Rena Pollak, LMFT



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November Membership Meeting Write-Up — Douglas Green, LMFT

Anti-Group Resistance in Group Therapy:
How to turn Destructive Forces into Developmental Progress

Presented by Rena Pollak, LMFT

Most of us have either run or been members of a psychotherapy group. And thereby have borne witness to the group’s ebbs and flows, and even the ways such groups can suddenly self-destruct, often due to the toxicity of just one member. And those who haven’t participated in such a group will have been in other sorts of groups, like classes, or CAMFT chapter networking meetings, or of course family dinners, where the same dynamics can occur.

SFV-CAMFT member Rena Pollak, LMFT, has always loved working with groups, and has made a deep study of their dynamics, beginning with Irwin Yalom’s essential texts, extending into the works of Dr. Morris Nitsun about the concept of the “Anti-Group.” The latter formed the basis of Pollak’s presentation at the November chapter meeting, "Anti-Group Resistance in Group Therapy: How to turn Destructive Forces into Developmental Progress.”

Beginning with a quote from Foulkes, “Strangely enough, the acknowledgment of the forces of destruction and their agencies helps us and makes us therapeutically far more powerful,” Pollak delivered a passionate and intimate discussion of how this concept teaches therapists how to best deal with “Anti-Group” thinking, and the multiple ways it can appear and fester.

As Nitsun defines it, “Anti-Group is a ball of fear and anger turned onto the group.” One or more members of a group develop a sense that “This group is going to hurt me,” and speak or act (or withdraw) based on this. Such feelings create a negativity and disruption that can undermine the therapeutic task. This can exist in just an individual, in a sub-group, or even in the group, as a whole.

Anti-Group, Pollak explained, tends to come as a reflection of negative experiences in the individual or group. For example, a bullying victim is predisposed to fear a group dynamic.

But denying it, or just acting “nice,” she explained, only makes the problem worse. Doing so takes away the one force that could change the situation, which is a strong leader. Instead, identifying the destructive forces helps to contain them and improve the group.

(Pollak, however, pointed out that this is true for therapy groups but not for support groups; because they’re not about understanding and learning as much as just supporting, dealing with the problem is best handled in a less confrontational way.)

The Anti-Group feeling can show up in numerous ways. A member putting the group down, or missing sessions, or making negative comments such as “I only do this because it’s affordable,” or “This group has too many members” all should serve as red flags to a leader that something needs to be faced immediately. Of course, a member dropping out is also a red flag, but one too late to repair.

In the most interesting quandary of the presentation, Pollak pointed out that the principal contributor to Anti-Group is therapy groups themselves! This stems from the fact that all therapy groups are paradoxes: you attend a group to heal from the injuries received in groups. (Of course, by the same token, the fact that one attends individual therapy to heal from injuries received from individuals also serves as a brain-twister).

She pointed out that all therapy groups share ten characteristics, each of which can trigger a negative response:

  1. They are made up of strangers.
  2. They are unstructured, which can create anxiety and discomfort at the same time giving the members responsibility and opportunity to take initiative.
  3. They’re in public.
  4. They are “a plural entity” — instead of engaging with one person, you're engaging with many and learning to navigate diversity and difference. It broadens our capacity to engage with the different parts of ourselves and different parts of others.
  5. Groups are complex — there is a lot happening psychologically, verbally and non-verbally, consciously and unconsciously.
  6. They are unpredictable, and not black-and-white — from laughter to tears, from thoughts on death to feelings about money.
  7. Progress fluctuates (some people progress while others don’t).
  8. The group is an incomplete experience — because of sharing the time and the abundance of material, sometimes members feel incomplete about sharing all aspects of a single issue.
  9. The group is created by its members — and its functioning is dependent on the group members. Individuals can be ambivalent about taking responsibility for the group and instead wish to be taken care of. Just as in individual therapy, individuals often want to blame the therapist instead of seeing their part in making the process work.
  10. The group creates interpersonal tensions — such as competition, envy, dominance, rejection, etc.

Ironically, a group-averse member is most likely to get more out of the group than someone comfortable there, as that discomfort elicits a possibility of growth. They’ll recreate their early “objects,” even regress in reaction to the group (ideally experiencing support from it, not shame). Or they might well project their own issues onto others. (And we should never forget, this is just as likely to happen to a group leader as to any other member, and it’s our job to hold onto the awareness of it if that should happen. Understand your own anti-group attitude, building your tolerance to aggression and fear. And of course, get consultation and support.)

When Anti-Group shows up in the group, Pollak then pointed out, the leader’s responsibility is to use the resistance as a natural part of the developmental process, to strengthen and support the group and its members.

In fact, this provides a chance to create more of a group feeling, by bringing others into the conversation, “Who else feels they’re not getting enough out of the group?” “What do you think I could do to help this person get more out of the group?”

Then, the therapist can work to connect the Anti-Group member or members’ feelings to their thoughts, in order to help them process their feelings. “What does it feel like when you hear people say things you think are dumb? Does that remind you of another time in your life you felt that way?”

When a member, however, expresses aggression, that should be dealt with individually, to keep the group safe. Also, the person expressing aggressive feelings feels alone, so connecting to them empathically builds their ability to connect to others.

This all stems from recognizing the aforementioned paradox of the group, which enables the leader to put the group problems into a positive connotation. Even to compliment the Anti-Group complainer, “That was very courageous for you to speak up about that.”

Pollak ended with a marvelous and provocative quote from Pablo Picasso, “Every Act of Creation is First an Act of Destruction.” True in art, but perhaps more so for therapy.

She then spent a while proving her points by taking volunteers and leading them with her empathy, her experience, and her superb abilities to bring everyone’s concerns out of their past and future-worries, into the present moment.

This finale proved inspiring and dynamic — to the entire group lucky enough to be in attendance.


Douglas Green, MA, MFT, has a private practice in Woodland Hills and West Los Angeles, where he specializes in helping children and teens live lives they can be proud of. To find out more, you can contact Doug at 818.624.3637, or He's also often at our chapter meetings, serving as the volunteer coordinator. His website is

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San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists