Below, I am going to outline the process for joining a therapy group. It is important to say at the outset that I am describing my own practice and while the underlying principles will generally be shared by other group analysts, the specific processes and procedures will be variable.
Taking the First Step
People come into my groups in a variety of ways. Some people get in touch because they have decided for themselves that group therapy might be helpful for them; they may even have been in a therapy group in the past, or a group might have been suggested to them.
If you fall into this category, the chances are you will have already been thinking about the benefits of a group and are now ready to take that next step in joining one.
Others come with a little more uncertainty. They may have had a group suggested to them by their therapist or been assessed and a group strongly recommended. If someone hasn’t been thinking about a group before and doesn’t know much about group therapy, this suggestion can come as a surprise and, for some, take some getting used to.
If you fall into this category, then you may be feeling a little more cautious and might need more time to think about this idea of group therapy.
When anyone gets in touch with me, with an interest in joining a group at the practice, I offer a short, free telephone consultation. This usually takes around 20-25 minutes and gives us both an opportunity to think about; why they are considering a group, whether group therapy is suitable for them and what spaces are available in which groups here at our practice. I may also ask a few questions about their background, current situation, and particular issues and most likely, we will touch on what might be beneficial and challenging about being in a group for them.
This telephone conversation can lead to a range of outcomes. For the purposes of this article, I shall focus solely on what happens if we agree that a group appears to be timely and suitable for the person and I have a group space at a time they can make.
While the telephone conversation is useful in clarifying any immediate obstacles to someone joining one of my groups, it is not an assessment. Therefore, the next step would be to have a face-to-face assessment. This is done in-person if possible – unless of course it is an online group we are considering.
This session will explore in greater depth what we would have covered briefly on the telephone. I will also ask more about the person’s history and encourage some thinking about their relationship to groups, such as, family, school, friends, work etc. As in all psychotherapy assessments, I will want to find out a bit more about the person’s relationships, problems, needs, risks, medication, previous psychological input, and levels of function.
This session also gives them the opportunity to think in more depth about the idea of being in a group. This is helpful to get a firmer sense of why a group might help but also what challenges a group might present to them.
Sometimes we need more than one of these assessment sessions before we’re clear that the person is ready and wanting to join a group.
Finding a Time to Join
Once we’ve agreed that someone is ready, we need to think about when they will join. In a new group this is relatively straight forward – I give all prospective members a start date and they all join at the same time.
Joining an established group is a little more complicated as the group also needs to be ready to accept a new member. These groups are called ‘slow’ and ‘open’ which means while people join ongoingly we make sure this happens at a slow pace. This helps the group continue to feel stable and secure.
As well as this factor, before the individual joins the group, they also need to be ‘ready’ and they will need some help in preparing for this.
Preparation and Contracting
I have generally found that anyone joining a group requires at least 2 or 3 preparatory sessions. Some need more and some decide to do some individual work with me first before joining the group.
The preparatory sessions offer an opportunity to explore further the themes picked up in the assessment process. In addition, people often find it helpful to make some space for any anxieties that might arise.
This preparatory stage also allows me to talk about what is expected of group members. To keep the group therapeutically safe, all members are asked to agree to certain boundaries. An obvious example is confidentiality. Another is that members do not have contact with each other outside the sessions. These and other boundaries can be seen as making a contract with the group to keep it safe and therapeutic.
The first session can feel daunting, even for those relatively confident in groups.
In a new group there can be a lot of anxious feelings in the group which can take several sessions to start to properly settle. However, everyone is in the same boat and often people find that reassuring and helpful. It can also feel important for some to feel that they have been in a group from its earliest inception.
In an established group, being the new person is always going to feel challenging to some extent and likely to bring up earlier experiences of being new (for e.g., starting school). However, the atmosphere is likely to be much calmer and less anxious than that of a brand-new group. Established members will also be able to help the new member settle in. Some people can also enjoy the feeling of being special that their newness gives them.
Despite the expected anxious feelings new members are often surprised how quickly they form bonds and get to know other members of the group. This process is helped by the preparatory work and the boundaries agreed to by the members.
Whatever the experience of joining a therapy group the likelihood is it will feel powerful and tap into earlier histories and experiences of both groups and beginnings. The emphasis on stages of initial consultation, assessment, preparation, and contracting, are all in place to hopefully help and support the new group member in their own joining process.
Joining a Group
If you are interested in exploring joining one of the groups mentioned above, please do contact me through the enquiry form.
Groups run by Claire Barnes
Claire currently runs two groups at Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy
- once weekly group on Thursday evenings
- twice weekly group on late Monday afternoons, and Wednesday evenings.
She is also now taking referrals for a new face-to-face group, to run on Thursday mornings at the same practice and address.
Further reading by Claire Barnes
What is ‘othering’ and why is it important?
How psychotherapy groups can help change our internalised family systems
Is a Therapy Group Right for Me? Am I Right for a Therapy Group?
What happens in Therapy Groups? The role of the Therapist
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