By Karen Williams, MS, LAC
Intensive Outpatient Program Clinical Manager at Promises Scottsdale
Group therapy works because it creates connection and reduces toxic shame through open, honest communication. Many aspects of the group dynamic contribute to the reasons why group therapy works. Here are 10 of them:
1. Hearing Your Story
The first time people attend group, they may tip toe into the room timidly. Most times what happens is that they hear their story in someone else who has had a similar experience. Maybe it’s what they went through–the misery quotient that got them here. Whatever the parallel circumstances may be, this helps the individual realize they are not alone. There’s often a sense of buoyancy, a feeling that “Hey, I might be a ship in a rough waters, but I’m not in the water by myself. I have crew members.” They start to feel that they must be in the right place.
2. Finding Solutions
Another thing people new to group therapy may notice is potential solutions to their problems. If they remain open-minded, they’ll discover a variety of tools they might not have tried to the fullest and get a sense of “do-ability.” When they see themselves in someone else and identify with the problem that person has successfully overcome, the issue doesn’t seem so daunting. They hear what works for others and get ideas about what needs to happen in their own life.
The best groups I run–the ones that seem to hum along and make good progress–are those that have a good sense of the “I can laugh at myself and the world around me” component. Humor is one of the traits that sets us apart from other living things. It’s what makes us really human. When someone can laugh at themselves, they can also have compassion for themselves. When I know that quotient is present in group, I know there’s potential for some real work. There’s something very positive about the restoration of a person’s sense of humor. It’s a sign of their mental health recovering and their ability to draw insight. If you can draw insight, purpose and meaning, and laugh while doing so, you’ve really found something special.
4. Feeling Safe About Being Vulnerable
The protection of a safe environment where group members can feel vulnerable and use it as a laboratory for skill-building is critical. Safety is a huge part of why people feel secure in group and how they heal. One of the ways I help facilitate this feeling is by providing group guidelines and reviewing them frequently, especially when we have a new member. This way we appropriately set the tone. I never say, “These are the rules,” but rather, “These are the things I think help groups work best.” We define what cross-talk is and the circumstances where that might be a helpful communication style. We talk about showing up on time, confidentiality and respectful communication.
5. Exploring Shame
There are two kinds of shame. One is toxic, low density shame that is unhelpful. It’s the part that tells yourself that you are not worthy and have no value. It’s a lie we tell ourselves and most times comes from our family of origin. The second is “good shame”–we don’t yet have vernacular for it. This shame helps us see ourselves in context. We’re “right sized” to things that are bigger than us. It’s that sense of awe we get from standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon–the overwhelming beauty that draws us in and helps us realize we aren’t the totality of the universe. This second type of shame and awe is available to us when we start to operate within a group. When people see and hear themselves within the context of a group, they realize they aren’t the end-all-be-all. They come to understand that they are only a part of the bigger picture and that they can find answers about their unhealthy shame. Group reactions and interactions take power away from the negative.
6. Direct Intervention
Group therapy can provide a life lab of sorts. People can bring specific issues to the setting and get honest feedback and input. They see how others relate to them and bounce solutions off of them. Role playing is one way this can be achieved. Many times we can help clients process a problem by having other members of the group play different roles. Afterwards, we ask how everyone felt in that “take one” and the client can choose to use what they’d like from it and work on aspects that would improve communication. Another client may notice they have the same issue and they now have some scripting available to them.
Being around others experiencing similar struggles can help in the quest to finding self-compassion. Feelings towards other group members often arise for a reason. One of those can be a disowned part of the self. When people allow themselves to explore why they are having a strong reaction to another group member, whether that is dislike or idolization, they may find that this person represents a part of them they’ve tucked away because they found it unacceptable for whatever reason. Learning to accept and support other people that remind us of our “unacceptable” parts can help us learn how to acquire compassion for ourselves and our struggles.
Group therapy can be more effective than individual therapy because some people find it less intimidating. They find it more emotionally spacious and warm. Depending on the willingness of the individual, it may take several sessions for a therapeutic alliance to be established in individual therapy. In a group setting, it’s human nature to immediately prop up the facilitator as the leader. People also recognize themselves in those surrounding them and aren’t as intimidated. There is a type of fellowship that is unique to a group setting.
9. Learning to Show Up
You can hide in group, but you’re harming yourself when you’re not fully engaged. Some people are just not ready yet. They may be overcome by fear and discomfort with the level of honesty. It’s always nice when a group member stops hiding. You see the difference from when they first came in and were coated in self-protective armor. They become like the first-row sitters in an AA meeting. They get it. They share. They’re the ones that encourage the message and help the newcomer. Their whole self is in it. That’s an effective group member that can transform themselves while helping others.
10. Natural Progression
There is a transcendent nature to group that is unexplained. It moves and grows and takes shape on its own. I don’t really know what direction a group needs to go until I’m in it that day. For example, the other day I showed up with my beautiful codependency lesson all laid out. But someone threw down the gauntlet and turned the group into another discussion about parenting. I must be fully engaged to notice it. A departure from the script almost always presents itself and we go down a different path of learning for the day. The members rule these groups and the result is powerful.