American Idol as Group Therapy

Jeremy Sharp, PhDtherapy Leave a Comment

My wife and I love American Idol. I think part of our attraction to the show is that we get to live vicariously through these young adults as they pursue fame through singing  (neither of us can carry a tune to save our lives). Part of it is getting to see them have the opportunity to perform in front of millions – the energy, the excitement, playing on stage with the band backing them up…it’s incredibly captivating (most of the time). But my wife has another theory as to why we like it that’s too good not to share – she says that it’s because American Idol is really just group therapy happening on live TV.

I’ll explain a little more. My wife and I, both therapists, were trained in what’s called Interpersonal Process group therapy. The basic premise is that all problems are relational in nature.  As individuals grow up and interact with their primary social group (usually family members and close significant others), they develop ways of relating to others that may be either helpful or unhelpful depending on the circumstances. For example, someone who grows up in a house with parents who are ill, alcoholic, or just immature may learn that it pays off to be more “adult-like” and take care of their parents so that the house doesn’t fall apart. Fast-forward twenty years – this person is now that friend of yours who feels that they have to remain strong no matter what, never opening up or asking for support themselves, which keeps them disconnected from others.

When individuals come to our groups, we tell them that the group will act as a microcosm of the world. They will bring their styles of relating, helpful and unhelpful, into the group to be re-enacted with various members. The power of an Interpersonal Process group is that individuals have the opportunity to get feedback from other members as to what aspects of their behavior are more or less connecting. They then have the chance to try new styles of relating in the presumably safe container of the group. Maybe it’s learning to trust others, or figuring out how to set boundaries, or testing the idea that they are worthless (which is always proven untrue, by the way). Inevitably we learn that authentic vulnerability and genuineness draw people closer.

Maybe you’re starting to see the similarities between group therapy and American Idol. First, there are “leaders” (the judges – each with their own style of giving feedback) and “members” (all of the contestants). Secondly, we find every year that the individuals who have a story – some emotional event going on in their life – are easiest to connect with initially. Maybe their wife just died, or they just had a baby, or they beat cancer a few years ago. You get the idea. Next, we find the members getting feedback each week as to what makes their performances more or less compelling. Favorable performances, according to the judges, are ones where the contestant is emotionally connected to the song, takes liberties to make the song personal rather than just imitating the original, and isn’t afraid to risk trying something new. We find that contestants who appear most genuine, authentic, and open to hearing how they impact others are the ones that stick around. They’re the ones who we feel most connected to.

The end result in American Idol, like group, is that individuals take what they’ve learned about themselves and go forth into the world to have more fulfilling relationships (or a record deal). They’ve gained confidence and had positive emotional experiences as they tried new styles  of interacting. They’ve probably “unlearned” some styles that previously felt comfortable but were less connecting.

Like she says, group therapy.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts or experiences on group OR American Idol. Thanks for reading 🙂


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