How to tell if group therapy is right for you
Getting vulnerable with strangers may seem scary, but it’s less intimidating than you may assume.
Group therapy is sort of the ugly cousin of individual psychotherapy. In movies, group therapy scenes are more likely to be a punchline than a legitimate path toward personal transformation and growth. But my own experience with group therapy has been literally life-changing, and I credit support groups with most of my healing. Even so, I know it may not be for everyone. To clear things up for the curious, I asked experts how to figure out if group therapy is right for you — and what to keep in mind if you’re hesitant about signing up.
What is group therapy?
You may already know that group therapy is generally formed around specific needs — like addiction recovery or healing from grief — but most people aren’t aware that there are lots of different group therapy styles. They typically fall under three broad categories: psychoeducation, skills groups, and support groups.
So, what are the differences? “Psychoeducation groups are not focusing on processing emotions, but rather about educating,” Alison Gomez, a psychotherapist in Bakersfield, California, tells me. For example, there are psychoeducation groups for individuals who know someone struggling with mental illness and want to know more about the experience their loved one is having.
Skills groups focus on learning new coping skills and practicing them together, Gomez says. For example, someone with anxiety may use a skills group to learn how to cope with their social anxiety. Support groups are non-therapeutic groups that focus on a certain topic. These are used to build connections between people with a common issue, like addiction.
What are the benefits of group therapy?
One misconception people sometimes have about therapy in general is that it only works if you’re the one talking; as a result, folks who are already freaked about sharing their most guarded feelings and experiences out loud tend to assume that group therapy can’t possibly work for them. In reality, though, most of us get a lot out of listening. “The great thing about group therapy is that you get to hear other people share their experiences,” Weston Clay, a psychotherapist who specializes in leading group therapy for queer folks, tells me. Not only do you learn from the stories and struggles of the people around, but you also have an opportunity to interact with others at a deeper level than usual.
The reciprocal relationships you can form in group therapy allow you the opportunity to practice both giving and receiving compassion. “With individual therapy, the focus is on you, and though your therapist will probably show a lot of care and empathy, you don't hear much about how they relate to you or your struggles,” Clay says. Leaning into that give and take — even regarding personal issues that may feel very unique to you — can result in a beautiful sense of belonging. “In group therapy, you can feel much less alone because you have an opportunity to share, and hear others share, the things that we don't normally talk about in social situations,” Clay says.
What if I feel too shy for group therapy?
While you may be scared to share with a group at first, that doesn’t mean it will always be the case. Therapy is a process, and you may find that the process of group therapy specifically helps you learn to open up to others in ways you never imagined. “Even if someone is shy [and] slow to warm up, they can also benefit from the group and learn how to tolerate connecting to new people,” Gomez says.
Just like any other kind of relationship, you can ease into it. “Group does not require to be open and vulnerable from the beginning, but rather being open to this experience,” Gomez says. “It takes time to develop trust [and] cohesion amongst the group members; as long as people are showing up and trying, a person can get a lot from it.” Just showing up, ready and willing to listen, in a room of strangers, can be an immense act of bravery — and understanding that they also showed up for you can be heartening. “It's not very often that you can find a place where you can be yourself and trust that others are not going to abandon or judge you,” Gomez says.
Can group therapy help me with my relationships?
If you’ve had problems relating to people in the past — and who hasn’t? — being part of a group may help you deal with those issues in real time, in a way you can’t do through one-on-one therapy. “In individual therapy, there can be discussion on what setting boundaries or learning to be open and vulnerable can look like, but it can feel very theoretical,” Gomez says. Group therapy gives you the chance to practice certain interpersonal skills in that setting, before trying them out in your other relationships.
This is crucial, because most of us come to therapy wanting to see some kind of change or growth — but growth doesn’t typically happen just by talking about it. “It can be hard to implement the skills and steps [needed] to make change outside of therapy,” Gomez says. But in group therapy, she notes, you can intentionally practice skills — like setting boundaries or saying no — and get real-time feedback from actual humans. “Not only is there space to practice the behavior, but there is also space to process what it was like to engage in those behaviors,” Gomez says.
Is group therapy right for me?
All that said, it’s still possible that group therapy just isn’t right for you — and that’s okay. “If you are having a really hard time and are feeling suicidal, can't stop doing drugs, or are otherwise not feeling stable, you probably want to address that before joining a group,” Clay says. In those cases, you may need a personal psychotherapeutic or medical intervention before you’re ready to do group therapy. If you’re stable, though, Clay says that group therapy can actually be helpful for basically everyone. “I honestly think everyone should try group therapy at some point in [their] life,” he says. “If you are young and feeling alone, I'd recommend looking for a group that focuses on whatever issue you are dealing with.”