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Group Psychotherapy

Anyone considering group therapy will want to know what it has to offer and how it can enhance recovery. However, it is not unusual to feel anxious about engaging with a group. Trepidation, or even fear, can be viewed as the “normal” response to participating in an activity with the potential for us to feel exposed within a group of strangers. It may be tempting to dismiss the group as merely a talking shop for other people’s distress, and while it may be reasonable to be skeptical, it is worth thinking about what group therapy has to offer the recovering person. 

Addiction

Addiction has a powerfully destructive effect on relationships, changing the way we understand ourselves, the way we relate to others, and ultimately, our capacity to experience intimacy. As addiction becomes our most important relationship, our ability to engage with others in an authentic and spontaneous way is curtailed and replaced by an insular and isolated view of our place in the world. We can end up playing out relationships in our head, imagining what others might be thinking and responding to them on that basis. This can leave others feeling confused, rejected, and hurt. Ultimately they may become disinterested or rejecting, leaving us feeling isolated and rejected.

Why are relationships important?

We all have a relationship with ourselves, an inner dialogue between different parts or aspects of our self. These can be soothing, encouraging, reassuring, and loving but can also be negative, critical, shaming, and rejecting.

These internal conversations are shaped by our early experience of relationships. We receive messages from others about who we are and who we should be. The distance between these views can be the source of self-doubt and emotional pain. Feeling that we are somehow not what we should be can become the base from which we relate to others. It can be difficult to maintain healthy relationships from this position.

As addiction is established and our relationships become more dysfunctional, we are more likely to want to hide our perceived inadequacies from others.

We arrive at a place where it may feel too risky to reveal our authentic self, and we may attempt to construct a false self, one that we think is more acceptable or attractive to others. Over time we may become adept and successful at projecting this false self. However, the more successful we are and the more convincing it is to others, the more we are trapped into maintaining the façade, feeling anxious about being exposed as inadequate, weak, or unlovable.

Why are relationships in recovery important?

Addiction corrupts the relationship we have with ourselves, replacing self-honesty with self-delusion. It is not to be trusted, for it will always serve its own purpose rather than what is best for us. Its message is extremely seductive and powerful, promising a way of avoiding all that we find difficult or painful in relationships. Like our most trusted and reliable confidante, we come to rely on its direction and guidance.

But addiction is self-serving and does not have our best interests at heart. What we need are relationships with others who understand how addiction works and with whom we can be authentic.

How it works

Thankfully, it’s quite simple. All that is needed is a willingness to attend and participate in the group sessions. If we can be open and honest with our fellow group members and be respectful of their feedback, all well and good.

However, if we are not comfortable with this, we are likely to fall back on our familiar ways of behaving which keep us stuck. This is not a problem because group therapy can help us understand the relationship problems we experience in the “outside world” which have the potential to be recreated within the group.

These are often defensive in nature, intended to keep us safe from what we fear. These defenses may have at some time served the purpose of keeping us safe. However, over time they may have lost their effectiveness or relevance and become redundant. In group therapy, they can be recognized as self-defeating and self-destructive ways of relating that are no longer effective or necessary. Letting go of a defensive behavior that doesn’t work is the precursor to being able to have intimate relationships.

“But how can others possibly understand the complexity of my life and all of my relationships?”

There are two answers to this question.

One is that regardless of our differences, there are common aspects of being human that we all share. We have all experienced emotional pain, have dreams and aspirations, and want to love and be loved (even if we find that difficult to acknowledge).

The other is that as addicts, we are subject to the self-delusion that addiction brings and in recovery, we need to trust others who understand the problem.

Group therapy offers a dynamic opportunity to identify and change the way we are in relationships. We can find a way to be authentic, without the need for a false self, able to remove the obstacles keeping us from achieving our goal of a satisfying and sustainable recovery.

The transformational power of group therapy lies in the experience. It may be tempting to view the group as separate from “real life,” not relevant to what we face in the outside world. The reality is that it is likely to be the most “real” experience of relating to others that we have had in a long time, if ever.

What we are able to learn in group therapy is available for us to use in recovery, in all our relationships beyond the group.

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