Month: June 2018

Why Group Therapy Works, Part 2

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

In the first part of this blog series, we looked at how vulnerability in a therapy group is key to unlocking positive change in our group members’ lives.  The second way group therapy works is by offering the experience of unconditional positive regard of the group for each particular member, both in a single instance of intentional vulnerability as well as consistently over time.  This experience becomes an emotional touchstone for a reality fundamentally at odds with, and outside of, the negative emotional experiences that so often serve as the foundation for addictive behaviors.  If we didn’t have these negative emotional realities, or had a better way of coping with them, we would not have to resort to our numbing drug of choice. 

The trouble is that at some point we learned to survive the negative emotional storm by using something to numb, and we became hooked. 

As a result, we have lost the internal resilience to be able to handle it.  This dulls our awareness to such a degree that we are no longer conscious of the emotions that drove us to use in the first place.  One unique way that group work helps to uncover these emotions and simultaneously provide an experience of unconditional positive regard is through playing out the relational patterns and dynamics that an individual learned in his family of origin.  However, because the group is not that same environment, the members of this “new family” will respond differently to an individual’s usual style of relating.  For many, this brings up all sorts of anxiety, but it also brings the possibility of learning different ways of coping with these anxieties in the here and now.  Each member experiences the other group members reflecting on how they are affected by each other’s stories and then learns how more accurately to process, reflect, and self-evaluate openly with the group. 

A person may never have considered the questions or perspectives that are shared by others, or he may receive empathy from the very kind of person he assumed would regard him as weak or unimportant.

 The way group therapy ties both of the dynamics of vulnerability and unconditional positive regard together is a safe environment.  This is in part created by the therapist but must be maintained and reinforced by the group.  If safety is not a common value of the group, it won’t be possible to adequately support members or appropriately challenge them, which I will talk about more in the next part of this blog.

Why Group Therapy Works: Part 1 

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

There is a lot of research out there evaluating the efficacy of group work to address lots of different issues. The evidence is clear that group work is tremendously effective in helping individuals make positive changes in their lives.  But why?  For the past two years, I have volunteered with a local ministry that runs men’s groups to address sexual addiction and acting out.  I have had the chance to observe and think about what makes these groups work.  This experience has helped me identify several different components that I believe are key to unlocking positive change in our group members’ lives.

The first is choosing to be vulnerable.  Every man that has come to our group has felt ashamed, isolated, and singled out by the experience of feeling trapped in his addiction or by being exposed in it.  The terrible discomfort of this experience may be enough to get him through the door and into therapy, but it doesn’t mean that the therapy will be effective.  The work each person has to do is to risk being totally open about his struggle in therapy.

Within a therapy group context, there is little room to shade the truth or hide parts of it.

One of the easiest and most prevalent ways of avoiding vulnerability is to share only the parts of the struggle that we have shared before, or can be framed as something that we used to struggle with or happened in the past.  So often, these past struggles are also very much present ones, but by placing it in the past, it puts convenient barriers up which it is easy to hide behind.  We have all tried to hide our struggles at one time or another.

At some point in our story, we learned it wasn’t safe to share and be vulnerable because someone close to us would exploit our weakness.

Group therapy is intentionally confronting this emotional reality and seeking to do the opposite.  Again and again, I have seen group members gently confront each other about whether or not individuals are sharing all of the impact of the story or just the safe parts.  When a group member deliberately and consistently chooses not to hide in this or other ways, it becomes possible for the other group members to empathize, connect with, and enter that individual’s experience in the present.  This willing vulnerability is a sign that change is already taking place in the group member as well as opening the door to the possibility of deeper, positive change.