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The Therapist's Corner ...

“The Therapist’s Corner” examines the theoretical underpinnings of Cosmic Mirror programs – exactly how and why they are effective.  It is deliberately written in more academic language in an effort to convey to clinicians more directly the historical context and development of key concepts around which these programs have been designed.  Written in a style typical of the research from individual and group psychotherapy with which the trained clinician is likely quite familiar, special emphasis is placed on three fundamental assumptions underlying the approach of Cosmic Mirror programs.

A Philosophy of Accelerated Personal Growth

Cosmic Mirror programs are a type of advanced depth-oriented interpersonal growth group.  They foster an accelerated form of emotional learning that utilizes experiential and psychodynamic processes framed within a highly supportive group atmosphere devoted to emotional transformation.  It is intended to enhance the gains of individual psychotherapy for clients who are ready to deepen their ability to relate to themselves and others in their everyday world.  Gary Gemmill, Ph.D. and George Kraus, Ph.D. lead the group.  Gary trained with Erv and Miriam Polster at the Gestalt Institute in La Jolla, California, and George trained at the University of Cincinnati with Edward Klein, Ph.D. (also of the A.K. Rice Institute) and with Self Psychologist Walter Stone, MD, co-author with Scott Rutan of the classic text Psychodynamic Group Psychotherapy.  Gary and George blend a deep understanding of the psychodynamics of personality development with the philosophy and methods of Gestalt, encounter, and humanistic phenomenology. 

“I never experienced anything like it.  During my Cosmic Mirror weekend, we were invited to visit the deepest parts of ourselves – the parts we feel we need to hide and are ashamed of.  Gary and George provided a safe place for this to happen, and I walked away feeling like a part of a close-knit and loving family.  I walked in wanting to look at my sadness; I walked away knowing my sadness was about being afraid to speak out and let my voice be heard, because I had felt I wasn’t enough and that I might be too much for others.  During the weekend, I revealed these hidden parts of myself because I was able to self-explore – all of us felt heard, seen, and loved.  I shined a light on my wounds, gave them some air for healing, and walked away feeling stronger.”

This is typical of comments evoked by Cosmic Mirror programs – the freedom to discover the hidden meaning of a personal struggle in a supportive environment that frees up buried emotions – pushing through years of defenses – coming in heavily armored and leaving with an aura of radiating compassion – lost lives reclaimed.  As Kahlil Gibran’s (1923) put it, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”  As one participant put it,

I had worked so hard at building walls and maintaining them that I was exhausted from the constant work, the constant fear that I might be found out.  But at the workshop, I put trust in their care and was open to experience the pain hiding behind my walls.  That much trust was new for me.

Foundational Principles

1.  Group psychotherapy creates its own unique transformative experience:  Much of the reason that individual psychotherapy is the most widely used mode of treatment stems from the social stigma around what it means to have difficulty with emotions – people would prefer to speak to their deeper emotions in a private setting .  What is normal or popular, though, does not necessarily imply health.  As a culture, we tend to inhibit emotional authenticity and openness around others (Fromm, 1955).  In effective group psychotherapy, however, the payout for openness is enhanced, because clients learn first-hand with people other than the therapist that they can maintain and develop their personhood by openly expressing their emotions around others.  As one of our clients put it,

The focus is on overcoming a sense of loneliness and isolation in relationships that is deeply embedded.  There is no place where we can acquire the skills to relate to one another at deeper levels.  That is what this group has done for me – it was a life-altering experience.

Thanks to the early efforts of Samuel Slavson (1964), Hyman Spotnitz (1961), and others, group psychotherapy virtually exploded after World War II.  In the 1960s, though, several impactful alternatives to psychoanalytic group psychotherapy emerged – Jacob Moreno (1953) developed psychodrama, Wilfred Bion (1961) began to look at dynamics of the group-as-a-whole, Kurt Lewin’s (1951) group therapy grew into sensitivity training – each of which provided important understandings of effective human encounters.

It is our belief that people with vulnerable psychiatric issues often develop their condition precisely because they have not had enough successes with real encounters with others.  What happens in an effective group experience is that people learn not so much about how to attach to another person but how to feel a part of something larger than themselves by connecting to a wider community – a learning that cannot be directly experienced in one-to-one therapy. 

2.  Accelerated growth stems from a focus on phenomenology:  A group’s effectiveness is an outgrowth of helping its participants first fully experience their emotions before talking about them.  Phenomenologically experiencing feelings before prematurely processing them is what is necessary for a self-healing catharsis.   In our view, the therapeutic method must be a holistic one:  paying close attention to all of what is happening in the moment – cognitively, emotionally, and especially viscerally.  The body speaks as much or more truth than do words.  Learning to label feelings follows being able to first existentially experience them.

Body-based therapies have a long and underappreciated tradition in psychotherapy (e.g., Wilhelm Reich’s body armoring, Habib Davanloo’s (2000) short-term dynamic psychotherapy, Alexander Lowen’s (1972) bioenergetics).  These approaches are now being validated by newer affect-based, experientially-based, and body-based models of psychotherapy (e.g., Gantt and Cox, 2010; Schermer, 2010; Van der Kolk, 2006) – what psychologist Diana Fosha (2008) calls, “the physical home of the self (p. 25).  Growth in psychotherapy is based on the whole of the client’s experience, tracked moment-to-moment and processed in its entirety.  This creates an energized, transformational state with open access to the whole of their resources (Fosha, 2004).  In Cosmic Mirror programs , personal issues are not so much “talked about” but existentially and phenomenologically lived out and engaged in first-hand.  We are calling the experience integrative existential engagement.

3.  Reparation and healing emerge from a focus on core feelings:  Partly in reaction to the highly intense but mismanaged encounter groups of the 1970s, movement away from examining deeper and more affect-laden emotions also stemmed from the advent of the computer and the embrace of the mathematic model.   As Curtis (2007) puts it, “Behind these new ideas about how society should be managed was a model of the individual as a rational, calculating machine whose self-interested behavior could be analyzed by numbers.”  This attitude spawned laudable “evidenced-based” treatment approaches, but where thoughts and behaviors more than feelings were the chosen focus of study.  In the wake of this trend, however, affect-based models have been significantly undervalued (e.g., the under-recognized but large and evidence-based effect sizes of depth-oriented therapy; Shedler, 2010).  The landscape of cognitive models is clearly shifting, though, as neuroscientist Jack Panksepp (2008) asserts,

The cognitive revolution, like radical neuro-behaviorism, intentionally sought to put emotions out of sight and out of mind.  Now, cognitive science must re-learn that ancient emotional systems have a power that is quite independent of neocortical cognitive processes (p. 51).

While a therapeutic mainstay of psychotherapy is empathy, from our perspective, empathy is essentially a one-way interpersonal process and is necessary but not sufficient to explore and release deeper emotions.  What is needed is a depth of existential engagement – a mutual and two-way process – that fosters a connection to and resonance with the core self.  In Integrative Existential Engagement, the focus is on core feelings that contain and block the greatest level of useful energy.  These core feelings are revealed through facilitator-based interventions that encourage the exploration and experimentation with our clients’ existential affective experience. 

In the broadest sense, feeling heard and understood and experiencing a sense of belonging are what help our clients get in touch with their strengths and deal more squarely with the toxic aspects of what they have internalized.  Through emotional work and play and by tapping into their innate desire to seek out what they need, group participants learn first-hand – both explicitly and implicitly – how to form positive attachments and meaningfully connect with others.  These resoundingly lively experiences allow our clients to tap into unexamined resources within themselves and marshal them to exponentially expand their awareness and ability to deeply connect with others.

References

Bion, W. (1961).  Experiences in groups.  London:  Tavistock.

Curtis, A. (Producer) (2007).  The trap: what happened to our dream of freedom:  The lonely robot.  Darlington, UK:  British Broadcasting Company.

Davanloo, H. (2000).  IntensiveShort-TermDynamicPsychotherapy:SelectedPapersofHabibDavanloo, MD.  Chichester, England:  Wiley.

Fosha, D. (2004).  Nothing that feels bad is ever the last step:  the role of positive emotions in experiential work with difficult emotional experiences.  Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 11, 30-43.

Fosha, D.  (2008).  Transformance, recognition of self by self, and effective action.  In K. J. Schneider (Ed.) Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy: Guideposts to the Core of Practice (pp. 290-320).  New York:  Routledge.

Fromm, E. (1955).  The Sane Society.  New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Gantt, S., & Cox, P. (2010).  Neurobiology and building interpersonal systems:  groups, couples, and beyond.  International Journal of Group Psychotherapy: Vol. 60, 455-460.

Lewin, K. (1951).  Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers.  D. Cartwright (Ed.).  New York: Harper & Row.

Lowen, A. (1972).  Depression and the body: the biological basis of faith and reality.  New York: Penguin Compass.

Moreno, J. (1953).  Who shall survive?  Beacon, NY:  Beacon House.

Panksepp, J. (2008).  The power of the word may reside in the power of affect.  Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 42, 47-55).

Schermer, V. L. (2010).  Mirror neurons: their implications for group psychotherapy.  International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 60, 486-513.

Shedler, J. (2010).  The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy.  American Psychologist, 65, 98-109.

Slavson, S. (1964).  A textbook in analytic group psychotherapy.  New York:  International Universities Press.

Spotnitz, S. (1961).  The Couch and the Circle: a Story of Group Psychotherapy.  New York:  Knopf.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2006).  Clinical implications of neuroscience research in PTSD.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071, 277-293.


 



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