Group Counselling

Over the years there has been a move away from working, one-to-one, with an individual client to focusing more on groups. And though sometimes a client will have quite specific needs that are best addressed in an individual setting, being part of a group has some clear advantages. For example, when resources are short (either money or professionals) being part of a group still gives access to support. We can also learn from the others who are part of the group, and especially where experiences are somewhat similar. Finally, a group provides its members with a safe environment for practicing new skills that they want to acquire. And the feedback they receive can help to fine-tune their skills so they become more proficient, and they feel more confident.

The Member and their Needs

Many of the people who join a counselling group will be there in response to a situational crisis, like experiencing a divorce, or being bullied at school. Thus, it is crucial that the member knows their feelings have been heard, and that the group is a safe place which allows them to be real. Only then will they feel able to explore their situation in an honest, and an open, way. The counsellor, or group leader, will assist in this process through their use of verbal and non-verbal skills. They’ll also seek to facilitate the group’s interactions so the members feel supported by, and learn from, the group.

What type of person is equipped to be a leader? What qualities should they possess?

Usually, the group leader will play a major role in influencing members and the group. Thus, the leader must be living a growth-oriented life, and possess the following qualities and traits:
1. Presence: This means attending fully to a client who is sharing an emotional experience. It is effectively conveying that you’re with them in their pain – and can understand and grasp how life seems to them.
2. Personal Power: This means being aware of the influence you hold in your position – and not manipulating or dominating members. Also, to empower other people you must know who you are and have a secure sense of your own identity. You can then model this appropriately to the group members, and encourage them to claim this power as well.
3. Courage: Effective leaders do not hide behind a mask: they are willing to be open and honest with the group. This means being authentic, admitting your mistakes, and confronting and challenging, where this is required.
4. Willingness to Confront Oneself: In order to grow, we must become more self-aware. Hence, the leader must convey that they are willing to change by admitting they have blind spots, confronting weaknesses and being honest and real about their areas for growth.
5. Sincerity and Authenticity: Trust is the basis for all relationships that are healthy, healing, transforming and life-giving. Hence, being congruent and real is a prerequisite for building a foundation of openness and trust. Within a group context, this could mean confronting members who are interfering with the group’s healthy process – as their attitudes and actions are inappropriate. Also, it could mean raising topics that are hard to talk about, as they’re painful, shameful or lead to awkwardness. This should always be done is a kind, respectful manner – and the goal should be to edify the person and the group.
6. Sense of Identity: The leader needs to have a secure identity, and to know their personal limits, their weaknesses and fears – in addition to their strengths, their abilities and goals. Only then, will they be able to work with the group members to help to them to embrace their own unique identity.
7. Belief in the Group Process and Enthusiasm: The leader must believe in the power of the group, and its value in supporting each individual member. For if they lack enthusiasm, or start to doubt the process, it is likely that the members will intuit this as well. And as a consequence of this, they will weaken their commitment, may start to miss some sessions, or will hold back from sharing.
8. Inventiveness and Creativity: It is important that the leader comes with fresh ideas and is keen to experiment and try something new. For if you have the same agenda, and use the same techniques, your sessions may get boring and fall into a rut.

Note: Developing these qualities takes time, hard work, patience and experience.


Food for Thought: Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

Research has shown that negative emotions and high levels of stress can exacerbate disease. If that is the case, might it also be true that love, hope and laughter have therapeutic value? This theory was tested by Norman Cousins who was diagnosed as suffering from a terminal illness . Lying in a hospital, fighting for his life – his chances of recovery were 1 in 500 – he decided to activate these positive emotions and thereby strengthen his immune system. For cousins had concluded that succumbing to stress had weakened and exhausted his endocrine system – and that was the main reason he was dangerously ill.

Cousins, therefore, decided to leave the hospital and check into a hotel room instead. There he embarked on a mission to stimulate his body to work towards health – and to fight the disease. To assist with this process, Cousins spent most of his time watching entertaining movies and reading funny books. In his own words:

“I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep” (p. 1461).

Blood tests on the patient also seemed to confirm that laughter was having a positive effect.

After a brief three weeks, he was up and out of bed and able to resume his daily jog along the beach. Perhaps it was just chance or the placebo effect – it’s impossible to say what brought about the drastic change. However, for Cousins it was proof that the body and the mind are closely related, and influence each other. Although he readily acknowledged that “it could have just been luck” his personal conclusion was “the will to live” had had a powerful effect on his body’s chemistry.

Today, scientists continue to explore the link and value of psychotherapeutic interventions on our health.


Death, Grief and Loss

Death, grief and loss are a normal part of life. They are part of the human experience. Yet knowing this is true doesn’t ease the pain we feel when death touches our lives and we lose someone we love. This reality is captured in the poem below …


The pendulum sways
The piano still plays,
Yet my heart can’t help but break
And my head begins to ache.

The message floats in bold
Of his body growing cold
Lying doomed now to decay
While the sky wears it’s best gray.

All the warmth I’d grown to know
Lies frozen deep below
A flaming love snuffed out
Leaving anguish, pain and doubt.


Exploring Love Maps

It takes effort and commitment to build a happy marriage: it doesn’t just happen by chance. And according to John Gottman developing a love map is a tried and tested method of strengthening your bond. By this he meant that we can choose to fan and nurture flames of love, and can consciously communicate our interest and respect. This means investing time and energy in learning more about our partner’s likes and dislikes, feelings, needs and preferences.

Thus, a love map is a notebook that we’ve stored in our brain with crucial information related to our spouse. But since we’re all constantly changing we’ll need to keep updating the kind of information that’s contained in our love map. But doing that communicates we truly love our spouse and want to understand them, and know them in more depth.

So what information does a love map contain?

It depends on the person and what matters most to them – but it’s likely to include some of the following data: Your spouse’s hopes and dreams, their worries, fears, anxieties, their likes, dislikes, frustrations and their way of seeing things. It also stores the minor details like their favourite kind of meal, the name of their best friend, and the kinds of book they read.

But why is this important, and do love maps really matter? Does it truly make a difference to our close relationship?

Being known at a deep level is a gift we give each other. It affirms the other’s value and communicates our love. And as well as bringing happiness and pleasure to our marriage, it helps us cope much better with the stresses we will face.

For example, Gottman talked to couples who had just had their first child – a major life experience, and a source of stress and joy. He found a high percentage of those (67%) reported they were much less satisfied with their spouse. In contrast to this, another 33% reported that their marriages had actually improved. On probing deeper he discovered that these very different numbers were tied into how current the couples’ love maps were. Specifically, the couples whose marriages were thriving had developed detailed love maps from the time when they first met. These helped protect their marriage when they faced this huge upheaval as they’d established the habit of growing in their love.

Since love maps have a role to play in strengthening a marriage, we’ve included some suggestions to help expand your map:

1. Together, formulate a list of at least 20 detailed, personal questions.
2. Make sure you include a wide range of questions from a number of different categories.
3. Take turns asking each other these questions – then try and answer the questions for the other person. For example, instead of asking “What is your dream vacation?” ask your spouse “What is my dream vacation?”
4. Remember to keep it light-hearted and fun.

Examples of questions and categories include:

Family: Which of my parents do I think I’m most like? In what ways?
Friends: What are the names of two of my best friends? How did I meet them?
Work: How do I feel about my job? What do I think of my boss?
Hobbies: Name three things I like to do in my spare time.
Dreams: Describe one of my unrealized dreams.
Favourites: What is my favourite season, food, colour, movie? Which sports teams do I support?
Feelings: What makes me anxious? When do I feel stressed?

However, gaining information is just the starting point; next, you need to use this data in a thoughtful, concrete way. For example, instead of buying flowers from a stand at the train station, buy your wife some dark red roses as you know she likes those best. It’s these special little details that feed and build a marriage as they’re conscious loving actions that are highly meaningful.


Addictions and the Brain

The American Society of Addiction Medicine has recently released a definition of addictions which focuses on the brain’s circuitry. From their studies, they concluded that all kinds of addiction can influence and alter the brain’s neurology. Specifically, their research uncovered evidence that indicated changes in the brain’s reward system, motivation and memory circuitry. This caused the individual to pursue their addiction at a cost to their health and general self-care. This is demonstrated in the following ways:

1. Alterations to the Brain’s Reward System: Researchers noted that the memory of rewards associated with a substance or addictive behaviour (alcohol, food, sex, gambling and so on) was sufficient to trigger the addictive sequence – even where the addiction had lost its appeal and lead to negative, unwanted consequences.

2. Compromised Impulse Control: Because addictions affect the frontal cortex of the brain, it alters our judgment and our impulse control. Thus, the person finds it hard to resist their powerful urges, and to think of the effect that this could have on their life. This finding is consistent with the symptoms of addictions which include the following characteristics and traits: being unable to abstain from the addiction, and delay gratifying their need or drive; intense cravings for the drug/ behaviour of choice; a failure to recognise the impact this is having on the person, their relationships, their work and their life.

3. Cognitive and Emotional Changes: Symptoms here include a growing obsession so the substance or behaviour now consumes their thinking; a distorted understanding of the pros and cons that are associated with engaging in addictions; also, intense, negative and fluctuating emotions which are hard to control and are unpredictable.

This has implications for diagnosis well. For example, instead of focusing on outward behaviours, which are noted and measured using standard questionnaires, it would seem more productive to look inside the brain in order to determine if it’s truly an addiction. This should yield more reliable and detailed information – and give information on disease progression.

With respect to treatment, it may make it easier to interrupt a pattern by consciously altering what’s happening in the brain. However, the underlying causes that led to the addiction should still be explored and addressed in counselling.


How to Improve Subjective Happiness

Positive psychology has researched different factors which affect our levels of subjective happiness. Many of these factors are within our own control – but it takes work and commitment to turn around bad habits!

Below, we have listed some tools that we can use, and traps we should avoid, to increase our happiness.

Tools to Happiness
1. Look for the positives; practice being thankful. For example, make a conscious effort to appreciate the gifts, the people and the blessings that are part of your life. Stop and notice when others are being helpful, understanding, thoughtful, considerate or warm and kind. Make a list of the top 10 things you like about your spouse and focus on those, and overlook the irritations. Also, think about your friends and the things that make them special; and think about the future – your wishes, hopes and dreams.
2. Actively exercise your right to choose. For example, don’t be passive, or assume the role of victim, or see other people as determining your actions. Instead, decide to reframe and take control of situations – so you can choose for yourself how you want to respond. For example, you can choose to be gracious when a driver cuts you up, or you can smile and be polite when someone else is rude to you.
3. Lead from your strengths as this leads to success. It increases your energy and also generates a sense of well-being and inner confidence.
4. Frame your life story in a positive light. This is liberating and allows you to imagine and consciously create a better future for yourself. For the stories we relate about our life to ourselves will influence and determine our choice and our actions.
5. Spice your days with variety and balance. That is far more rewarding than being stuck in a groove – and repeating the same patterns, and doing the same things.

Traps to Happiness
1. Trying to buy happiness. Once we have the basics that we need to survive, buying more to be happy doesn’t increase our contentment. Instead, the more that we have the more we tend to think we need – for our desire for more is insatiable, and grows.
2. The pursuit of pleasure. Pursuing pleasure as a goal will soon lose its appeal. It cannot bring fulfilment, give us purpose or add meaning. Instead, contented individuals find pleasure in each day, and can derive satisfaction from the mundane things in life.
3. The pursuit of happiness. This will always be elusive if you seek it as a goal for happiness is generally a by-product in life. And as we give to others we discover joy ourselves – and this joy is lasting, not ephemeral and passing.
4. Fixating on the past, and what’s negative or painful. We can’t erase the past – we need to make peace and move on. It’s only part of our life – and not the sum of who we are. And the past can be transcended, we can build a brighter future, and enjoy what’s still to come, if we will start to look ahead.
5. Focusing on weaknesses and insecurities. Focus on your talents and the things that you do well. They will always be strong points, and the gift you give the world.

There’s a lot to be said for these basic strategies. They can transform who you are and increase your happiness.


The Power of One

“If you think you’re too small to make a difference then you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”.
Anita Rodrick.

Recently a friend of mine became very ill and that set me thinking about the power of one. We rarely stop and think about the imprint we’re making or whether or not we make a difference at all. Yet if we cast back our minds and review our memories, it is easy to see how other people touch our lives. And it’s not the big occasions that we tend to recall: it’s the laughter in the humdrum or that humorous remark … or it’s those urgent minor crises when a friend holds out a hand and we realise again that we are not in this alone.