutions as well as in treat­ment groups.

Whatever the setting of the Group, an important principle derives from Foulkes’ view that change occurs through meaningful emotional interaction with others. This comes about over time and as one gains experience of the group. One impor­tant factor in this derives from the way in which the group leader or conductor emphasises the active participation of all members, and their involvement with each other so as to build an analytic team, in which all contribute to an examination of uncreative behaviour and the development of a mutual and reciprocal ethos.

A common method of promoting such a group culture involves encouraging mem­bers to confront and own all aspects of themselves without undue pride, hatred or criticism. This is of course difficult to do in the public forum of a group, where loss of privacy is indeed an integral part of the therapeutic process. In order to hide shameful and unacceptable aspects of the self, most of us will unconsciously locate these attributes in others who are then induced to feel or behave in particular ways with frequently unhelpful consequences for all, and the group activity. These well-learned and characteristic patterns of behaviour are strategies for dealing with inti­macy and the disturbing feelings generated by the proximity of others. Analysis in these circumstances is designed to demonstrate how each of us creates situations in which our expectations and predictions about the world are fulfilled.

Gradually the activity of analysis comes to be a communal and natural activity on the part of the members, and a healthy group function, and not the sole preserve of the designated leader. The blaming and shaming mechanisms found in all groups come to be seen easily and tackled by all the members for the benefit of the individual and the whole. Analysis in this sense means not a simple reductive and historical exer­cise, but an active examination of mutual influencing, and a new combining and syn­thesis of member contributions in a dialectical process that requires participation and engagement in order to create group synergy. We are now in a position to sum­marise the central principles of Group Analysis.

Basic Principles of Group Analysis

1/The essence of the human is social not individual. Each person is basically and centrally determined by the world they live in.

2/The individual is a nodal point in a network of social processes. Pathology is an expression of disturbance in a person’s networks, familial, occupational or social. This disturbance is recreated in the here and now setting of the Group.

3/ Neurotic symptoms reflect the inability of the person to express aspects of their experience and self in language. The symptom is an inarticulate communication which is unintelligible to others. Neurotic symptoms reflect isolation and blocked communication.

4/ Since the symptom communicates fundamental and unconscious conflicts, the therapeutic process of Group Analysis is dedicated to developing an increasingly articulate form of communication in which the underlying conflict is understood and spoken.

Foulkes postulates a basic Law of Group Dynamics: the group can only grow by what it can share. It can only share what it communicates and only communicate what it has in common. What it has in common is language. Verbal communication is a cen­tral feature of Group Analysis and the role of the conductor is to broaden and deep­en communication between members.

All events and incidents are viewed as communications and are therefore available for ‘translation’ – making the unconscious conscious and moving from primitive and less articulate forms to exchangeable communication. Communication operates at five levels:

(a)  Current level: conscious communication. At this level group represents commu­nity, public opinion, the analyst is authority, leader, law.

(b)  Transference level: level of family and intimates, sibling rivalry, competition for leader’s attention, struggle for dominance and status, sexual tensions.

(c)  Projection level: group members represent part of self, inner object relations, group as mother.

(d)  Corporal level: symptoms and physical illness, group may be imagined as skin, body or breast.

(e)  Collective unconscious: C.F. Jung, archetypes, symbols and archaic tribal motifs.

Individuals change through the creation of a group matrix. This is a hypothetical net­work of communications and interrelationships, which slowly evolves in the group. The matrix is built up of (i) member’s cultural roots, (ii) habitual attitudes and roles well learned but unanalysed, (iii) unconscious projections and (iv) tribal and archa­ic elements. The matrix is a shared ground of the group which ultimately gives meaning to the events and communications that occur.

It is through focusing on the matrix that the group analyst understands how the con­tributions of each individual affect the other group members as well as the group as a whole. The Group Leader emphasises the active participation of all members and involvement with each other.

As they begin to interact members unconsciously reconstruct their experiences of previous groups. Unhealthy interactions emerge which block the development of creative relationships and this material becomes the focus of analysis and interpre­tation by both members and leader. Protective and controlling measures learned in the first group – the family – appear. The desire for revelation is countered by the fear of rejection. Secrets, blaming mechanisms, shame and guilt which block communi­cation are displayed and are eventually worked through.

In Foulkes’ view, change occurs through corrective interaction with others. The group provides opportunities for ego-training in action. The tasks of therapy are insight and adjustment – the restructuring of the inner world derived from and reflected in character and interpersonal relationships.

The Analytic Group

A group of 7- 8 strangers meet at least once B Week for One and a half hours. Circle, no outside contact. Members are required lo I.ilk freely with no set agenda. Free-floating discussion replaces free association. RESONANCE: each member responds personally to the group content as it raises specific issues in that member’s mind. SOCIALISATION occurs as members discover that they are not alone but are accept­ed and drawn out of their isolated positions. As members recognise parts of them­selves in others, MIRROR reactions occur, leading to increasing recognition of repressed parts and significant therapeutic gain. CHAIN phenomena, occur when the group pools its associations and the resultant loosening of group resistance’s and discharge of unconscious material is termed the CONDENSER phenomenon.

The last thing I want to talk about has to do with the idea that the group functions like a hall of mirrors. I believe that each of us in a group can see desirable and unpleasant aspects and qualities in other people without realising that these aspects are very often in ourselves unacknowledged. Members can see others reacting in the manner in which they do or in marked contrast to their own behaviour. Sometimes these mirror reflections are helpful and enable members to get to know themselves through seeing the effect they have on others and the pictures they form of one. Sometimes the mirror reflections can seem so distorted or alien that empa­thy and contact are impossible and confusion and conflict is the prevailing mood in the group.

It is the capacity of the Analytic Group to foster in its membership the gradual devel­opment of the ability to See Through oneself that particularly impressed me. Man is the animal who can come to see through himself and his actions. This is a central premise of the major psychologies, philosophies and religions. We are not who we think we are or what we think we are. These systems of belief and knowledge speak of man’s suffering issuing from his capacity for illusion, self-delusion, forgetting and ignorance. Ignorance of who we truly are.

Everyone knows they have a personality, but we forget that the word comes from the Latin ‘per sona’ – meaning to sound through – via the Greek theatre and the use of masks by actors to represent a particular aspect of self. Personality is not the source of our being. It is the medium we have to express who we truly are. Who we are is a Self- becoming more who we are. But in our ignorance or delusion about who we are, we become attached to what we have – our personality – and forget our Self. Personality becomes the object of fetish or the begetter of misery and shame because we do not match up to the expectations of society or fashion.

Now it is the unique property of the Group that quite quickly it can provide each individual with a multiplicity of self reflections – a picture in the round, so to speak – a refracted picture of oneself to reflect upon and consider – in any one moment immeasurably more complex and multi-layered than the simple view of one’s own self at that point. Through proximity and contact with others, the possibility emerges of correcting distorted images of one’s self and discovering new dimensions and depths in one’s being. The Analytic Group then is truly a hall of mirrors in which one cannot avoid seeing oneself from different angles, perspectives and lev­els. One is obliged to see oneself through others’ eyes, to look again at oneself and see through and then form one’s Self. Gradually one becomes conscious of self and in time Self Conscious.

I am aware that this is a complex subject and you may be feeling as puzzled as Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Alice found the Hatter perplexing. His remarks seemed to have no meaning in them and yet they were certainly English. And yet by the end of her adventures in Wonderland, Alice seems to have something of the Hatter’s rid­dles and paradoxes within her. She is certainly asking questions and this is impor­tant because without the question there can be no advance in consciousness.

I hope this paper leaves you wondering and questioning. In conclusion, let me quote the final paragraph of Alice’s story, where she is talking to her cat:”Now, Kitty let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all.

You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King.   He was part of my dream, of course, but then I was part of his dream too! Was it the Red King, Kitty? You were his wife, my dear, so you ought to know – Oh, Kitty, do help me to settle it!  I’m sure your paw can wait!” But the provoking kitten only began on the other paw and pretended it hadn’t heard the question. Which do you think it was?

Jarlath Benson is a Group Analyst and Psychotherapist working in private practice in Belfast. He is also the Academic Director of the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London and Director of the Northern Ireland Institute of Human Relations.