Recipient of APA’s Div. 49’s 2021 Student Award for Outstanding Contribution to Diversity.
What does diversity mean in group therapy? I have been pondering this question during the course of my training as a group therapist. Starting my group analysis training back in India in 2019 and traveling to the U.S. to pursue my doctorate enhanced my understanding of diversity. The racial dynamics in the U.S. and political chaos that ensued over the past few years brought the importance of diversity and inclusion to the public mind. Workplaces and training programs have been trying to address diversity issues in their curriculum and incorporate such discussions actively in their meetings. I noticed that these conversations are not easy to facilitate and bring a lot of anxiety in the room. I can only imagine how they add to anxiety in group treatment.
So how can we understand diversity in group therapy? The best way for me to address this question is to reflect on my journey in my group analysis training. My group analysis is conducted by a British Indian while all the members are Indians. Although we all identify as Indians, each of us brings our unique accent, ethnicity, language, caste and perspective to the group. From the outside, our group might not look as diverse because we look the same. But when we hear each other’s’ experiences, we realize how different we all are despite us sharing a national identity. These differences stem from our various identities such as caste, ethnicity, religion, gender and also from experiences in our family of origin. We all speak in a foreign language (English) in the group that enables us to understand each other, but most of us have mother tongues that cannot be understood by others. Diversity in terms of our experiences and identities has allowed us to expand our perspectives and increased our ability to tolerate differences. In the current political climate of my country, finding a space where differences are respected provides hope and builds resilience to fight the political injustices.
Being able to hold a group together with such diversity, however, has not been easy. In our group, we have experienced several ruptures around gender differences and our differences with respect to our ways of relating to each other in the group. These ruptures were opportunities for us to learn how to deal with conflicts instead of running away from them. I noticed that my group therapist normalized conflict in the group and encouraged every member in the group to share their feelings in the here and now. Instead of ignoring the conflict, he brought it to the center and actively intervened to help the members feel safe and contained in expressing their feelings. He acknowledged part of his identities such as his gender and nationality that granted him a privileged status in the group and encouraged members to express their feelings of anger towards him that were being displaced onto other members. I feel that my therapist’s willingness to be vulnerable and self-disclose were essential factors in facilitating the repair process.
In a similar vein, I have observed that conversations around diversity in the therapy group I cofacilitate provide opportunities for both rupture and repair. Recently, a Black identifying member in the group expressed her anger about the group space feeling “White” which caused her to feel unsafe. She also expressed feeling upset over the inclusion of two new members who presented very differently compared to the members who had recently left. From a group analysis perspective, this member was reacting to the threat caused by the introduction of two new members in the group. She was mourning the loss of the last two members and she was adjusting to the new recalibration of diversity in the group. Her ability to express her frustration and share that the group felt more “White” enabled other members to validate her feelings and express themselves openly as well. These conversations were difficult, and the group struggled with the possibility of a loss of another member during this tumultuous time. As a cofacilitator, my initial reaction was of fear and frustration because I did not want my group to fall apart. However, I was able to use my experience from my therapy group to become a secure object for this group to work through this conflict around diversity. Having a cofacilitator helped in dealing with my anxiety to deal with ruptures as a novice group therapist. We both supported each other and other members in the group to voice their difficult feelings. Looking back, we can observe that the group’s hard work in fixing those ruptures strengthened the relationship between the members.
In my experience of being part of therapy groups as a patient as well as a coleader, the meaning of diversity changed over the different stages of development of the group. And the questions of diversity forged opportunities to make stronger connections within the group. This repair process would not have been possible without the solid foundation of safety and containment in the group, which I strongly believe are necessary conditions to facilitate conversations around the theme of diversity. In my experience, modeling self-disclosure of one’s feelings and identity factors as a group leader, and being able to convey one’s willingness to handle conflicts around diversity goes a long way in making the group space feel safer for members. Exploring the meaning of diversity for each member instead of assuming it based on how the group members look is more useful in facilitating such difficult conversations, which often lead to unresolvable ruptures in the outside world.