The benefits of group therapy (Part one)
This can be a life-changing experience
You may never have imagined yourself in a therapy group but you could be in for a real adventure if you joined one! When I first went into a group I was soon blown away by the power of the process and very surprised to find I was actually enjoying myself. Like most people entering a group I was nervous to start with but I found – again as most people do – that this faded away quite quickly so that I was able to talk comfortably in what was a friendly, safe and confidential setting.
The difference between individual therapy and group therapy
To state the obvious, the main difference between individual therapy and group therapy is that in a small therapy group you have up to eight people plus a therapist sitting in a circle as opposed to one person and a therapist sitting opposite each other in individual psychotherapy. This affects the dynamics of the therapy in ways that I’ll explain.
For a start, group therapy sessions last for an hour and a half rather than fifty minutes as in one-to-one sessions. Like individual therapy the aim is emotional healing, change and growth but the agent of the therapy shifts from being the relationship between two individuals to being the group itself which, as I’ve just said, contains considerable power. You could say that it’s like being in a force field.
As you might imagine, another major difference between individual therapy and group therapy is that in one-to-one work a person talks about how they interact in social settings whereas in a group the social setting is right there in the room where it can be observed not just described. That makes sense when you think that emotional difficulties originate in groups (called families) so what better place to rectify them than in a group?
I’ll spell out some of the other major differences between the two types of therapy in everything that follows in this blog and the next one.
The benefits of group therapy
To try and get across the advantages of group therapy I’m going to draw on two major figures in the world of groups: Michael Foulkes who established group therapy (or group analysis as it’s also called) in Britain and Irvin Yalom who has made a major contribution to groupwork in the US and beyond. Both explain why group therapy works. I’ll start with Foulkes.
Foulkes saw a major reason why group therapy works as being interpersonal communication. A person finds that the emotional difficulties which brought them to therapy push them to describe those difficulties in the group. Without that there’s no relief from them. With the encouragement and understanding of the group they manage to put their symptoms into words more and more and to think about their origins and meaning. Over time they may find curiously that the grip that the difficulties had on them begins to loosen and even dissipate.
More generally, people sometimes wonder what group therapy topics1 come up for discussion. The answer to that is pretty well anything. All human life really is there and, providing someone isn’t using a subject to avoid talking about what needs to be talked about there’s a huge and legitimate diversity of group therapy topics on show.
Among the other major advantages of group therapy is that an individual can see parts of themselves (perhaps parts of which they’re unaware) in someone else. As this dawns on them, both people can gain insights and can change. It’s called mirroring and mirroring also includes people reflecting back to you a more accurate and sometimes more positive picture of yourself than you may have.
Socialization refers to the breaking of any vicious circle of isolation and inadequacy that may characterize a person’s life as they encounter a group that is attuned to them and accepting of them. Their confidence can further be enhanced as they in turn grow in understanding of and in relating successfully to others.
In a good group the members will be very supportive of each other. The word ‘support’, though, doesn’t just mean bolstering people up. It also means the group helping someone to find the courage to express difficult thoughts that would usually be suppressed in normal life. The person may then feel safer and able to show greater vulnerability. The contours of the personalities of the group members are constantly being worked on and revised while they’re in the group.
Another of the advantages of group therapy is something called exchange. There’s a great demand for and interest in information and explanations between and about the members of a therapy group. As they exchange facts and ideas about themselves it’s interesting to see that they will accept more things from each other than they perhaps would from the therapist!
It’s been said that Foulkes’s big discovery was what he called the matrix. Among other things he was referring to an extraordinary phenomenon in groups. It becomes clear to the therapist that the group is a living entity in itself that raises themes in a way the individual members are unaware of. The group speaks with one voice so as almost to suggest that, when human beings are put together, a group mind develops and speaks through the individuals. This looks very possible for other species – think of the movements and intentions of flocks of birds, colonies of ants or shoals of fish – but we tend not to think about it in terms of ourselves. The therapeutic component in a group is that the therapist can ‘read’ the communications that the group is making and address them directly.
On that intriguing note we come to the end of the first half of this blog. I’ll carry on looking at the benefits of group psychotherapy in Part Two next month.
© Brian Shand 2021
Read more of my blogs: https://www.guildfordtherapy.co.uk/blog/