Teaching skills groups is one of my favorite parts of being a DBT therapist; I feel energized about what I’m teaching and I love seeing the reactions from people when they really connect with the skills. It’s so amazing to witness those “a ha” moments from group members, and even more amazing to think that, as a group leader, I could have had something to do with those moments happening. As a group leader, I know that skills training is an essential component in DBT yet one of the questions I get almost consistently when I am first working with someone in treatment is “do I really have to go to group?”.
It’s an understandable question; after all, going to group is a huge commitment in terms of time and resources. People often wonder if they can just attend individual sessions and still benefit from DBT treatment. While some treatment is certainly better than no treatment, full DBT really does mean going to skills training for a few important reasons. Arguably, the most important reason why skills training is important is of course to learn skills. In order to really be able to manage emotions more effectively, you have to have the tools to do so, and group is where those tools are learned. To really get better without getting the skills would be like trying to drive in an unfamiliar place with no directions; you might get to your destination but it’s more likely that you’ll end up driving around in circles for hours. Without really knowing the DBT skills, it will be difficult to really achieve treatment goals.
In my experience as a group leader, I’ve also seen firsthand some of the less tangible benefits of skills
training. Extreme emotional dysregulation can often lead individuals to feel lonely and frequently
misunderstood. We know that interpersonal relationships can be very challenging for people who
struggle intensely with their emotions. It is a very isolating experience for many people, and can lead
them to a further sense of shame about themselves. It is a wonderful thing to witness when people walk
into group, look around and see their peers and realize, maybe for the first time, that they are not alone
in their struggle. This normalizing experience is so powerful, and goes a long way towards helping to
reduce the feelings of shame and loneliness that people often feel when they are starting treatment.
This experience of being in a group also provides a great opportunity for people to get support and
feedback as they begin to test the waters of using skills for the first time. Through homework and in
session rehearsal, group members are able to build their confidence in practicing skills.
Group is a big commitment and, like most big commitments, it’s normal for people to have some
trepidation and question if it is really something they want to do. When people ask me “Do I really have
to go to group?”, I’m honest with them- it’s absolutely a decision they need to make, but in my
experience the pros infinitely outweigh the cons. Group makes the skills come alive for people, and
those little “a ha” moments that happen in group are a big part of what will help them in their goal of
building that life worth living.