Groups permeate our lives—from families to classrooms to friendships, marriage, social groups and work colleagues, most of us are part of multiple groups throughout our lives. The recognition of the place of groups in our lives is central to transactional analysis.
The issues that bring us to therapy are often to do with how we experience ourselves in relationship with others – how we experience and who we become in the many 'groups' in our lives. Feeling unloved, lonely, unrecognised or misunderstood; feeling love, connection and loss, anger or rejection – all occur in relation to those who inhabit our various groups.
A therapy group gives us a chance to interact with other people in a safe environment, and explore who we are in relationship with others. It may initially feel like an odd idea that being open and vulnerable with a group of strangers is possible and even therapeutic. But it is precisely because it is a group of strangers who we are very unlikely to meet outside the boundaries of the group, that we are able to give ourselves permission to explore and express feelings that we would not do in our ‘real’ relationships. And the presence of a therapist who can hold the boundaries and can help manage difficult issues creates a sense of safety.
There are different ways in which groups can be therapeutic.
Knowing that there are others like us and that we are not alone in how we feel can be a relief. They may or may not share our precise anxieties and difficulties, but hearing other people express their vulnerability can be comforting, and help us be more accepting of our own vulnerabilities.
Recognising how others are different from us is just as therapeutic. We may encounter people who remind us of others in our lives who we have difficulties with and don’t understand, and this gives us chance to gain a different perspective on why we struggle in our relationship with them. In tuning into stories of people in the group, we may be able to deepen our understanding of people in our lives.
And finally, the group process and interactions can be a wonderful vehicle for deepening our self-awareness. We are able to learn about the responses we invite in others, and also understand our own responses to specific types of emotions and situations. What happens to us when everyone is talking and we don’t get a chance to be heard? Do we feel angry? Do we withdraw? Do we feel sad and resigned because this is how life always is? Similarly, what happens when someone pays us a compliment? Do we believe it or regard it with suspicion? Do we feel embarrassed and brush it aside, or feel compelled to pay a compliment in turn?
The group acts as a microcosm of our relationships in general. By re-experiencing relational problems with others who are there with the same goal as us – to understand themselves better and address their own challenges – we can be helped to understand what is going on with us, and have a chance to let new patterns of relating emerge.