Michael E. Holtby, LCSW, BCD
Why Should You Consider Joining a Group?
"Group therapy is not for me!"If you are one of the typical people who has sought psychotherapy you have done so as a last resort. You have tried other alternatives for handling your problems and still remain unhappy in some way. Possibly you have confided in friends, family, or tried to be strong and suffered in silence for a long time. Usually to consider going to a professional for help seems to be an admission that something is wrong with you that you can't handle yourself. You feel shame about needing to do this, and you may even have friends or relatives who view therapists as quacks who don't really help.
"I'll need the full hour just for myself."Given this type of background it is not surprising that when your therapist suggests a group you say, "My God, I had enough trouble talking to one stranger, let alone having my most private feelings and problems picked over by a bunch of your other patients!" Most people enter therapy with the expectation that they are going to get better by coming once a week and talking about their problems, at length, for fifty minutes.
You may be thinking your therapist wants you in a group because he can see
more people that way, and you may still have the impression that it is a
second-best alternative to individual sessions. "Its only logical," you say, "If
I see my therapist alone for an hour, I can tell him more than if I have to
share the time with other people."
But sometimes the more you talk about yourself, the more you focus only on
yourself, the more you get lost in the morass of self-involvement. We are, as
people, all relational, all connected. We need to learn how to overcome
isolation, withdrawal, and the hurt and bitterness that keeps us separate.
The unreality of individual therapy:When you think about it, the relationship with a therapist is highly unnatural and limiting. It is a one-to-one situation in which the therapist and client are not relating in a normal manner, but in a highly unusual one. It is unusual in the sense that the client can often feel one-down to the therapist; in that the therapist may operate out of a role, rather than being a genuine person, and may share very little in comparison to you; and it is unusual in the sense that you are paying for the relationship. This is unlike any other relationship you are likely to have in your life, especially in terms of intimacy, honesty and vulnerability with another human being.
On the other hand, a group is much closer to your real life. You have a trained therapist to facilitate the process, but there's probably a half-dozen other people there who aren't paid to listen to you. Your relationship with them will be based upon the same things that your relationships with friends outside of therapy are predicated upon. You will create in group a microscopic version of your social world. You will relate as you do in other situations. You will give the group an encapsulated version of your life, not only by telling them about yourself, but by the way in which you relate. And yet if you have experienced a series of unsuccessful relationships, group can be a place to look at how and why that has happened.
Why group works:There is a great deal of potential learning value in a situation in which you're able to get more feedback on your behavior than you would in other social situations where it is not appropriate. All of us have a "blind area" in our functioning, in that we have a part of ourselves that everyone else can see, but that we don't realize about ourselves. Its like the comedian who does the routine about the boy who couldn't understand why his date wouldn't kiss him until he goes home, looks in the mirror and finds spinach between his teeth. You may go around in a lot of interpersonal situations with an emotional piece of spinach that people are too polite to point out. In group, you are liable to be told about things you are unaware of, that other people can see about how you unconsciously present yourself.
I am anticipating your reaction to this, "My God, if I join a group I'll be
torn to bits by the others!" In an effective group people are amazingly gentle,
and recognize the purpose is not to judge one another. Its more like your best
friend discretely saying, "You better look in the mirror before your date comes
back from the restroom." In addition, feedback is often much more positive than
a person anticipates and can be quite helpful in countering your lack of
One of the initial reactions you will find as a new group member is the
comforting feeling that others are in the same boat, and that you are not alone
with your problems. In fact, group members sometimes feel fortunate through
listening to what other group members are facing. Your problem may take on less
seriousness in light of the descriptions of other' problems. This helps you put
your own in perspective, and boost your own self-esteem.
It is also possible to gain personally in a group session without saying
anything. You can get therapy indirectly through the work of others. You will
find similarities with yourself and discover than you can learn from how others
relate and work on their issues. Learning to be effective in how you communicate
your feelings, needs, and thoughts comes from practice with others as well as
using others as models for how to and not to do it. Also the work of other group
members can spark off feelings and insights you weren't previously aware of
I also find that gay men frequently have difficulty relating to other gay
men. They have the "all men are jerks" syndrome: men can't be trusted, they are
superficial, back-biting, unreliable, promiscuous, unfaithful, flighty, can't
sustain relationships, arrogant, and insensitive. And yet, YOU are a man! Why
are you the exception? And if you are not exempt, how do you live with yourself?
There may be a kernel of truth in such a characterization, but the structure and
safety of a therapy group will invariably allow you to see the positive sides of
men...including yourself. One of life's greatest joys is to feel warmly a part
of a group of men. For most gay men, the experience of being an outsider is far
Strong groups become like functional families. They nurture, support, challenge, and provide a safe place for vulnerability and the intimacy I believe we all crave in our lives.
Last messed with February 23, 2015
Copyright(c) 2001 Michael E. Holtby, LCSW. All rights reserved.