Even before I first started therapy in my early 20s, I couldn’t wait to pay someone to give me their undivided attention once a week. It was literally all I ever wanted. Of course, there was some trial and error, and it took me a decade to find someone who I genuinely vibed with. When I met my therapist, Jane, she immediately suggested group therapy. I had already known her from bartending at the restaurant her husband owned, so I was slightly bewildered that she seemed to be forgetting the only thing I hate more than other people is other people’s opinions.
It was an easy win for Jane. She may have overlooked my contempt for humans, but she knew the way to my heart: While paying me compliments and puffing up my ego, she convinced me I had just as much to contribute as I had to gain from committing to group therapy. Damn, she’s good. One week later, I was seated on the couch with five strangers whom I would otherwise never cross paths with. Even though I would later move on to a group that was more diverse, my first group changed me in a way I could have never imagined: It made me a dateable human.
There is vulnerability in group therapy. You share the mundane details of your life as well as the most intimate parts of your soul, and it isn’t always received the way you want it to be. Just like in real life, people don’t always love you the way you want to be loved.
Group therapy differs slightly from self-help groups: The members attend weekly sessions that are moderated by a therapist whom everyone sees on an individual basis. Unlike AA, there isn’t usually an open-door policy. You make a commitment to attend each week, and if you go MIA, people take it personally. You can have as much anonymity as you want, but you can’t socialize outside of sessions because it affects the entire dynamic.
I could feel my own discomfort the first day and at every other session whenever I predominantly had the floor. It was what made group such a valuable part of my life — being vulnerable was outside my comfort zone. My fear of intimacy in relationships, friendships, and with my family had made me extremely isolated. Though wounds were healed through individual therapy, the damage they caused lived in a vault that I never opened. I wanted to have deep connections with others, like I had in the past, but I had no idea where to start.
I won’t lie — there were plenty of sessions that left me feeling traumatized and alone, but I had individual sessions with my therapist to remind me that these moments were part of a crucial learning experience. I had avoided intimacy for so long in order to protect myself from any negative feelings. My coping skills rarely included self-care and were instead ripe with self-destruction that I had learned to disguise as fun. It became common practice for me to grasp for anything that could wash down the unfamiliar taste of shame, anger, and sorrow. Group therapy forced me to confront the kinds of emotional scenarios that I always avoided, and individual therapy helped me cope with the fallout of my private meltdowns.
Love is not always unconditional, and real love does not come without boundaries. And thank fuckin’ god for that.
On some level, I was aware that I had issues with intimacy, but only in group did I realize just how dangerous they had become. Since I felt unable to speak up for myself, establish boundaries, or manage conflict, and had unhealthy coping skills, I pretty much had the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old — who was dating grown men. You can imagine the volatile relationships that formed, and maybe you can even understand how someone could normalize abusive patterns.
I realized that I wasn’t helping myself by carrying that silent burden in group or in my relationships. Suddenly, I was angry. I was angry at everyone who participated in allowing me to carry that burden. I woke up every day with a boiling rage that screaming couldn’t satisfy. The only thing I could do was literally run. I ran angrily through the streets of Brooklyn and would do yoga immediately after to calm myself down enough to do work. What I didn’t realize was that allowing my anger to exist was actually giving me the ability to explore healthy coping methods.
Of course, that anger had to be communicated, because it couldn’t stay inside me any longer — and group therapy opened the door to its escape route. Sure, I’d love to pretend that I effectively articulated moments of fury, but that’s not always how healing works. I was lit, and I projected that rage onto strangers constantly (sorry, folks at Rite Aid). It was only through practice and staying present in every moment, no matter how difficult, that I was able to speak my truth calmly, clearly, and confidently. Holy fuck did that take a while and a lot of patience of the group to sit through my combative approach to vulnerability. But at least I didn’t have to run anymore, because honestly, running on concrete was murdering my shins.
Though I’m sure there are other ways to become a dateable human, I never would have been able to change my harmful habits without group therapy. I would never have been able to remove some of the barriers I had firmly built between myself and those who cared for me, while still having balanced relationships. Most importantly, I learned something about love that I never considered: It is not always unconditional, and real love does not come without boundaries. And thank fuckin’ god for that.