Editor’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.
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.
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
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