Mary Jo Klingel, ACSE, LCSW
Human beings need one another in ways that influence us profoundly. We grow and find our greatest joys and challenges in relationships. In group therapy, the relationships with the other group members become part of the healing process. When an individual is ready to make real changes in their life, the process of this type of communal therapy becomes extremely enjoyable and rewarding.
As with any journey, it is good to know the territory and prepare for the experience, before you set out. In this case, the first step is internal. It involves taking the process of joining a group seriously. You are about to commit your time, effort and money to a process of growth and change. You are shifting the path of your life toward greater consciousness and opening yourself to a deeper understanding of yourself and your choices. This is a major undertaking. It is a way of saying to yourself, I am worth this.
Second, prepare by starting to identify your own issues. Ask yourself, and perhaps write about, such questions as: What has brought me to this place in my life? What are my current issues? What is happening in my life with family, love, work, friends, safety, spirituality, joy, my body, sexuality, and my overall physical and mental health? What causes me pain and what do I do about that pain? Who do I trust? What are my secrets? Am I where I want to be in my life? All these questions and more will begin the process of reflection that is the heart of the inner work that will take place in group.
Third, set specific goals for yourself. If you know what you want from group, it will be easier to hold that intention as the basis of your work.
Last, it is important to set realistic expectations. In groups, the patterns of working together cooperatively and developing trust take a while to emerge. Most people consider that spending a year in group therapy is the minimum necessary to gain what group has to offer, and many people stay longer. As people in recovery say, time takes time.
The day or evening before group, spend some time in quiet reflection, asking yourself how the week has gone for you. This process is not about judging yourself, but about being aware. Notice what you have done to work on yourself this week, what challenges have come to you, what risks or new behaviors you have tried. This is simply time to see the work that is yet to be done, and to applaud all the efforts you have made. Then consider what you need to address in group this week.
MAXIMIZING GROUP POTENTIAL
When you come into group, take a moment and set your intention to be present. This approach helps to shape a field where the work of group can be done successfully.
Many people are socialized to give up their needs in favor of being good or taking care of others. That may make it difficult for you to ask for the groups time and attention, but make every effort to do so. Work in group as often as you can while being fair to others. Pay attention to the risks you need to take and know that the results are never as frightening as one assumes they will be. It is important to respect your own timing and need for safety, and not push beyond your readiness. While it is good to be gentle with yourself, remember that one of the richest rewards of group is to finally say the unspeakable and see only support and empathy on the faces looking back at you. Sometimes it is not easy to get the words out. You may have to challenge the internal voices that say that you will look stupid or nobody will care or they will not understand. It can change your world to learn that those harsh inner voices are not always accurate predictors of
how people will treat you. Perhaps on the other side of that risk is the support that you long for and deserve.
People in group sessions sometimes feel like they have to be clear and articulate before they speak; however, it is important to remember that the therapists are there to help you clarify the issues. Someone once said that they believe that therapy is the art of asking the right questions, and you have every right to ask the therapists for help in your process of moving toward clarity. The decision to ask for help may be part of learning to trust that you do not have to do your work all alone any more, and there will be help available when you need it.
There is also an art to working in groups when you do not have the floor. Begin by paying attention to yourself as someone else works. Notice any persistent feelings or reactions, any judgments or pain that comes up. It may be uncomfortable to notice your own irritability, intolerance, anger or jealousy or any of the not nice feelings, but they are a rich source of information about yourself. Remember that nobody makes you feel anything. Each feeling is your own, inside you. Each feeling is your teacher, showing you a part of yourself that you may not know well yet. Try to adopt a friendly and curious attitude toward each of your experiences. You can also report the feeling to the group and ask for help in discerning or fully owning it.
Group skills include learning how and, when to give feedback, and how and when to confront other group members. Give yourself permission to be a beginner at these skills, to practice and to ask the group leaders for help. In the safety of the group you can refine relationship skills and take them out into your life.
Most of all group is a place to speak your truth, moment by moment as you become aware of it. It is better to take the risk of speaking up, of not looking perfect, than to withhold and leave that group session feeling toxic or unfinished. It is difficult to speak up, to drop the mask of eternal niceness, to ask for help, but the rewards of all those risks are deep and long lasting.
Once again try to find time for a little quiet reflection. You may want to review the group, noticing what happened and how it all felt to you. Consider how you could take what happened in the group out into your week. You may want to try out new behaviors in your life. Certainly you can practice that gentle curiosity about yourself that creates an internal atmosphere that supports your growth.
Being in a therapy group is a message to yourself that you are worth your own time and attention and care. Group is a great adventure in synchronicity, as what you need often comes in packages that you least expect to receive. With a little patience and openness, you will receive what you came for and much more.