Addiction recovery is prickly business. It requires a great willingness to be completely honest with ourselves and the people around us, and that can be overwhelmingly painful and difficult sometimes. Once the crutch of substances or behaviors is removed, socializing and relating to people can become temporarily challenging, at least until we re-learn how to be social without substances and addictive behaviors. We used alcohol to open us up and make us more social, or we relied on stimulants to pep us up and give us energy. With that taken away, we’re left with our inner selves – and that can be very difficult to face.
Likewise, most of us seek understanding comradeship. We want people to talk to who understand, people who won’t judge us when we peel back the mask and reveal our worst moments in the past. Unfortunately, it can be understandably difficult for those who have never experienced addiction to understand our story. It’s not really anyone’s fault, they simply haven’t had the right set of life experiences.
Perhaps that’s why so many of us turn to group therapy and recovery meetings to fill our needs. Surrounded by like-minded folks who get it, our stories flow more easily, allowing each of us to tunnel down to our core and get at the source of or pain – so we can finally heal.
Choosing the Right Group
Before you decide whether group therapy is right for you, you must first understand what exactly the umbrella term “group therapy” means. The truth is that the phrase doesn’t have one specific definition – at least not with regard to a specific therapy style. Really, any group that meets specifically for the purposes of therapeutic discussion qualifies, especially if it happens to be led by a peer or psychological counselor.
The type of therapeutic approach can vary widely in group therapy sessions. Some groups follow Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) guidelines, while others follow a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) approach. Still others might approach discussion and healing from any one or more of the therapy styles on this list. Even Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART recovery are valid approaches for those in recovery.
What is most important for you to know, as a person considering group therapy, is what type of therapy might work best. That’s something that only you and your doctor or care team can decide; what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.
Group Therapy Goals
Group therapy, although it may follow any therapeutic technique, holds its own specialized principals. Some of these principles differ greatly from individualized therapy, while others work toward the same goals. The American Group Psychotherapy Association, and indeed, most psychotherapists who lead group sessions, adhere to factors identified by historical psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, a man who once pioneered existential therapy. These factors include:
- Optimism and hope
- Imparting information
- Corrective recapitulation
- Socializing techniques
- Imitative behavior
- Interpersonal learning
- Group cohesiveness
- Existential factors
Optimism is reached through hope imparted by the group, while universality reminds you that you aren’t alone. By imparting information through the group, both members and the group leader help people who attend to better understand their condition. Altruism, sometimes referred to as “service to others” in AA, lets you find value in helping others as you help yourself. Corrective recapitulation (isn’t that a mouthful?) denotes the importance of the group being a safe and healthy space from which to work out past traumas.
Next comes socializing techniques; a certain amount of socializing is not only encouraged, but expected within the group. Remember, socialization is a need, not a want; it’s something all humans crave naturally, and fulfilling it regularly will help you to live a happier, healthier life.
Imitative behavior and interpersonal learning both refer to the fact that the group will form interpersonal relationships that inspire learning and understanding – this is often what leads to group cohesiveness (a feeling of belonging, or good conversation flow) in the first place. Catharsis, of course, refers to the fact that being heard, understood, and valued as a person is, in many ways cathartic or therapeutic.
Last but not least is existential factors – this simply denotes that the support of the group provides you with the support you need to “exist” or survive difficult emotional experiences (like recovery).
All of these factors come together to provide the structure for healthy, positive groups.
Specific Benefits for People in Recovery
Regardless of whether you’re recovering from sex addiction, heroin, overeating, or even tobacco, group therapy can hold enormous benefits for you when you undertake it correctly. The right group can provide you with camaraderie and friendship – friendship that often doesn’t judge you for what may have been poor choices in the past.
Recovery-specific groups, like AA and its many sister groups, are especially suitable for people in recovery as each member will have had experience struggling with addiction in the past. It doesn’t always matter that your addictions aren’t the same; at a baseline level, all addictions inspire similar behaviors and thought patterns.
Attending group therapy in recovery is also beneficial because it forces you to be accountable to someone other than yourself. That’s a big deal if you often rationalize your use just before a slip. And even if your reason for not using is “I promised the group,” that’s still one more instance in which you didn’t use – a success!
Perhaps most important is the fact that your group members provide support, strength, and even a shoulder to cry on – both when things are going well and when they’re not. In the case of a relapse, this can be the difference between picking up where you last left off and returning to full-time sober living.
Is Group Therapy Right for You?
This is a big question with no easy answers. The truth is that, while group therapy is overwhelmingly effective for many recovering addicts, it isn’t always right for everyone.
A select few find group therapy triggering in early recovery; by being around other addicts, they may be reminded of their use and thus, experience cravings. In an outpatient setting, this is risky, especially if the addict has little to no support network outside of the group. One way around this risk factor is to attend a residential treatment center for full-time care; while you’re in treatment, you’re in a safe space where you can address your triggers without any access to substances or old behaviors.
Conversely, those for whom group therapy works best are those with a willingness to learn, develop, and grow through the group. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to believe it will solve all your problems; you just need to be willing to try.
A willingness to share (once you get comfortable with the group), feeling lonely in your recovery, or even desiring the company of others who understand you are all signs that group therapy might benefit you. If you’re curious, explore what options you have available to you in your local area, or speak with your care team for a referral.