What comes to mind when I tell you to imagine what group therapy is? Do you see the depiction of society’s dropouts engaging in unhelpful group counseling, as shown in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Do you think of the sobriety or grief support groups with watered down coffee and stale pastries? Maybe your brain simply draws a blank.
No matter what images come to your mind, I find that correlating group therapy to a strong social group experience is a great place to begin in defining what group therapy is. We all hunger for deep, meaningful experiences with other humans. My adolescence was filled with volunteering at camps over the summer. I thrived in the intense group setting of waking up early together, having in-depth conversations daily, and going on adventures deep into the night. Sports teams, boy/girl scouts, faith groups, and school clubs all have one thing in common: engaging with other people in unique and impactful ways.
In adulthood, these clubs and teams are a lot harder to find. We all know we need to be involved in caring and supportive relationships, but how do we cultivate this when we don’t know where to begin? Enter in group therapy.
There are tons of different kinds of therapy groups out there: grief support groups, parenting classes, skills groups based on age or stage, and trauma story groups (this last one is more rare but is the type of group I offer). No matter the group, the research stays the same: group therapy is as effective as individual therapy. It’s also a more cost-effective option. So why don’t we do it?
Group therapy is as effective as individual therapy.
I think a few myths about group therapy commonly prevent folks from engaging in it.
Myth Number One:
Being in a group will mean that I receive less attention
and less specialized care from the therapist.
It’s important to understand that group therapy is a different animal altogether from individual therapy. Individual therapy is meant to be focused, intentional time spent on you and whatever it is you want to discuss with your therapist. Group therapy, on the other hand, is often more structured, so you will likely have a lesson and pre-set direction in a way that you would not receive from your therapist one-on-one. Also, group therapy is beautiful because it does not solely rely on the therapist to provide healing: it uses the momentum of the group to create movement and provide nourishment for each member involved.
When I was in my undergrad (I did not study psychology until my Master’s program so this was a unique experience), I took a class from the dean of my college. He was a well-liked and respected leader and taught this single course, so I signed up without knowing the premise. Unbeknownst to me, a small group of hospitality students had essentially joined a semester long group therapy cohort. In the first class, we sat in a circle (this alone was strange) and waited for Dr. Corsun to begin his lecture. He did not utter a word. We waited, sitting in silence for the entire class. Time ended, and we left, confused on what had just happened. The second class began, and silence met us again. Yet this time, we were too anxious to let it take over another precious period and began discussing how awkward we felt in our first time together earlier in the week. My dean began to chime in, asking for us to expound at times, and we slowly realized that this learning experience was meant to be mutually led by us for the remainder of the school year.
I remember feeling incredibly impacted by each and every group member, and in the last class, Dr. Corsun asked us to affirm one another’s progress. All of my hospitality program peers remarked on my wisdom and encouraged me to continue to learn how to speak up. It ended with a peer telling me, “it’s like you’re a blonde Gandhi or something.” Those words struck such a deep chord in me that after working in the hotel industry following my graduation, I saved up the money to go back to school and pursue my Master’s in mental health, become a therapist, start my own LLC, and decide to name it after one of the kindest things that has ever been said to me. This is the power of group therapy. The words came from another classmate, not my brilliant professor. A group has fewer blinds spots than an individual therapist has. More emotional ground is covered and a stronger foundation of confidence is set in a shorter amount of time.
Myth Number Two:
I won’t connect deeply with anyone in the group;
it’s unlikely that I meet anyone that I really connect with or like.
Group therapy, in my opinion, is a microcosm of the family. How you respond and are responded to by other group members often directly correlates with how you were responded to by members of your family unit. We all practice a plethora of small gestures, language choices, and body movements that teach others how to engage us. Have you ever had someone you’d only recently met tell you, with shocking accuracy, who you were? It’s something we see (often poorly) being depicted in Hollywood films - the janitor notices a student’s genius or a romantic suitor tells the main character what she’s thinking without her saying a word.
Group therapy mimics that process and provides real time feedback of how and who you are in the world. It tells you why someone of a specific personality type is always triggering or challenging for you to tolerate. It highlights why you are the way that you are. Thus, it’s less about hoping to find someone who will be your best friend one day (though that can happen), and more about learning why you relate to others in the unique and specific ways that you do.
Myth Number Three:
I don’t have any reason to be in group therapy:
I don’t have an addiction, I’m not grieving, etc.
This is where we get into my type of group specifically: trauma story groups. This sort of group does not require a specific season or stage of life. As you’d learn if you were in one of my groups, you would know that every single one of us has endured trauma. Painful breakups, sexual abuse and assaults, parenting nightmares. We have all endured things we were never meant to experience. Unfortunately, we often just try to move on from these things by letting time pass and hoping it fades away. If we’re honest, I think we would admit that it rarely does.
Trauma story groups are a place to admit that those wounds exist, that we’re mostly functioning okay, but that some days are really challenging and could use some extra support. My groups also use creative writing exercises to really give you the chance to be seen, nurtured, and healed by those around you.
Group therapy is an impactful, sacred experience. If you are interested in learning more about groups, and are curious about what it would entail to join one of mine, click this link.