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3 Ways Group Therapy Is Better Than Individual Therapy

A backstage pass to group process.

Unlike individual therapy, group therapy focuses exclusively on relationships. In individual sessions, therapists receive patients' reports on events. These reports may be exaggerated, distorted, or just plain inaccurate. However, in group, therapists witness live enactments of your relationship difficulties. They observe when your anxiety suddenly spikes, notice your body language change, and see how intimate exchanges trigger you.

In other words, whatever goes wrong in the space between you and another person is displayed in actual—time group therapy. And your therapist is there to help.

What Happens in Life, Happens in Group

The transformative power of group lies in its focus on the here and now. Rather than investigate your history, group therapy directs you to tune into your thoughts and feelings in the moment, particularly the feelings you experience toward your fellow group members.

Of course, this isn't easy. In fact, nearly all patients protest when I recommend group:

“How could I have feelings toward total strangers?

"Why would I express personal feelings in front of others?”

"I go blank when talking in group situations. I don't feel anything."

Whether you realize it or not, you constantly have feelings toward others. Chances are that others are picking up on them, too.

For instance, when you step into an elevator with someone, you experience a wave of feelings toward that person.

Do you feel safe with that person?

Are you attracted to that person?

Do you smile? Avoid eye contact? Feel annoyed?

You can stumble upon your projections as you tune into these feelings and investigate them further.

Does this person remind you of an old friend?

A menacing high school teacher?

Your first love?

Tuning into your feelings is the first step toward living more fully in the moment; it transports you to the here and now and immediately strengthens your attunement to others.

The Group Contract

After identifying your feelings toward someone in group, more work must be done. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with group members is the best way to practice honest and meaningful exchanges. This will make your group experience so exhilarating; it empowers you to sustain intimate relationships in a safe environment. Gradually, you begin to apply the people skills you develop in group in the outside world.

To enrich your way of communicating and connecting with others in group, you’ll be encouraged to:

  • Voice your thoughts and feelings toward fellow group members.
  • Share any associations, memories, or dreams brought to light by relationships in the group.
  • Respond candidly to group members' responses to you.
  • Express frustrating feelings maturely, refraining from verbal attacks.
  • Strive to take emotional risks; step outside your comfort zone.

The therapist establishes a secure and structured environment for group members to feel they’re in safe hands. Toward this end, group members are directed to:

  • Refrain from outside social contact with group members.
  • Respect confidentiality.
  • Arrive at sessions on time.
  • Pay for sessions on time.
  • Attend sessions with minimal absences.

To ensure maximum emotional freedom with your group therapist, you’re also encouraged to:

  • Express feelings toward the therapist (i.e., frustration, anger, affection).
  • Voice fears and concerns about the group to the therapist.
  • Reach out for help or direction from the therapist as needed.

Group in Action

Steven, a prosperous real estate agent with rock-star looks, had a long history of failed romantic relationships. This had me particularly perplexed. In individual sessions, he was charming, thoughtful, and had a good sense of humor and high emotional intelligence. So why did women flee from him?

After several weeks, I asked Steven to join one of my groups. He balked, “What? Share my personal feelings with a bunch of strangers? No, thank you.” I explained I couldn’t help him form better relationships until I could study how he relates to others. “Forget it,” he guffawed, “Group’s not for me.”

I responded, “You hired me to help you solve your relationship problems. I can’t do that under these conditions. You’re wasting your money.”

Reluctantly, he agreed.

Within 15 minutes of his entry into the group, I was stunned by what I witnessed. Steven related to the men in the group in a relaxed and easygoing manner. But with the women, he was wooden, insincere, and arrogant. He adopted a false persona that proved disastrous in masking his insecurities with women.

Naturally, the women's reaction in group mirrored the women's response in his life. At first contact, they liked Steven, but the more he spoke, the more they lost his patience. Poor Steven felt hurt and abandoned by the women, just as he had felt all his life.

Then one day, Steven came to group with sad news; his mother had been hospitalized after a heart attack.

As Steven relayed his story, at times with tears in his eyes, the group members were moved. They understood his fears and shared their experiences with him. Steven listened and responded naturally and unaffectedly; gone were the superficial voice and arrogant manner.

As the group praised him for his openness, Steven discovered his authentic self was much more appealing than the counterfeit one. One woman confessed, “I like this Steven so much more. I would date this Steven in a heartbeat.”

The more positive reinforcement he received, the more he began to share his feelings frankly and openly. As Steven began to form intimate relationships in the group, his anxieties dissipated, and he achieved a new level of comfort with others. Soon after, Steven reported a greater sense of social confidence in the world.

3 Ways Group Is Better Than Individual Therapy

  1. Group focuses exclusively on relationships.
  2. Group therapists get a live demonstration of social problems.
  3. Group members have a place to learn and practice more effective communication methods.

Learning to Embrace Intimacy

Living fully in the here and now puts you at the intersection between your past and future—the best entry point for positive growth and change. In group, you’ll learn to embrace intimacy, honor your feelings, and communicate with others with more excellent skill and authenticity.

Most importantly, group therapy helps you break free of unhealthy relationship patterns and social anxieties. As my mentor, Dr. Louis Ormont, the father of American group psychotherapy, often said, “If you can do it in group, you can do it in life.” What could be more rewarding than that?

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