Group therapy can be the most nurturing and also the most challenging form of therapy. It is highly effective. While it doesn’t replace individual therapy, it can be a great adjunct and a final step in the healing process.
Group therapy is very relevant for survivors of childhood abuse and in fact for any traumatized individual. Isolation and separation from communal support is a primary characteristic of trauma, and that is exactly what group therapy provides. Enduring recovery cannot occur in isolation, it can only take place within the context of relationships. The group serves as a symbolic societal witness to each victim’s experience, as it is retold and relived in the group process. Fundamental societal functions – being made to feel safe and seen, sharing emotional distress, validating one’s experience, minimizing shame, recognizing and encouraging strengths and taking personal responsibility are now played out within the group interaction. The successful group environment provides a corrective emotional experience in which past dynamics of self-blame, lack of trust, and silencing of the victim will be evoked and then worked through. These groups offer a quality of support and understanding that is simply not available in the survivor’s regular social environment.
Learning that one is not alone or hopelessly defective is of prime importance in the recovery process, and it is facilitated by a high degree of similarity between group participants. There are two kinds of groups for trauma victims - the homogenous group and the heterogeneous group. The former provides the most similar types of participants (i.e. female rape victims); the latter provides a strong connection of shared emotional experience among different types of individuals and different types of trauma. I lead a heterogeneous group. It is composed of both females and males, young and old, who have experienced any type of childhood abuse (sexual, physical, emotional).
Judith Herman, in her seminal book, “Trauma and Recovery”, proposes a three-stage model of recovery from trauma – first safety, then remembrance/mourning, and finally reconnection. She recommends individual therapy for the first stage, homogeneous group therapy for the second stage and heterogeneous group therapy for the third stage. It is my belief that you can accomplish the first two stages in individual therapy and then move on to a heterogeneous group for the third stage.
Over the years we have had group members with various personality disorders, personality types and different operational defense systems. By personality disorders I am referring to diagnoses such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Dissociative Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, etc. By personality types and operational defense system I mean the way in which people interact, communicate and react to others – outgoing, shy, aggressive, pleaser, perpetual victim, passive- aggressive, splitting, projective identification, etc. What is important about these differences is that the outside world is also composed of these types of people and behaviors - and more. The group allows for “trying out” different approaches to being effective and finding one’s voice in the world. Group therapy affords members the opportunity to see how they affect others and how others perceive them without the fear of negative consequences. While group members are supporting each other in the healing process, they are also helping each other become the people they want to be. That is the empowerment of the survivor.
“The restoration of a sense of connection to others that comes with increased trust and communication with self and others is the greatest gift therapy can bring to someone in despair.” (Herman, 1992) Group therapy offers that gift.
By Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT
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