There seems to be a support group for just about everything today. If you recently got divorced, are a compulsive exerciser, overeat, watch too much TV, watch too little TV, or have a co-dependent relationship with your pet python, you can find empathic comrades willing to listen. And that's not even mentioning the informal groups we all seem to form with friends who have the same problems—think of all the times you've sat around complaining with your best buddies. Our analysis-friendly society has encouraged the proliferation of these groups, but how do you know if you need one? And how do you determine when a group has outlived its usefulness?
How can you tell when you need a support group beyond your family and friends? "The most blatant signal is when your friends grow tired of listening to you," says Los Angeles-based family therapist Joanna Poppink, M.F.T. "Once you notice that the discussion of your problem is putting a strain on your relationship, then it's time to seek an organized support group or another form of therapy," she says. Another not-so-blatant sign that you might need a support group is if your grief or anxiety doesn't improve over a two-week period. "Your friends may go to lunch with you and listen, but if you're still crying, drinking, or eating too much chocolate after a few weeks, you need another form of help," says Poppink.
Many of us are support group - leery, the truth is, "there's a lot to be gained from support groups when you join the right one," says psychologist A. Thomas Horvath, Ph.D., president of Practical Recovery Services, an addiction treatment center in La Jolla, California. "A support group is an informal network similar to the family structure," he says. "You shouldn't make decisions in a vacuum. It's good to bounce questions off other people, just be selective of who you seek advice from."
Unfortunately, there's no one way to determine ahead of time if a support group is the right fit, says Horvath. Participation is a very personal experience. "A group that meets your brother or best friend's needs may be a disastrous match for you. The character of each group is dictated by the personalities involved," explains Horvath.
"What is so great about a large support group network like Alcoholics Anonymous is the number and diversity of its support groups," says Joanna Poppink. "In L.A., there are thousands of AA meetings a day. You can try different meetings until you find a group you like."
To screen a particular support group, Horvath suggests reflecting upon how you feel when you are with the group and noting the emotions you experience afterward.
"If you sense the group is helping you and you want to be more like some of the people in it, get more involved with that group," says Horvath. "Try to determine whether as role models, they are going to push you in positive ways."
Once in a group, you'll be working through difficult emotions. Poppink warns not to mistake uncomfortable feelings with outgrowing the group. A good support group, just as a good group of friends, will challenge you to be a better person. Don't let that challenge make you want to run away.
"It's important to know that when you are healing there are going to be times when you're scared," says Poppink. "That is not when you should give up. Just know you're going to go through a period that will hurt and that you'll be better once you reach the other side."
Over time, what you need from any type of support group will change. For example, when Poppink went through her own recovery from bulimia 30 years ago, she says she initially needed intensive contact with a therapist and a support group. That need diminished as her distress abated.
"Involvement with a support group like that would be boring and intrusive for me now, but it was very necessary at the time," she says.
As you work through the problem you sought support for or as you reach another level in your healing, you will outgrow your group unless it progresses with you, adds Horvath.
"Once you realize the group has outlived its usefulness, then it's time to move on," he advises. Leaving a group can be uncomfortable; the other members may see it as rejection. "Don't feel guilty about growing beyond a group, be it a support group or group of friends," says Poppink. "Part of recovery is moving on. But remember to be patient and compassionate with the members you leave behind."