The following information is based on the experience of previous group members and the questions that are often asked by those thinking about group therapy.
How Can Group Therapy Help Me?
It can come as a relief that other people’s issues, whilst unique, may be similar to your own. This in itself can help you to feel more hopeful about your own situation.
How does a group help?
Sharing problems and finding out about how others have dealt with their difficulties may give you encouragement to work with issues that previously seemed too difficult. Individuals often find that group members are able to offer useful feedback and insight to each other. Although expertise is important, the therapist is not the only person with something to contribute. This process of giving and receiving allows individuals in the group to experience relating in a way which can be helpful in everyday settings.
What about Confidentiality?
This is often a concern for those considering group therapy. Facilitators ensure that this is discussed thoroughly in the pre-group meeting and in the first session, and that ‘ground rules’ or guidelines are agreed by the group before any work commences. Facilitators will also try to ensure that the likelihood of group members knowing each other is minimised. Experience shows that, since each member expects their own issues of confidentiality to be respected, those of others is also respected.
What about particular problems – how can the group help with those?
Often specific issues that feel personal to one individual, when discussed in group, actually have resonance for many, in different and intersting ways. Some people feel anxious or depressed, yet they haven’t been able to discover what lies behind these distressed feelings. The group will gradually explore and help members begin to understand why they feel the way they do. Other individuals experience their problems in other ways, for example people may have physical symptoms, such as headaches, etc for which no physical cause can be found. Here the exploration of hidden conflicts can lead to the relief of symptoms and tensions.
What is meant by ‘exploration’?
Things are not always as they seem or appear to be on the surface. Many people with anxieties have misunderstandings about themselves and their difficulties. Others in the group can help individuals to see themselves and their problems from a different perspective. The group can help each other to see more clearly, to be aware of ‘blind spots’, to recognise problems. When someone can discover and accept previously unseen or unaccepted parts of him/herself, it can be a real help and often a relief.
So does the group work by giving good advice?
Giving advice plays only a small part in group activity although factual information is sometimes offered. Nevertheless, opinions are asked for and views expressed which may help you make a decision for yourself. Learning from the experience of others of ways in which they have coped is of value. Learning about yourself, though, is even more important.
Learning about myself? How does the group help me do that?
Over time, the group is likely to explore each member’s past experience, and perhaps discover patterns in a person’s life. For example, individuals may have repeatedly made the same sort of mistake without apparently learning from past experience. Difficulties in a person’s close relationships may be repeated time and again until new solutions are found and tried.
Understanding how past and present relationships are connected is important. The connections may be evident in the way individuals present themselves in the group. The experience of seeing themselves through the eyes of others may help them to develop the courage to become more open about themselves and be more honest about what they think of other group members instead of hiding their thoughts and feelings.
It sounds pretty risky. What about trust?
Getting to know and trust the group helps individuals to trust themselves more, to take risks, to free themselves from fears that something dreadful will happen if they express their true thoughts. It may take time, of course, but the security of the group can give individuals a feeling of safety and understanding giving them an opportunity to speak freely about their issues in a way that they have not previously been able to do. This is one of the reasons that group members are urged to commit to regular attendance.
I can see that it’s going to take confidence
For many individuals it can be important to express themselves more confidently, easily and clearly. Self confidence is an attitude and attitudes towards yourself and others have a great deal to do with how you see the world and how you experience life.
Many people have a poor opinion of themselves and feel they are inadequate ‘failures’. On the other hand, it may be that they have unrealistic expectations which they are always failing. Either way, such people may fail to reach their full potential. Naturally this will affect their attitude to others and how they relate to them. The group can help individuals to view themselves more realistically, to find out what they really want and whether it’s possible.
The group can do a lot to increase feelings of personal worth, enhance self-esteem and support the courage that may be needed to live life differently. Those who have tried to change in the past, but ‘failed’ repeatedly, are often so discouraged that they need the kind of support, hope and optimism that a group can give. Sometimes, to be helped to see the funny side of things and not to take everything too seriously can also be important.
You’ve said a lot about understanding. How about feelings?
Although groups are concerned with the understanding of difficulties, much time and activity will be concerned with the feeling of emotions and of the barriers that prevent them being expressed. Here too, the group can give encouragement and the sense of a safe place to express the discharge of pent-up feelings which may have been long held back. This in itself can produce a powerful sense of change and growth. Discovering how feelings influence the way we behave is important. Individuals may need help to express feelings such as love, or to deal with feelings of anger, jealousy, hate, guilt and shame, all of which can cause so much distress. These can be explored in the group, and group members are encouraged to express feelings thus integrating the ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ parts of self.
The family-like atmosphere of the group may help those who have had problems in their early family life to explore and to begin to resolve those emotional conflicts which have been causing them concern ever since.
Can groups be harmful?
Group therapy cannot answer everyone’s problems and, if conducted in an inappropriate way then it could exacerbate an individual’s problems. However, in advising membership of the group, a very careful assessment will have been made as to whether individuals would benefit from group work and great care is taken in ‘forming’ the group membership. If a group member feels they are struggling in a group week-on -week, it may be possible to meet with the group facilitor individually to talk this through.
How will I know if it’s doing me any good?
Although most people find their group experience rewarding, it can be an uncomfortable one at times. Particularly in the early stages, things may temporarily feel worse. This is often a sign that the process is working rather than an indication that it should be stopped. Facing up to and exploring self and past, may at times feel difficult and upsetting but this is often a necessary step in the process of growth
There will also be times when individuals feel they are getting nowhere, perhaps feel angry or uncaring about the group. They may begin to wonder if the effort is worthwhile. Such feelings should always be discussed openly in the group.
Experience of working with groups suggests that only a few people find exactly what they are looking for in the first couple of weeks, but it is rare for those who stay for longer than this to fail to get some benefit. A common concern is that listening to so many other people’s problems will make your own worse, but this very seldom happens. What will almost certainly happen is that there will be times when it would feel easier to give up.
How will I know what is ‘work’?
It’s understandable that many people find it easier to talk about matters of little importance, to chat, to put off discussion about what is really bothering them until another time. Being passive, saying little or nothing and ‘side-stepping’ important issues cannot always be avoided although the group will normally be able to take some positive action to overcome things that may be blocking your progress.
What if I’m still not sure?
Nearly everybody has healthy doubts about joining a group. That doesn’t mean that a group will not be helpful, but individuals should not ignore their doubts, nor should they consider group work to please someone else. In the end, success or failure depends a great deal on individuals willingness and motivation to use the group constructively and to do something about their problems. The group can only facilitate change if you give it the chance.