“There simply is no pill that can replace human connection. There is no pharmacy that can fill the need for compassionate interaction with others…the answer to human suffering is both within us and between us.” This premise from MISS Foundation founder and bereavement specialist, Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, speaks directly to why group therapy is a necessary component of any treatment, including eating disorder treatment.
As humans, we are social beings whose survival and fulfillment in life depends on interaction and connection with others. With this in mind, Joseph Hersey Pratt, “The Father of Group Therapy,” provided the first formally organized therapeutic group in history by providing a space for recently discharged tuberculosis patients to discuss their common challenges.
Over the years, group therapy has developed into numerous applications and modalities, serving diverse populations – from those who simply have shared experiences to those receiving treatment for medical or mental health issues.
These therapies all stem from the same foundational tenets: that group experiences are universal; that the group can be an instrument to help others; that connecting on these group experiences can bring about more permanent change; and that it is easier to encourage change within people working on the group, rather than the individual, level.
Universality of Human Experience
While people often feel alone in their struggles, many aspects of the human experience are felt globally. The content of someone else’s story may not align directly with yours. Specific details may differ. However, often the larger concepts within one unique story can resonate with many.
Feelings of loss, abandonment, fear, courage, uncertainty, heartbreak, low self-worth, failure, and so many other experiences are interwoven in the stories we tell and the challenges we face. Even so, in moments of struggle, many people often feel alone or misunderstood, which can result in social isolation and withdrawal.
Engaging in group therapy can combat these beliefs and feelings by providing awareness that there are others with similar experiences that know exactly how you feel. It is one thing to have an awareness that others in the world are going through a similar experience. It is another to feel the power of connection when someone shares their story in front of you and you can see yourself in it.
The Group as a Tool
In group therapy, the group itself can often serve as an instrument for change. Discovering that we are not alone in our struggles can powerfully support an individual in reducing feelings of shame or isolation, and can create space for exploration.
Group therapy also provides participants with the opportunity to extend support and insight to others. Giving back in this way can help each participant reconnect with a sense of purpose and can increase self-worth via contributions to peers.
Additionally, the group can provide a tool to challenge behaviors that may need to change. In eating disorder treatment or substance use treatment, therapists or doctors may challenge a patient many times on their behaviors. Sometimes the same insight, expressed by other patients with similar challenges, can resonate more deeply. Therapists may often intentionally facilitate appropriate and respectful group challenging in order to cultivate this dynamic.
Group therapy also allows for the diversity between individuals with shared experiences to shine, creating a space where differences in opinion, belief, and methods of change come into the discussion organically.
The Group as a Witness
Often in life, we prioritize focus on our individual challenges and lives over providing space, witness, and validation to those around us. For many that battle with their mental health, simply having someone bear witness to their struggle can be empowering and validating.
In group therapy, participants bear witness to the stories of their peers: the trials that have brought them to their knees, the truth they are striving to live out, and the growth that leads to change. The group acts as a witness not only to pain, but to progress. For those seeking understanding, it is comforting to have others who have fought similarly provide validation of growth.
The many benefits of group therapy mentioned cannot be replicated in one’s daily life. Group therapy capitalizes on the power of human connection that exists within a group of people with a similar struggle and similar focus of processing and overcoming that struggle. Furthermore, the dynamics and social mores’ in typical relationships do not exists within the group. Individuals can speak freely and take up space in a way that encourages emotional processing without fear of what others may think, whether or not they will be offended, or if they are “sick” of hearing “the same old thing.”
These benefits also cannot be replicated in individual therapy. The role of an individual therapist is different and often does not involve self-disclosure. This key difference reduces the opportunity to connect through similar challenges, since the patient might not know if their struggle was shared by their therapist.
For these reasons, group therapy stands in a league of its own and is often utilized in addition to individual therapy. At Reasons Eating Disorder Center, group therapy is an integral aspect of our approach to eating disorder treatment. We view group therapy as a component of treatment just as essential as individual therapy, psychiatry, and physical health. At Reasons, we utilize the power of the group to encourage and bolster the power of the individual.
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, LPC, NCC is a Licensed Professional Counselor, freelance writer, and yoga instructor who is passionate about supporting individuals in harnessing the power they hold within themselves to overcome adversity and cultivate impactful change in their lives. Margot has a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Based out of Los Angeles, Margot is a Primary Therapist with Reasons Eating Disorder Treatment Center, as well as a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope & Addiction Hope.