Why You Should Consider Group Therapy

Especially if you think you aren’t a group person.

Posted Oct 05, 2018

Photographee .eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee .eu/Shutterstock

I often joke that I run groups full of people who don’t like groups. Not only do most of the participants in the groups that I lead identify as “not a group person,” but since my groups focus on overeating, I’m also asking people to talk about what is generally an extraordinarily sensitive and shame-ridden subject.

I mean, who really wants to sit with a bunch of strangers and talk about some of their most closely held secrets? Newsflash: No one does.

And thus, I wind up leading groups with a room full of people who aren’t too keen on the idea of group therapy at all. But all's well that ends well, because ultimately many people discover group therapy to be more helpful than they initially imagined.

Why do so many people hesitate (or run in the other direction) at the mention of group therapy? There are generally three main objections that I hear to joining a group program. Here are those objections, along with why they really shouldn’t stop you from joining a group.

1. “I don’t want to talk about my problems in front of other people.”

We live in a culture where emotional vulnerability is viewed as weakness. We are taught to “put on a happy face” and swallow our feelings. In this context, it comes as no surprise that we have a ton of shame around our struggles. The thought of talking to a bunch of strangers about our inner lives is uncomfortable. Heck, it may even be downright terrifying. If this is the case for you, you are not alone. Joining a group is scary. Most people feel apprehensive about opening up in a group setting. But here’s the key: Sometimes we have to push ourselves to do things that are uncomfortable. Change often occurs in that place where we can take a step outside of our comfort zone, push the boundaries of what we are accustomed to, and challenge ourselves to try something new. You just might find that the benefits of group far outweigh this initial discomfort.

2. “I don’t want to listen to other people’s problems.”

When you imagine group therapy, do you picture a group of sad-seeming people sitting in a circle on flimsy folding chairs in a dingy basement, drinking stale coffee and droning on about everything that is going wrong in their lives? If so, you’ve probably been watching too much TV! With the pathetic ways that groups are typically depicted in the media, it’s no wonder that people think twice before joining a group! But this tired trope is seldom what group therapy is actually like. Groups are usually vibrant and dynamic. A skilled group leader will mediate the discussion so that no one person dominates, and will keep the group focused on the task at hand and accomplishing goals. Rather than a whine-fest, good groups engage in productive and transformational work.

3. “I don’t have enough time to join a group.”

We live in a world where most of us are over-scheduled, overworked, and under-joyed. We spend the bulk of our days in front of a screen with minimal live, real-time contact with another human being. What are we so busy doing? For starters, we spend an average of 2 hours per day on social media. Two hours every single day. Do you know how long a group usually lasts? Typically between 1-2 hours per week. When you join a group, it's true that you are making a time commitment. You are agreeing to show up at a set place (whether it be a physical location or just a virtual one) at a set time for the duration of the group. In this day and age, that may seem antiquated. But our human need for connection hasn’t evolved as quickly as technology. And that is the reason why groups are one of the most powerful avenues for creating changes in long-held patterns. Can you find the time to invest in taking care of yourself?

Those are the three biggest objections to joining a group, but as I mentioned, groups help people more than not.

Here are three ways you may benefit from a group:

1. You may feel decreased shame around your struggles.

We often believe that what we are struggling with is so horrid that we hold it as our deepest secret. It is not uncommon for me to hear that a patient has not even told their spouse, best friend, or parents about the issues that have brought them into treatment. This shame takes on a life of its own, growing exponentially and making people feel isolated and alone in their problems. While it can be uncomfortable to talk about your problems with a bunch of strangers, people often find the process to ultimately be incredibly freeing. An article published by the American Psychological Association stated that groups can help provide social support, improve social networks, and reduce stigma, isolation, and alienation among group members. There is power in engaging with others who are struggling with similar issues in a therapeutic environment that is focused on understanding, support, coping, and healing.

2. You never know who is going to say the thing that really clicks. It very likely may not be your therapist.

There is something about hearing the words from someone else who's struggling that can make you see everything in a new light. In fact, some of the most meaningful “aha” moments that my clients have had over my career as a psychologist have occurred not as a result of anything that I have said, but from the words of other group participants. When this happens, it is a powerful experience, not only for the person gaining the insight, but also for the person giving it, because they get to see the ways that they can affect another person.

3. It’s more affordable (and effective!).

Because you are sharing your therapist’s time among several people, groups tend to be far more affordable than individual sessions. And research shows that for many issues, group treatment is as effective as individual therapy. Personally, I believe that the best results come from a combination of individual and group treatments. But if you can’t swing that, group can be a terrific and more affordable option.

So remember, the idea of joining a group may feel uncomfortable, and we can do it anyways. It is often in that place of discomfort that change occurs. What do you think? Have you participated in a therapy or coaching group? I would love to hear about your experience. Please share in the comments section below.