What are the advantages of group therapy?
It is hard for some people to imagine sitting in a therapy group and talking about their most intimate feelings and experiences. When thinking about where and how to get therapy, the idea of an individual therapist can perhaps feel more comfortable or safe and therefore appealing than a group.
So, what could be the advantages of group therapy?
Intimacy with others
While the thought of opening-up to strangers may be counter-intuitive it's important to understand that when you become part of a therapy group the other members of the group very quickly stop being strangers. Groups can offer a very unique experience of closeness with others.
The anonymity of the relationships (members don't have contact outside) can help build a sense of trust and safety and allow less concern about what others might think which many experience as freeing. It’s then possible to use the group as a chance to be different in relationships, taking up roles you may not have felt able to in the past.
The bond that people build in the group becomes an important part of the therapeutic process. Once you join a group you belong to the group, even after members leave they are remembered as a part of the group's experience and history. Many people find the idea of being part of something bigger than them containing and supportive.
Groups offer a range of perspectives and responses to you and your difficulties, which gives an advantage over individual therapy where you only encounter the views of one other person.
One of the common experiences of new members is the impact of realising many of the struggles they thought they were on their own with are echoed by others in the group. This is particularly helpful when carrying shame about certain thoughts or feelings. Discussing common problems, emotions, and difficulties in the group offers the opportunity to hear familiar experiences being articulated by others in different ways.
The experience of being in a therapy group can feel closer to 'real life', at least partly because the other members are not there as professionals. This means that some difficulties 'out there' can be more obviously tackled 'in here'. In this way, the impact of group therapy can often be powerful and immediately applicable to outside relationships and lives.
Therapy groups are by nature democratic. While the therapist works to make the environment safe, members share responsibility for the therapeutic task and culture of the group. While they don't disclose personal difficulties or information the group therapist in other ways participates as another member of the group. This offers a more egalitarian approach and helps diminish some of the inequity of power that can develop in individual therapy.
Many difficulties that eventually lead people to seek help have been caused, or at least exacerbated, by a ‘turning away’ from others. This protective strategy of self-isolation in fact worsens feelings of alienation and shame. Fears of risking exposure by talking to others adds to this cycle. In this context it’s possible to see how taking your troubles to a professional in one to one therapy can be appealing. However, this might also perpetuate an idea that problems are private and should not be shared with and by others outside a professional relationship. Groups psychotherapy challenges this assumption and while ensuring safety through firm boundaries, encourages a 'turning towards' others to address the shame, loneliness and disconnection underlying much psychological pain and difficulty.
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About Claire Barnes
Claire Barnes is a qualified psychotherapist, group analyst, and clinical supervisor. She has been working as a therapist with a range of clients and settings, including NHS psychotherapy, higher education and private practice, for over 25 years. She currently offers counselling, psychotherapy and supervision to individuals and groups in Hove.