When I was in graduate school working on my PhD in clinical psychology, I casually signed up for a class called “Gestalt Therapy”. I had heard that this “class” allowed one to obtain course credit for engaging in an hour and a half of group therapy once a week, so I enthusiastically signed up. At the time, I was giving myself a mental high five for actively avoiding another course in statistics. What I wasn’t prepared for was the beautiful way this class would influence my life and the general power of the group therapy process.
On the first day of group therapy, I walked into a nondescript classroom, sat down among 7 of my peers and listened to the group leader begin. “I want everyone to use this time to pay attention to your own feelings and reactions. Be curious about your feelings and share them with the group if you can. Where do you want to start?” Tentatively people began discussing their anxiety being in group therapy, their fears of being seen for the flawed people they are, and their fears of not being seen at all-- of becoming a trivial or irrelevant part of the group.
Through group therapy, I connected with people who were vastly different from me. As a group, we’d often dive into the past or talk about weekly grievances that happened throughout the week, and the group leader would remind us to stay in the present with our current feelings and reactions to each other-- to embrace real intimacy apart from a shared personal, familial, or sexual history. The group members had different experiences, cultures, and beliefs but we all knew deeply what it meant to feel sad, jealous, embarrassed, and joyful. This also allowed us to understand our own patterns in relationships when we had the opportunity to access a powerful amount of information—our precise feelings in the moment and feedback from others in real time.
My own revelations in group therapy that semester were small but meaningful. A group member shared that she was hurt when she gave me a present at Christmas time, and I never wrote a thank you note. I spent my whole life actively avoiding conflict or voicing negative feelings, and I was suddenly confronted with the things I liked least about myself—the times I’m disorganized, messy, thoughtless, and self-absorbed. But in that moment in group, I wasn’t told “you’re disorganized, messy, and thoughtless”. Rather, I was told how my actions impacted someone else—the ways my actions were hurtful and left someone feeling small and invisible. I remember in that moment a physical sensation of growing—my limbs ached and my body felt exhausted. I would try harder to let others know that I care about and appreciate them rather than assume that they knew the love I felt for them. I would try to let this group member know that I care about her and see her.
During another group session, I confronted my own obsession with timeliness. I grew irritated that a group member was late and missed something I had shared with the group. I realized the way my pattern of arriving 15 minutes early to everything was a sad effort to convince people I “had my act together” and was “good enough”. It left me feeling resentful of people who were less imprisoned by the construct of time.
Since that time, I’ve led my own psychotherapy groups, and I’ve had the privilege of witnessing members connect and challenge one another. I continue to carry the lessons from my own group experience with me-- I try to focus on sharing my own feelings rather than judging others as careless or thoughtless or mean. I remind myself that there is no feeling I can’t handle if I welcome it with the same curiosity and intention of my first group therapist. Now clients sit in my office as I pitch them the idea of joining a therapy group and try to explain the ways the group therapeutic process can help above and beyond individual therapy alone. I hold my breath as I see them struggle with their own ambivalence. I hope they say “yes” to group.