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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Bullock

Group Therapy and Stepping Outside the Lines

As we mourn the passing of an icon that made a significant impact on the cultural world by being inconsistent, fantastical and boundary-breaking, I wonder.

  • I wonder about our need for consistency in identity; in staying authentic to who we are. Then where is the becoming part?

  • I wonder about our need for direction and being goal-driven. Then where is the discovery part?

  • I wonder about the requirement to be adjusted to society, staying inside the boundaries defined for us. Then where is the growth and development part?

As a group therapist, the activity of group week-in-and-week-out can often feel (or actually is) nonsensical and directionless. At any given time, it can be hard to answer the question: what are we doing exactly right now? This makes for a confusing, joyful, funny, painful, intimate therapeutic process.

Group work is very challenging and yet liberating from having to first know what we are doing or who we are, to ourselves and to each other. It is to be created, to be innovative and without pre-set boundaries. In this way, the group work I practice, social therapy, is more like a collective improvised jazz session than a goal driven problem-fixing meeting. It takes a lot of courage to do that kind of activity with a group of other humans. Especially in a culture that says creating with others without first having a goal, without "staying within the lines," is too weird, pointless (no not that!) and risky.

However, we would not be celebrating Bowie and all the innovators, groundbreaking leaders and movements of the world if we only stayed in the lines. Bowie had help becoming who he was: the fans, peers, audiences, the time period he was born into, the music and fashion industries. These other group members, so to speak, supported, accepted and relished his weirdness and the not-knowing-why-or-where-this is all going.

A client recently left one of my groups out of frustration that we were not staying on task with the goal of fixing each other. I appreciated her sentiment; I think I feel that way at times. What’s interesting is that the group has grown more intimate since this challenge by the leaving group member. How? Well who knows, but one guess is we embraced and decided to be Ok with the ongoing question: what are we doing right now and why? We have been discovering new ways of being together, of playing with identity.

No, a la Bowie, we are not coming in one session with bright red spiked hair and platform shoes and the next session with bleached blonde hair in pastel-colored suits. We are, however, helping without direction by in being present together, as group therapists say, we are ‘staying in the room’, creating conversations together and sharing the un-shareable. For example, the ‘loser’ is practicing a more self-loving and confident role, in-group the ‘talker’ is practicing listening and the ‘angry guy’ is practicing loving generosity.

Powerful stuff , I think. Before we get too goal-directed, let me end with my favorite quote from David Bowie:

“I’m always amazed that people take what I say seriously. I don’t even take what I am seriously.”

Let’s Dance.


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