Coaching for Life: The power of group therapy
By Michael Ceo
For the past three and a half years I have witnessed an unfolding miracle that has taken place weekly among a group of women ranging in age from 31 to 45 years. Over this time, a group of strangers has welded themselves into a team whose members are dedicated to their mutual personal growth, satisfaction and empowerment. For this group of women, these are not simply empty concepts but represent a core of learning that has had a transforming effect on their lives. They have laughed together and cried together as they have faced threats to their marriages and their health.
While there is much written and shown on screen about individual psychotherapy, the power and value of groups as a therapy format have been surprisingly unannounced.
There are many reasons why group therapy has special value and use as a tool for helping people make positive changes in their lives. Most importantly, the range of ages and life situations for which groups offer a transformative experience, is extremely broad. From adolescents struggling to establish their identify to adults hungry to get more satisfaction from their relationships, groups offer the ideal therapeutic setting for real learning to take place. People can experiment with behavioral changes that can be put into practice within the safe laboratory of the therapy group. Only after the group member is at ease with the changes can a decision be made to implement these changes within the context of their life.
One explanation for the practical impact of group therapy centers on how the group provides an opportunity to learn interpersonal skills that our growing-up years may not have adequately provided. Satisfaction with marriage and relationships depends largely upon one’s interpersonal resources. People in therapy groups get to learn and practice skills in communications, conflict resolution, problem solving, assertiveness, decision-making and human empathy. For men, groups can help teach the language of emotional needs that will empower them to be more competent husbands.
Groups also can be geared to specific problems or populations, so learning can be targeted more effectively. For example, some counseling groups are focused on anger communications, adolescent problems, singles support, chemical dependency, parenting, executive coaching, families in transition and marriage enhancement. Some time ago, it was suggested to me by the now retired Leesburg psychologist, Laurel Kassoff, that people grow from same sex relationships rather than opposite sex relationships. So while my earlier groups included men and women, I have begun experimenting with men’s and women’s groups.
A personal growth group program I called, “Men and the Paradox of Power,” explored the changing messages about competency and power that men experience in their marriage and work lives. It was quite exciting to see a group of men connecting with and learning from one another about the successes and challenges they face. They were able to navigate more readily through the conflicting cross-currents their lives had become. The group was also a safe place for men who had been through painful marriages to sort out the fallout, do emotional damage control and sort through what needs to change in order to trust a woman again in a future marriage. The frustrating isolation experienced by men who are neither joiners nor sports enthusiasts was a prevalent theme. So was the sometimes comical envy they had over how easy it is for women to talk to one another. It was a fun and powerful leaning experience.
Groups also make counseling more affordable. With managed care insurance limiting access to treatment and requiring personal information from patients that can damage their future ability to get health insurance, the lower cost of group therapy allows people to pay for therapy out of pocket maintaining their privacy with their insurance companies. Another advantage of groups involves the healing power of perspective. An old Chinese proverb says, “The man with no shoes complained until he met the man with no feet.” Hearing the challenges of others has a way of jolting us out of our sense of being victimized by life. Sometimes when my day isn’t going very well, I think of the inspirational struggle of the late actor Christopher Reeve, and I immediately shift to thankfulness and shake myself out of the pity party. Counseling groups have a similar effect of putting our problems and struggles into a broader perspective.
The anonymity of group therapy is also part of its healing effect. My ground rules require the participants to share in the therapist’s responsibility to maintain strict confidentiality. Participants are advised not to have any contact with one another outside the group context. This protective boundary sets the group experience apart from other relationships in their lives. Group members experience themselves and the other group members in a safe place that is insulated and protected from the other aspects of their life. There’s a freeing quality about it. You can experiment with being a different person in group without the usual ramifications. At their own pace, group members can put into practice what they learn about themselves, trying out new behaviors in their relationships at home and at work.
While interacting with people in society highlights what you do in your life, group therapy emphasizes who you are and the net effect your behavior has on others. This trusted feedback is invaluable as people attempt to make changes in their lives. One’s impressions, feelings and insights become the currency of the group rather than the usual information about us. I often use the term “connectedness” as a description of what we’re after in a group. This is what I am told is missing for so many of us in the day- to-day world. There is something special about having people who were complete strangers come to know and accept the innermost aspects of your experience in life and learn to really trust them. As we let trusted others into our private world their acceptance of us coaxes us to learn to accept ourselves. You can almost see the healing taking place.
Groups have special healing value as an adjunct to medical treatment. In one landmark study, breast cancer patients had actually improved survival rates when they participated in group therapy. Supportive groups for patients grappling with other medical conditions deserve more availability. A perennial problem with offering groups centers on the logistics of populating and scheduling a group. It can be difficult to identify a sufficient number of people who are available at the same time for whom a particular group would be suitable. Perhaps we need a central Web site or posting of groups that are available in our community so groups can be more easily formed. While, for example, there is a striking need for adolescent therapy groups, I know of none that are available. Nor do I know where to find out about groups.
Group therapy is not for everyone who enters the process of psychotherapy. I usually work with someone for a period of time before recommending a group as a treatment format. Learning to trust one person is a lot easier than a room full of people. But when a client is ready to graduate into group therapy, the payoff can be significant.
I would be open to suggestions how we, as a community, can make more group programs available.