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Personal Development Groups

PD groups: Bemused Bewilderment …. And then I remembered Goffman

Like many other courses, my counselling training includes a personal development group. As a group, and as individuals, I think it’s fair to say that this is one aspect of the training that we have struggled to understand, appreciate and participate in.

I come from a social work background where identity and group cohesion is through dynamic debate, reflective practice and an ardent sharing of views, thoughts and opinions. It’s loud, it’s opinionated, it’s passionate and with a collective team identity that evolves beyond the water cooler. I have therefore found sitting in silence tough.

Tough. Why have I chosen that word? Yet I will stick with it in the here and now and not search for synonyms. But is that the correct feeling? Other words are coming to mind; repressive? repetitive? silenced? An expensive hour to mentally rearrange my to-do list and recall what I need from the supermarket on the way home.

But I’ve said it now. Out loud. This is what is coming to mind in the here and now?

However, as I moved down the bread aisle and deliberated the wine, something clicked. I am not my true self. I am not being myself in these groups. I am, to quote the influential sociologist Erving Goffman, creating a presentation of myself in this aspect of my life.

In 1956 Erving Goffman wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and developed the theory of dramaturgical analysis. Goffman proposed that life is theatre; a social stage, and in all aspects of day to day life we are performers in action on this stage. Through these performances we present ourselves to our audiences and can alter the presentations of this self to control our impression management to others in different situations.

In dramaturgical analysis there is no true self. We move between our front-stage self, where we behave as we think others want to see us, and hence create and control impression management, and our back-stage self, which is how we behave when no audience is present (or with people we know very well). Our identity is not stable but created through our interactions with others. ( I have found this YouTube clip an excellent starting point for learning about Goffman’s ideas )

I then began to see the PD group as this theatrical stage ( albeit more Charlie Chaplin than Rocky Horror ) but with a collection of front-stage selves. I realised I was presenting myself how I think I should present in a PD group ( but based on? ) and when snippets of my back-stage self has slipped through ( talking too fast, too loud and with wild gesticulation ), I stopped. Controlled my impression management and apologised.

So, the theory has clicked. What next for the group?

As a trainer working with different groups in my social work career, I also find knowledge of how groups work helpful. Many are familiar with Tuckman’s 1965 stages of group development; forming, storming, norming and performing (and in 1977 Tuckman & Jenson added a fifth stage, Adjourning) and we can consider this in relation to PD groups:

Forming - when the group comes together, often characterised by anxiety and uncertainty. Members are cautious with their behaviour, which is driven by a need to be accepted by all group members.

Storming - group members have an understanding of the task, a feel for the group and who the members are. Dominant members’ emerge, whilst other members stay quiet. All members have a need for clarification. This is needed to move on.

Norming – the group becomes cohesive and the group is focused on the purpose and goal, but also habits of using the group in a certain way can be present.

Performing – open, trusting, flexible and growth can occur.

Using Tuckman’s theory I believe our PD group is at the end of the storming stage and we are seeking clarification of the purpose and task. I feel integrating this knowledge with Goffman’s theory gives a balance of understanding, reflection and meaning – subjectively of course dependent on the individual’s assigned meaning to the task and how this fits into their world. But through Goffman I am able to assign meaning through distinguishing being and doing – and appreciate what I am doing is being.

I still have questions to work on in the PD group. For example, if our aim is to seek self-awareness, in the here and now, in relation to others how does this balance with contemplation about our true self? And if we adopt a symbolic interactionist perspective how does this fit with the wider social contexts of counselling? Readers of my personal blog know I like an idiom, and in this sense can we see the wood for the trees or is focusing on the trees altering our feel for the wood.

I feel these reflections are for another blog but will finish with some thoughts about links to our online world (which I have written about previously for Counsellors’ Café). If we have a true self, what would its emoji look like? A question posed to me by fellow blogger Duncan, from Therapy Place. I like this idea, even if we may never know the answer. So, is this article my true self? Or is it a presentation of me to be shared and performed on the largest stage in the world - the internet and social media?

I now have a new enthusiasm for my PD group; I am looking forward to doing and being, and exploring deeper into self-awareness and true self. I will simply need to find another time to process my shopping list.

Authors Bio


Lynn Findlay is a social worker and trainer for The Foster Care Co-operative and a trainee counsellor Academy S.P.A.C.E in Sheffield. Her interests are trauma-informed practice, mental health and online safety; as well as writing and running the much loved online fostering book club.

You can connect with Lynn via Twitter or hear more from on her personal blog here

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