If this is your first experience in a therapy group, along with some excitement and anticipation, you probably have some apprehensions as most people do. People have common concerns such as, “What will the other members be like?” and “Will the experience be helpful and meaningful to me?” In this orientation, we will outline some of the benefits of being in a group as well as guidelines to assist you in taking advantage of the experience.
What can you expect from being in group therapy?
Group therapy affords opportunities to address the issues that concern you, identify with others, and examine life patterns that are interfering with your personal growth. In group, you have the opportunity to gain immediate feedback from other group members and the leaders. By receiving feedback from others (that is, how they perceive you), you increase your awareness of yourself and aspects of your life you wish to change.
Group therapy also gives you an opportunity to try out new behaviors, to express feelings you have been hesitant to express, to assert yourself in new ways, or to experiment with new ideas. You will also be able to learn from other members as you identify and connect with their struggles and successes.
With the assistance of the group leaders and your fellow group members, you will have the task of determining how you take advantage of these opportunities. You determine the amount of energy- mental and emotional- you wish to invest in the group process. Needless to say, the more you invest, the more you benefit.
What to do to get the most out of a therapy group?
1. Be yourself. Start from where you are, not how you think others want you to be. This might mean asking questions, expressing anger, or communicating confusion and hopelessness. Growth begins by taking the first step of sharing in the group.
2. Define goals. Take time before each session to define your goals for that session. Nevertheless, being flexible about your goals is also important. You may be surprised to find that your goals continue to change throughout the group process.
3. Recognize and respect your pace for getting involved in the group. Some group members will easily be ready to disclose their thoughts and feelings; others need more time to gain feelings of trust and security. By respecting your needs you are learning self-acceptance. If you are having a difficult time with how to discuss your problems with the group, then ask the group to help you.
4. Take time for yourself. You have the right to take group time to talk about yourself. Many people may feel that other’s issues are more important than their own, may have a difficult time facing feelings, or may have fears of appearing “weak.” By recognizing what the reluctance means, you begin the growth process.
5. Recognize and express thoughts and feelings. The use of either thoughts or feelings alone is insufficient in working through problems. If you are having difficulties recognizing and expressing your thoughts or feelings, ask the group to help. Learning to express yourself fully, without censorship, enables exploration and resolution of interpersonal conflicts and self-affirmation.
6. Take risks. Experiment with different ways of behaving and expressing yourself. By taking risks, you can discover what works for you and what doesn’t. This may mean expressing difficult feelings, sharing information you usually keep secret, or confronting someone about something upsetting to you.
7. Give and receive feedback. Giving and receiving feedback is a major aspect of group therapy. The best way to get feedback is to request it from specific individuals, those whose impression means the most to you. You have the right to ask for either negative or positive comments (or both), depending on what you are ready to hear.
Feedback should be concrete and specific, brief but to the point, and representative of both your feelings and thoughts. It is provided in the spirit of helpfulness and respect. The purpose is to help others identify patterns, personal presentations, unrecognized attitudes, and inconsistencies.
Most group members learn that giving advice, suggestions and solutions is seldom helpful. For advice-givers, it takes time to learn how to express personal reactions, communicate understanding, give support, and listen attentively.
8. Become aware of distancing behaviors. All of us have ways of behaving which prevent others from getting close to us such as remaining silent and uninvolved, telling long involved stories, responding to others with intellectual statements, and talking only about external events. As you become involved in the group, you will have the opportunity to identify what you do to distance yourself from others. Keep in mind that distancing behaviors have had a purpose in the past. The question you will face is whether the behavior is preventing you from getting what you want such as close relationships with people.
9. Be patient with yourself. Growth takes time, effort, and patience. Changing what has become such an integral part of ourselves is very difficult and slow. By having patience with ourselves and accepting and understanding these blocks to growth, we set the foundation for growth and change.
10. Work outside the group. In order to get the most from the group experience, you will need to spend time between sessions thinking about yourself, trying out new behaviors, reflecting on what you are learning, reassessing your goals, and paying attention to your feelings and reactions.
Usually, groups have two leaders whose function is to use their knowledge and experience to facilitate individual and group growth. Leaders will promote an atmosphere of safety and encourage open communication between members. Group leaders will also help to identify group patterns, feelings, and underlying meanings.
The activity level of the group leaders will vary, depending on what is happening in the group. When the members are relating freely with each other and the energy level and involvement is high, the leaders tend to be less active. You are also encouraged to communicate your reactions and thoughts to them concerning their role and activities.
We hope this orientation guide will help you to prepare for the group experience. If you have questions about being in a group that are not addressed in this orientation, ask your group leader.