Problems and Pitfalls for Small Groups
Posted by: corboy ()
Date: January 05, 2005 06:13AM

(Note: These are guesses and hunches from a layman. This material is [b:a38df53bad]not [/b:a38df53bad]intended to replace psychotherapy with a mental health professional. If any of this does seem useful, share this with your psychotherapist if working with one. And---do feel free to suggest additional reading material--including journal articles.)

[b:a38df53bad]Small Group Dynamics and Pitfalls-General Overview[/b:a38df53bad]

**([i:a38df53bad]This material is speculative and was written to assist persons to evaluate whether a group continues to support their practice. It is up to each reader to decide whether the this material is applicable to his or her situation or not. When in doubt, discuss this with a mental health professional [/i:a38df53bad])


**When encouraged or invited to join a group, ask detailed questions about confidentiality. And stay alert about confidentiality issues after you join. If you see that group members form cliques, backbite, gossip etc, that violates confidentiality and creates an unsafe atmosphere. Find out their attitude toward those who have left--an important source of information.

Everything shared in a group must be kept confidential. Twelve Step groups follow the rule, 'Who you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here.'

*Some leaders or teachers require disciples to disclose intimate material in the form of letters or journals. Major problems can come up if this material is not used responsibly and isnt safeguarded. An unethical leader may keep a dossier on each member, noting that persons vulnerabilities, then cleverly use that material to shame or confuse the person, or in extreme cases, for blackmail.

**You should [b:a38df53bad]never [/b:a38df53bad]be tape recorded, photographed or videotaped without signing a release form, especially if this is in connection with a workshop or seminar in which you may disclose sensitive information or be encouraged to behave in ways that could lead to embarrassment.

It is best that you not share sensitive material in writing with anyone, unless you and your group leader have jointly signed a legal document such as a release form that clearly spells out the ways the material will be used, and that it will be kept in a secure place, than either destroyed returned to you in its entirety upon your request. Your concerns about confidentiality should be respected.

If your concerns are not respected, this is important information about the nature of the group.

Some leaders may seem almost magically intuitive about each disciple's concerns and vulnerabilities. It is easy to forget that if people routinely disclose intimate matters to the leader and the leader keeps a file on each person, its easy to keep track, and not evidence of any magical power.

If you are pressured to share intimate material about yourself more quickly than you're comfortable with, if you're pressured to behave in ways that violate your ethical standards, all of those are warning signs. Any relationship that fosters shame will hamper your psychological/spiritual growth, despite whatever intense experiences come up along the way. Long term, a group that fosters pressure, secrecy and shame will take far more from you than it gives.

[b:a38df53bad]Evaluating Groups[/b:a38df53bad]

Each group and teacher must be evaluated on its own merits.

* Some spend time with a group, eventually realize the group is excellent, but that they've learned all they can from the group and its time to graduate.

*In more painful situations, a student comes to understand that a particular group once was helpful but is no longer a good fit or even hampering his or her progress. Meanwhile, the leader and other students cannot respect that student's concerns and may hamper the person from leaving.

* The worst situation is when a leader is emotionally needy, seeks power through dis-empowering group members, and thus not qualified to function as a genuine leader. A person like this needs adulation from members, cannot tolerate dissent or even mild disgreement.

A leader of this type cannot support their progress toward autonomy, eventual independence and can recognize no legitimate reason for members to disagree or leave the group. A leader of this type may promise that the group supports spiritual or psychological progress, but cannot provide the conditions that make such progress possible.

The real goal of the group is different from the stated goal of member empowerment--the actual goal is empowerment of the leader. If a student disgrees or dissents he or she violates this 'unspoken contract'.

Like a Roach Motel, once you 'check in' to a group of this latter type, you cannot 'check out.'

In the very worst situations, persons may be targeted for recruitment by persons they have every reason to love and trust. A group of this latter type may teach beliefs that the world is dangerous or the leader menaced by occult forces. They may teach forms of meditation which inspire commitment by triggering bliss and unusual experiences, but on a long term basis disrupt critical thinking, and debilitate the student, making it difficult to recognize that harm is being done and leaving no legitimate, dignified way to leave.

The only way to leave such a group is through trauma--to be kicked out, or to wrench oneself away, feeling shame ridden or disloyal. One may in some cases have to re-build neglected social networks if the group has been permitted to absorb all one's time and disrupt outside relationships.

IMO a group is dysfunctional when there is no legitimate reason for a student to leave, and or if practioners are pressured or flattered into becoming inmates, never graduate into autonomy and the teacher is stuck in his or her unconscous material and expects students to collude.

A major risk factor for trouble in a group is secrecy. Fear and secrecy tend to go together. Secrecy burdens people.

One form secrecy takes is if a group has an inner circle concealed behind a socially respectable 'front group' or 'outer circle.' The inner circle members may be taught doctrines kept secret from outer circle members, and as inner circle members may be subjected to abuse, while outer circle members experience only the benign aspects of the group.

Another important risk factor is when the leader's teachings and or group ideology is turned into a set of absolutes that cannot be questioned.


Inspiration is like a spark plug--it gets us out of ruts, off the couch, out of the house. Often, inspiration is equated with spirituality. I would disagree. Inspiration is delightful, but it can be a form of intoxication, and its possible to get addicted to it. Spirituality in the true sense liberates from addiction.

But the spark plug (inspiration) is not the same as the engine (spirituality).

When we feel depressed or discouraged, we are likely to appreciate, perhaps crave a person or group that is reliably inspirational. Some teachers and groups have a remarkable ability to mobilize energy within a group, even foster ecstatic experiences.

Many people get trapped long term, adoring teachers or writers who are inspirational but who despite generous intentions, lack training and maturity to function competantly as mentors of transformation.

Best thing is be grateful for inspiration, but at the same time remain discerning enough to recognize if an inspirational person cannot provide genuine mentoring (or has taught what he/she can and can no longer teach you anything new). You must learn when it is time for you to graduate and get help from someone who is mature and has integrity.

If you are very fortunate, you'll have been working with someone who says 'Its time for you to graduate. Lets celebrate this.'

But not all groups or teachers can or will tell you this. You always must know when its time to write and sign your own diploma in case your teacher is incapable of doing so, otherwise, you risk sliding from being a member to an inmate of a group, when you could have found new opportunities for a larger life elsewhere.

Problems arise when a group and teacher undermine one's ability to determine when it is time to cut ones losses and leave.

Critical thinking skills are essential to spiritual practice. A teacher or group may subvert critical thinking unknowingly, or may discourage or even punish critical thinking (calling it 'negativity' 'lacking faith' or 'being unevolved') because teacher and group consider it a threat.

Whether discouraged knowingly or unknowingly, lack of critical thinking in a group may foster gullibility and dependency, and undermine the attitudes needed for authentic, balanced spiritual practice.

Groups that put you to sleep in relation to the teacher and group, while claiming to help you wake up-those are the ones where people risk being harmed.

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Problems and Pitfalls for Small Groups
Posted by: corboy ()
Date: January 05, 2005 06:17AM

[b:7e4303df02]Abusive Secretive Groups--Recurring Problems/Pitfalls[/b:7e4303df02]

There are legions of small groups. Some last for decades.

The leader may have a shady past. He or she may pretend to teach from one tradition (eg present themselves as a Hindu guru) while actually using material from a completely different source (Gurdjieff, or commercial trance methods such as NLP).

If a teacher pretends to teach from one tradition while covertly teaching material that originates from a different, incompatible tradition, this is a form of deceit--the teacher is operating from a secret and may get a sense of authorititive mystery that keeps students off balance, teased and thrilled. It is impossible to grow up in relation to such a person because the student is perpetually kept off balance.

This kind of teasing and tintillation fosters craving, and is anti-spiritual.

Problems may develop when a group becomes socially isolated and lacks checks and balances. It isnt so much the content of what is taught that generates trouble, but the social dynamics of the group--absence of checks and balances on authority of senior members and leader and absence of outside social input.

Over time, a group may rely more heavily on material authored by the leader, and steer members away from outside sources. Social and intellectual inbreeding may occur.

One can do good work in a small group, but problems develop if a group encourages students to abandon personal autononomy in relation to the group and reward students who remain inmates of the group, never becoming autonomous in relation to the teacher.

Such student-inmates may remain on a 'psychological leash' held by the teacher, learn a lot but never 'graduate'--which [i:7e4303df02]should [/i:7e4303df02]happen if a group is genuinely transformative and enables people to become adult in relation to the teacher and group.

In some cases, a group of this kind may even deny that it is a group--which means membership is a secret and people cannot permit themselves to think at a conscious level about this 'group-that-is-not-a-group'.

Group members may be forbidden to discuss things with each other, leading to a strange combination of intensity and loneliness--a bit like what happens when one serves on jury duty.

Recruitment into such a group may be done done discreetly, through friendship networks, when people are in a vulnerable or ventursome state of mind.

In some very regrettable cases, disciples who are health care professionals may recruit patients or clients into the group, often out of a sincere conviction that the group work is a valuable adjunct to psychotherapy.

*You may be 'invited' to join, perhaps have to jump through some hoops are go through an exacting admission process.

Part of the trauma is later discovering that this was done by people you loved and trusted and had been intimate with. If you were in a group long enough, you may have recruited people into it as well--a painful realization.

Based on descriptions by former members when these groups become dysfunctional some common patterns appear:

The groups are often kept in line by a skillful combination of selective recruitment and equally selective ejection.

1) You are targeted for recruitment when you're in a seeking mood or vulnerable--which happens to all of us at one time or another.

2) Eventually after you have become emotionally invested in the group you may be scapegoated at some times, favored at other times.

You may be told you're worthy and loveable at some times (perhaps even be told you're the guru's successor) and at other times shamed and told you're unworthy, or you risk some kind of curse if you leave the group. This back and forth between assurances you're especially worthy vs especially unworthy can keep you spinning your wheels--unless you get tired enough to look beyond this 'back and forth' and realize its just a pattern and you're getting tired of it.

If members are forbidden to discuss group work with each other, and former members are shunned, you may not know this type of game playing is even going on. Or it may be confined to a priviliged but abused inner circle and members in the outer circle are kept unaware of this.

3) Eventually, you may be suddenly and brutally ejected at the precise moment that you begin to develop unconscious misgivings about whats going on in stage 2--you're not aware of the misgivings but the teacher may pick up clues from your body language.

Some abusive leaders may keep records on members, perhaps retain letters or intimate, journalled material trustfully given by disciples in happier times--enhancing the disiciple's anxiety if the teacher shows signs of annoyance or anger.

Selective ejection may leave victims disoriented and shattered, wondering how they failed and what they did wrong. If intimate journals or letters remain in the rejecting teacher's possession, an ejected disciple may be especially traumatized.

It is possible that the victims real offense was they were making genuine progress and about to wake up and outgrow the teacher--outgrow the idealing transferance---and were punished for undergoing genuine psychological/spiritual progress, in which they'd have outgrown about to outgrow the teacher and possibly exposed his or her areas of immaturity.

So in some tragic cases people are punished for doing what they came to the group to accomplish--they made progress, but got booted just before they were ready to wake up on their own.

This seemingly unpredictable, selective explusion may also serve to keep the rest of the group in line.

[i:7e4303df02]If this hunch is accurate, and youve been punished/ejected for achieving the awareness the group supposedly exists to support--this can be crazy making.[/i:7e4303df02]

Persons who are kicked out may find themselves shunned by the rest of the group. If all or most of your social life has become tied to the group, ejection from the group brings with it a ghastly loss of ones social support network. Former members may be hard to track down.

*The most harmful teachers are the ones who claim they want you to grow, but unbeknownest to themselves, will respond to your genuine growth as an act of betrayal and punish you for it. People like this only want positive transferance and experience negative transferance as betrayal.

A genuine therapist or guru has to be able, consciously to accept both positive and negative transferance from followers, and teach them how to grow beyond both kinds of transferance. A guru or therapist who only can accept positive transferance, and is threatened by negative transferance will keep clients or disciples stuck, because they themselves are stuck.

Because these groups are often small, and avoid publicity, it can be difficult to describe such trauma to someone else, even to a sympathetic psychotherapist. Fortunately, more and more survivor accounts are becoming available.

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Problems and Pitfalls for Small Groups
Posted by: corboy ()
Date: January 05, 2005 06:21AM

Some groups may take on characteristics of psychotherapy cults. A leader may be charismatic, even helpful in some important ways, but not have formal training as a psychotherapist--or the person may once have received formal training, taken and passed coursework on ethics and boundary issues, yet be unable to apply such knowledge to running his or her groups.

If teacher and students are trapped in unexamined idealizing transferances, they are in a child's state of mind and will be unable to apply principles of boundary ethics which are taught and learned--and applied--- at the adult cognitive level.

If group members who happen to be psychotherapists unwittingly recruit their clients into the group, this becomes a violation of professional ethics.

*If a psychotherapist has someone as a client, the therapist has to accept that no matter how much he or she comes to like, and even love that client, certain types of relationships are [b:70297eb753]off limits [/b:70297eb753]during therapy--[i:70297eb753]and remain off limits even after therapy has successfully terminated. [/i:70297eb753]You cant become friends, lovers, business associates with a client or former client, nor is it ever appropriate to initiate recruitment into ones spiritual community.

In some cases, a group may refer troubled members to therapist disciples who loyally put the welfare of the group or teacher ahead of and at the expense of the counselee--therapists in this predicament may be unable to imagine that their beloved group or teacher could ever harm anyone, just as a tiny child cannot imagine Mom or Dad ever doing anything bad.

All this can be done with the very best of intentions if therapist disciples are unconscious in relation to their beloved teacher and group.

Finally, therapist-disciples may unknowingly violate professional ethics by teaching powerful techniques of trance induction or group work to an adored but uncredentialled leader who is untrained in the proper use of such methods.

[b:70297eb753]Psychodynamic Issues Possibly Relevant to Small Group Work[/b:70297eb753]

A prospective student should be aware of these issues when evaluating whether to join or continue in a group. The Catch-22 for many seekers is we begin the quest precisely because we are not aware of these issues...we begin the quest lacking the tools we need most for discernment purposes..[i:70297eb753]and that is why students deserve protection and teachers are in a protective role[/i:70297eb753].

In some spiritual traditions there is great prestige, even mystique in being a guru or teacher, because such persons are supposedly at a higher level of development than students. One works with such a teacher in order to strive toward attaining that higher level of development. In such a situation, many students could readily form idealizing transferances to such teachers.

Unless the teacher fully understands transferance/countertransferance, can get his or her intimacy needs met by peers and [i:70297eb753]not [/i:70297eb753]by students, and unless the teacher also knows how to assist students in working through their transferances, teacher and students may become trapped in each other's unconscious material.

Students thus entangled may wake up and become mature in many areas, and this progress may conceal the extent to which they they may remain asleep & regressed in relation to the teacher and group. Students in this predicament may lose ability to determine whether they are being helped or harmed by their participation. They may risk staying adoringly dependant on such a teacher for years, even decades.

In some cases, the teacher can have the best and most benevolent intentions while remaining a long-term inmate of an unconscious idealizing transferance toward his or her own master -whether that teacher is alive or dead.

If a guru or teacher is asleep in relation to his or her teacher, that teacher will be unable to assist students in waking up in relation to the teacher...

**This type of blind spot may be transmitted, unexamined, through many generations of sincere teachers. They may be able to assist their students to become awake and mature in relation to many things[i:70297eb753], but never in relation to the transferance, to the student-teacher relationship itself[/i:70297eb753].

IF these students become psychotherapists, they may be unable to apply what they learn about ethics and boundary issues to their teachers, if they are in an unexamined transferance to their teacher. These students may not even think to mention any of this to their clinical supervisors, or may keep it a secret, so the relationship to their guru or group leader and this issue remains un-explored during clinical supervision/training analysis.

And if a [i:70297eb753]clinical supervisor [/i:70297eb753]happens to have an intense but unexamined transferance to a guru, magus or teacher, that person will be unable to assist students in exploring this matter in relation to their own gurus.

Someone studied problems that came up in dysfunctional psychoanalytic training programs. The issues described by Robert S Pepper resemble problems that have been reported in troubled Fourth Way groups.

(quote--abstract from longer article)

Therapists who are trained at psychoanalytic institutes often foster unethical relationships between trainees and senior therapists. This practice may pass on the damage to the unsuspecting population of patients at large.

One way in which trainees are harmed, at these institutes, is in their failure to develop a clear sense of the importance of boundaries in treatment. In not learning how to develop a secure frame from their own treatment, neophyte therapists are often unable to recognize the need for appropriate boundaries in their treatment of others. As a result, their patients may be in danger.

The therapist who does not value the struggle to maintain a healthy balance between independence and dependence in their own treatment will probably not be able to help their patients find the proper balance either. One can only wonder how such a therapist could help their own patients know when the time to end treatment is at hand.

My own research seems to indicate that unethical treatment practices at these institutes cut across ideological and theoretical differences within the analytic community[i:70297eb753]. Consequently, the problem is not one of individuals who are poorly analyzed and poorly trained. Rather, the focus is a wider one, in which a serious blindspot seems to be endemic to a system that fosters a lack of regard for appropriate boundaries in treatment.'[/i:70297eb753]
Robert S. Pepper

27 (3): 215-223, Fall 1997
Copyright © 1997 Human Sciences Press, Inc.
All rights reserved
Treatment with Unethical Practitioners; Caveat Emptors


information on psychotherapy cults here:


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Problems and Pitfalls for Small Groups
Posted by: corboy ()
Date: January 05, 2005 06:31AM

Key thing is to ask,'Is this group likely help or hinder my spiritual practice and outside relationships/interests? And will this group give me the maturity needed to tell when, some day I may be ready to leave this group and graduate?'

A group that is just right for you may hamper someone else, regardless of its lineage.

One of the best things available written for people trying to evaluate groups and teachers is the article 'Evaluating Spiritual Teachers and Utopian Groups' by Arthur J Deikman MD-who has had training in both Zen and Sufi practice.


Anyone who thinks they are interested in such work needs to understand that is up to each student to take full, conscious responsibility for knowing his or her needs, level of development and, yes staying in contact with one's bullshit detector--ie gut feelings, boundaries,etc.

And--once in the group, to [u:a37d77d873]retain [/u:a37d77d873]full, conscious responsiblity. Any time you're told to give up your adult autonomy to an authority figure who promises you'll come out the better for it---watch out.

Problem is, many of us get interested in spiritual work and are not aware that we have impaired boundaries, or we dont know that our BS detector has been disabled. Or, as Dr. Deikman notes, we dont know we are covertly looking for a magic parent or a perfect family. Many seekers are embarrassed to admit they have these motivations, so they become secrets we keep from ourselves.

If you set out on a spiritual quest and are not aware of these covert agendas, you are at risk of being exploited by a toxic group or teacher, just as people without smoke detectors in the house are without equipment that can give early warning signals that there's smoke, before a fire has spread completely out of control.

A group or teacher that constantly inflicts additional trauma through verbal or physical assault, that cause you to do things that go against your conscience, and especially a group that burdens you with secret keeping and fosters an anxious stance in relation to the outside world, and imposes financial pressures that make you anxious will very likely give you additional stress that will add further layers of false personality to what you are already burdened with.

Spiritual work places can be hostile, just as secular workplaces can.

Unfortuntely if a group is small and secretive, there is no equivalent of a Human Resources Department. If your group becomes a 'hostile spiritual workplace' you have to be prepared to stand up for yourself, point out the abuses, stand your ground, and if the guru or group refuse to remedy the situation, you need the self sufficiency to leave the group. In a secretive group if anything goes wrong, there is no one to go to for arbitration or to settle grievances. An abusive teacher or dysfunctional group lacks external feedback and can become increasingly eccentric.

Never remain in a group unless you remember where the exit route is--its just like the safety instructions they give before one's airplane takes off.

If attracted to a discreet, secretive group, a prospective student needs to ask whether they feel attracted or thrilled by mystique, secrecy, cloak-and-dagger, elitism for its own sake.

Lots of us grow up keeping secrets, or grew up knowing at some level that our parents were lying to us. All this can lead to serious complications if these are part of someone's unconscious baggage. It can be tempting to re-enact these early dramas by participating in an esoteric group that replicates the emotional climate of one's early upbringing.

[i:a37d77d873]Whether a group and its teacher can help you become conscoius and adult in relation to these early fantasies is another matter. [/i:a37d77d873]

Problematic groups and teachers do not have an incentive to assist people to become genuinely autonomous--. In a group like that, it becomes tempting to keep students flying in circles for years, endlessly exploring, rather than assisting them to do inner work that produces genuine insight, become autonomous, wake up, and graduate from the group, taking their revenue with them.

In his book [i:a37d77d873]'The Call For the Master'[/i:a37d77d873], Karlfried Durckheim said that one of the sadnesses of being a true teacher is bidding farewell to students you've come to love, when they outgrow you and depart.

You have to be in a group for awhile and see if you are growing up, or staying stuck and whether the other members are maturing and transforming, or are also staying stuck.

This means being able to retain your powers of observation and objectivity in relation to the work group itself. Whether the group permits you do take a stance of observant objectivity...thats the vital question.

Privacy safeguards boundaries, supports communication and confidentiality. But secrecy disrupts communication, *promotes intensity at the expense of intimacy*, isolates people from each other, preserves power imbalance, and above all promotes childish dependance and breeds fear.

A friend said that one sign of recovery is a deepening appreciation of privacy vs secrecy.

Another sign is an unwillingness to participate in games of domination and submission on offer in various theatres of cruelty.

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