A different perspective

A different perspective

Group therapy can help move individuals closer to their counseling goals

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 06/28/2012

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Dear Patti,
My boyfriend was killed by a drunk driver, and my psychotherapist thinks I should join group therapy to interact with others who have experienced similar grief and loss. I really don’t want to listen to other sad, depressing stories; that’s the last thing that would heal or inspire me. Since I have a difficult time with interpersonal relationships, she thinks I’d benefit from the social interactions available in a group environment, rather than sharing my deepest thoughts with just her. Having lived in Pasadena a long time, I’m afraid someone in the group might share what I talk about with others outside the group. I'm shy, don't like to talk in front of people and don't want a group leader forcing me to expose my deepest secrets. I don't think it's as beneficial as individual therapy, where you don't have to share the therapist's time with others. I also don't know the rules of group therapy and am nervous I won't be liked or I'll make a mistake. 
  — Mary 

Dear Mary,
Group therapy is a form of counseling in which a small group of people (usually between 6 and 10) meet regularly to explore thoughts, feelings and problems with one another and a professionally trained therapist. While group therapy doesn’t replace in-depth, individual psychotherapy, it can be a very powerful platform for significant growth and change if/when the group becomes a safe, special and trustworthy place to bond and support each other in the discussion of problems and vulnerable emotions. When group members emotionally connect, they can gain insight about their own feelings and behaviors, as well as offer suggestions and encouragement to others. These interactions enable participants to gain different perspectives, learn new ways to cope personally and interpersonally and better understand how they relate to others as well as how others relate to them. The group environment can also help its members to build the skills needed to create intimacy in their real lives with friends and family.
 
Confidentiality is essential to building trust and safety. Group sessions are, therefore, private and confidential in the same way as individual therapy. Members and leaders are bound ethically and legally not to disclose the identity of any group members, and what they disclose is not to be talked about with anyone outside the group at any time.
 
General rules of group therapy include punctuality, regular attendance, attentive listening and a courteous, respectful attitude. Sharing personal experiences is encouraged through the use of statements that begin with “I” rather than “we,” “you,” or “us.” Group members can only speak for how they feel, not how others feel; accordingly, they can’t give advice, lay blame or pass judgment on their peers’ emotions or actions. It’s important to take responsibility for your counseling group; if it’s not moving in the direction you want, bring up your concerns. Be honest and direct with your feelings and specific with your feedback. Be supportive and constructive, avoid criticism and give everyone a chance to talk — one person at a time — with no side conversations. 
 
Initially, people may feel anxious about talking, but no one will force you to talk in group counseling. You control what, how much and when you share; further, you don't have to share anything you don't want to disclose. When you feel safe enough to share your thoughts and feelings, group members will most likely be helpful and affirming. You can also be helped by listening to others and reflecting on how what they're saying might apply to you. 
 
Group therapy can be especially useful for people who want to explore opening up and being emotionally vulnerable with others, delving into areas such as trust, intimacy, anger, conflict, assertiveness and self-esteem. Likewise, these groups can benefit individuals struggling with issues such as grief, addiction, medical illness or sexual assault as well as help counteract feelings of isolation and loneliness.
 
The therapist develops and facilitates a safe environment so group members can trust and accept one another and experience their feedback as positive. Group therapy is also an opportunity to listen to respectful observations about how your behavior may be hurting yourself or others, so that you can effectively make use of this information and incorporate healthy changes in your attitude and lifestyle. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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