Why I run therapy groups
by Jerry Gans, M.D., CGP, FAGPA
Many clients and individual therapists think that group therapy is second-class treatment. I am not one of those people. My 32 years of clinical experience has repeatedly demonstrated that group therapy is the treatment of choice for many people. Why don't more clients and therapists feel this way? When one really thinks about it, it becomes apparent that most people have not experienced empathy or support in a group setting. In fact some of the most remembered and painful experiences have occurred in our families - the first group most of us have been a part of. Then, add to that what it was like not being chosen for the team or the school play, or being called on in class and being unprepared. When we think of positive experiences where we have felt recognized and appreciated, these have occurred mostly in one-on-one interactions. As a result, when looking into therapy it is natural for people to think of individual therapy.
But the truth is that some wonderful things do happen in a therapy group. I interviewed Grace (all names in this article are, of course, fictitious), a woman who wanted to be in a group but who had a shameful secret that she said she would never talk about in the group. I told her that bringing up this subject or not was up to her. In only her fourth week in the group she decided to tell the group her secret. People empathized with what Grace had had to deal with in her life and wondered what it had been like for her to keep it to herself all these years. They gave her credit for the courage it took to tell them. Instead of the shame she expected to feel, she felt great relief and acceptance.
Consider another example. A relatively new member, John, was unable to make a meeting because an urgent situation arose unexpectedly. However, he never left a message about his predicament for the group leader to announce at the meeting. When John came to the next meeting, a few group members inquired about where he had been the previous week. John was annoyed, feeling that the group was being intrusive and critical. As the group discussed the matter with John, it became apparent that it never crossed his mind that anyone might have been concerned or worried about him. Such caring was outside the realm of his experience. The emergence of this information sensitized the group to the amount of deprivation John had suffered in his life. Their appreciation of this fact, in turn, had a softening affect on John's attitude toward the group.
I hope you can see from the few examples I have cited why I am so positive and enthusiastic about the helpfulness of group therapy. People do not simply talk about their strengths and difficulties in group therapy; they exhibit these qualities in their interactions with other people in the group. By helping the group evolve a safe, trusting and cohesive environment, the leader makes it possible for group members to do important psychotherapeutic work. Whether the work has to do with interpersonal feedback, reworking family of origin difficulties, problems with competition or authority, revealing shameful secrets or learning about boundaries, group therapy can provide group experiences that are much more positive and healing than those of one's early memories. I hope this discussion will convince you to consider group therapy as an excellent way to learn more about yourself and your interactions with other people.