Group therapy is a powerful tool. Effective group therapy provides psycho-education, gives members permission to talk about their fears, and to receive feedback and support from others who are in the same boat, so to speak! As early as 1895, the French social psychologist, Gustav LeBon referred to the “group mind.” At about the time, William MacDougall, an Englishman, also saw that groups can affect individual behavior.
Effective group therapy takes place when an environment of trust has been established, which facilitates group members’ ability to share issues of concern in the here-and-now, and to be supported. That is, to allow people who are struggling with the same or a similar issue talk about how they manage symptoms on a day-to-day basis, about the tools they find effective in coping with such feelings (anger, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, or other issues), and that help to improve their quality of life. The role of the therapist is to facilitate the process and to encourage members to apply lessons learned in group to everyday living.
As with any organism, the group goes through a developmental process:
1) Form, at the beginning
2) Storm, when members vie for power and control
3) Norm, when members develop group rules or norms, leadership becomes shared by group participants, and the facilitator can assume more of a peripheral and less active role.
4) Perform, when differentiation of members is respected, open feedback is expressed and shared, and members work together.
5) Adjourn, when the group terminates.
As a prerequisite, group members are required to sign an Informed Consent for Group Therapy. While confidentiality cannot be guaranteed, it is understood that whatever happens in the group stays in the group so that participants will feel safe enough to talk about what they perceive as their most uncomfortable issues, and to respectfully challenge any therapeutic intervention that does not resonate with them. In the same way, the therapist does not take personally members’ disagreements, but welcomes questions and perspectives as valuable resources for promoting group cohesiveness and social learning.
Seven qualities of successful group therapy have been identified (Yalom, I & Leszcz, M. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books):
1) Installation of hope – if group members expect help, a positive therapy outcome is more likely.
2) Universality – hearing others’ stories and sharing their own promotes group members’ understanding that they are part of a community with the same or similar issues, so that members don’t feel so alone.
3) Imparting information – the therapist gives factual information on issues of concern, and members share advice in an environment of mutual support and respect.
4) Altruism – a “must have” component: giving and receiving help is intrinsic to the healing process: people need to feel they are needed.
5) Corrective Recapitulation of Primary Family Group – the therapist and group members help participants become unstuck from early traumas, and assist them to reframe early family conflicts correctively. For example, the member is helped to process, from an adult perspective, childhood or other trauma that disrupted the developmental process, and to adaptively realign the process.
6) Development of Socializing Techniques – group members learn basic social skills, and gain an understanding of the vast difference between their intentions and their actual impact on others.
7) Imitative Behavior – group members imitate and learn from each other, identify with more senior members of the group or with the therapist, find out what they are not, and also what they are.
Participating in group therapy can appear intimidating, but the group can be a wonderful support network as well as resource for ideas for dealing with a particular life situation or challenge.
Group therapy is, indeed, a powerful healing tool which all participants can access, and influence, and in which all participants are equal stakeholders!
Written by Pansy Lindo-Moulds, LMHC