“I suppose that since most of our hurts come through relationships, so will our healing.” – William Paul Young

Have you ever considered attending a therapy group?

I hadn’t, until several years ago when I was wading through infertility… and a whole host of other stressful life events seemed to collide at the same time. Group therapy offered support and safety, as well as a place to get feedback and practice giving it too. To my surprise, I ended up growing during a season that had initially felt like a withering time.   

Conventional wisdom in counseling says that “70% of the benefits of attending group comes from listening to others.” I didn’t believe this initially. I was hurting — how could a group of strangers help? Interestingly, it was in hearing and being heard, bearing witness and sharing, that some big shifts happened. Every member of the group was an essential element of the learning and growing process, even (and maybe especially) those who on the surface were “not like me.”   

For most of us it is a real stretch to consider attending a therapy group. There is an understandable skepticism that occurs when we imagine being vulnerable with strangers. But we also know that change requires risk, and when we step out and get new information, new data points, we have a chance to experience ourselves and the world differently.

Here are 6 reasons why you may want to take a second look at attending a group:

  1. It’s Effective Treatment.
    A review of the research literature on individual and group counseling found that group and individual psychotherapy are generally equivalent in effectiveness (McRoberts, et al, 1998). While certain forms of treatment may be better suited for specific issues or individuals, this research dismantles the myth that individual attention is always better. Additional research demonstrates that those who participate in group therapy are “better off than 72% of the untreated controls” (Burlingame et al., 2003, p. 3).
  2. It Offers New Experiences.
    Group therapy offers a wide variety of interactions, allowing for multiple Corrective Emotional Experiences (Alexander & French’s 1946 formative phrase for describing the change process in therapy). We often need “in the flesh” experiences that are different from the ones that wounded us in the past. A well-facilitated group can do just that — perhaps exponentially, given the number of diverse connections that typically form in a group.
  3. It’s Cost-effective. 
    All therapy usually involves a financial commitment of some sort. However, group psychotherapy is usually about 1/2 to 1/3 of the cost individual psychotherapy session.
  4. It Helps Build Relational Muscles.
    Our lives often require more time in front of screens than in front of people. Our relationship muscles atrophy quickly. Moreover, when we are depressed or anxious, we struggle to see outside of ourselves. It’s not that we’re selfish, but we’re hurting—and just like a physical wound, it needs attention. A group allows dedicated time and space for this. According to a recent Harvard study, our happiness depends largely on the health of our relationships (Waldinger, 2015). Our ability to thrive in a community greatly impacts our mental health, and time addressing our struggles in a “community” of group therapy can help us practice those skills.
  5. It Strengthens Assertiveness & Boundaries. 
    Being able to skillfully give and receive feedback requires learning and practice. Whether we’re attempting to speak up more and say our truth or leaning into what it means to be a good active listener, group provides a place to practice these skills at a slower pace with a therapist as a guide.  This creates an intentional feedback loop so participants can circle back and explore, “What just happened there?!?”
  6. It Fosters New Insights & Common Humanity. 
    There have been countless times when wisdom from one group member hits home for a fellow group member in a deeper way (even when a very similar thing has been said by a therapist in individual therapy). Like a key turning in a lock, opening a piece of insight for other members, fellow participants can often speak into situations with deep experiential knowing. One of the most powerful things that group members do for one another is to say, “me too.” This nurtures self-compassion, which can lead to increased ability to risk change and growth.   

As painful as relationships may have been in the past, we often need a safe group of people to get well—even if it seems like the last thing we feel like trying. If you’re considering going to counseling, or are already engaged in individual therapy, adding a group therapy experience could help accelerate your progress, growth, and change.  

References:

Alexander, F., & French, T. (1946). Psychoanalytic therapy: Principles and application. New York, NY: Ronald Press.

Burlingame, Gary M., Addie Fuhriman, and Julie Mosier. 2003. The differential effectiveness of group psychotherapy: A meta-analytic perspective. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 7 (1): 3–12.

McRoberts, C, Burlingame, G & Hoag, M (1998) Comparative efficacy of individual and group psychotherapy: A meta-analytic perspective. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, 2, 101-117.

Waldinger, R. (2015, November). Robert Waldinger: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness

Young, W. P., Jacobsen, W., & Cummings, B. (2007). The shack: Where tragedy confronts eternity. Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media.