Iowa State University
Like many “first” experiences we have had in graduate school, attending our first group therapy class was anxiety-provoking. When we heard that we would engage in “experiential” activities, our minds raced. What does “experiential” mean? How much would I have to disclose? How would I be evaluated? Question upon question filled our minds about how much this class would feel like group therapy. The line between group class and group therapy seemed too blurry.
Gradually, we found that the most powerful and engaging classes were those where we and our classmates disclosed. However, we both felt scared walking the fine line between learning group interventions and experiencing them first-hand. What would others think of us if we shared more deeply? How would this impact our professional relationships with our instructor and peers? We wanted to connect with others on a deeper, emotional level, but we were also very aware of the boundaries of a classroom environment. It became very easy to rationalize holding back in these moments. Yet, it also felt limiting.
We decided to attend a conference hosted by the Illinois Group Psychotherapy Society where therapists and trainees learned about why they and their clients hold back. The conference included didactic presentations, experiential exercises, and work in small process groups. Groups consisted of five to six members at various stages of their professional development. Not surprisingly, we were both inclined to hold back in both the large and small groups as we did in our group class. However, a turning point was when our leaders clarified the nature of the small group work. One leader put it nicely when he said, “While our main focus is to process the material and experiences we have in the large group, part of our work can be therapeutic, or address some members’ concerns related to the topic of this conference. This is not a therapy group in that when members disclose, the goal will be to help them resolve or move past their concerns. You can voice concerns as much or as little as you like.” After hearing this and establishing trust in the group, we gathered the courage to share our stories. The fear of being evaluated by the other members did not fade, but we felt relieved and empowered. Our fear had taken a “back seat” in our minds.
The conference has gained a place on the list of our most valuable experiences as graduate students. Why? First, we learned that just because we place ourselves in a vulnerable position doesn’t mean we are engaging in therapy. Second, self-disclosing seems like it may have more risks, but doing so may help us understand what we ask our group members to do in therapy. Lastly, we should challenge ourselves to attend experiential conferences where we place ourselves in members’ shoes. Some activities may be uncomfortable, but they help us learn to trust ourselves, trust the process, and experience first-hand the healing power of disclosing. So, speak up, and let it go.