People frequently enter therapy with the belief that their problems are unique and specific to them—that something is wrong with them and that they have little, if any, options; and, oftentimes, this belief that they are alone in their experience can lead to shame.
In individual therapy, client and clinician work together to normalize these experiences, understand the root of the presenting problems, identify therapeutic goals, and develop healthier, more helpful thought and behavioral patterns. Individual therapy creates an environment that allows for clinician and client to remain distinctly focused on the individual client, which many find very helpful. Nevertheless, it is worth acknowledging that individual therapy, by nature, cannot offer the perspective of other individuals encountering similar problems, or the support they may be able to provide; this, rather, is an attribute unique to group therapy.
What is group therapy?
There are a variety of different types of group therapy, but all therapeutic groups share a few common goals: to help individuals increase their understanding of themselves and others, gain clarity about what their personal goals are, develop the necessary skills to acquire such goals and to provide support along the way.
Some of the most common group types include psychoeducational groups, counseling groups, and psychotherapy groups. The following is a brief description of each:
–Psychoeducational groups focus primarily on improving group members’ cognitive, behavioral, and affective skills by utilizing structured procedures aimed at introducing, understanding, and integrating factual information. Parenting skills groups and substance abuse prevention groups are both examples of psychoeducational groups.
–Counseling groups focus primarily on helping group members resolve the common difficulties of living by utilizing interpersonal and problem-solving skills that emphasize conscious feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Counseling groups are oriented towards the prevention or remediation of specific, short-term issues, such as those concerning one’s career, education, personal life, or development.
–Psychotherapy groups focus primarily on helping individuals struggling with psychological problems and interpersonal problems concerned with daily life by alleviating specific symptoms or presenting psychological problems. Group members often struggle with acute or chronic mental or emotional problems that lead to marked distress and/ or impairment in functioning, including depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and psychosomatic disorders.
Groups are typically led by one or more therapists with specialized training, consist of about five to 15 group members, and generally meet for one or two hours per week. However, it is important to remember that groups can differ in structure, frequency, duration, size, location, and membership depending on their defined therapeutic purpose.
What are the benefits of group therapy?
As mentioned, group therapy can provide individuals with what individual therapy inherently cannot: a community of individuals sharing similar experiences.
As human beings, one of our most basic desires and needs is that for connection and belonging (2). However, when we feel alone or isolated in our experiences, especially those that have the potential to have a negative effect on our life, it is not uncommon to begin to wonder if there is something wrong with us—a thought pattern that often leads to feelings of shame and further isolating. Shame, as defined by Brené Brown,is “as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection” (3). Brown continues, “shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure…the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous”. By providing an important sense of community, group therapy directly challenges these feelings of isolation and shame by assuring people are alone and that others share similar problems and experiences.
This sense of community also allows for group members to both receive support and give support to others—each of which contributes to the treatment process in an important way. Receiving support from others facilitates the bonding of a group, otherwise known as the therapeutic alliance. Briefly, a therapeutic alliance refers to the relationship between clinician and client (or, in this case, group members) and is achieved when there is a shared belief of what the treatment goals and tasks are, and a personal bond made up of reciprocal positive feelings has been developed. A therapeutic alliance is considered to be the means by which beneficial changes occur and is therefore considered by many to be an essential aspect of successful therapy. On the flip side, giving support to others facilitates growth and learning. Group members each have their own unique personality and background, creating a sense of diversity within the group compared to individual therapy. This translates to group members being able to offer a variety of different perspectives, problem-solving skills, and coping mechanisms that may help other members discover new ways of working through their own concerns. As a whole, discussing personal concerns with others who have had similar experiences and being met with support, understanding, and guidance based on what has worked for others—and being able to give that to others in return—instills an important sense of hope within individuals that it is possible to create a different life.
In addition to the valuable support one gains from group therapy, formal groups also offer benefits beyond self-help and community. Because formal groups are led by licensed mental health professionals with specialized training, group members will also be introduced to and taught strategies proven to help manage specific presenting problems, receiving expert guidance along the way. The benefit of doing this learning in a group (as opposed to in individual therapy) is that group members are then able to practice newly learned behavior in a safe environment and receive honest feedback about the effect that their behavior has on others. Doing so also promotes communication and socialization skills, allowing group members to learn how to express their concerns and accept criticism from others.
Joining a group
Groups can be an excellent choice of treatment for people experiencing a range of issues. If you are considering joining a group, talking with your individual therapist (if you have one) or a general doctor can help you find one appropriate for you. You may also want to consider the following questions:
–Is it an open or closed group? An open group refers to groups whose new members can join at any time, so the window of time between finding the group and joining it can be quite small. This also means that new members may experience a period of adjustment as they get to know and feel comfortable with other members who have been part of the group for longer. A closed group refers to groups whose members all join at the same time, meaning one may have to wait a couple of weeks or months after finding the group for it to begin. However, since group members are introduced to each other at the same time and going through the process of group therapy together, a stronger sense of bonding may occur.
–How many people are in the group? Smaller groups allow for more time to focus on each individual, while larger groups can offer greater diversity and therefore more perspectives.
–Is group therapy the right choice for me? Group therapy offers a ton of valuable benefits to a wide range of people, but it’s not always for everyone—and that’s okay! Consider factors like your willingness to engage in therapeutic discussions while being open and honest about personal experiences in a group setting. For some, this can seem overwhelming and uncomfortable, and finding an individual therapist to work with may be the best treatment option—it’s all about what works for you!
Associate Therapists Caroline G. Brown, LMSW and Antoinette Bonafede, LMSW will be leading a DBT-focused group starting in January 2022. If you would like to learn more about group membership, please feel free to reach out to either Caroline or Antoinette via email with any questions!
(1) Corey, M. S., Corey, G., & Corey, C. (2013). Groups: Process and practice. Cengage Learning.
(2) Boardman, Sally. “The Importance of Developing a Sense of Belonging.” Life Skills Group, 2020, www.lifeskillsgroup.com.au/blog/belonging.
(3) Brown, Brené. “Shame v. Guilt.” Brené Brown, 21 Aug. 2019, brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/.