From ‘You’ to ‘I’ to ‘We’: Musings on Emotional Growth and Social Therapy

JennBullockEditor’s note: Jennifer Bullock, MEd, MLSP, LPC, NCC, is the founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Centers for Social Therapy. Her continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, Why Group Therapy: Going from Fixing Problems to Creating Possibilities, is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT on Friday, March 22. This event is available free with 1.5 CE credits for all GoodTherapy.org members. For details, or to register, please click here.

Random Thoughts
I am not ashamed to say I love the 1970s soft-rock era. One of my favorites is a Michael Jackson song called Ben. A phrase from the song that I think about often goes like this: “I used to say ‘I and me.’ Now it’s ‘us,’ now it’s ‘we.’ ”

There was an inspirational quote that went viral on Facebook recently. I posted it on my professional page as well: “When I is replaced with we, even illness becomes wellness.”

Iconoclast, therapist, and philosopher Dr. Fred Newman, founder of the therapy approach I practice called social therapy, offered this: “What is worth knowing about another person is what you learn in the activity of building something together, as what we create together is an extension and a continuation of ourselves.”

Not-So-Random Thoughts on My Work as a Group Therapist
Social therapy is a group therapy that offers invaluable tools to help us practice our us-ness: how to create, heal, build, and grow as a group, relationally. I am referring to helping clients develop the skills to be effectively relational at home, at work, and in our communities. Just as multiple heads can problem-solve better than one person alone, the richness of healing and growing via sociality, as a social unit, is productive and invaluable.

The social therapy approach comes out of 30-plus years of rigorous study and practice by a professional community that is interested in working with people in the most humane, collaborative, and creative ways possible. This requires us to focus on how we want to be in the world with others. Social therapy, in a way, is the development of a community therapy for and with everyone interested in growing and discovering new ways of feeling, seeing, and living.

What Is Relationality?
Humans are a social species. We live our lives in ways that are disconnected. We tend to focus on me/I: “I need to focus on my self-esteem, my issues, my goals at work, getting my needs met.” Or we overly focus on you: blaming, not taking responsibility for our part, people pleasing, martyrdom. What happens is that no one tends to the third, very important entity—the we, the us, the relationship: How are we doing? What do we need to move forward?

Why Is It So Important?
What does focusing on the we have to do with helping an individual cope with anxiety, depression, and other painful emotional difficulties? I argue that it has everything to do with it. Our increasingly isolated, alienated ways of living can intensify our emotional challenges until they become paralyzing or even deadly. Just consider our murder and suicide rates. But we don’t have to go to the headline news tragedies to see how everyday loneliness, dissatisfaction, and melancholy can plague our busy, pressured lives. Interacting with other humans and creating our relationships make up the fabric of our lives. It therefore makes us a bit less human when we are not tending to or even seeing the we.

What Does This Look Like?  
What do the terms “relationality” and “sociality” even mean? Are they ever “real” words?

Well, they are words the social therapist uses all the time in helping clients focus on questions such as: How are we doing together? What are we doing together? What do we want to do together? What do we need in order to work on this issue together?

We are not just theoretically emphasizing the relationship as critical, we are practicing the building of our relationship together: clients with me, with one another, building the group together. We are practicing relationality. Here is an example of how one group went from the “it’s good to make I statements, not you statements” paradigm to seeing the we/us:

In a recent group therapy session, folks were discussing a transformative conversation one group member was able to have with his mother after years of estrangement and inability to talk about past painful issues. Leading up to the conversation with the mother, the group member asked the group for help with his dilemma. The group helped coach the person on how to have a new kind of conversation with his mother. He followed the group’s direction and had a touching and surprisingly intimate conversation with his mother. The man came back to group excitedly reporting on the breakthrough success of the conversation. The group was very moved. Folks cried together.

Group members talked about this success and how the client was able to stop making you/blaming statements toward the mother and instead make empowering I statements (i.e., “This is what I need from you”). I invited the group to consider that what was also a crucial element in play was that we grew as a group and created together the possibility for a new conversation with the group member and his mother; together, we came up with some new thoughts and perspectives. The client focused on how the relationship is going with his mother: “I love you, Mom, and want us to be in each other’s lives, but I have been finding it hard to do because of this family history that we don’t talk about. Can we address this together?”

The group was able to appreciate the we-ness of our work and growth together as a team, the we-ness of helping a teammate, and the we-ness of the client and parent talking together in a we/us kind of way.

Final Musings
What if learning skills to live in new ways—with others—is key to helping us transform emotionally, regardless of whether we ever know the answer to why we have this or that issue? Social therapy is a radical practice in that we are not working to help people adjust to what is or further understand their “illness” identity. We challenge the fundamental assumption that we have to be labeled, know our problems, or get to the bottom of what is wrong before we can be helped.

This group therapy approach is simultaneously invigorating, creative, and demanding. After all, we are socialized to want to hang onto our “this is what’s wrong with me” identity, to fix problems, and we have societally sanctioned pulls to keep things private and self-focused.

We are a creative, social species. We constantly create scenes with other people in our day-to-day lives at work and at home without being told first how to do it. We live with one another, not on islands by ourselves. Therefore, working on our emotional healing and growth, as a team and socially, is profoundly useful. In the activity of group members participating in group sessions together, the relationships are a rich and direct way to help us discover new ways of being together and relating to ourselves.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African proverb

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jennifer Bullock, M.Ed., M.L.S.P.,LPC, therapist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nicole r

    Nicole r

    March 19th, 2013 at 11:13 AM

    Providing us with ways in which we can better interact with one another is always useful. The disheartening part is that there are those people who don’t feel like this should have to apply to them. they don’t play well with others and have never felt like they should have to. What happens though is that this makes life difficult for the rest of us who are constantly having to be on guard around them making sure that we don’t say or do something that will upset the apple cart. If only group therapy was a requirement for everyone then maybe the world would be a much kinder place!

  • Jennifer Bullock

    Jennifer Bullock

    March 19th, 2013 at 7:13 PM

    Thank you Nicole for your comment. I love your last sentence – 100% with you on that!

  • Benny

    Benny

    March 20th, 2013 at 3:48 AM

    Thanks for the “ben” reference! I loved that song too for obvious reasons!
    But I do have to add that I don’t think that I would necessarily be comfortable in a group therapy setting. It is hard enough to share with one person that I barely know, much less an entire group of people that I feel would be looking at me and judging me even when they don’t really know me. It would have to take the perfect setting for me to ever be able to open up in a situation like that.

  • Jennifer Bullock

    Jennifer Bullock

    March 20th, 2013 at 10:26 AM

    Hi Benny, thanks for your honest comments. Yes I think it is scary to share your issues with a group of people, and we all have pulls to keep things hidden/private for fear of being judged or rejected or misunderstood. There is so much I could say in response! One thought is that the focus of our groups is on building the conditions for sharing, and supporting folks to work together as a team to create a humane environment for development.

  • cole

    cole

    March 20th, 2013 at 11:07 AM

    I am very impressed that the group member that you spoke about having a conversation with his mother was able to develop his script for that by working with his group therapy members.

    Sometimes all it takes to be able to do those tough things that we may have been dreading for so long is just an opportunity to gain a new perspective, and I think that working and talking with people who are new to the situation can really be objective about it and can give you some very rational guidance on how you can best encounter that thing that you may have so dreaded.

    This just goes to show that working with strangers is sometimes actually a good thing, they have a much less biased thought process than someone who may be more familiar with the situation, and just like in this case, it can turn into something that was very valid and meaningful.

  • stuart

    stuart

    March 20th, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    although I am not the one to easily open up to people, I think group therapy is one thing that I could look into. not only will it mean we are all opening up to each other without judging anyone but also that we are open to accepting the fact that everybody has flaws, that everybody has problems, and most importantly, that everybody feels better having let it out.

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