What Is Group Therapy?

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“Another counselor and I are starting a new group that will meet on Thursday evenings at 6:00 p.m. Are you interested in joining us? No? Are you sure? I haven’t even told you what it’s about yet.” 

You mean to tell me you don’t just jump at the bit to share all your deepest, darkest secrets with a group of strangers? Surely I’m not the only one who enjoys talking to people I hardly know and actually feel better after doing so…

Maybe you relate more to this cartoon:

What is group counseling anyway? Well, to be honest, sometimes it does mimic the cartoons. A group of people, sitting in a circle, hands clasped, deafening awkward silence; yep, your imagination is not leading you astray. Especially the first group therapy session, much of what keeps you at a distance actually does exist. But it doesn’t have to be and won’t always be like that. 

Group therapy has been around since the 1940s and has morphed quite a bit. Where the earliest groups were often held in inpatient settings, counseling groups are now held everywhere from hospitals to private practices to churches to corporation buildings. Counseling groups are designed to help treat clinical disorders, active addiction, those in recovery from addiction, family dynamics, sibling rivalries, adoptee support, mindful eating, yoga for trauma relief…the list goes on and on. One common denominator that has never changed, though, group therapy always involves it’s main word – group. Multiple people, coming together in the same location at the same time, discussing and/or listening about similar topics and experiences.

Unless you’re in this type of group:   

Another thing that hasn’t changed much is the overarching goals of group counseling. Irvin Yalom, often referred to as the father of group therapy, writes, “My prototypic model is the intensive, heterogeneously composed, outpatient psychotherapy group with its ambitious goals of both symptomatic relief and characterological change.” What the hec does that mean (in normal language, please)?! 

Yalom is basically saying the goal of group therapy is to help people feel better and change in the way they desire. And remember, he says these are “ambitious goals.” 

Can’t I just feel better and change on my own? 

Sure, you most certainly can. And probably do on a fairly regular basis. We have powerful minds and bodies that enable us to change how we feel and think and talk and act. When we’re not able to do this on our own, we talk to our friends or our counselor or our doctor, we change our lifestyle or our hobbies or our eating patterns. That may be enough to get us over the hurdles that come our way and cause us to feel stuck. So why am I even writing about group therapy? 

Because I believe in it. If you think about it, most of us spend a good portion of our day in a group setting. We have a work group, a family group, a friend group, an exercise group, a book club, a sports team, a church congregation, an academic class…I’ve now run out of examples, but you get the idea. If we spend most of our days within the context of a group, we probably agree that most of our successes and our mistakes happen with one or more of those groups. We argue in groups, celebrate in groups, set and strive to meet goals in groups, and mourn in groups. 

Our culture tells us all of this is ok, “life is lived together,” “it takes a village.” And, our culture also encourages us to “be the strong one,” “be the leader of the group,” “keep it together, especially when you’re in front of a group of people.” 

What a disconnect! 

I wasn’t kidding at the beginning of this post when I said that a colleague and I are starting a therapy group in the near future.  I also wasn’t kidding when I said I believe in group counseling AND I’d love to have you join our upcoming group. However, acknowledging that we’re caught in this push-pull relationship with being honest with ourselves while hiding those too-honest parts of us from each other causes me to know and understand why you might be hesitant to enter into the unknown of group therapy. 

Another cartoon to loosen the tension you may now be feeling as a result of reading the above paragraph: 

I’m going to leave you with something to think about: if hurts happen within a group, can healing happen within a group? If you lie awake at night feeling alone and hopeless, can you bring this discomfort to a group of other lonely people lying awake in their beds at night? If you experience a success at work and are afraid to celebrate out of fear that you’re bragging, can you share this fear with other people who are waiting to celebrate with you? 

Maybe the answer to these hypothetical questions is “no” right now. That’s okay! You’re not alone. In my next post, we’ll learn more about how group counseling works to actually combat the fear of sharing parts of ourselves with (essentially) strangers and how not-alone we can feel in the presence of other people risking in the same way we are.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in reading more about the counseling group at our practice, click here.

Written by Lauren Eisleben