It brings images of sitting in circles and saying one interesting fact about yourself and forced clapping when someone admits to being an alcoholic. Group therapy may seem a little touchy-feely and Kumbaya to those who don’t feel comfortable sharing their life stories with people they just met, which is most of us. In a whole room of people being vulnerable there may be something to gain away from one-on-one psychologist sessions.
Group therapy works with its direct communicate with others who have experienced or are still currently experiencing similar circumstances. Veterans of war with posttraumatic stress disorder can find it difficult to speak of their experiences and symptoms with people who haven’t trodden the battleground. Victims of domestic violence can feel embarrassed and ashamed talking to friends about putting up with something so degrading. Group therapy is free of judgment from speculation and unforgiving responses from anti-war protestors and fundamentalist feminists.
An individual counselling session may give you feedback that your war flashbacks and night terrors are normal post-traumatic responses. Although sitting across from a therapist can ease the rational side of pain and stress, it is a different kind of role group therapy plays. You can hear from the mouths of others their own accounts and it’s direct application to their identity. Putting other faces and lives to the disorder you’re experiencing makes it less abstract and internal and more solid and graspable.
While it is nice to think our loved ones can guide us through tough times, sometimes people need a source of strength apart from their immediate in-group. Advice can be well meaning but can leave one feeling sceptical if there is no concrete evidence of a suggested treatment working. In group therapy there is a range of people in different stages of healing from a similar source of pain. It can be inspirational meeting someone who has been through the same thing and is at a later stage of recovery. It can also be very rewarding meeting those who are at an earlier stage and help mentor them and give your own personal advice. Using knowledge gained from a negative experience to help others is one of the most transformative and positive outcomes.
It’s hard to realise what you have learnt from a negative experience until you help someone else through his or hers. There is a wealth of untapped knowledge in you that can be summoned forward and help give strength to others. If all this seems a little daunting you can try joining an online support network and see how you feel sharing your story anonymously before in front of a live audience. Writing down one’s feelings is also a therapy with its own with specific benefits. There are many writing exercises that can help self-awareness, acceptance and moving on from the past. One can try writing an unsent letter to an alive or dead relative and then write their reply.
Some group therapies will give writing exercises, with the rare added benefit of being able to meet the author’s whose work you’re reading and give them a hug. It’s ok, hugs are optional.