Group therapy is something we’re not all that accustomed to in the UK. We’ve barely got our heads around doing therapy individually, so it isn’t surprising that baring your soul in a group evokes trepidation.
Before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital last year, my only experience of group therapy was as a child in the 1990s. It was handled badly, and I wasn’t ready for it. Plus, being together with other abused children only fed my anxiety as I knew some of them from school.
That meant I was scared and extremely cynical about attending group in hospital. I was determined not to go, stubbornly I committed to sit in my room and not get better. But that got boring very quickly, so I went along to my first session. And despite my preconceptions it was good. I learned a lot about myself and others, so I wanted to share a few thoughts on how to get the most out of group therapy.
Compare and despair
Everyone has their own experience. ‘Compare and despair’ was a phrase I learned going to AA meetings. No person’s suffering can be compared to another. What you need to talk about might feel trivial, but if it is troubling you and causing you problems then it is not inconsequential. Sometimes in group we would discuss everything from the fallout of being raped through to the stress of having renovations done at home. Just say what you need to say.
Tackle the tough stuff
A therapist said to me once in a group session that the thing you don’t want to talk about is the thing you should share. Aside from anything that could possibly retraumatise or cause dissociation, I think this is true. I always got the most out of group when I pushed myself or forced myself to take a risk and really trust that it would turn out OK. And the reactions of the other group members were always so much better than I anticipated.
Keep an open mind
It’s hard not to form opinions of people upon meeting them. A few years ago I would have always assumed people weren’t trustworthy or would be judgemental of me. Which I guess made me judgemental of them. What I learned was that there are always similarities if you look for them. When you approach people with an open mind and an open heart, you’ll find things in common, even if you’re from completely different walks of life.
Be willing to accept feedback – even if it isn’t what you want to hear
There is so much value in hearing the reflections of others after you share something. It gives you the opportunity to see totally different perspectives on what you’ve spoken about. Sometimes it is difficult to listen without refuting what people say or arguing with it, but often those feelings are worthy of some curiosity too. I remember this happening a lot in groups when I was an inpatient. Occasionally I felt as though other group members were being critical or pushing me, but when I took the time to consider their views and my feelings on them later I almost always learned something from it.
Offer feedback without problem solving
Following from above; it is also so valuable to provide feedback. Your own reactions or opinions on what you’ve heard can be really useful to the person who has shared and to you as well. At the same time, I always found it frustrating when people tried to problem solve for me. It’s always good to offer feedback regarding the ways what you’ve heard has impacted you and what it’s brought up for you. That often generates some really insightful discussions.
If you’ve got any questions about doing group therapy, I’d be happy to try and answer them. It was such an amazing, validating and supportive experience for me and I hope it could be for you too. Just send me an email or comment below.
Photo: Rose Physical Therapy, Creative Commons.