The Alchemy of Group Therapy


Alchemy, an art and science practiced around the world for a millenia, engaged the intelligence and the efforts of scientists, philosophers and mathematicians with the most skilled of craftsmen and artists in an effort to capture the mysteries of meaning through the power of transformation. This investigation emphasized the ability to transform one material to another. The science of distillation was discovered through the efforts of alchemists. The transformation of sand into glass with the administration of great heat is another well-known application. A more common application is the combining of disparate elements in the kitchen, which are transformed into yummy delicacies. Depending on the application, the mixing together of butter, chocolate, eggs and flour can be transformed into a collective celebration or much needed personal comfort like a slice of cake or a brownie.

I believe a therapist is a kind of modern day alchemist. Taking the disparate elements of one’s traumatic experiences, one’s sense of despair and hurt, then forging it with the soulful elements of hope and purpose transforming trauma into treasure. Therapeutic change is an enormously complex process that occurs through an intricate interplay of human experiences. I believe one of the most powerful alchemical elements utilized for change lies in the power of group psychotherapy. Like the alchemists of ancient times, we too are attempting to penetrate the mysteries of existence. In the elixir of group psychotherapy perhaps our purpose is to penetrate the mystery of our own hearts.

Most of the emotional difficulties people endure occur in the context of relationships, and as such, we carry with us a kind of injury to our sense of self and well-being. The paradox of healing is acknowledging that though we are injured in the context of relationships, we are also healed in the context of relationships. Like the many disciplines that came together to create the ancient practice of alchemy, different perspectives work together to reveal certain truths about ourselves and our experiences. Whether it is the kind words of someone “who has been there”, recognizing the courage it takes to expose one’s real feelings and desires, marveling in the ability to articulate one’s real feelings and desires, or the thoughtful direction of a counselor who has engaged with individuals attempting to navigate the same deluge of fear, grief, and rage. Group psychotherapy may be an opportunity to transform the emotional refuse of shame, fear and rage into the living gold of inspiration, compassion and joy.

Many individuals entering therapy hold the disquieting thought that they alone have certain frightening or unacceptable problems, thoughts, impulses and habits. And because of this they maintain a kind of social and emotional isolation. They can be surrounded by family at home, friends at school or colleagues at work and still experience a deep sense of aloneness because they maintain an experience of “if you only knew the real me”.

The rallying point of group psychotherapy is to peel away the armor of shame and defensiveness in order to discover the tender and intelligent bits of our humanity. It provides the surrogate family where one can rediscover the life-affirming qualities, which, in childhood, may have taken a back seat to survival. With the administration of the group dynamic, a skillful group leader and the power of will, one has the opportunity to explore and celebrate their beauty and humor, their outrageous individuality and life force.

This alchemical mix opens new doors to the deepest transformation of all- a felt and lived reality that our lives belong to us!