What to Expect from Group Therapy

If you’re reading this post I am imagining that you are contemplating and/or preparing for your first group therapy session. Feeling nervous and wondering what the first session will be like. While there really isn’t anyway to fully prepare for the experience of group therapy, I do believe that it’s important to address fears and common misconceptions as a way to help regulate and get the most out of your time in this sacred space.

Think of Group as a kind of social lab. Have you ever had any experiences or relationships that you think about on repeat? Maybe there’s someone you wish you could go back in time to talk to and clear up what really happened between you or ask a question you were never able to get out? This might be a family member, friend, or partner. Group offers the opportunity to practice being honest about your emotions while utilizing healthy boundaries in a contained environment. You can try out new ways of sharing, test out your comfort levels in confronting others, and dip deeper into your own body from session to session.

Common Group Misconceptions:

  1. Group is that it’s a quick fix and that you will be in and out within a month or two. This process is not a short one. Unless you are in a short-term group (be sure to clarify with your therapist what kind of group you are joining) you can expect to commit to a minimum of 6-12 months but typically groups run for a few years. In addition, rather than (like with individual therapy) finding a relatively quick relief from discomfort, Group will actually increase your discomfort initially. This is a critical part of Group and I always encourage clients to bring a journal to sessions in order to make note of what is coming up for you, what’s happening within your body, and to share this experience with the Group. Are you feeling judged? Frightened? Where is this experience stemming from (ex: “this reminds me of times in my past when I shared that I was feeling unhappy and scared of being judged with my parents and was rejected”)? The idea is that Group will provide a corrective experience as you are in community with others who are also on a healing journey.
  2. Group is unpredictable. While group may feel unpredictable, there are several components about the space that do not change week to week. Depending on how your therapist has structured the group (and you can ask about this!), group members and your group leader(s) do not change week to week. While the content of what is being talked about may vary, you can expect that you fellow group members will show up week after week, ready to wrestle with themselves, the group, and the work until the work is done. Your group members are on their own paths heading the same direction as you toward their healing. There is also a general structure (maybe this looks like weekly check-ins, a short meditation to begin the session, and/or sharing gratitudes at the end of session) that creates a rhythm that will guide the Group as you navigate uncharted waters.
  3. Being in group with those who have significant diagnosis is inherently going to impact your process or is otherwise negative. This is a common misconception that can show up with those diagnoses that carry an additionally heavy stigma such as Bipolar and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Group members are thoughtfully considered by group leaders based upon where clients are in their work, what their work looks like/what they are facing in their life, and what personalities would benefit from learning to work together. This is a part of the Group identity and cohesiveness. Each member has their own process and is in Group to focus on their own journey. If you are feeling insecure based upon someone else’s experience, attachment style, or diagnosis, I encourage you to talk with the group leader and get curious about what is underneath this fear. What is this experience activating from your childhood? Paying attention to the sensations in your body can help facilitate this process.

Common Fears About Group:

  1. Group isn’t as effective at addressing issues as individual therapy. While Group and individual therapy can be similar, they are also different in what they will support you in processing/working through. Additionally, have you ever noticed that it’s easy to go to therapy and talk about using healthy boundaries and communication and then you get to the “real” world and they go out the window? Think about getting the opportunity to practice those skills with your therapist in the room to provide feedback and offer support when needed. Group will pull for deeper material and while allowing you to practice creating healthy relationships in a safe environment. It’s a dress rehearsal for life.
  2. You won’t get enough time to speak. If you are in a group of upwards of 6-7 members, a common fear can be that you won’t get enough time to speak in group. I encourage clients to pay attention to whether they feel that they are getting enough time to speak up in group, address this with the group, and reflect on whether this could be a family of origin role recreating itself. For example, it is common for “Heros” to struggle to speak up in group in a way other than in service of others (so, speaking up about their own personal experience rather than giving feedback to a group member). This is your family of origin dynamic recreating itself and is the pattern to be broken. So giving voice to this fear is a critical part of the work.
  3. That you won’t be able to relate to other group members or that they will not understand you or your struggles. Again, think about whether this could be stemming from your family of origin. If we were the “Black Sheep” or “Scapegoat” we may fear being outcast if we speak up honestly about our thoughts and experience. Your therapist has (hopefully, and again, I totally encourage you to ask about your therapist’s process!) thoughtfully cultivated this group for a reason. Also. We tend to be able to relate to others in more ways than not. However, trauma can tell us the story that we are “the only one”, when in actuality we tend to share many experiences. For example, most people have something about themselves that their are self-conscious about, most people can get down on themselves and most people have had painful experiences. When we give voice to this fear we can learn that while our experiences may not be the exact same, we are often able to relate to the emotion that is evoked and can find connection in that space.

Despite the fear and frustration that Group will necessarily evoke, Group is a life giving and exceptionally sacred space because it’s rooted in connection and alchemy. While individual therapy is the necessary place to start, the goal is always to create meaningful connection off the couch. In Group, you are able to give voice to your pain and watch it be melted into connection with those who are on the journey with you. It’s magic. It’s sacred family. If you’re preparing to begin your Group journey, my biggest wish for you is to be brave. Give your inner child the voice that was taken from them. Reparent them boldly. You are worthy of this healing. You are worthy of feeling seen.

In camaraderie,

Dr. B