A friend told me the other day that he’d just started his social anxiety support/CBT group. He said he hadn’t really said anything, and then asked, what did you find about these groups?
I don’t know that I’ve ever addressed that explicitly and directly. So this is for anyone debating whether to join a CBT/therapy group or not. My usual caveat stands: this is me, and not some universal voice. Go with your gut.
Here is what I “found” about Group:
Most importantly, I can speak from the perspective of having completed a Group. Three, in fact. I am speaking to myself in the past – myself who was doubting if it was a good idea or not.
It is worth it.
There were all sorts of worries when I was debating signing up for therapy. Would I be the weird one? What would I get out of this? Can they really change anything? Will this be a weekly dose of crying? Will this be embarrassing? Will it be exhausting? Is it too much time? Is it too little time? What if I miss some days?
Whatever your worries, Past Self, you can be calm. It is worth it. You will see.
I chose to do group the first time because I was a) desperate and b) avoiding medication at all costs. It didn’t seem like a fully attractive option, but it sounded a lot better than mystery pills or more panic attacks. I could trust the science behind cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It was rational and reasonable. And it sounded a lot better than my first ever dose of therapy, which was a Freudian, find-the-root-of-the-emotional-problem kind of interview. That most certainly did cause me to cry. I can’t remember ever having felt so upset by questioning, nor so angry at a medical professional. (of course, that was before the vasovagal episode).
If you, reader, decide to start Group, your first meeting may quite probably fill you with worries and doubts. At least, these were mine:
Why is this so awkward?
I don’t have anything to contribute.
That is a kind of ridiculous thing to be afraid of, co-Group-member B. You need help.
No, I need help. I feel nothing like these people’s symptoms.
I’ve made a mistake. Or my doctor made a mistake.
This will never be useful.
Why do I feel so emotional?
Am I the only one not getting it?
THIS IS OK. I think my main concern was that I didn’t belong. On different weeks, I would leave feeling alone, unaddressed, uncertain, independent, or like I was some big anomaly in the world of mental illness. Alternatively, some weeks I left feeling like I had found some people who finally understood! As if I would get better. As if I wasn’t alone. As if there was hope.
And all of these emotions could mix and match, so I might even leave feeling like I would get better, like I was independent, and also that I was alone and weird.
Every week is different. Every Group is different. Sometimes there will be weeks or Groups where you really all jive together, and that can be fantastic. Sometimes it takes a long time for everyone to open up. You have to expect that if people go into this meeting feeling the way you do – and they do – they probably are feeling very uncertain about sharing or about being alone. That doesn’t tend to make people easy going. Instead, they are all the more likely to demand attention or to hide. But that is ok. That is part of it.
I never felt like I completely fit the mold for any of my Groups. But because of that, I learned more about myself than ever before. In a Group, you get to learn not only about your problems, but everyone else’s. It isn’t just a question of putting it in perspective and saying, ‘oh, you don’t have it so bad’. It’s about pooling your resources. Everyone’s mistakes and successes become available for everyone else, and because of that, you learn ten times as much about coping with your difficulties. You will gain confidence because you can do some things better than others – or because your suggestion helped someone else get through a crisis. You will suddenly realize you still have miles to go on skills you thought you’d mastered. You will be able to bring a situation to the table and have not only your own response, but 5-10 other people’s input, and you will be able to build a better future scenario.
Now I’d like to come to the skills. Learning ways of coping, or skills for getting through crises and problems, is why most people go to a Group, and what they most hope to gain. Over the course of the Group you will get practice, but it can never be enough to master your own mind. So leaving the Group can feel a little hollow. I felt very exposed each time I left a Group. Sometimes I felt relieved, sometimes sad, sometimes homesick. But each time I always felt a bit like a bad student, as if I hadn’t managed to make enough of the precious little time I had with my Group leaders. Since learning the skills was the most important part, I felt a bit like I had failed, or the Group had failed, and that was frustrating.
Remarkably, it took several months to find out how much I had learned. Every single Group has actually given me skill sets that I have learned and kept, and am still using. The skills work. I remember them! I remember to use them! I’m not perfect, and I’m still trying to use them better and more often. But the longer I’m out of Group the more I’ve realized that the skills have actually stuck and made huge differences in my life.
That’s what I’ve found.
EDIT: On re-reading this it feels a bit gushy and pamphlet-like. It’s all quite true, I just wish it didn’t sound so parental.