Group therapy plays a central role in nearly every quality treatment program and for good reason. Studies show that group therapy is a cost-effective way to treat many conditions, including addiction. More importantly, group therapy offers a valuable opportunity to learn and practice skills that are hard to acquire on your own or in private therapy. For example, group therapy allows you to practice communication skills in a safe environment where a therapist can moderate interactions. Group therapy is also a great way to get many different perspectives on your problems and not just the perspective of untrained peers or your individual therapist. However, like any form of therapy, you only get out of it what you put in. Here are some tips for getting the most out of group therapy.
Being open is perhaps the most important part of group therapy and, for some people, the hardest. It can be hard to be honest about your feelings and experiences in front of a group, but the more you share, the more the group can help you. Keep in mind that a group therapy session isn’t like a work meeting, where communication should be clear and concise. It’s fine and often helpful to try to express thoughts or feelings you can’t quite articulate. This also goes for feelings or experiences you probably wouldn’t share in other social settings.
Openness is important for several reasons. First, by being honest about your emotions, you learn to better understand them. Just making an effort to describe how you really feel makes you more aware of your own emotional landscape. Second, it’s often harder to see ourselves clearly than to see others. By being honest with the group about your feelings, you can gain much greater insight into your emotional life. Third, we reflexively protect the places we’ve been hurt and by allowing yourself to be vulnerable, you discover that whatever you’re feeling is okay.
Learn to give feedback.
A major advantage of the group is that you get feedback from others while simultaneously practicing your communication skills. Giving feedback is one of the most valuable skills to practice. Not only is it important in the context of the group, but it is also a valuable skill in other areas of your life, especially when it comes to setting boundaries. It can be tricky to balance honesty and respect. We often excuse meanness by saying, “I’m just being honest.” Honest feedback is important, but it should always come from a place of compassion.
To be effective, feedback should be as specific as possible. For example, it’s better to give feedback specific to something someone said or did rather than how they seem to behave in general. Providing concrete examples is always helpful. So instead of saying, “you’re too negative,” try something more grounded like, “you said just now that you fail at everything, but I think you were overgeneralizing.” Also, be sure to give positive feedback. Let people know when you appreciate something they said or did.
Learn to accept feedback.
Accepting feedback is just as important as giving good feedback. Some people feel like they’re being personally attacked or criticized when they get feedback. This is understandable, especially for people who are used to being attacked or criticized. However, it’s important to manage those feelings constructively. Getting feedback from a group of people you can be totally honest with is a valuable source of information and if you’re overly defensive, you might miss out. If you feel like you’re becoming defensive, it may be a good idea to acknowledge that feeling and share it. In general, it’s good to acknowledge feedback and appreciate that the person who gave it is trying to help. You may want to see if others agree or disagree with the feedback as well. Finally, it’s also helpful to ask for feedback, rather than just wait. This way, you’re actively gathering more information about yourself.
Don’t rely on stories.
It’s tempting to prepare what you’re going to say in advance and especially to rely on stories. However, in the context of the group, that may be counterproductive. Stories are often pared down to be efficient and produce a certain impression. In effect, you may be using a story to project a certain image. This may be a way to avoid being honest or avoid struggling with uncomfortable emotions. It’s much better to be honest and responsive to what’s happening in the group.
Be wary of giving advice.
It’s often tempting to give advice when someone in the group describes a problem they are having. However, it’s usually best to refrain. It’s easy to give someone else advice, but even if it’s good advice, it may not be what they need to hear. A better approach is to listen and ask questions. Try to understand what they’re trying to say and how they are feeling. You can give someone advice if they ask for it, but more often, people just want to feel like they’re being heard.
Pay attention to group dynamics.
There’s a lot going on in a group and you can learn a great deal by paying attention to group dynamics. What kind of discussions make you feel uncomfortable? Which group members are good communicators? Which group members are others drawn to? Which members do people avoid? How does the therapist moderate conflict and misunderstanding? All of these things can help you learn new skills and understand your own position better.
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