Negativity as a Group Dynamic
John Breeskin, Ph.D.
It would be totally naïve for a beginning group therapist to think, for a moment, that a group of people who are motivated to interact positively with other group members would be free from the effects of negativity toward other group members. The sources of this negativity, in my theoretical framework, are at least two:
1. The component contributed by the client’s overt behavior such as withdrawal, pressured speech, sporadic attendance, diva demands for attention, obvious negativity and resistance. These should be addressed as legitimate group dynamics in terms of the desire to grow counterbalanced by the desire to remain the same and there are various group therapy techniques to turn the spotlight on such behavior. (Switching roles and being the other person would be an example of one of these techniques.)
2. The 2nd contributing components to this negativity comes directly from family of origin dynamics where people are replicating, in living Technicolor, old sibling rivalries, residues of unresolved conflict with parents, dysfunctional family symptomology or even unresolved issues dealing with pain and loss. This is axiomatic and no interpersonal interaction can ever be thought of as free from these dynamics and I state this point over and over again in the ongoing life of the group.
It should be quite obvious that 2 different sets of strategies are appropriate for each of these situations outlined above.
Regardless of what condition we are addressing, however, there are important communalities for the therapist to have readily available.
When I am faced with these problematic behaviors, I mark the event in my memory, reject a response from my reptilian brain and carefully think about how I’m going to reply to the negativity in the session next week. If I am judicious in my response time I am allowing for a perhaps a wondrous event to occur. The client, himself or herself, can come back the next week and actually apologize for his/her behavior and my challenge is to allow space for this possibility.
If this providential event does not occur, then I will access Plan B. which deals with my individualized response to the client’s behavior without blaming or shaming the client, but, instead, discussing and owning my feelings as to the event that just happened. This style of intervention is offered as a role model for the group members to emulate and some of them pick it up very quickly.
The theoretical model outlined above stems directly from Attachment Theory, called in oldspeak , conflict resolution, psychoanalytic hydraulic pressure from sexuality, faulty conditioning by the behavioral- cognitive therapists, genetic predisposition from the biology folks, or the Existential belief in the absurd.
I hope it is clear that I favor the last cited theoretical approach.
My approach in writing this note is to be clearly engaged in creative mischief. Please favor me with your thoughtful replies in that spirit.