Your power as an individual, your role in the group
When you’re considering counselling, do you ever wonder whether it might be best to join a therapy group rather than sit in sessions with a therapist and work one to one? Would you be better off sharing your concerns with other people who are also sharing theirs?
In this piece, rather than suggest answers to what may seem simple questions, I’m going to do some philosophical speculation around the link between the individual person and the wider community. In doing so, I’m talking to anyone who wants to think more deeply about what they can get from counselling. I’m also hoping one or two therapists challenge themselves to question whether some of their clients might be better off in groups, rather than working one to one.
I sometimes think that all psychotherapy has done these past 125 years is to encourage human beings to see themselves as individuals, living their own unique lives, apart from the rest of humanity, separate from any mere ‘group’. And, if this is the case, how has pushing the power of the individual been of benefit to humanity?
Jung was convinced it is the individual human being rather than the popular masses, or God, who held the key to humanity’s development.
- Phil Goss
Jung, this luminary of psychology, seems to be saying that, although therapists are working with individuals, they are also working with the whole of society.
American psychologist, Kenneth Gergen, has noted that ‘The view of the individual as singular and separate, one whose abilities to think and feel are central to life, and whose capacity for voluntary action is prized, is of recent origin.’
In historical terms, Jung and Freud before him were only yesterday, effectively representing a new Westocentric view. A century on, a purist Person-Centred practitioner, like Christine Brown, can now admit that‘For persons who come from a collectivist existential experience/culture, the concept of the ‘self’ or the ‘I’ as an independent entity from the ‘we’ might hold little significant existential meaning.’ We’re all human, but not all the same.
So, I come back to my opening question. Let me put it again. Do you see your personal problems as entirely your own? Would you be open to sharing your problems among others, in the belief that we are all in this together?
In her book, Therapist Limits in Person-Centred Therapy, Lisbeth Sommerbeck pointed out that ‘Psychotherapy tends to individualise problems by focusing on change in the individual and does not take much heed of all the environmental and political factors that are major contributors to psychological distress, such as poverty, bad housing, unemployment, discrimination etc.’
To be sure, psychotherapy is not solely responsible for this recent Western distinction between the individual and the collective. The replacement of ancient churches and community gatherings by department stores and shopping malls has made individual consumers of many of us, East and West. Personally, this is a present in which I am bombarded with messages aimed at the generic ‘over 50s’ market, without my ever once believing I’m anything other than individual who just happens to be over 50. I am treated as homogenous, yet I only ever feel individual. How about you?
Looking at the title of this piece, I accept that I could quite easily have pitched it the other way around: ‘Your role as an individual, your power in the group.’ It’s just that, in the crisis-driven living space of now, I struggle to see that I have any power as part of a group. I trouble to accept that I am a member of any kind of group at all. Besides, and to mangle a Groucho Marx aphorism, I don’t want to belong to any group that would have me. And you?
How does any of this musing have a bearing on our work in therapy? In the counselling room, we often hear statements like, ‘I don’t fit in at work’, ‘I can’t relate to my family, ‘My friends have stopped inviting me out.’ Such admissions provide the architecture for therapeutic work.
For the counsellor, it’s highly tempting, indeed often necessary, to treat the symptoms that these words try to describe as peculiar to this individual only. And so we sit through many hours of detail on toxic office politics, seething sibling rivalry and confusing social dynamics. Carl Rogers, the father of the Person-Centred approach, would tell us to expect this mass of detail. He had plenty to say about waiting for the client to get beyond the obscuring noise and into the journey towards selfhood.
Here we are again, back at the discovery of the individual. What interests me, as a Person-Centred counsellor, is that, in the final decades of his life, Rogers moved away from one-to-one therapy with individuals towards group work. In doing this, what need was he seeing?
Perhaps Rogers had always realised this need. Writing about Austrian psychologist, Adolf Adler, whose later working life crossed with Rogers’ early psychotherapeutic experience, Kishimi and Koga claim, ‘It is fundamentally impossible for a person to live life completely alone, and it is only in social contexts that the person becomes an ‘individual’. That is why in Adlerian psychology, self-reliance as an individual and cooperation within society are put forth as overarching objectives.'
If this is how the individual connects to the wider world, what responsibility does psychotherapy have in this? Perhaps, as therapists, we should consider doing more group work, allowing a way in for those who can see the link between their problems and the wider world’s.
Rogers did not take societal oppression into consideration in his theory of personality…To my mind it would be quite unethical to ‘treat’ the often very distressing consequences of poverty, unemployment etc exclusively with psychotherapy. To do so sends an implicit message to the client that their plight is the result of their own individual psychological problems or even illness – a message that says, in essence, ‘It’s your own fault.’ Some political factions may hold this view but it is judgmental of the client and cannot be reconciled with unconditional positive regard for the client and therefore with person-centred therapy.
- Lisbeth Sommerbeck
I hope you’ve enjoyed this philosophical ramble. You may have noted that I am not the kind of ‘five top tips’ therapist. I tend to believe that the answers we seek are already in the questions we ask.