Are you finding it hard to know if group therapy is what you need or want? Below, I outline a few of considerations that might be helpful when thinking about joining a group.
Considering a Therapy Group?
You may have had a group suggested to you or know someone who is in or has been in a group. Perhaps you are aware of difficulties arising for you in groups and want to explore these further. And/or maybe you have had individual therapy in the past or recently and feel you have explored what you needed to in that work.
Whatever has led you to think about joining a therapy group, the idea is likely to feel a new and unknown prospect for you.
Group Therapy and ‘Real Life’
Group Therapy is often described as being closer to ‘real life’ than individual therapy. The other people in the group are not there in a professional role and although the group therapy culture is one of respect and support, members are also encouraged to respond and relate in authentic and spontaneous ways to each other. For some people this is off-putting but for others this is an attractive proposition and seen as a way of more directly experiencing some of the relationship dynamics they might have struggled with in the past or present.
The constant mirroring in groups between members offers ongoing feedback (what happens in groups: mirroring). Many people find this helps them develop a stronger idea of who they are in relation to others. If you are aware that you struggle with your sense of self or identity you will likely benefit from being in a therapy group where you can experience feedback from others as well as observe for yourself your similarities and differences.
Group members tend towards being supportive to each other but do, when the group is working well, offer a realistic mix of positive and challenging responses to each other. Some people who feel particularly fragile in the face of less positive feedback from others can find this too threatening a prospect.
Is this the right time for a group?
If, for example, you have had a very recent trauma or bereavement you may feel you need some more focussed one to one help on your individual circumstances and a group may not therefore be the place at this stage for you. However, this might not feel clear cut and the group therapist would be able to explore this with you. They might even be able to offer to work with you individually over your recent experiences until you feel ready for a group.
Groups and Belonging
Group therapy can be particularly helpful for people who have conflicts around belonging. This might relate to their family history, perhaps feeling they were always outside the family for different reasons, or it might connect to other aspects of their history or identities. Groups give a powerful sense of belonging. Once you join a group you are always part of it. Even after people leave, they are remembered as part of the group’s history. Groups also allow members to move in and out of experiences of outsider and insider-ness. This can offer experiences of, and help understand, relationships to belonging.
Isolation and shame
Like issues around belonging, groups can be particularly helpful for those who feel trapped by feelings of shame and alienation (shame). Most people find an immediate relief in a therapy group when they start to share their worst feelings and thoughts. The chances are always likely that at least someone in the group (and very often the majority) will feel similarly. Usually new members find that shameful thoughts, feelings or experiences become quickly normalised by the rest of the group.
For some though, the idea of making public what feels shameful is too big a step. Some people might benefit from seeing an individual therapist first where they can ‘test out’ their secret feelings, if the idea of speaking in a group feels too frightening.
Some feelings of isolation are easier to dispense with than others. Being in a group does not necessarily stop the individual having these feelings, and indeed the public nature of the group can heighten them. However, it is this very nature of group therapy that creates an opportunity to directly understand and address these difficulties.
The Therapy Group as Alternative Family System
Being in a group can feel like being in a family. Group members can start to represent family members to each other.
Families have their own ‘systems’, but the group creates an alternative (generally more benign and authentic) system which challenges the unconscious assumptions of members’ family systems.
This aspect of groups includes the opportunity to explore dynamics from past and present with siblings (Sibling Rivalry Part 1 and 2). Group members can often feel strong sibling-like feelings towards each other.
People who have had difficult family dynamics growing up, in my experience, gain a lot from the way the therapy group offers this alternative family system and allows explorations of sibling relationships.
What if you don’t like Groups…
If you do not like groups and the idea of being in a group scares you, you may, understandably, not want to join one. However, this might well be why a group could be the right kind of therapy for you. I explored this in more depth in another blog called ‘if you don’t like groups, could it be time to join one‘.
Commitment and Ambivalence
Joining a group requires making a commitment from the outset. Most group therapists will ask that you agree to a minimum of between 6 months and a year. This is an important requirement because someone arriving and leaving quickly can disrupt the group. So, I end this piece with the first question you perhaps need to ask yourself – can you practically make this commitment at this time.
This is a different question than having mixed feelings or ambivalence which is very normal and common when thinking about joining a group.
If you are not sure about whether you can or want to make the commitment, the group therapist can explore your uncertainty with you and help you decide.
This piece touches on some of the different considerations about joining a therapy group. I have not covered all aspects but focussed on those dilemmas and considerations that, have come to light most often in my experience of helping people think about joining a therapy group.
Further reading by Claire Barnes