How an Anti-Tech Group Therapist Became a True Believer

How an Anti-Tech Group Therapist Became a True Believer

by Sean Grover
A self-professed techno-dinosaur share the lessons he learned evolving to meet the demands of online group therapy.

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Therapists’ offices have always intrigued me. Much like the artwork on the jackets of old vinyl records, they secure my memories with pleasing visual touchpoints. Pre-and post-session rituals marked my weekly appointments: stopping off at the same deli for a coffee, sitting on a park bench, browsing the poetry section in the corner bookstore; such places served as footholds for the different phases of my psychological awakening.

First Wave

After twenty-three years in my own cozy therapy office, it was time to say goodbye. The downtown institute that housed my practice went bust, and the landlord heaved dozens of veteran therapists out onto the cold winter streets of Manhattan.

after twenty-three years in my own cozy therapy office, it was time to say goodbye
As I packed up my books, rolled up my oriental rug and wall tapestry, and wrapped my Buddhist knick-knacks in newspaper, everything in my office took on meaning; the spider-cracks in the plaster ceiling that I had planned to paint, the well-worn grooves in the carpet from my trusty Aeron chair, the slight sag in the center of the couch that held so many stories.

I considered my attachment to my cozy therapy office as I closed the door behind me for the last time. Walking home that night, I realized that all my personal therapists and their offices were gone too. Soon after, the pandemic hit.

Second Wave

When New York City shut down, I thought that I had no choice but to shut down, too. As a group therapist, I couldn’t see how my groups could survive. Individual patients would have phone sessions—but therapy groups? Over the years, I had amassed ten weekly, ninety-minute groups, consisting of over 100 individuals. What would happen to them?

So I phoned a fellow group therapist and asked if she planned to shut down. She guffawed:

“Why on earth would I do that?”

“But how will your groups meet?”

“I moved them to Zoom.”

I paused and asked in all earnestness: “What’s a ‘Zoom?’”

When Worlds Collide

Could therapy exist without walls? Would I be able to sense unspoken feelings from patients from a flat two-dimensional image? Could a screen transmit subjective and objective countertransference, induced feelings, subtle body movements, and the endless emotional tics and hiccups that appear in face-to-face sessions? I bristled at the thought of moving my practice online. But the pandemic forced me to face a stark reality: evolve or face extinction.

I bristled at the thought of moving my practice online
When I told my group members that we were moving online, their reaction was mixed. The older patients responded with cranky disapproval.

“How could you degrade the group in this way?” one asked me.

“I share your concerns, Alan. Let’s give it a try and see how it goes.”

I left out that I had two college tuitions to pay, a home mortgage, elderly in-laws to support, insurance premiums, and countless other monthly expenses that the pandemic wasn’t shutting down. To my great relief, the younger people accepted the proposal enthusiastically. “What’s your URL?” they asked.

“I’ll get it to you soon,” I replied. I immediately searched “URL” on the internet and discovered that it meant “uniform resource locator.” What the hell was that?

Boomer to Zoomer

With the help of my teen daughters and a nine-year-old MacBook crammed full of family vacation photos, I learned the basics of Zoom and patched together a weekly schedule.

it was my first visit to my cyberspace office—me floating in a wall-less white space
Next, I had to consider the background for my sessions. Visually, my home presented a minefield of challenges. Every wall and bookcase overflows with family pictures, children’s artwork, and cardboard boxes containing my old office and my daughters’ dorm rooms. So, I dragged an old film projector screen out of storage, erected it behind me, and turned on my computer video camera.

It was my first visit to my cyberspace office—me floating in a wall-less white space.

The big day finally arrived. I sat in front of my computer, took a deep breath, and logged on to Zoom. My anxiety kicked in, and I found myself forgetting nearly everything my daughters taught me. Messages like “Samantha is in the waiting room” popped up, and I clicked. One by one, group patients began to appear in their square “Brady Bunch” boxes.

“It’s so good to see everyone.”

“I missed group!”

“I’m glad we can still meet.”

I immediately pleaded for patience with my computer skills; the group members delighted in my vulnerability. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you through this.” Soon everyone was chatting and catching up like old friends.

To my surprise, the group was flowing—disjointedly, yes, but flowing. I discovered that many members were scattered throughout the country, unable to travel back to the city. One woman was participating from the Czech Republic, which wasn’t allowing flights in and out of the country. I marveled that online sessions make it possible for members to attend from nearly anywhere.

“Hey, where’s Steven?” a younger group member asked. “He never misses group.”

Steven, a grey-bearded father figure with a sunny disposition, was the oldest and longest-running group member. Anxieties about his health were being expressed when a message popped up: “Steven is in the waiting room.” I clicked on it quickly. I was getting good at that.

When Steven's gaunt face appeared, group members gasped; his eyes were sunken, and his usually bright outlook was dimmed beyond recognition. He had COVID.

as we signed off, another miracle occurred: I had become a true believer
“I’m so...happy...to see you all,” Steven wheezed. As he related his journey from a mild cough to high fevers and the ER, the group hung on his every word. “I’m so scared, Stephen said, “I don’t want to die. Not now.”

Soon tears were flowing, and cyber hugs were being dished out. By the end of the session, Steven managed to smile again. “You guys…are a...miracle, ” he said as he gulped air, “This is the first time I felt hope since...this nightmare...began. Thank you. Thank...you all.”

As we signed off, another miracle occurred: I had become a true believer.

New Standards

After a few weeks, I could feel the online groups start to lose vitality. Immediacy, the beating heart of group, was waning. Instead of an exhilarating experience that challenged ingrained characterological traits and inspired emotional intimacy, the online groups devolved into lackluster support sessions. Members stopped relating to one another and were monologuing about themselves. Energy dwindled, attendance ebbed, and newer members dropped out.

My office was gone, and my groups would be, too, if I didn’t take action. To succeed in cyberspace, I had to reinvigorate my leadership skills and set new standards. I needed more energy, focus, and clarity.

I launched an entirely new set of pre-group rituals. Thirty minutes before every session, I set aside time to review each group members’ development. I reviewed their histories, revisited their goals, and considered new ways of challenging them. I even incorporated group members into my daily Buddhist practice. Every morning, I reviewed my groups, targeted each group’s member’s emotional growth in my daily meditation, and considered new ways to engage them.

I became determined, from the moment I signed onto Zoom, to hit the deck running. I pushed members to take more risks and focus. I scanned their faces constantly for any emotional shifts and evidence of unexpressed feelings. I confronted any signs of repression.

“Samantha, what was that thought?”

“Steven, you seem distracted.”

“Alan, can you put that frustrated look into words?”

no sooner had my groups slowly jump started to life than I realized that they were suffering from another problem: a loss of boundaries
No sooner had my groups slowly jump started to life than I realized that they were suffering from another problem: a loss of boundaries. Group members became voyeurs. During sessions, members gave tours of their homes and showed off their living spaces, partners, pets, or children. Such distractions ran wild and fueled resistance to relating. During the first few weeks, members also signed into the group while snuggling in bed, eating meals, feeding their dogs, smoking cigarettes, baking bread, or casually sipping a tumbler of whiskey.

One young woman greeted her group from her bathroom, fresh from a shower. As she towel-dried her hair, her bathrobe fell open, revealing her bare shoulders and the tops of her breasts. “Oops! Sorry!” she crooned as group members ogled her.

It was time to reassert boundaries. I firmly reminded everyone that the group rules applied online: no eating, no walking around, no texting. Anything that distracted from relating to one another was banned. I also instructed members to pick a spot in their homes and sit for the entire group, no more multitasking.

And finally, I requested that every member prepare for group by revisiting their intentions and considering the following three questions.
  • Why did I join the group?
  • What are my feelings toward my therapist and fellow group members?
  • What emotions am I holding back?
To my surprise, group members expressed relief. The reassertion of boundaries lowered everyone’s anxiety and quickly brought the relationships in the group back into play.

A Cure Through Love

As of this writing, it has been ten months since my groups began meeting online, and I’m delighted to report that they are bustling with new members. Yes, my cyberspace therapy office isn’t cozy, but I have learned that therapy isn’t about places—it’s about relationships. As long as relationships remain the central focus, therapy can thrive nearly anywhere.

my cyberspace therapy office isn’t cozy, but I have learned that therapy isn’t about places—it’s about relationships
Freud suggested that in essence, psychoanalysis is a cure through love. The pandemic continues to test my mettle as a psychotherapist but doesn’t quell my love of the work, a love that I’ve learned can transmit through a computer screen. Not only is love limitless—it’s officeless, too.
 

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Bios
Sean Grover Sean Grover, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, speaker, and author, who maintains one of the largest group therapy practices in the U.S., leading over 300 groups a year in his practice, in addition to monthly workshops in clinics, medical centers, youth organizations, and schools.

Sean has also been interviewed and quoted in dozens of media outlets including The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Sean's Psychology Today blog has gathered over 5 million reads. He has also been a guest on the Today Show and appeared on over 100 podcasts and radio shows. Sean's articles on group work have been published in several clinical journals, and his parenting book, When the Kids Call the Shots, has been translated into Russian, Chinese, and Korean.