Back in my second year of graduate school, I felt that I had a pretty good idea of the type of student I was. Put me in front of a lecture with my book and notes, ask me to do a few presentations or projects, and I’m golden. Despite a preference for small settings, I have to say to anonymity in a group of people created a sense of safety conducive to my learning. When my group therapy class was offered either in-person or online, I elected to do the class in person rather than the self-teaching that online classes would entail.
As I arrived for the first class expecting to review the syllabus and hunker down into familiarity, I was informed that the class would be conducted slightly different than what my 19 years of being a student had been like. “Set your books and papers aside, let’s circle up the chairs. This class about group is going to be run in the format of a group”. Wait, what? What does that mean? What did I sign up for? How am I supposed to learn without my lecture, books, and paper? Tugging at my collar, I decided to open my mind to the experience.
There were awkward silences, uncertainties, and adjustments. Slowly, we settled into the format and found a cadence for interacting in this learning environment. I found myself seeing my peers differently, trying to impress my instructor, and using my brain in ways that I had never previously done to learn something new. Hmmm, I thought, what is this about? I leaned into anxiety, payed attention to my behavior towards people, and found confidence in myself as a student. In the end, hands down, my group therapy class was the most influential class I have ever taken. Interestingly, I never took a single written note.
The way that my class was taught would be an example of a psycho-education group. In this group format, members are given direct education and skill-building on a specific topic in a relatively structured way. Members use the information for personal development and growth and incorporate it into their lives. Examples of psycho-education therapy groups would be a parenting skills group or social skills group. The group leader takes on the role of the teacher in these groups and then leads discussions among group members.
Another type of therapy group, often referred to as processing or counseling group, provides support to its’ members to help resolve difficult problems in life. Process groups have a high emphasis on the interpersonal process, which is experienced through group members supporting and challenging one another. They may be created based on a specific diagnosis (such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress), a shared characteristic (like age or gender), or a life struggle (such as divorce or grief). Here, the group leader is less direct and more of a facilitator of the process.
Some groups may blend psycho-education and processing styles together. Group members receive information or interventions and then go into a discussion about how it applies in the context of the group. Group members give their support and feedback using the education they are receiving in the group. They also will hold their peers accountable for change or push one another to the edges of their own awareness.
Regardless of the type, all group therapies are led by one or more licensed professionals. There is an emphasis on self-exploration and intention towards making changes in one’s life. Group members stand to benefit from learning about themselves in a way that no other format provides, much like my group class experience. Most importantly, the validation and understanding received through shared experience is powerfully therapeutic.
If you are considering seeking out or joining a therapy group, I encourage you to speak with a professional to find a group that is right for you. If you decide to join, my #1 tip is to open your mind and just show up!
Leanne Christian is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a facilitator of groups at The Chrysalis Center.