SUPPORT GROUPS: What’s the Big Deal, Anyway?

By Cassy Wimmer, MSW, LSW, Groups Facilitator

Tailgating buddies, coworkers, wedding parties, board members, flight UA1810 passengers, friends: you can’t escape being part of groups, no matter how introverted you feel. If you are part of a society, you work, play, and even eat in groups. Most of us enjoy participation in at least some of our groups. Thoughts of family gatherings at Thanksgiving, for example, conjure in many of us feelings of comfort, full bellies, and the smell of pumpkin pie or roasting turkey. Other groups present a challenge: working alongside a negative coworker, arguing with a spouse, or getting fed-up with aggressive political statements on a Facebook feed. Some groups we are part of harm us in even deeper ways. If we’re not proactive, our group interactions can determine our thought patterns, emotions, and our overall well-being.

How do we keep from letting these groups run us over? How do we become “proactive” in our lives, so as not to be affected by negative relationships? Well, it depends. (You weren’t waiting for a fix-it-all one-liner, were you?) In negative relationships, we get stuck in an endless downward spiral, and dizzy from our descent, we can’t find our way out. What we need is someone who can look into our spiral of destruction and unaffected by our personal life circumstances, guide or coach us out. This person could be a trusted friend or family member, God (for those who are religious), a self-help book author, or (ahem) a therapist. Or maybe even a therapy group.

The beauty in group therapy is the use of structured interpersonal interaction to change negative interpersonal interaction in one’s own life. Catch that? Let me try again: group therapy is a place to pause and untangle that downward spiral with the help of others whose downward spiral looks similar. “But what do they DO in group therapy,” I can almost hear a skeptic whisper; “Do they just sit around and talk about feelings? Who runs it? Do I have to listen to people whine about their lives? Why do people go?” Let me take these questions one at time.

  • What do support groups do?

Again, it depends. (You haven’t learned yet that the fix-it-all one-liner isn’t coming?) There are different therapy groups for different needs. At Anchorpoint, we currently have a group for single moms, a group for struggling teens, a group for over-burdened women, a group for those adjusting to life after divorce, a group for singles trying to avoid falling for a jerk, and a group for married couples working to improve their relationship and groups around parenting topics. Some therapy groups are workshops, where participants come to be taught tactics for tackling certain areas of their lives. Others are support groups, where the main purpose is to connect with others and learn from one another with the guidance of a trained facilitator. Most of our groups are somewhere in the middle, where education is offered in the form of group activities and time for support and sharing is honored. All of our therapy groups will challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone and grow in a new way.

  • Do they just sit around and talk about feelings?

Group members share life experiences. No group member is required to share more than he or she wants to share. And yes, emotions surround our experiences, in group and outside of group. Emotions are intricately tied to all of our choices and deeply woven into our interactions with others in our lives. So yes, we talk about emotions, among many other things. Now let me be a therapist and answer your question with a question: why would talking about feelings bother you?

  • Who runs the group?

Groups at Anchorpoint Counseling Ministry are run by licensed professionals with a passion for group work and the people who attend. Enough said?

  • Do I have to listen to people whine about their lives?

Yep. You do. But therapy groups aren’t a Jerry Springer episode or a “first world problems” meme. The people in your group are your teammates, and you’ll find yourself a whole lot more interested in their well-being than you expected. And if I’m wrong and you still feel bored, you’re going to learn a lot in group about a term therapists like to use: “empathy.”

  • Why do people go?

Yalom is a famous group therapist, and he has conducted a good amount of research on this very topic. He has found that there are eleven things people who have attended group therapy say that they gained. No, I’m not going to bore you with all eleven; instead I’ve grouped them into four categories. First, people find great hope in the fact that they are not alone in their struggles. Second, you learn stuff! It’s amazing what coping strategies, helpful thoughts, and even just humorous anecdotes people pass on during group therapy. The third one is going to get just a little technical, so bear with me. Group therapy offers the opportunity to undo negative relationship patterns and learn new ones. It is in groups that we learn and practice poor ways of relating, so it makes sense that changes made in a group would stick better than trying to make changes on our own. Fourth and finally, it does us good to do good for others. Participants of group therapy can take what they learned in their own bad experiences and use it to help others. And isn’t that a beautiful thing, that our troubles and hurts can be used for the good of others?

Let’s go back to that very first paragraph, pondering the groups we are a part of in our lives. Are there people with whom you just can’t win? Does it seem like one group just keeps playing out the same problems, again and again, like a stuck record? I encourage you, take a bold step and see what might happen inside of a therapy group. Check out Anchorpoint’s groups to see if there’s one for you, and give us a call ASAP, as we run a group every time we gather enough participants.  Call us today at 412-366-1300.

Yalom, I., & Leszcz, M. (2005). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.