The benefits of group therapy (Part two)
The thought of it can be scary but it can be enjoyable and it works! Here's why
Group therapy can be a force for healing, discovery and growth in your life. In Part One of this blog I looked at some of the reasons why. I highlighted the benefits and advantages of groups, drawing on the work of Michael Foulkes who created group analysis (as it’s also known) in the UK.
In this second part I want to carry on doing that, this time using the insights of a highly influential American group therapist, Irvin Yalom, in his classic book The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy.
More reasons why group therapy works
Yalom lists a number of therapeutic factors which explain why group therapy works.
The instillation of hope
This first one isn’t rocket science. If you go into group therapy with real hope that it’s going to make a positive difference to your life and if you then see other people being changed by it these things are going to help you on your own journey.
People often think they’re alone in their particular problems, thoughts and imaginings. The discovery in a group that other people are struggling with similar things can be a powerful ‘Welcome to the human race’ experience.
Acceptance and belonging
Along with someone’s belief that they’re the only one with x,y and z problems there may be a conviction that those problems are also unacceptable. Gradually finding the courage to talk about them and then finding oneself accepted for who one is can again be a hugely powerful experience.
You’re unlikely to be an active member of a good therapy group without learning something about your own mental health. Believing that you’re controlled by irrational forces contributes to anxiety. Having sense made of your behaviour and perceptions can reduce that anxiety.
Hopefully in a group you’ll find other members giving to you and doing so just because they want to not as part of a ‘You give me this and I’ll give you that’ transaction.
In addition, you’ll probably find that you yourself are of help to others and are not a burden. That boosts your self-esteem.
I’d be a rich person if I had £1000 for every time someone thinking about joining a group has said to me things like, ‘But how can group members help me when they’re not trained professionals?’ or ‘Isn’t it the blind leading the blind?’ Often this is another way of saying ‘I have nothing of value to offer anyone in a group’. The extraordinary – and I mean extraordinary – thing about group analysis is that the insights that untrained group members have about each other are frequently absolutely spot on and remarkable in their perceptiveness. It’s not unusual for people in a group to see a range of things that a therapist on their own won’t see.
A healthier re-running of an original family group
Most patients in a group have come with unsatisfactory experiences in their families of origin – in other words in their first group. Psychotherapy groups are like families in many ways. There’s the therapist who’s often perceived as an authority figure, there are the group members who take the place of siblings and there are lots of other dynamics that you get in any good family – things like very personal disclosures, strong emotions, intimacy and, yes, sometimes competitiveness, disagreement and conflict.
The point is that group members will initially relate to each other in much the same way as they related to their parents, grandparents, siblings or other important people in their formative years. As Irvin Yalom says, they may be dependent, defiant, wary or compliant or they may try to divide people or they may crave attention or they may be prickly or they may appease. BUT in this new group (and perhaps unlike the original family group) these behaviours and attitudes can be corrected. Unfinished business from the distant past can be worked through.
Therapy groups are microcosms of society in which disturbed interpersonal relationships that get played out time and time again in the world can be changed into distortion-free and more satisfying ways of relating in the group room. As Yalom writes, through feedback from the group the individual becomes aware of ‘significant aspects of their interpersonal behaviour, their strengths, their limitations, their interpersonal distortions and the behavioural traits that keep getting unwanted reactions in the outside world’. The group member also realizes that they have the power to make changes.
The modified behaviour, perceptions and relational patterns then get taken into the world outside where they’re reinforced, thus replacing a vicious circle with a virtuous circle.
A cohesive group
A successful group is a cohesive group. ‘Cohesive’ refers to ‘the attraction that members have for their group’ and for each other. ‘Members of a cohesive group are accepting of one another, supportive and inclined to form meaningful relationships in the group’. Cohesiveness means you can express and explore yourself more and more. Cohesiveness encourages self-disclosure, risk-taking and the healthy working-through of conflict in the group.
So where now?
If you’d like to explore whether a group could help you I’d be happy to have a talk with you. I’m one of very few trained and qualified group analytic psychotherapists in private practice in Surrey. Do get in touch.
© Brian Shand 2021
More of my blogs https://www.guildfordtherapy.co.uk/blog/