As a certified group therapist, I often get calls from people seeking support groups. But after speaking with them, I realize that many of these people would actually benefit more from a therapy group and that’s actually what they’re looking for. Due to the fact that most people are more familiar with the concept of a support group than a therapy group, I often need to explain the differences to them. Even other therapists that don’t lead therapy groups can be unfamiliar with the differences between the two types of groups.
Understanding the differences can help you find the right group for you.
Here are the major differences between a support group and group therapy.
THE GROUPS HAVE DIFFERENT GOALS
The goal of a support group is to help you cope. You join a support group when you realize that you’re usual coping skills are not enough to help you through a current difficulty in your life and that you need more support than your friends and family can provide. The group members are all going through a similar challenge in their life. Having a supportive environment in which to talk about what you’re going through can greatly increase your chances of having a better outcome than someone who doesn’t receive any support. It can make the difference between coming through this struggle damaged or stronger than before.
The goal of group therapy is change. You join a therapy group when you have a recurring problem or dissatisfaction with your life and you’ve come to realize that change needs to start with you. The goal of a therapy group is to help you understand yourself better in order to change the thoughts and behaviors that lead to the problems in your life.
THE GROUPS WORK ON DIFFERENT ISSUES
If you consider the group goals or either coping with or changing a problem in your life, it can help you identify the sorts of problems that are best suited for each type of group.
You must cope with what you cannot change. Support groups are best suited for handling issues and challenges that cannot be changed. You cannot change the fact that you have a child with autism or that you’re going through a divorce or that you’ve lost a loved one who died. What you can change, though, through your involvement in a support group, is how well you cope with these struggles.
Change yourself, change your life. There are many problems in life that can be changed through gaining new insight into the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are impacting the problem. Depression, anxiety, addiction, unsatisfying relationships, low self-esteem, difficulty asserting yourself; all of these difficulties can be treated and positively altered through the personal work you do in group therapy.
THE GROUPS WORK DIFFERENTLY
The group members support each other’s healing process by listening respectfully as each member shares what they’re feeling, by offering encouragement and by sharing advice.
The group members are focusing on understanding themselves better and changing their problematic thoughts and behaviors. How this is done is by group members being willing to investigate how they think, feel and behave in group and in life. Group members express how they feel about the circumstances and relationships in their life as well as how they feel in the group. Group members challenge themselves to be truthful, vulnerable and able to give and receive feedback. The growth potential for allowing yourself to open up with others is tremendous.
THE SELECTION OF THE GROUP MEMBERS IS DIFFERENT
In a support group, group members share a common issue such as a divorce support group, a cancer support group or a grief support group. You wouldn’t have someone coping with cancer in the same group as someone coping with divorce. Acceptance into a support group is easy and simply based on a member’s desire to be in the group and whether they share the issue that is the focus of the group.
In a therapy group, the group members can have one particular issue that they’re addressing such as depression, anxiety or relationship issues or they can be a very diverse group with members working on all three of these issues and more. The groups can be all male, all female or mixed gender groups. Sometimes the more diverse the membership, the greater opportunity there is for group members to learn and grow from each other. The selection of group members is more complicated and group members are interviewed in order to make sure that the group is appropriate for the member and that the member is appropriate for the group.
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES ON MEMBERS RELATIONSHIPS OUTSIDE THE GROUP
Since providing additional support to help members cope is the main goal of a support group, it makes sense that support groups would encourage the members to meet outside of the group sessions in order to develop deeper relationships that they can rely on between sessions and possibly even after the group ends.
Therapy groups are the exact opposite in this regard. Because the goal of a therapy group is deep, personal exploration that leads to change, you need a safe, contained environment where participants can be honest and emotionally vulnerable without worrying about how it will affect their personal lives. It’s kind of like “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Members can be more daring when they know that it won’t leave the room. There are several other clinical reasons that are too involved to explain here, why outside relationships can be damaging to therapy groups. So communicating with fellow group members outside of the group sessions is strictly discouraged.
GROUP MEMBERS COMMITTMENTS ARE DIFFERENT
Each support group may have its own set of requests that they ask of the members, but usually the commitments to a support group are minimal. Members can drop in for a session whenever they choose. Although it’s encouraged for members to attend regularly for the benefit of themselves and the group, it is often not expected. I would suspect that most support groups simply request that all the members treat each other with respect.
Because of the deep work of a therapy group, more commitments are required of the members. Members coming and going would be disruptive to the process because the absent members would miss out on important disclosures or a conversation that occurred in one session could not be continued in the next session. Therefore, most groups require an initial time commitment of two to three months participation in the group, regular attendance (with some exceptions), and when it’s time for a member to leave the group that the group has three sessions to say goodbye and express their feelings about the end of that relationship.
AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
This blog defined the differences between support groups and therapy groups in their purest form, but you may discover that there are also many other types of groups out there. There are art therapy groups and dance therapy groups. There are dream interpretation groups and canine therapy groups. Most of these alternatives are just indicating the therapist’s approach to therapy and are not defining whether the group is a support group or a therapy group. For any type of group that you encounter, this blog can help you assess the group more clearly.
Groups are a wonderful option for finding support or personal growth. I hope this blog has helped you find the right group for you.
I currently have openings in a co-ed psychotherapy group, Wednesdays 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in Encino, CA.
If you’re interested in learning more about my therapy group/support group, Contact Rena Pollak, LMFT for a free 15 minute phone consultation.
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