Group Therapy > Curative Factors in Group Therapy

Curative Factors in Group Psychotherapy: Six Reasons to do Group

By Dan Pollets, Ph.D.

It is difficult for the client who is contemplating group psychotherapy to understand specifically what he/she would gain by joining a group. On first reflection it would seem that there would be less therapy since the therapist and the time is shared with a number of people. There is also the time and money commitment that can make one hesitate to begin. Finally, the concept of sharing your most intimate and difficult feelings and problems with a group of strangers can feel intimidating and overwhelming. The objective of this brief paper is to outline some of the real benefits that can be gained by participating in a group, especially for those individuals who have difficulty in their interpersonal relationships, are recovering from the loss of a relationship, or simply wish to gain insight into their relationship behavior. The following is not by any means an exhaustive list, but presents the main factors that make group an effective and unique form of psychotherapy (or enriching adjunct to individual psychotherapy).

1. Group psychotherapy provides a means of reducing feelings of shame.

There is something extremely liberating about being able to share shameful issues of the self (problems, anxieties, bad memories, traumas, past hurts, “bad” behavior) and not be judged or criticized and actually feel that you are accepted by the group. In fact, a premium value is placed on intimate disclosure and respect from the group is gained when one takes the risk and shares difficult material. Hearing how others in the group struggle with their own shameful feelings also reduces the sense that one is “less than” for having such issues. The process of simply verbalizing what you are struggling with in your life to the group is empowering and changes how you feel about the issue itself and ultimately yourself. In no uncertain terms, by sharing in-group you “come up” from shame.

3. Group provides an excellent opportunity to learn skills that help participants develop and maintain intimate relationships.

There are two ways that group facilitates the learning of intimacy skills. First, by learning to “speak the truth” in the confidential and safe group environment, assertiveness and direct communication style are modeled and incorporated by the participant. At the same time, a specific method of listening (non-judgmental and active-listening) is modeled and encouraged in-group. That is, being able to validate what a group member is saying (empathic attunement) before giving your own feedback or response is a “group norm.” Improving and strengthening of the “sending” end of the communication as well as the “receiving” end is a very helpful skill learned in group generalize able to relationships outside group. Second, group participants learn to attune themselves to what is called the “group process.” The “process” of group is what is happening below the surface, the unconscious dynamics that play out. By learning how to identify and comment on the underlying process or dynamics of the group, members become more adept at relating in deeper, more meaningful ways.

5. In group members get to experiment with giving honest feedback and receiving feedback as to your self-image (how you appear to others) and your behavior.

Participants often wonder why it is that they have difficulty making friends or intimate relationships and/or maintaining these close relationships. Group can act as an effective mirror providing honest feedback as to how the person's interpersonal behavior is being experienced. Insight can then be gained into the person's problematic behavior that is not compatible with intimacy. Change can then be implemented. This is a slow and gradual process but group psychotherapy provides one of the few places where you can “have your problem;” that is, be confronted with the consequences of your relationship behavior and become conscious of its impact on others. The safety of the setting and its continuity (no matter what happens, there will be the next group) allows for the change process to evolve.

2. A participant's self-esteem increases as a function of being a member of a cohesive, working group.

Group therapy members experience an increase in feelings of self-worth as they involve themselves deeply into the process of the group and the relationships within the group. This is accomplished as a function of “detoxifying shame” as well as the pleasure in learning new skills that are applicable in relationships outside of group. We all remember from early days the good feelings that come from belonging to and being apart of a group. The feeling of acceptance and attachment is a “feel good.” Seeing youself contributing to others and receiving support and acceptance fuels positive feeling of self-esteem.

4. Group members learn the importance of proper “boundaries” and the need to take responsibility for one's actions.

Adults who grow up in dysfunctional families, where there is a history of sexual, emotional or physical abuse never learn what appropriate boundaries are. Even if your family was relatively intact, you can have issues with boundaries. Without understanding the concept of boundaries true intimacy becomes impossible. Proper boundary regulation allows you to get close to significant others where it is safe and appropriate and to keep the right degree of distance from acquaintances and relative strangers. Proper boundaries allow you implicitly to know how much to involve yourself in the business of others. Knowledge of proper boundaries allows one to know how safe it is to let others in. Internal boundaries help us hold onto our anger and not rage when we are wronged, hurt or insulted. Internal boundary regulation also provides a protective “windshield” so that what others say about us can be assessed first for validity before being “metabolized” by the self, impacting on self-esteem. Group therapy provides a rich learning environment where appropriate boundaries are modeled and maintained. Specific rules in part governing personal boundaries are agreed upon prior to a member-beginning group.

6. Participants become attached and connected to each other and enjoy interacting during the group time. It is fun and exciting to see what surprises are in store for the evening's group. It is a meaningful and profound way to learn about human behavior and group dynamics.

While group therapy can be difficult and challenging at times as one deals with strong feeling and memories, it can also be fun and playful. There are very few venues in this age of alienation where people can sit down facing each other and honestly share what they feel. The shared sense that everyone is working together but working hard to produce personal change is a powerful and uplifting feeling.

It is gratifying to see how the group can overcome difficult times, continue to work on a conflictual issue and emerge on the other side having grown in the process. This is certainly a metaphor for intimate relationship.

I hope that this paper has helped you to understand what group therapy is about and what you might get out of group if you were to join. It is clear that it is not an easy decision but it can add significant momentum to your psycho-therapeutic process, deepen your capacity to relate intimately and might even provide a meaningful and enjoyable evening' entertainment.