If I’m telling you that group therapy helps people put their shields down, you might think that sounds like a bad idea. You don’t want get rid of your shield!
Our shields are old friends
Our shields started getting forged in steel the first time our tender hearts got injured and we’ve been reinforcing them ever since. You need them.
Our shields are burdensome too
But, on the other hand, do you? You don’t want to be carrying it all the time. It’s too damn heavy! And it impedes your relationships. You can’t put your arms around someone with that steel plate between you. It definitely gets in the way of sexual intimacy. In fact, even casual friendships can be obstructed. When the other person can only see a little bit of you behind that shield, they don’t feel too safe showing themselves either. So they put up their shield too. Consequently, it can be really lonely.
It’s lonely when no one can really see you or know you. So maybe you do want to take your shield down…at least when it’s safe.
Group Therapy redefines “safe”.
What is safe? Does safe mean that no one can hurt you physically or emotionally? Being entirely safe in relationships isn’t really realistic. In group, you’ll be safe from physical harm, but no one can protect you from being hurt emotionally. That comes from within you.
Do you want to be safe but unhappy?
The only thing that can protect you from someone saying something that will upset you or hurt your feelings is being alone…and you don’t really want that.
How about safe but stunted in your growth?
If a therapist could make the group become a bubble of safety, stopping anyone from saying anything that could be upsetting, that would be a terrible psychotherapy group. That kind of anesthetized group is not very helpful. It doesn’t allow you to learn and grow. It’s sort of like snowplow parents who remove every obstacle from their child’s path so that the child never learns to overcome obstacles on their own. You don’t live in a bubble outside the group and so it’s not helpful to live in a bubble inside the group.
Group therapy is safe-ish
A skilled group therapist makes a group safe-ish by maintaining the boundaries of the group, providing guidance, support and confidence in the process. In a group you have the space to think about your reactions, talk about them and progress to the other side, instead of running away or verbally hitting back. This observation of yourself expands your awareness.
Greater awareness gives you more control over your reactions, giving you more time to think about what is being said to you and whether you need to take it personally or not.
True safety is faith in yourself
Ultimately, the greatest feeling of safety is when you’ve learned that you’re capable of riding the waves of your emotions to calmer seas. Your emotions won’t sink you (depress you) or make you go overboard (blow up your relationships). When you feel safer then you won’t need to keep your shield up all the time.
Group Therapy helps you GAIN CONTROL OF your shield
I’m calling it a shield, but it’s also referred to as “walls” or “defenses”. You may not even realize that you have defenses but we all do. Since we develop our emotional shields in early childhood, they can become so much a part of who we are that we don’t even realize they’re there.
Get to know who’s controlling you
If you aren’t aware of your defenses then you aren’t able to re-assess the situation and decide whether you still need them. The little child, who first put up the shield, is still calling the shots.
Shields can be hard to see because they’re invisible, unconscious attitudes and ways of being. Some examples of ways of being are “Be funny all the time to hide your true feelings” or “Act confident to cover up that you’re insecure.”
Say “Thanks, but I don’t need your protection right now.”
You may have multiple shields for different occasions. All of these shields are trying to protect you. Defenses protect some vulnerable part of you. A shield stops invaders from coming in and it also prevents your vulnerability from getting out. The unfortunate side effect is that it gets in the way of you being yourself in the world and connecting with other people on an intimate level.
Through exploring your thoughts and feelings in group therapy you can become more aware of your shield. By identifying your defenses, you can choose when you no longer need them to protect you.
Group Therapy can be a “corrective” experience
A corrective experience is when a prior experience that went wrong is corrected by a subsequent experience that goes right. For example, a prior experience of being silenced and shut down when you tried to speak is “corrected” by another experience where you’re encouraged to speak and listened to respectfully.
There are many corrective experiences possible in a therapy group. Being included in a group corrects a prior experience of being excluded. Asserting yourself in group and having it received well corrects a prior experience of being punished for asserting yourself. Being accepted by the group members corrects past experiences of being rejected.
We don’t need to “correct” already positive experiences
Sometimes it’s an unpleasant feeling or encounter in group that can lead to the most rewarding and corrective outcome. You might have an experience in the group that stirs up the same old feelings that you hate or you’re experiencing an uncomfortable relationship dynamic that you’ve experienced over and over again in your life. You think, “Oh no it’s happening again” or “It’s the same here as anywhere else.” You feel like the group has failed and you’re going to leave. But that would be a missed opportunity.
The repetition of experience is the first part of a corrective experience. Staying in that repeated dynamic but coping with it differently by talking it through with the support of a trained group therapist and group members, will help you progress through this stuck pattern and evolve it into a corrective experience.
A new experience broadens your perspective
When you’ve had a positive experience it can change your mind about whether you still need that shield anymore. You will have learned from the corrective experience that there is another, more successful route. This route takes you through the experience instead of just shielding yourself against it.
And it is such a relief to put down that heavy shield and simply be yourself with others.
I currently have openings in my Wednesday night co-ed process group in Encino.
If you’re interested in learning more about my therapy group or individual psychotherapy, contact Rena Pollak, LMFT for a free 15 minute phone consultation. I have a private practice in Encino and Calabasas.
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