To read the first installment of this 3-part series, click here: “Introducing Group Therapy I: Educational and Skills Therapy Groups”
As I sat in my first hours of group therapy, still uncertain, anxious, and caught up in my internal experience and trying to mask it as well as I could, I started to listen. I heard others expressing feelings of fear, uncertainty, wondering what they might get out of the group, if it would be boring or interesting, feel safe or unsafe. Some people’s experiences were so different from mine that I grew curious to know more about them, and some so similar so as to have an eerie yet comforting feeling of being seen through.
In the course of participating in groups, I would come to know well what it is like when the sense of aloneness I felt with certain emotions fell away as others dared to share intimate, vulnerable, and emotionally true parts of themselves or their history. And I would also risk sharing, finding and putting words to things I had not spoken or had only spoken to those I trusted most. I would find myself holding onto the memories of other people who listened and responded to me, and what it meant to me to be witnessed in the context of the group.
The literature on group therapy sometimes refers to the groups as a hall of mirrors, and much thought has been dedicated to exploring the personal development, healing, insight, and growth that derives from the emotional mirroring and reflection in a group. The power of this concept is evident to me with one category of group in particular: the support group.
Support groups are a type of group therapy that typically bring people together based on a common experience, identity, or concern to support one another in navigating their shared circumstances.
Support groups can center around many different topics. Many 12 Step groups function as a form of peer-led support group, as do other professionally and peer facilitated support groups for people and family members of people facing addiction. There are support groups for survivors of incest, childhood sexual abuse, rape, partner abuse, disasters, or gun violence to name a few trauma-based support groups. Support groups can also form on the basis of psychiatric or medical diagnosis, like diabetes or depression support groups, life circumstances such as caring for an aging parent, grief or bereavement groups for those who have lost loved ones.
Support groups serve as an important catalyst for individuals facing a new or unique challenge in life to decrease isolation, increase meaningful connection, and sometimes to learn important new information, concepts, or positive ways of coping.
Some of the specific advantages of support groups are:
- Learning that one is not alone with their challenges. Many people seek support groups to be in a community of others who know first-hand what a particular challenge is like, especially when they face a circumstance that others in their family or friend networks may not have experienced.
- Instillation of a sense of hope and possibility. Hearing from others who share your experience, especially other members with variations of the experience or in time coping with the experience can provide a sense of how the future could be. For example, support groups for people diagnosed with a chronic illness may include members with a wide range of experiences and at different points in grieving and coping with the presence of chronic illness. Members may see in others models of how they would like to navigate their circumstances.
- A chance to exchange concrete information and tools for navigating life circumstances. There is nothing quite like sharing a struggle or challenge with others who understand based on first hand experience. Group members may gain increased motivation to be proactive, effective, and more skillful in managing their circumstances through modeling or imitating another member’s behavior.
Support groups are a powerful tool for combatting the isolation, polarization, and fear that can come with facing new or challenging life circumstances. The first formal therapy groups that I facilitated were support groups for survivors of intimate partner violence. Whenever I think of those groups, I think of the brilliant, loving, and beautiful women, men, and gender-non-conforming people who participated in them, and of the care that they showed for one another. Diana Fosha, an American psychologist, writes, “They very making of an appointment with a total stranger to deal with the greatest intimacies and vulnerabilities of one’s life is an act of profound faith.” This resiliency and the leap of faith to share with others in the context of a support group truly humbles and awes me. I feel so much gratitude that even people who had been so hurt and abused by intimate partners were willing to take the risk to show up for one another in support.
The process for finding a support group can be similar to finding educational or skills groups. Today is your day to find the community support you have been searching for. Click here to search the Soul Centric Collective directory.
The final article in this series will explore a third broad category of group therapy: process groups.