By Isabel Gidding
Last year I made a decision that I would finish personal therapy and join a group. Not that I believed one could replace the other. But I was conscious of the gap in my life that ending therapy would represent, and the gap that had already been left when a small group of therapists with whom I had trained and who used to meet once a mouth ceased to function. This then posed the question, what sort of group did I now want? I looked at advertisments in Inside Out. Nothing there seemed to meet my. admittedly rather vague, needs. I talked to colleagues. My former therapist suggested I consider a psychoanalytical group. I found a closed group which had been running for some time but, when I telephoned, I was told that there were no vacancies at the moment and there were unlikely to be any in the near future.
Then, in the Counselling Centre where I work, I talked to a friend who had just joined a support group for therapists. She told me the group was not yet complete and there were one or two vacancies. It immediately sounded right although I was a little apprehensive about joining several weeks into the programme. I should say I was already pretty apprehensive about everything to do with this or any other group. I anticipated hostility, feeling exposed, being intimidated, feeling uncomfortable and maybe a little unsafe since I would only know one other person apart from the facilitator for whom I had done some work a couple of years previously. I had very little experience of groups, other than my own training group.
During my first meeting with the support group two things went wrong. One member of it came in, saw me, noted that I was new and wondered when the group was ever going to get started. I at once registered this as the hostility I had been anticipating. Then the facilitator introduced me by the wrong name. She at once realised her mistake and asked me how I felt about this. I had begun to assure her that it did not matter at all when I suddenly realised that this simply was not true. It had mattered quite a lot, and suddenly I found the courage to say so. I was launching into a complicated explanation of why it mattered when she gently stopped me and focussed instead on supporting the risk that I had taken.
At that point I began to relax and when later in the evening the facilitator called me by the wrong name again, the only response that seemed called for was sympathetic laughter.
We always began by each of us saying where we were, and what we wanted from the group. Issues were chosen and processed according to the person’s need. I have to say that, initially, I found this quite difficult. I often felt reluctant to be in the spotlight, and the focus of attention. And yet, frequently, the often unconscious need seemed to be picked up by the facilitator and there I would be, brought into the present in quite an active way, questioned about how I felt, how I responded to the group’s concern, what I needed in the way of support, how I felt about what was going on. And often, the true nature of what really was going on for me would be revealed in a way which was helpful and supportive.
We were a group of six and quite quickly, established our own dynamic. We seemed to meld together as a group. I was surprised at the impact which any member being absent made, and how I was aware of the loss of her contribution. Clearly every group is different. In ours we brought in many more issues other than those specific to our work, although I remember how the effect of the death of a client, attitudes to sexual orientation in the work, or the return of a client after an absence were looked at in great detail. No matter what the issue, in the end it was all about our own process, bringing us into the present.
As with all groups the role of the facilitator is vital. In this case I always felt conscious of her complete attention to what was going on: to a changing facial expression, to the need to bring someone in, to the realisation that someone might feel sad or isolated. She would say when she felt stuck, or in need of help or a bit of support. The other thing I was conscious of in the group was the respect shown by all of us to one another- I suppose it was the personification of Carl Rogers’ ‘unconditional positive regard’ – and how the process worked in moving issues along, one person’s material triggering off painful memories in another. And inevitably there was the release of tears.
I am aware that I may be making the group sound a little cosy. In fact, it wasn’t. We all took risks: so did the facilitators. But, speaking for myself, it seemed a safe place to do so. And the rewards were great. For me it was a forum into which anything could be shared and considered by the group. My grief at the death of my elderly dog was processed just as minutely as was my distress concerning my relationship with a member of my family. And when I faced a really difficult decision I was greatly helped and supported by the group to the extent that I do not think I could have found it anywhere else.
So that was how it was for me. To find out a little more about how the idea of the support group came about I talked to the facilitator. “The idea first developed over three years ago. It grew out of the feeling that in looking at ourselves as therapists in our own training we gained a lot personally and it might be interesting to work with therapists in all sorts of fields.” (The group is open to therapists/counsellors with any theoretical orientation and also to social workers, psychologist and other professionals.) She was conscious of how people working as therapists had to cope with many demands and how, apart from the odd workshop, there was little support for them. She felt something was needed which would be different from supervision and that professionals might enjoy coming together in a group situation. There was a real sense that this way of working would be personally and professionally enriching. She and her partner liked the idea of working together, and so they started the experiment.
What happens each year evolves out of the needs of the particular group. The process that emerges out of it goes right into personal issues for the individual. There is also an option for developing therapeutic skills as the group moves easily from one to the other. It doesn’t stop people from coming in as they want. The impact of clients, and the professional edge, is there all the time. The very fact of the struggle challenges how we ourselves work rather than as a member challenging the facilitators. How we are in therapy as therapists, offers challenges about therapy itself. In supervision the focus is on our responsibility to our clients. In the group each member is the focus and it appears that people value what the group has to offer.
Sometimes the group will do exercises, such as “when are we most ourselves in therapy?” But the facilitators don’t plan the sessions around these exercises. They find that each group has particular needs, and their planning concentrates on responding to these needs. The facilitator readily admits how much she enjoys these support groups. “I personally enjoy the flexibility that the difference between supervision and therapy gives. I get something particular that is different from my other work: some type of support and excitement. The possibilities are different and varied in this group, and the different perspectives of group members add something. I get a real buzz out of it, working in a way which I really value. The concept developed with my partner’s support, and I find people get such a lot out of it.”
Her partner adds his own perspective. “At work day to day I supervise and support staff. I find being part of this group very interesting because there are so many differences in what goes on. It is a more open situation with no goals or agendas. I also like it because I play a reflective or sounding board role that I feel is valuable. I enjoy this type of work. I like the process that gives such a different dimension.”
The facilitator then explained her philosophy behind the group process. “Because there is a strong focus in the training to work on how we are ourselves as therapists, and how we support ourselves as therapists, I feel it has something particular to contribute. We place specific emphasis on the whole process of support and on how we are as people in this professional work. Risk is supported, processed and left behind.”
The group meets for eighteen weeks throughout the year. We pay particular attention to our capacity to support honestly. Every group is so different. There can be hostility, and members may sometimes feel personally slighted. There is a huge intuitive element for all of us. But attention and awareness of process is all important. In my specific process I must trust my experience of what is going on. I have to challenge it, feel it and trust it and then state it. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s right or not.
The value of the work lies in honesty, in support for being safe with anger and discovering how to support ourselves. It is useful for therapists to talk not only about huge, dramatic feelings but small domestic fears. We can be light and productive at the same time. We can talk about personal things and also bring in more concrete professional issues. There is always that mix, with many different emphases, and in doing so we can expand the quality of our work. Our work, by its nature, demands a lot of emotion which can be very draining. As professionals we often don’t give enough time or space to caring for ourselves or to own the personal or professional issues which may be going on. In the provision of a support group, the facilitators believe they are offering something to fill this gap.
The editors respect the wish of the author of the above article to use a pseudonym in the interests of confidentiality for this on-going group.