Finding a Common Humanity: A Young Adult’s Guide to Making Group Therapy Worthwhile
Author: Jacqueline Diggs, LCPC – Young Adult Group Therapist
At the start of treatment, I often hear my young adult patients insist that therapy won’t work for them. Some young adults worry that their struggles are so much worse than their peers, that the uncomfortable emotions they are experiencing are more intense, their thoughts are more disturbing, or their behaviors are more shameful. They decide that disclosing any information or sharing their experiences will shock everyone in the room and reinforce the belief that “I’m alone and no one understands me.”
Other young adults are convinced that therapy won’t work for the opposite reason. They believe that their struggles are not severe enough, that their uncomfortable emotions are insignificant, their thoughts are silly, and their problematic behaviors are minor. They decide that disclosing any information or sharing their experiences will lead others to laugh at them and reinforce the belief that “my problems are small and don’t matter.”
The young adults often decide to stay silent and observe the group rather than engage in discussion and challenge the fear that what they contribute will be judged by their peers. I see the benefits of this decision. The idea of being placed in a group room with random 18-24 year olds of various backgrounds feels uncomfortable, like being the new kid in class. Choosing to stay silent allows the young adult to take the temperature of the room and observe how vulnerable everyone else is and how their struggles compare.
However, most young adults discover pretty quickly that their peers also struggle with managing symptoms of anxiety or depression, understanding a new diagnosis, having thoughts of self harm or suicide, coping with a traumatic experience, taking a break from school, choosing a major or career path, communicating effectively with their parents, feeling “stuck”, sobriety, defining their identity, or becoming more independent. Below is a guide to making the most out of the young adult group therapy experience.
Tips to Make Group Therapy Effective
- Participate! The phrase “you get out what you put in” is true with therapy in general, but specifically with group therapy. The more vulnerable you are in group with sharing your thoughts and feelings, the more you will benefit. The more you actively listen to your peers share their experiences, the more you will benefit from group. The more that you practice using skills (inside and outside of group), the more you will benefit! If you choose to stay silent, not engage in active listening, and not work to develop skills, then you are not likely to see any change occur in your distressing thoughts, uncomfortable emotions, or problematic behaviors.
- Focus on commonalities! No one person’s experiences are exactly the same. Our development, achievements, and challenges are a mixture of various internal and external factors. In group therapy, it’s more helpful and less isolating to identify how you relate to one another. Try to relate to your peers and provide insight into how you have also struggled with challenging certain distressing thoughts, or experiencing specific emotions, or engaging in similar behaviors.
- Challenge yourself to be vulnerable! Remember that the group therapy space is non-judgmental. Keep in mind that this is the time to work on yourself and address your needs and challenges. Talk about how you relate to the topic presented and be specific. Challenge yourself to go beyond what is on the surface and tap into something deeper and more authentic. Validate your emotional struggles and practice validating the emotional struggles of others by being empathic and understanding.
- Use the skills! Coping skills are taught in every You may find that some skills are not as effective at regulating your emotions, balancing your thoughts, or changing your behaviors as others. That is exactly why we teach so many skills. You will learn mindfulness based skills, emotion regulation skills, distress tolerance and grounding skills, balanced thought skills, and others. Practice the skills when you are not in distress so that when the time comes you can use the skills effectively. Try to keep an open mind when learning new skills and practice patience while developing them.
- Ask for help or support! The supportive people in your life (family, friends, therapists, etc.) are invested in your well-being. You are not expected, nor encouraged, to engage in treatment completely alone. At Compass, you are surrounded by a treatment team to cater to your mental health needs. It’s important to practice advocating for your needs including defining your treatment goals, making decisions about your care, or requesting to meet with a treatment provider. It’s also encouraged to define the type of support you would like to receive including obtaining validation or praise, having someone listen to your struggles without judgment, or getting feedback from your peers or supportive people in your life.
In the therapy group, young adults find to their relief that their most uncomfortable thoughts, impulses, emotions, and problematic behaviors are not completely unique. Young adults discover that their peers can relate to their challenges and are willing to disclose their stories of similar situations and insight into how they have coped. As a result, the aforementioned hesitant young adult feels more open and willing to be vulnerable and share in an environment where they feel validated and accepted by their peers.
Yalom, I.D. & Leszcz, M. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. 5th ed. New York: Basic Books.