I have always thought of myself as a competent group therapist, but I am stumped, as is this long-running group of seven women who are working on relationship and family of origin issues.
Our newest member, Sheila, (two months now) dominates the group. She begins each session with the same story relating her victimization and betrayal by her family, her lovers and her friends, each time telling of a new or an older example of how she has been wronged.
If another member tries to claim some group time for herself, Sheila finds something in what is being said to connect with herself and promptly refocuses the attention back on her.
I can sense the group’s coalescing impatience and anger at Sheila. I, too, am feeling what they are feeling.
I would greatly appreciate your wisdom and guidance.
R. E., Houston
HGPS experienced group therapists respond:
Response #1 contributed by:
Dale Hill, PhD:
Dear R. E.,
I would consider two interventions.
One would be to interrupt Sheila immediately when she began to talk and say that you need to alert her that you believe that, unconsciously, the group is using her to do some of its work. You might suggest you figured this out by considering why the talking time is so uneven in this group. Also, you might suggest that she might be, unconsciously, protecting the other women from facing their feelings. Your suggestion would be, then, to test this hypothesis by asking her to remain quiet while each woman is talking and, if she finds it difficult to listen to them talk, to write down what thought is getting in her way and she can have three minutes at the end to share those thoughts with the group and then some time to discuss her issue of the day.
Another idea would be to begin the group by alerting the group that they seem to be, again, unconsciously, colluding with Sheila to do all the group’s work. You might suggest that you need their help to examine this hypothesis and test it by speaking up to the group about it and to share what work they think they might be avoiding. Give permission to the group to interrupt Sheila, start first by perhaps asking for time that day, or any other method to make their presence known in the group and do their work.
I would probably talk with Sheila individually and ask her whether she thinks she needs individual therapy for a while, either in conjunction with group or instead of group.
Response #2 contributed by:
Richard Newman, M.Ed., LPC, LCSW, LMFT, LCDC, CGP
Dear R. E.,
Thank you for your question.
You are an experienced group therapist, and I assume you screened this new person before placing her in your group and you prepared your existing group for the addition of their new member. Typically, some regression on the part of the group and new member can be expected.
The first thing your problem brings to mind is that you now have a new group. All of the group members have a common issue with family of origin and relationships. Six of the members have been in the “group-family” and your seventh member is trying to find a place. Previously, your group has been a working group and you have been able to take on a less directive role. Now that your group is new, your role has changed and you must be more active. Your new group is still forming and in its earliest stages. This is an opportunity for the group members to test their learning from their previous experience with the six-person group and apply it to the present situation in which they must integrate and teach a new member the “group-family” norms. They must also adapt to a person at a much different level from themselves. Does the group see Sheila as your favorite? Where are the competitions among group members?
The second thing your dilemma brings to mind is your counter-transference. Perhaps you feel betrayed that you did your part and your working group is now falling apart. Perhaps there is a sense of personal failure, and, as a result, you place blame on your client. And then there’s the issue of what you may not have seen in Sheila when you did your screening.
Perhaps some redirection of the conversations that are hijacked by Sheila is in order. If you make some group-as-a whole comments about what’s happening in the group that may help your older members regain some of their power. You may also make a comment about sensing that there is tension growing in the group. You might make an interactional observation about how one of the group members feels about Sheila’s comments. You could make a directed intervention to the effect that another member needed time. You must be careful, however, to protect Sheila from the anger that will be focused on her that perhaps should be focused at you or at the group members themselves for becoming passive when their comfort zone is invaded.
I hope these comments are useful to you.
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