The slipstream of group participation takes individuals to places where they cannot go alone.
Groups of people can generate, reinforce and revive creative energy and imagination
– Shaun McNiff
Group art therapy sessions are quite different to individual art therapy sessions but they can be just as effective in helping people effect change and healing in their lives. There are many reasons why you might choose to join a group program whether it be to meet others with shared experience of your issue or perhaps because it is a more affordable option.
Much research has been devoted to understanding how groups can heal people. Here are some of the features of group therapy that will help you make positive change:
Recognising that other people might share the same experiences and feelings can help you feel less isolated, that your experiences are valid. This can greatly increase your feelings of optimism when you begin a group.
Group members can help each other in the sharing process. The experience of being able to give help to another person can make you feel good, while learning to cope with your own issues. It also helps you build friendships and healthy communication with others.
In the group there will often be people who are at different stages of development of recovery. For example, in a cancer support group, one person might be going through treatment, hoping to have a positive outcome, while another might have been in remission for several years. Members can inspire and encourage by showing that they have overcome the problems with which others are still struggling. Perhaps it is you who may be able to instil hope in someone who needs it.
You may find it very helpful to learn factual information from other people in the group. This can include useful information about some treatment that was useful or details about access to beneficial services that you had no idea about previously. Similarly, what you have done, seen, heard or tried could be of use to others.
Often the way you relate to people can be due to the conditioned behaviours that developed from an early age as your family relationships were established. Certain group members and even the therapist may unconsciously remind you of a parent, sibling or someone close to you. This is a common occurrence in many groups as the dynamics form and develop. With assistance from the therapist, you may become aware of the impact that childhood and adolescent experiences have had on the way you relate to others. This awareness can help you avoid further unconscious repetition of unhelpful interpersonal behaviour from your past, not only in the group but also in everyday life.
Groups can be a very positive environment in which to build your confidence in social situations. The safety and support of the group will help you find the courage to take risks by trying out new interpersonal skills that might be unfamiliar to you.
E.g.: in a support group for people with social anxiety, a person who may find it hard to look at people when speaking, may find the group a safe place to slowly start making eye contact with others as trust develops over time.
Another way you can develop your social skills is through observing and imitating the therapist and group members who show support and concern for others as well as openness in sharing their feelings. If the whole group models this type of behaviour, it strengthens the depth of trust and safety for everyone. You may even find yourself being more open and caring with people outside the group as the benefits become apparent.
There is a deep desire in every human heart to belong. To be accepted and valued by others seems to unlock within us, greater possibilities of growth and development. Our instinctive need to belong to a group evolved thousands of years ago for the safety and survival of the human race. Today, in the context of therapy, the safety and containment of a supportive and cohesive group can offer you a wonderful opportunity to develop yourself.
Sometimes things happen in life that you can’t control. Tragic accidents, chronic disease, job loss, infidelity of a spouse, miscarriage, natural disaster, the list goes on. These events often bring into sharp focus, the fragility of our existence in the grand scheme of life. It can be a natural response to want to run and hide or somehow escape from these dark moments. However, when you are able to come to accept the fact that life will go on with pain, death, grief, joy, thwarted love, regret and all the other deeply resonant facets of human existence, you will develop the resilience to live through them. Seeing others weather their own storms will assist you to be able to face and endure your own trials.
Sometimes, having a good cry over a piece of music or a movie that resonates with your situation can be extremely satisfying. Punching a bag at the gym can help you feel better about the argument you just had with someone. This is because you are engaged in an activity that helps you release emotion in an uninhibited way. You find relief in the activity because your repressed emotions have found an outlet. Similarly, being able to express your feelings in the non-judgemental group environment can be very cathartic. There, you know you will be heard and that people will respond in a way that helps you process and move through the feelings that are often hidden from public criticism.
E.g.: In a support group for people with binge-eating disorder, group members can talk openly about the shame and guilt about their eating behaviours they might normally disguise.
Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge aspects of our behaviour that might be unhelpful to ourselves and others. When you join a supportive group you also accept the possibility that people might feel compelled to tell you things about your behaviour that challenges your self identity.
E.g.: You might not be aware that your habit of interrupting to ask questions when people are speaking is disruptive to the storyteller and the rest of the group who are listening. Even though this might come as embarrassing or unpleasant surprise to you, the awareness it brings can be a rich source of growth and development.
This also applies to positive feedback. E.g.: You may think that your introverted way of being is a negative trait while others in the group might tell you that your reserved, quiet tone is very calming and reassuring for them. Moving forward from therapy you might learn to let go of self judgement for being shy and reserved.
Often being part of a group of people going through the same experience as you will help illuminate the darker corners of your being. You may find that getting to know yourself better will help you understand the root cause of your issues and the unconscious drivers that influence not only your behaviour but also the way you are able to handle things.
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