The purpose of group psychotherapy is to assist each individual in emotional growth and personal problem-solving. Group therapy encompasses many different kinds of groups with varying theoretical orientations that exist for varying purposes. All therapy groups exist to help individuals grow emotionally and solve personal problems. All utilize the power of the group, as well as the therapist who leads it, in this process. Many individuals who suffer substance abuse find themselves in a state of “isolation” and often feel alone. The group process will help the addict to learn to gain healthy independent and interdependent skills.
Unlike the simple two-person relationship between patient and therapist in individual therapy, group therapy offers multiple relationships to assist the individual in growth and problem-solving.
Installation of Hope
All patients come into therapy hoping to decrease their suffering and improve their lives. Because each member in a therapy group is inevitably at a different point on the coping continuum and grows at a different rate, watching others cope with and overcome similar problems successfully instills hope and inspiration. New members or those in despair may be particularly encouraged by others’ positive outcomes.
A common feeling among group therapy members, especially when a group is just starting, is that of being isolated, unique, and apart from others. Many who enter group therapy have great difficulty sustaining interpersonal relationships and feel unlikable and unlovable. Group therapy provides a powerful antidote to these feelings. For many, it may be the first time they feel understood and similar to others. Enormous relief often accompanies the recognition that they are not alone; this is a special benefit of group therapy.
An essential component of many therapy groups is increasing members’ knowledge and understanding of a common problem. Explicit instruction about the nature of their shared illness, such as depression, past trauma or substance abuse, is often a key part of the therapy. Most patients leave the group far more knowledgeable about their specific condition than when they entered. This makes them increasingly able to help others with the same or similar problems.
Group therapy offers its members a unique opportunity: the chance to help others. Often patients with substance abuse problems believe they have very little to offer others because they have needed so much help themselves; this can make them feel inadequate. The process of helping others is a powerful therapeutic tool that greatly enhances members’ self-esteem and feeling of self-worth.
Improved social skills
According to Yalom, social learning, or the development of basic social skills, is a therapeutic factor that occurs in all therapy groups. Some groups place considerable emphasis on improving social skills, for example, with a peer preparing to leave treatment after multiple relapses, or among bereaved or divorced members seeking to date again. Group members offer feedback to one another about the appropriateness of the others’ behavior. While this may be painful, the directness and honesty with which it is offered can provide much-needed behavioral correction and thus improve relationships both within and outside the group.
Research shows that therapists exert a powerful influence on the communication patterns of group members by modeling certain behaviors. For example, therapists model active listening, giving nonjudgmental feedback, and offering support. Over time, members pick up these behaviors and incorporate them. This earns them increasingly positive feedback from others, enhancing their self-esteem and emotional growth.
Human beings are social animals, born ready to connect. Our lives are characterized by intense and persistent relationships, and much of our self-esteem is developed via feedback and reflection from important others. Yet we all develop distortions in the way we see others, and these distortions can damage even our most important relationships. Therapy groups provide an opportunity for members to improve their ability to relate to others and live far more satisfying lives because of it.
Catharsis is a powerful emotional experience—the release of conscious or unconscious feelings—followed by a feeling of great relief. Catharsis is a factor in most therapies, including group therapy. It is a type of emotional learning, as opposed to intellectual understanding, that can lead to immediate and long-lasting change. While catharsis cannot be forced, a group environment provides ample opportunity for members to have these powerful experiences.
Existential factors are certain realities of life including death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness. Becoming aware of these realities can lead to anxiety. The trust and openness that develops among members of a therapy group, however, permits exploration of these fundamental issues and can help members develop an acceptance of difficult realities.