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Re: Group therapy

Posted by Mark H. on May 17, 2002, at 21:02:16

In reply to Group therapy, posted by Dinah1 on May 16, 2002, at 9:16:32

Dear Dinah,

I've experienced the value of group therapy first hand over a period of many years, and I can vouch for both the "fear factor" and the growth potential it offers.

I remember mightily resisting moving from individual and couples therapy into group some 20 years ago. For a start, I felt that "group" was going to mean carrying a lot of other people's stuff, which was too much like what I was doing for a living at the time. Also, I felt my own issues were sufficiently overwhelming to me, and I wasn't sure I had enough left over to offer much help to anyone else. Beneath those issues was the fear that I simply could not control other people's perceptions enough to feel safe, whereas in one-on-one therapy I felt my logic and verbal skills put me on a fairly equal footing with my therapist.

The first few sessions were a blur. I remember soaking my shirts from anxiety every week, and who knows what I actually shared about myself. For many weeks, my therapist would only talk about me in the third person, a way for me to "listen in" on discussions about what he saw as my issues without being directly confronted with them.

As I became (somewhat) more comfortable over time, I finally began to notice that just about everyone has the same basic issues, with variations based on differences in personality and life experiences. Pivotal points of growth came unexpectedly. I remember a middle-aged woman breaking through the barriers to her feelings of frustration in her marriage, and suddenly looking 10 to 15 years younger. I remember thinking, "If she can do that, perhaps I can too."

Likewise, there came a point when I understood that it was OK if some of the people in group didn't particularly like me. I worked hard every day to please others and to avoid criticism, and some part of me believed that I would die if people didn't like me. In group therapy, everybody is in their "stuff," and I learned to remain compassionate but not to take criticism so personally.

Sometimes months would go by where I didn't feel like I was making any progress at all, and then suddenly I'd have one session in which all the time and expense became worth it. Whenever my therapist started challenging me on some of my core issues, I would become extremely angry and defensive. Many months into group therapy, as I was turning red in the face and the adrenalin was pumping through my body as it had many times before, a part of me finally said, "Mark, this man is safe and wants to help you -- stop what you're doing and listen to him." And it changed the entire course of my therapy and greatly accelerated my growth.

In deciding whether a group is right for me, I look to see if the participants are assertive, well spoken, putting into practice in their lives what they learn in group, doing their "homework" assignments, generally enjoying their lives and dealing responsibly with their problems. If so, then regardless of the modality or style employed by the therapist, I rate the group as worth joining.

For me, it is important that people "graduate" from group therapy by mutual agreement with the therapist. I like to commit to a year or two of attendance, with some specific goals to attain, and then make a clean break when those goals are accomplished. I always leave open the possibility of returning at a later date, as needed, but I like having a clear agreement with my therapist that there will be a beginning and an end to the experience.

If there is one secret of success in group therapy that I wish I had known from the beginning, it is the value of asking lots of questions about how others see my issues and interactions. (Most people starting group, myself included, think they'll simply take turns getting advice from the therapist. However, the best advice and most useful information comes from other people in therapy -- people who are not your friends, co-workers, peers, relatives, therapist or spouse -- just ordinary people.) The therapist's job is primarily to provide a safe, structured place for those interactions to take place.

I trust that you'll know when (and whether) group therapy is right for you, Dinah. I think it's great that you raised the question and laid out your pros and cons. You can always tell your therapist that you'll commit to attending four sessions, for instance, before deciding whether to continue for another six months or a year. Maintaining control over the duration of your group experience can help make the rest of it feel a lot more manageable.

With kind regards,

Mark H.




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