Beginning therapy can be an intimidating experience tinged with hope, anticipation, and a significant amount of anxiety. Meeting someone new and opening up in a deeply personal way is a difficult experience for just about anyone. We fear judgment, criticism, and openly admitting those things of which we may feel most ashamed. Now imagine that instead of speaking of these things to one trained professional, you found yourself sharing these things to a group of 6-8 people instead. Why on earth would anyone want to pursue therapy in a group?
Despite the undeniable difficulties in this task, popularity of group therapy has increased in the recent years years. This may be, in part, due to the various different types of groups available. Many people hear “group therapy” and think of support groups, where a group of people come together to disclose, listen, and provide support to others around a specific issue, such as relationships, addiction, or depression. This is a common style of group therapy, and many different types of support groups exist that can provide guidance and promote healing through the support of group members and the facilitating therapist.
Are there Different Types of Group Therapy?
Group therapy isn’t just drinking stale coffee in a church basement. There are many types of groups that may be more or less beneficial, depending on a your needs. Some may benefit from more structured groups, like cognitive-behavioral groups that teach specific skills and techniques designed to help alleviate distress. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a good example of this; DBT is a fairly popular style of group therapy that focuses on four main areas: mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. It’s structured focus on coping skills makes it an effective form of treatment for many different mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and addiction, among others.
What is Group Therapy?
Clients who are more concerned with relational issues such intimate relationships, assertiveness, social anxiety, or the healthy expression of conflict may benefit from a less structured group, like an interpersonal process group. In these groups, the therapist often takes a less active role, but rather encourages members to focus on the interactions of the group and how they feel about what is taking place. Interpersonal process groups allow members to bring in the relational issues that they experience and process them within the group; those who have difficulty being assertive may find themselves struggling to assert themselves in the group, or those who use humor as a defense against intimacy may begin making jokes when the discussion becomes intimate. Becoming aware of (and in time, challenging) these patterns allows members to experiment with alternative methods of communicating or relating to others in a safe space, contributing to a self-awareness that ultimately leads to the development of new, healthier, or more useful interpersonal dynamics altogether.
The variety of options available allows clients to seek out those groups that best reflect the areas of growth in which they feel the need to focus most, while also allowing group therapists to shape group interactions around specific dynamics that are most fruitful for the group as a whole. But what makes these groups so effective at promoting change?
How Does Group Therapy Work?
Psychologist Irvin Yalom put it best when he explained that when it comes to therapeutic relationships or relationships within a group, it isn’t necessarily the carefully timed interventions or the uncovered insight that matters most, but that rather “it’s the relationship that heals”. Yalom, a noted proponent of group therapy modalities, has pointed to a series of factors that can (arguably) often make group therapy a more powerful and intimate process of change than individual therapy.
As described above, beginning therapy can mean facing a fair amount of shame. We may feel like a failure for needing help, or be embarrassed for the way that we’ve handled the stress we’ve faced. While your therapist may reassure you that you aren’t alone, it may not be easy to believe that anyone has ever truly been where we are. This is one of the benefits of group therapy–we often see our own struggles reflected in the lives of others in the group. Knowing that the fight that we’re facing is not uniquely ours, but rather is a universal struggle faced by many helps to reduce our feelings of shame and embarrassment; we’re no longer alone with the grief that we feel at the loss of a loved one, or the fight we’re facing against our eating disorder—we can feel the support of others who have been (or are still) there too.
Clients who begin therapy often do so because of some precipitating event that has made it clear that outside help is needed. Because of this, clients are often at “their wit’s end,” so to speak, and begin therapy with a sense of helplessness, feeling that there may be small hope of change. Indeed, one goal of the therapist in those early stages is to reassure the client that change is possible. In group therapy, this process is a little different. Those we connect with in the group may not have only been where we are now, but may have even come back from the proverbial “rock bottom.” They can not only reassure us that change is possible, but can demonstrate it through their own stories. This not only reminds us that we’re not alone, but seeing the way that others have made progress in their own lives can give us hope for our own ability to change.
The other benefit of connecting with those who have been in similar places is the informed discussion that follows true understanding. Speaking with a therapist who is trained to listen, empathize, and understand where you are coming is one thing, but meeting with those who have actually been where you can be very different. In a group therapy setting, members can describe those things that have been most helpful in their own lives. Ideas can be discussed and explored for their merit or feasibility, and potential roadblocks to progress or change can be brainstormed amongst the group
One of the most powerful factors of change within a group is the group’s cohesiveness, or the bonds that are formed amongst the group members. If you can recall a time when you felt unified with and tied closely to a group of people (whether your basketball team, your group of friends from school, or even just your coworkers), then you might understand the concept of cohesiveness. It describes the sense of belonging and acceptance that grows within a group when the members share such intimate interactions. The more cohesive the group, the safer it often feels for members, and it is this safe space that often makes change a real possibility.
Is Group Therapy for Me?
There exists an old African proverb that says “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Group therapy is an unique experience, and it does require some adjustment for those who are more accustomed to individual therapy. Most of the time, group therapy is not meant to be a replacement for these individual sessions, but rather an important complement. Consider asking your therapist if group therapy would be a beneficial addition for your work. For most, it feels like a significant risk, but very often, we are able to go farthest together. The Bergen Counseling Center offers a variety of group therapy in Chicago, individual therapy, and couples counseling services. If you are interested in learning more about any of these services, fill out the content form below and we will reach out to you personally!