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.