Many people do not consider the option of group therapy when they are thinking of entering treatment. I think that’s unfortunate because not only is it an affordable option for most people, it is also a powerful treatment modality. Group is an energetic, dynamic, supportive, and rich environment where a unique type of growth occurs. It makes sense that group is good for people who might struggle with social anxiety, loneliness, shame, or those who have difficulties communicating.
But group is a treatment of choice for so many other concerns such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, to name a few things. The reason for this is that our brains are social organs. They can only develop within relationships with others, and therefore they also transform within a relational setting. Our brains synergistically affect one another. The group provides that interpersonally rich and supportive environment where deep change occurs. When group members can be curious about themselves while remaining connected to others, a whole new type of learning can take place.
Members receive support from one another, they gain insights not only from their participation but through the work that others are doing, and members can see how they show up in relationship with others. We are not just talking about what gets in the way of satisfying connections with others anymore because it’s happening in real time and we can observe and intervene in effective ways.
Modern Psychoanalytic group therapist Elliot Zeisel referred to group therapy as a “nutritional soup” where members absorb the wonderful nutrients they need to thrive in their lives. I would agree as I've experienced my own professional and personal growth accelerated through participation in groups.
Group therapy might be a good option for you if:
You’ve reached a plateau in your treatment and you’re ready for the nutritious soup of group!
You want deeper connections to people in your life
You’ve noticed patterns in your relationships that have stumped you or have gotten in the way of what you want
You don’t want to do all the work but want to sometimes kick back and learn vicariously through others
You want to learn to become an emotionally safe person who can have all your feelings and choose which to act upon
You want to learn to navigate conflict with others while remaining connected
You would like to not lose yourself while you are in relationship with others
- You want to become acquainted with a fuller and more fluid version of yourself
If this is you, consider joining a group!
I really like food metaphors. They resonate for me and I find them particularly helpful in my work. One of these metaphors that I find poignant concerns the nourishing quality of food as analogous to the nourishment potentially available in relationship. Like good food, relationships and even brief encounters with others can truly feed and sustain us. When we can take moments of healthy encounter in and assimilate them, it can be truly nutritive to our psyches.
But so often, something gets in the way of really taking in the nourishment available to us. Something pulls us away from the possibility of being nourished by an encounter with someone. We might be pulled away by worries about what is to come in the next moment, the fear that we will be rejected by that person or that we will not receive enough, we have difficulty settling in and being present, we become self-involved and are unable to see that person in front of us, and sometimes we are so hungry that we end up rejecting what is wholesome. There are so many reasons why we are unavailable to simply be present to take in the nutritious and tasty quality of the relational moment in front of us.
What we don’t realize is that there is benefit to doing this beyond the satisfaction of being fed in that present moment. If we could slow down and be present, savor the interaction, ingest it, and digest the nutrients of it, it would change us. It would strengthen and sustain us to face the next moment. We would not approach the next moment or future moments in the same way as we would without the new nourishment because we come with new strength, perspective, wellbeing. It is not unlike approaching the next moment of life after taking in a nutritious meal that affects your energy level, your ability to think clearly, to feel satisfied, and fortified.
In individual and group therapy, people bring in the resistances that prevent them from being nourished by the relationships right in front of them. When we can remove these blockages, patients can digest and be nourished moment by moment by life and relationships, and are subsequently changed. The things they long for become available to them in a way that wasn’t previously possible. New possibilities open up that weren’t previously available without the sustenance. Life starts to look different when nourished.
In my practice, most people I see wish they were someplace different than where they find themselves. Of course, the things that bring people in to psychotherapy are usually unwanted. People are in places of pain, angst, shame, and struggle. They are thwarted in their relationships and in their potential for living. Life is not going well and they are not in the place they envisioned for themselves when they dreamed of life. There’s sometimes a deep sense of disappointment and disillusionment. Some people even feel judgment or shame for where they find themselves. They believe, “I shouldn’t be here” or “There’s something wrong with me for being in this place.”
These are hard places to be. And yet they are places in which we all find ourselves. There’s nothing unusual or peculiar in this experience. Life doesn’t go the way we dreamed or planned. We find ourselves grappling with things we never thought we would and that we only thought would happen to other people. There’s a false sense of safety in separating ourselves from others in this way. But what I’ve learned is that we all struggle and in much the same ways, even if on the surface our concerns seem different. Inherent in our humanity, we all struggle with issues such as how to be in relationship with ourselves and others, searching for meaning and identity, and loss. Rather than hiding behind our differences, there’s comfort and something true in understanding the unity of our struggle.
Thus, I don’t believe some of us are normal while others of us are mentally ill. Rather, I approach people with the deep belief that we are in places of pain because there is suffering we must contend with in life and we are doing the best we know how given the resources we have at any given time. My work is to meet people in the place they are in without judgment of how they got there and without the presumption that I know best which direction they must go. Although some come to therapy seeking direction from a therapist, I don’t believe prescription is where the real power of therapy lies. It is not in the knowing but in the grey areas of uncertainty where change occurs. Without being prescribed certain courses of action, this process naturally leads to inward transformation and empowerment to make one’s own decisions.
So what if we could allow ourselves to be exactly where we are, even if it’s an uncomfortable place? What if we could expect to be in these hard places at times without the belief that we can and should avoid them? Isn’t it easier to move forward without the judgment that we should not be here in the first place? Although we don’t seek out hard places, don’t they so often bring along with them potential for profound growth and propel us forward into new places that were previously unavailable? This can and does happen when we stop resisting them and even press into them. To move forward, we have to begin from the place where we really are.