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Don’t Go Wasting Your Emotion: Using Group Therapy to Teach

It was Samantha Goldman’s last year as an undergraduate psychology student. Years of concentrated study of clinical psychology had armed her with a powerful arsenal of theoretical knowledge. However, as she was about to learn, some things aren’t so easy in practice.

In the course of her studies, Samantha had taken a seminar course that used an observational model to teach students about group therapy. It aimed to show students how group theory worked using demonstration groups. The class was split up into a Group A and a Group B. Each group would participate in a group therapy session while the other group observed. Group A was led by the professor. Group B was at first co-led by the professor and a teaching assistant, but throughout the course, the professor’s role would shrink, until Group B was led entirely by the teaching assistant. Now Samantha returned to the course, but this time, she was the teaching assistant.

Based on her extensive theoretical knowledge, Samantha didn’t expect any trouble assuming the group leadership role. She recalls, “I expected to settle into my role as co-leader, and later solo leader, fully prepared for and generally understanding of my role.”

Samantha observed as Group A’s first session began. It didn’t take long for her to realize that watching a group therapy session in practice is nothing like learning theory in class. By the time it was her turn to take a part in group leadership with Group B, Samantha was a nervous wreck. Group B’s discussion quickly got very serious. One girl started crying. Samantha was paralyzed. Group A’s discussion had been a fairly light chat about work experience, and she had expected Group B to be similar. She was blindsided by the sudden intensity of the emotion in the room. She had no idea what to do or how to react, and this uncertainty shook her confidence to its core.

Part of the challenge was Group B’s quick pace. It was a talkative group, its members barely letting one another finish, and Samantha struggled to make herself heard. She noticed that the group would race along until someone showed a strong emotional reaction, whereupon they would visibly struggle. Samantha, too, struggled with the emotional impact of the subject matter at times, grateful that she didn’t have to lead alone.

With each session, Samantha gained a better understanding of how to perform the role of a group leader. Even with this increased understanding, she battled with uncertainty, but now it was less anxiety and more frustration that plagued her. She was frustrated with the group members who dominated the discussion, not allowing others to speak up, and with her own lack of assertiveness.

During the fifth session, her first session leading solo, Samantha finally had a breakthrough. Her struggles with Group B, she realized, seemed to stem from their avoidance of emotion. But how could she reassure them?

Group B’s last session brought the issue to a head. The group started off at its usual fast pace, but this time, Samantha was able to slow it down. Now feeling in control, Samantha had the confidence to finally ask the group what they were avoiding. Her sense that they had been avoiding emotions was right, it seemed: one of the group members replied, “Well, the other group got really emotional and we want to avoid that mistake.”

Group therapy relies on confronting emotions, but often people don’t even recognize their emotionally avoidant behavior. There’s no formula for bringing about this realization. The group leader must truly understand the group to approach it effectively.

These types of skills are not borne out of textbook readings. Rather, as Samantha reflects at the end of the seminar, “It turned out that [her] intuition, feelings, and associations made in real time in reaction to real emotions were far better guides in [her] first steps into group leadership.”

Clinical psychology in particular is difficult to study theoretically because there are so many outside factors. No two individuals are the same, and no two groups are the same. A group leader must learn to adapt to each individual group. Effective strategies in the more subdued Group A proved all but useless in fast-paced Group B.

The opportunity to personally experience the successes and pitfalls of leading a group therapy session taught Samantha about the process more completely than she could ever have learned through theory. “The personal growth I underwent, as well as the growth I observed in my peers, was as powerful a lesson as any course I could have taken—maybe more,” says Samantha, who published an article on her experience in the Spring 2019 volume of the Eastern Group Psychotherapy Society Journal.

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