I enjoy hiking, and when I hear about a new trail that I have not previously trekked, this provides opportunity to satisfy my adventurous spirit propelling me to locate this new unfamiliar territory and explore it. At times I will use my GPS unit to guide me to a new location, but on rare occasions it does not get me to the exact spot, or it may provide inaccurate directions even with the correct address entered. Moments such as these have caused frustration for me due to an unmet expectation at not arriving at the location.
How often have you and I had frustration and disappointment in our everyday relationships due to unmet expectations? While relationships are not in the same category as getting lost or misdirected, we can, in either case, become frustrated nonetheless. Certainly we will have moments of joy and happiness in relationships as this is how God designed us to be and another way to say this is that He “hard-wired” us for connection. However, due to this broken world in which we live, hurt and pain also exist within these same relationships. No matter the relationship whether in marriage, friendship, collegial or otherwise, how we function within them is often determined by our understanding of the nature of purpose of relationships. And our understanding is determined by what I like to call our “internal maps.”
These “internal maps” (also known as internal working models from attachment theory language) help guide our perception of how relationships should function. Beginning in infancy these maps start to form and continue to be written throughout childhood developing over time based upon either healthy or unhealthy interactions with our primary-caregivers. Whether we were raised by parents, an auntie, or a relative, we formed with them what are called attachment relationships, and it is through these relationships that our internal maps were written. During childhood, if we had healthy relationships wherein caregivers responded to our needs, provided a place of feeling safe as infants and children, and allowed us to grow in a healthy manner, then we develop what are called secure attachment relationships leading to the development of healthy internal maps (or secure internal working models).However, if our caregivers were inconsistent with meeting our needs or were neglectful in some way by not providing comfort, as when crying, then we develop what are called insecure attachment relationships leading to the development of unhealthy internal maps (or insecure internal working models). Whether we develop healthy or unhealthy internal maps, these maps have a two way process: how we see ourselves and how we see others. In other words what is written on our internal maps can influence how we feel about ourselves, how worthy we feel in our relationships, and how we feel regarding the presence of others being there for us. In essence, these maps may affect how we think, how we feel, and how we act as it relates to our relationships.
The understanding that we learned as infants and children about relationships tends to carry over into adolescence as well as adulthood. In other words, if there were secure and healthy relationships with our caregivers, then we will most likely have healthy adult relationships thus feeling secure in them guided by our internal maps; however, if we had insecure or unhealthy relationships with our caregivers, then we may feel insecure and lack confidence about how we feel in our adult relationships which may lead to unhealthy relationships. Again, this can be guided by our unhealthy internal maps that were written in childhood.
Despite the influence of insecure relationships as children or the development of unhealthy internal maps, this is not to say that we cannot develop secure adult relationships or develop healthy internal maps. It is possible to have them rewritten in the presence of secure, healthy relationships. And one platform that these relationships can develop is through group counselling.
Why Group Counselling?
As a lecturer, one of the things that I frequently tell my students is how counselling principles exist throughout Scripture. Even group counselling principles are evident as God appears to use groups to serve His purposes. Some notable examples include God using Noah and his family to establish a new covenant (Genesis 6:8); God using Nehemiah to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3); and Jesus praying for unity among the disciples praying to be one as He and the Father were one (John 17:21). In some respect God himself may be viewed as the original group through the Trinitarian concept with the relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In essence, He has group relationship within Himself.
So, how can group counselling be used to help create new internal maps? Just as with any relationship whether it be parent-child, marriage, collegial, etc., there are interpersonal processes (or how we connect/relate to one another) that occur. These same interpersonal processes similarly occur within the context of group counselling. Just as individual relationships can provide hope, can provide a sense of belonging and worth, and can help us feel connected and feel good about ourselves, relationships that occur within group counselling can offer these same qualities. When these qualities are present, cohesion develops and this leads to better connections within the group. In addition it offers the following opportunities: to see how we relate to one another; to learn about and practice new behaviours than can be reflective of healthy relationships; and to be in a supportive and safe environment wherein these relationships can be practiced.
As previously noted, our internal maps can be rewritten and for anyone who participates in group counselling, this is no different. As one’s map begins to be redrawn, new relationship principles can be learned within the group experience, and these principles can be applied to one’s daily life within their “everyday” relationships (spouses, friends, colleagues etc). It is possible that the map may not be completely rewritten; however, it can provide a new guide to have better and healthier relationships with others. Within newer, healthier relationships, the map can continue to be rewritten as our understanding continues to grow. This is not to say that change is easy or that learning new ways of interacting will come quickly; however, with consistent application of newly learned behaviours, we can find ourselves functioning in ways that are consistent with these new healthy relationships. While discussion about what is the best type of group for such interaction and map rewriting goes beyond the scope of this article, groups, in and of themselves, do provide opportunity for one to learn how to have healthy relationships by connecting with a safe, secure person in the group.
As previously mentioned, God shows the importance of relationships as He “hard-wired” us for connection and shows us the need for healthy interpersonal reactions. He created people to have relationship and intimacy with one another (Genesis 2:18, 25) and for intimacy with Him. In addition, Scriptures clearly show the impact of groups and how relationships can be lived out in a healthy, cohesive community (Acts 4:32-35). It is clear that people impact one another and these impacts can be either beneficial or limiting as reflected in how maps are developed through interactions with care-givers. No less important is the impact that adults have on one another by affecting one another’s perspective. Proverbs 27:17 identifies this as one person sharpening another and this idea implies changing the ideas and perceptions of others, and this changing has been known to occur among members in a group context. The group can be a healthy base wherein other members can feel safe and secure, having opportunity to learn and practice new behaviours associated with healthy relationships while having internal maps rewritten. Certainly God Himself can be present within groups as He is the author of our lives and He can help rewrite our internal maps and provide us new directions through relationship with others.
- Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation, anxiety, and anger. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
- Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
- Chen, E. C., & Mallinckrodt, B. (2002). Attachment, group attraction, and self-other agreement in interpersonal circumplex problems and perceptions of group members. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6, 311-324.
- Clinton, T., & Sibcy, G. (2002). Attachments: Why you love, feel, and act the way you do. Brentwood, TN: Integrity Publishers.
- Smith, E. R., Murphy, J., & Coats, S. (1999). Attachment to groups: Theory and Measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 94-110.
- Walvoord, J. F., & Zuck, R. B. (1985). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Yalom, I. D. (1995). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy (4th ed.). New York: Basic Books.
Jerry Vuncannon, Jr. is a professional counsellor currently working in private practice with a primary focus on mental health, trauma, and marriage counselling. He is currently a member of an international committee called the Lausanne Care and Counsel as Mission Initiative which drafted the Cape Town Declaration on Care and Counsel as Mission. He also serves as Adjunct Professor in the School of Psychology and Counselling at Regent University and Grace College and Seminary as well as guest lecturer at Alpha Omega International College.