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October 13, 2003

Groups, Part 1: The Unsafe Group

There are many types of groups that facilitate growth and healing. Therapy Groups ("T" groups) came into vogue during the 60s and 70s. Although groups can be a wonderful container for sharing and feeling, they can also become forums for abuse and manipulation.

Through the years, some of the more problematic groups have tended to use an "encounter" format where members bluntly challenge and criticize each other's process and perceived defenses in the name of "free expression", "openness," and "honesty." Those who resist ("you're being defensive") are often branded as avoiding truth and living in denial.

The encounter format seems to be favoured by those who have the following types of shields and defenses:

• acting out on other people
• anger/aggression
• critical projection and fault finding
• fixing, giving advice, and being "helpful"
• excess talk
• drama

In an encounter group, members with these traits rarely have to enter or explore their own deeper feelings - they challenge others instead. Unfortunately, the encounter format can be a destructive place for people with fragile defenses and life strategies that include:

• acting in
• fear/hiding/shock
• critically projecting fault on themselves
• strong self-doubt and low self esteem/confidence
• difficulty speaking in groups
• sensitivity to extreme movement and sound

Members with these traits will most often find their process shut down by harsh encounters. Their self-doubt and self-loathing is likely to increase because, under the untouchable banner of "honesty," they appear to "fail" at being fully open. In many cases they can become retraumatized and destabilized by being coerced to open up too soon.

An essential weakness of the encounter approach is the idea that defenses are "bad" and need to be triggered and "got rid of." In my view, defenses have a purpose and will erode when a safe container is created within which we can feel accepted, appreciated, and respected - not judged, exposed, or made to feel that we are wrong or inadequate. Violation is a major cause of trauma and emotional illness. To break through someone's defenses is, by definition, a violation. Therefore, defense-busting, as championed by encounter-style groups, is contrary to healing.

Another major weakness with encounter is that it does not address the fact that critiques and judgments are the projections (and possible defenses) of the critic. If I criticize you, it is, above all things, my experience of you that I am feeling, perceiving, and expressing. It is my truth - not yours, even if some of what I perceive may actually be your experience as well. Recognizing this fact is an essential cornerstone of healing.

We are social animals. Groups are the optimum environment for us if we can feel safe to be who we are within them.

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