January 14, 2020

How Group Therapy Saved my Life & Transformed me Post-Divorce.

I used to pretend like I had it all together.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather an unconscious and desperate attempt to be liked and loved. Somewhere deep inside of me, I believed that appearing problem-free, flaw-free, and all-around perfect was the golden ticket to that. Turns out, it wasn’t.

Instead, it was the ticket to unimaginable suffering.

Because when we deny our inner world and present a false persona, we can’t possibly feel connected, seen, heard, or supported. And without those things, we likely suffer.

My need to be seen as “perfect” caused an incredible amount of suffering throughout my life. Everything from fake friendships to tumultuous and abusive relationships—they all left me feeling intensely alone. Yet I continued to hide behind my persona of perfection. Until the day the pain of hiding my true self finally outweighed the pain of sharing it.

At 31, I married a man who I knew in my heart of hearts wasn’t a good fit for me. The relationship was unstable almost from the beginning, but I stayed with him anyway. Behind my facade of perfection, I believed that I was broken but that if I changed enough, it would get better. I married him because I was already in too deep and felt horrified at the thought of what people would think of me if I canceled the wedding.

Post-wedding, the relationship grew even more tumultuous and my suffering worsened. On top of the pain I was already experiencing within the relationship, there was also the lack of connection and support from the outside—an inevitable outcome when you’re pretending that your life is different from how it actually is. I remember getting together with people who I considered my closest friends, putting a smile on my face, and telling them how great life (and my relationship) was.

In reality, it was a painful mess.

And then, mercifully, came the tipping point—the day my relationship needed to end, for reasons that shattered my world. But these events also cracked open something inside of me that was ready to change. I was ready to face the pain I knew I would have to feel if I shared my true self with the world. So I left him.

My life got worse before it got better. The emotional pain that I experienced on an all-day, everyday basis was excruciating. Part of me wanted to run back to my marriage. There was a certain safety and familiarity there. But at my core, I knew that the kind of safety my soul longed for could not be found within my broken relationship. I had to roll up my sleeves and dig deep. And so my mission to save, change, and heal my life began.

Slowly, I began revealing the truth to people in my life—and while that felt good, I knew it was just the beginning of my healing. The pain and suffering that was freely pouring out of me throughout my divorce needed holding, understanding, and support. Additionally, if I was going to become a more vulnerable and authentic version of me, I needed people in my life who were also willing to be vulnerable and who were committed to staying, no matter how intense and uncomfortable things got.

Enter group therapy.

Somehow the opportunity found me. It started with a weekend workshop. Participants were vulnerable, raw, and radically authentic in their processes, which included bringing interpersonal conflicts between group members. People expressed their unfiltered truths and embraced any and all discomfort as they worked things all the way through. As a result, they gained more connection (to themselves and others), more compassion from the group, and more aliveness within themselves.

I left that weekend feeling more seen, heard, fully expressed, connected, and supported than ever—and I wanted more. And so I did what any hungry woman in my position would do: I signed up for the Facilitators 4-Year Training program.

Over the course of those four years, I was part of the same group of people. Together, we engaged in regular training modules (five per year) and group therapy sessions—and people didn’t hold back. They brought their personal issues, their interpersonal issues with other people within the group, and everything in between.

At first, I was timid, quiet about my inner processes, and slow(ish) about diving into the water…but the more I opened up, the more I reaped the benefits of the group therapy process.

After many years filled with lots and lots of intensive healing within a therapeutic group, I am now a teacher and facilitator (and forever a student) of this amazing work. I believe there’s nothing more liberating, pleasurable, or fulfilling than showing your authentic self to the world. And in my opinion, there’s no better opportunity to heal inner wounds and become more authentic than the group therapy container.

Here are the profound benefits of group therapy as I see it:

1. The profound benefit of witnessing the pain and vulnerability of others.

There’s a quote by Kahlil Gibran that goes a little something like this: “If we were all to sit in a circle and confess our sins, we would laugh at each other for lack of originality.” What Kahlil is saying here is that we all hurt and falter in such similar ways, and yet, in a culture that values independence and happiness over inter-dependence and real emotions, we have been trained to be alone in our pain. As a result, we have come to believe that we are the only ones hurting when in reality everyone else (or at least the vast majority of people) are also hurting and making mistakes.

When we witness others in their suffering, we learn deep down to our bones that we are not alone in ours. When we witness others in their vulnerability, we feel safer and welcomed in our own. It’s not enough to know that other people suffer. We need to observe them firsthand in all their messy glory and pain in order for our bodies, minds, and souls to truly know and feel the truth of this. And there’s no better way to witness others in these places than group therapy.

2. The profound benefit of working through interpersonal conflicts with individuals committed to staying engaged.

What happens in your personal relationships when intense conflict arises? Do you and the other person roll your sleeves up and dive in? Do you explore until the dynamic feels clear and you both feel resolved, freer, and more peaceful—and maybe even like a piece of you got healed? Or do you sweep things under the rug, sugarcoat truths, fight until you’re exhausted, go numb, or disconnect?

While I can’t speak for other countries, the majority of people in this country (the United States) were never taught how to navigate conflict, share their negative feelings, or own their parts of a conflict. And so, even if some of us were taught or have cultivated some of those skills and are committed to working through conflicts in ways that help us heal, grow, and connect to others more deeply, many others are not there yet. If you have people in your life who are there, consider yourself incredibly lucky and value those connections like gold.

The beauty of the group therapy container is that people who are attracted to this means of growth are often committed to staying engaged in the process. They are willing to share authentically and to go down the proverbial rabbit hole in service of healing their inner wounds, thus creating more connection, peace, freedom, aliveness, pleasure, and joy in their lives.

Additionally, the same conflicts that exist in the outside lives of members tend to show up in the group. Because as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. The conflicts we experience the most with other people live inside of us and like it or not, we carry them with us everywhere we go. Group therapy then becomes a sacred opportunity in which our inner wounds are organically opened up to be explored, held, and healed with people who are willing to stay engaged in the process and work the conflict all the way through.

3. The profound benefit of being witnessed and held by people other than your therapist.

There’s often a lot you can gain from working with a skilled therapist. It creates a welcoming place for talking through your problems and expressing yourself and gives you the opportunity to be seen, heard, and validated. We become aware of the reflections we are unable to see for ourselves, gain a perspective outside of our own, and more. I think many modalities of individual therapy are fantastic and that everyone could benefit from it.

The limit, in my eyes, is that in individual therapy, feeling seen, heard, and validated is given by just one person—the therapist (who you’re ahem paying). In group therapy, members see and reflect things to each other; they support, cry with, and work through conflicts with each other. Those visceral experiences leave members feeling deeply connected, supported, held, and loved by others. And those experiences transform people’s lives by helping them feel what is possible in relationships. Ultimately, people naturally begin gravitating more toward authentic, nourishing, supportive, and healthy relationships in their lives outside of the group.

4. The profound benefits that ripple out into humanity.

In this web of life, we are all part of a greater whole. And when we work through our own issues and heal wounds within our own psyche, it invariably impacts the whole. When we heal a piece of ourselves, we change—and when we change, the world changes. When we are happier, more peaceful, connected, and healed versions of ourselves, we contribute to the world in different ways than we would if we were walking around constantly aching on the inside.

In group therapy, big interpersonal and world issues are worked on together by multiple individuals. Our internal issues and the places we have cut ourselves off from are brought into the light in significant ways. Ways that I believe have the capacity to transform humanity and the health of the planet. In my training program, the entire student body regularly worked through big and meaningful issues—everything from racism and white privilege to a lack of support for mothers in our culture, political corruption, and the devastation of terrorist attacks throughout the world.

I sincerely hope that one day, group therapy (i.e. coming together to share internal truths, process emotions, resolve conflicts, heal, and grow) will be viewed as a way of life rather than a healing modality that people engage in. Those who are already engaging in the group therapy process are, I’m certain, contributing to healing the world by healing themselves.

Staying in a toxic relationship and continuing to plaster on a fake, perfect smile for the world would have slowly chipped away at me from the inside out until I was nothing but a shell of my former self.

Had I not set aside my doubts and insecurities and trusted in the group therapy process, my life would have looked very different today.

But thankfully I’m happier—more emotionally stable, confident, and connected—and I feel safer in expressing my truth and being in conflict. Through this, I’ve created the strong relationships and loving family I once yearned for. My husband is my best friend; together we’ve forged a healthy and supportive partnership and are parents to two amazing kiddos.

There is a strength within me and I feel more aliveness, pleasure, and joy than ever. All of this is because of the deep inner work I have done. Group therapy urged me to drop the facade and embrace my true self. I won’t say that it’s all rainbows and butterflies all the time, but this life I have now is one I’d never want to trade in.

Is opening up to strangers and revealing your vulnerability terrifying? Absolutely. And is it tough to commit to long-term personal development and inner growth? Of course. Group therapy can be intimidating and even overwhelming at first.

But let me ask you something: would you rather keep living a life where you feel stifled and weighted down by trying to be everything you’re not, or would you rather be unfettered and free, knowing you’re living life in the most authentic way possible?

I know what I’d choose every time, hard work and all.

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