Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Changes in Group Membership

Most groups will eventually face the challenge of changing membership. In open groups, people may be joining or leaving the group at any time. Closed groups may have a longer period of stable membership (though people do sometimes drop out), though these groups typically do accept new members at predetermined intervals. The only kind of group that never has to integrate newcomers is a truly time-limited group where members terminate at the end, rather than rolling over into a "new" time-limited group.

Changing group composition through the addition and subtraction of members can be disruptive and distressing. How many clients - perhaps especially those referred for group therapy - have issues with relationships, attachment, abandonment, etc.? And while group work in general is likely to bring out all of these issues, they are most strongly present during hellos and goodbyes.

Goodbyes are hard because they obviously signify a loss. People who are staying in the group may feel abandoned by those leaving (especially if they have abandonment issues). If someone is leaving because they no longer need the group, remaining members may compare and feel bad about their own level of functioning, feel jealous, etc. If someone has had to leave the group because they were not a good fit or unable to participate appropriately, or needed a different level of care, people may worry that they may somehow "mess up" and get "kicked out." Whatever the reason someone leaves, everyone is likely to think about the nature of the connection between them, and what happens to that bond if they are no longer together. Some may wonder whether the ending of the relationship negates its value from the beginning. Then, the remaining members may worry about how the loss will affect group dynamics. Who will take on the roles played by the person who left? Will the group function as effectively? And so on.

Hellos are hard because they can trigger fears of the unknown, as well as personal insecurities (which may, again, be particularly present in those referred for group therapy). People may wonder whether the new person will like them, and whether other group members may like the new person better. They worry how their role in the group will change, and how the overall group dynamic will change. Often, people assume the worst, and may even act as if it were true, disrupting the whole group dynamic. Some people may make assumptions about, or even judge the new person as well. And, of course, the new person is coming in with their own fears about what type of people will be in the group, whether they will fit in, be liked, etc. The group may revert to an earlier stage of group development as it tries to find a new equilibrium with this change in membership.

While both hellos and goodbyes are hard, potentially emotional transitions, they are also incredibly rich opportunities for therapeutic growth, if the group can tolerate them enough to continue doing the work at hand. Sometimes simply naming the fact that it is hard and emotional can allow the work to proceed. Other times, hello and goodbye rituals may facilitate the process (and processing).

Also bear in mind that these issue come up not only for therapy groups, but for all kinds of groups - classes, clubs, teams...even treatment teams. While the challenges may not become a manifest topic addressed by these groups, it helps to consider what members may be experiencing when membership changes. Expect some bumps in the road, and perhaps a period reduced cohesion and productivity as the group tries to sort out everything going on under the surface. However, just as the original group established itself as a unit, we trust that the same thing will happen again.

Do you have any hello or goodbye rituals that you use to ease the way during membership transitions, in any kind of group?

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