The power of groups

The power of groups

by Debbie Quackenbush, Ph.D.


From the moment we are born, we are members of a group.  The group could be as small as one caregiver and an infant but is likely larger.  We learn about dependency in our first groups.  We hopefully learn to trust powerful others to take care of us and to teach us how to be human in the world.

As we move through life, and we continue relating in groups.  Initially, our first role is in our family, but we gradually enter school and begin to form relationships with peers and teachers.  Groups are an integral part of human relating.  Groups are capable of terribly harming an individual i.e., through bullying, but groups can also be incredible healing. 

A hospital milieu as a group

I became interested in group behavior when I first worked in a hospital setting.  Patients would come into the hospital with serious suffering and struggles.  Though a hospital provides numerous clinical treatments including medicines, nursing support and individual psychotherapy, many clients who left the hospital credited the hospital ‘milieu’ with being the leading contributor to their healing.  The word ‘milieu’ literally means ‘social environment’.  Patients who came into the hospital were greeted not only by the doctors and nurses who treated them, but also by other patients.    The patients in the hospital become an important part of the healing for each other.

Initially, each new patient was given a community job.  Given that most were suffering and functioning poorly at intake, it could be something as simple as watering one plant in the common area.  As people felt better, they might take on another role, for example, being the ‘buddy’ of a new admission and showing them around.  It became clear that these jobs inspired a sense of belonging and helped the person feel like they were giving as well as receiving from the community.  Helping, thus, is an important part of treatment and it cannot really be achieved in individual psychotherapy.  As patients progressed through the program, they started providing emotional support for the newer patients who were still in a state of crisis.  Again, ‘helping others’ seemed to be an important part of healing for people.   The individuals who were in the milieu the longest, and who were getting better and progressing toward discharge were able proved to the newer patients that therapy worked and that there was hope for them.

Therapy groups

Like in a hospital, a therapy group provides a number of healing elements.  Ironically, one of the things that the group most rarely does is to provide knowledge or advice for its members.  Clients in a therapy group quickly learn that they are not alone and that they are not ‘weird’.   Groups combat alienation and isolation.  Clients have the pleasure and gain self worth from being able to give support to other members, as well as take it.  Much has been written about the  beneficial aspects of group therapy but the most famous writer is Irvin Yalom (1975).  A short description of the ‘curative factors’ that he outlined in his seminal work can be found here: 

Groups can be helpful for most people, but they are particularly helpful with people whose suffering has a relational component.  As an example, consider someone who is depressed.  Upon further discovery, she finds that the root of her depression is that she fails to speak up for herself and then feels ashamed and has low self-worth.  The interpersonal root of her depression can be directly addressed in a therapy group where she can practice assertiveness and get feedback from other group members afterwards.  Perhaps more obviously, consider someone with social anxiety who fears being humiliated in front of others.  A group may be terrifying at first, but it becomes a kind of exposure where the sufferer can practice speaking with supportive others.

I personally am passionate about therapy groups.  With a few simple rules about taking responsibility and staying in the ‘here and now’, they are powerful mechanisms of healing.  They provide an experience that individual therapy cannot, as the person receiving therapy will never truly be able to gain the healing power of altruism with their therapist.  Finally, they are the least expensive way to get therapy.   

We have one ongoing group at the Little White House on Monday nights, online.  This one is full but you can sign up to be on the waiting list.

We are starting another on Tuesday afternoons.  We are currently taking names for that.

For both of these groups, please contact OR SMS her at +45 60547202.

Posted in Psychologist musings and education.