How group therapy transformed my life

I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation for over a decade, read countless self-help books, and gone to individual therapy for years, but what’s been most transformative in my relationship with my partner, my connection with friends and family, and even my work as a therapist, has been group therapy.

For the past few years, I’ve met virtually every week with a therapist and four or five other group members. Slowly but surely I’ve learned how to share how I feel—about difficulties in my life, about others in the group, about anything that comes up during group sessions—even when I’m afraid to. The courage and communication skills I’ve learned have helped me be more authentic with the people who matter most outside of the group.

For example, within an hour of leaving on a road trip last year to the Appalachian Mountains, my partner and I got into a bickering match at a grocery store. After a few minutes of awkward silence back on the highway, I pushed through the tension to tell her how I felt.

“I didn’t like how you talked to me back there,” I said. “It didn’t feel good.”   

My partner responded that she hadn’t been aware of how she’d talked to me and thanked me for letting her know. I then realized that, for some reason, I’d felt like I’d needed to control how much money we’d spent. I told her that it was probably because I’d just paid the property tax bill, which was higher than I’d expected, and I was feeling anxious about money. She said she appreciated my honesty.

We both apologized for our part of the conflict and continued on what ended up being a fun, romantic weekend.  That might not sound like a big deal, but I’d been afraid to tell her how I felt.

Part of me had thought she’d get mad and tell me to turn the car around to go back home. Another part had thought that if I just acted like everything was fine, eventually the tension would fade, and we’d go back to having a good time. But saying how I truly felt ended up diffusing the tension and bringing us closer together. 

I learned how to do that in group therapy. There have been countless moments when I’ve worried that sharing how I feel about another group member or something they said would hurt them or make them angry.

Usually, I’m completely wrong. They often respond by thanking me for letting them know—and then we joke about how easy it is to assume things about each other. Sometimes, they do feel hurt or angered or annoyed by me. That’s often when the therapist steps in to help us navigate our feelings without causing harm to each other.

In other words, I’ve learned how to be more honest and vulnerable in group therapy—how to say what I truly feel more often, in ways that don’t unnecessarily hurt others. .

You might be different from me. Instead of worrying about triggering other people, you might worry about other people triggering you. Maybe you don’t feel safe around certain types of people based their gender, sexual, or racial identity. Maybe you have a tendency to monopolize conversations or, conversely, you hold back and don’t say what you truly feel.

That’s what’s so transformative about group therapy—particularly groups that focus on processing the relationships between group members. You get to notice and work on how you relate to other people, what you assume about them, how you can skillfully communicate with them—all with the help of a trained professional therapist (or two) by your side.

Group therapy also provides the opportunity to hear other people talk about their experience with issues you might also be going through. This can normalize what you’re struggling with, helping you feel less alone. Research shows that group therapy can be just as effective as individual therapy, particularly because groups provide social support and reduce stigma, isolation, and feelings of alienation.

Some therapy groups include training and education on mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, and different types of therapy, like mindfulness and Internal Family Systems (IFS). Many are geared toward certain populations, like people experiencing grief, women navigating motherhood, LGBTQ+ people building families, and men exploring healthy masculinity.

There are many types of groups that bring people with similar issues or experiences together to process things and move forward. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous can be very effective for this purpose. But they aren’t therapy groups because they’re led by members rather than a trained, professional therapist.

Having a therapist guiding the conversation if needed and trying to make sure everyone feels safe can allow group members to be more vulnerable. Vulnerability can surely be scary. Social worker and researcher Brené Brown writes that, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear.” But, she continues, “it is also the birthplace of joy, happiness, creativity, belonging and love.”

That’s exactly what I continue to experience as a result of group therapy, especially in my relationship with my partner. Whenever I feel tension, I try to check in with myself to see if there’s something I’m holding back from saying. If I do share a difficult feeling, I aim to do it in a way that doesn’t blame her.

Instead, I take responsibility for how I feel, while being open and honest. The more she trusts that I’m being authentic and vulnerable, the more authentic and vulnerable she becomes with me—and vice versa. Our relationship continues to become more fun, more loving, and strong enough to handle the most difficult situations life can throw at us.

These new behaviors of authentically and vulnerably sharing my feelings and experiences, and being able to listen to my partner without defensiveness, are skills I’ve learned and practiced in the safe structure of group therapy. It’s been helpful to have a place to try out new ways of speaking and listening and to receive feedback about how I come across to others. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s always valuable.

If this sounds like it may be helpful to you, I encourage you to explore group therapy as a way to grow into your full, authentic self. See my current group schedule here.

Illustration by Leanne Walker.