From March to April 2022, Project A (independent of CandleX) held its second round of in-person group therapy for women who were in abusive relationships. In this round, group therapy lasted 6 weeks. Each session was 2 hours long, meaning participants spent a total of 12 hours together in the sessions. In addition, each participant was offered the chance to have supplemental individual sessions with the therapist. The therapy was led by Xiaojie Qin, a certified psychotherapist/counselor in China and Australia, and the head of programs at Project A. Megan Purvis, head of operations, provided on-site support during the sessions.
We want to present our review of this round from the therapist’s point of view to give you a snap shot of how group therapy works, and the benefits or challenges that come with it.
Special note: Consent was gained from all participants. We want to thank all participants for their kindness and bravery for allowing us to publish this article, which we hope will encourage more women (and men) to seek professional help.
Author: Xiaojie Qin
Time: April 2022
Megan and I laid out 6 chairs, 5 of them were for the therapy participants, a group of women who were in abusive relationships. I love group therapy because it builds authentic connections between people, which is the real antidote of feeling separated and alone in their own traumatic experiences. I am also a firm believer that each one of us is wise and can offer something to the world. By creating a group setting, it allows the participants to offer their support and wisdom to each other, which is really empowering for them in return.
I looked at the chairs in the room and felt curious, excited, a little restless and joyous that finally our second round of therapy was about to start in 30 minutes. Then they came in, five ladies in their 20-40s, each from different countries, and sat down. We were going to spend six Sunday afternoons together and that day the journey began to unfold itself.
The first session is always about getting to know each other, setting group rules, hearing everyone’s stories that brought them there, and agreeing on group goals. The difficult part was talking about their own experiences with abuse, ranging from physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse in their intimate relationship, to when they were growing up in a violent home. Some ran away from their partners as soon as they had a chance, without time to pack up. “I know he would have killed me if I stayed,” one participant said. Some of them sleep with a weapon by their beds even now.
The first session was overwhelming, but was also a great opportunity to install emotional regulation skills in SOS situations. I like the Chinese word wei ji, opportunity in crisis. I led the group to practice different skills as a breather between sharings. For example, I asked them to name different colors, guided them in breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, body tapping and bi-lateral eye movement. These exercises invite the peaceful sensations back into the body and help calm down from intense feelings brought up by their traumatic memories. We had advised them to plan something fun or comforting after the session, so their bodies and minds could recover. We had one participant reporting that she had a few days of feeling hopeless and depressed after the first session. We knew this could happen to some people when their trauma was not properly dealt with. I was very glad to see her back in our sessions, and making progress along the way. That’s persistence and courage, which would help her to live a more fulfilled life down the road.
Sometimes people ask me if it’s too much to take in this negative information. I always say it’s the subtle positives in their traumatic stories that I saw which confirms my decision to stay a therapist on a daily basis. I also take it as a privilege that I get to point that out to them, so they start to notice in their mind and their heart that ‘I’ve got this’! Then we take it from there.
One participant got silent when we stayed with a moment back in her childhood where her mom was being beaten by her stepdad. “I could not do anything to help my mom when my dad was beating her. She asked me to go to my room, but I stayed”. “Why did you stay and watch?” I asked.” I don’t know. he would hurt her less badly if he knew I was watching. ”She said. I stayed there and said, “You were three years old. You couldn’t do much. But you being there, by staying, did make a difference. Then came the magical silence. That’s when our mind and heart integrate with one another. “And although I didn’t know it at the time but me staying is most probably what saved her life- him knowing I was watching. ”She paused and tears ran down her face. “I matter.” She said this beautiful thing that I know was so rarely felt in her heart. In that moment, she saw her own worthiness and strength.
As I primarily used mindfulness-based CBT in the group session, we continued to work on unpacking important moments in life. As we progressed, participants were given the opportunity to unpack for each other, enhancing their active listening skills and self-awareness. In this process, it became clear where the weaknesses are for each one of them. For one participant, it is the disconnection with body sensations. As that was pointed out in our session, homework was given to work on body awareness for that week. She came back reporting that she actually noticed how her body reacts to stress, and started to develop intentional more effective responses to stressful situations. She came back to the session saying that she felt more relaxed, and was feeling great that week. This is a young lady who grew up with a difficult dad that showed symptoms of dissociative identity disorder, and she deals with long term sleep problems, including frequent nightmares, difficulties falling to sleep, etc.
People who have endured big trauma can become triggered very easily. In our session, as a group goal, we were working on emotional regulation, which is a gigantic skill to master. A baby step is to develop curiosity when dealing with inter-personal conflicts. We went through the skills of pausing, asking questions, and engage in active listening that make up the development of curiosity. It was really great to see one participant continued to use that skill and making progress in her current relationships over the course of six weeks, every time we had our group check-in.
The weekly check-ins were one of my favorite parts of each session. I tend to give my clients “homework”, which would help them to continue to exercise their brain ‘muscles’ during the week. It also helps me to know whether we need to add another skill, or work on fine-tuning the current skills. The check-ins also help me to know the progress we are making as a group towards our goals. We always heard someone was making progress, and it inspired the group to continue to use the skills they learned in the sessions.
They’d also share what worked for them in their recovery. Developing a vision is a tool that’s common for us to tap into positive neural networks. We had one participant who has gone a long way in her own recovery. She shared the tools she has been using that she found helpful. One of them is visualization. “Now, everything that I’ve ever wanted and envisioned is here except (censored for privacy reasons).” This is more powerful than me as a therapist sharing a skill. This is a testimony. After we finished our program, I was happy to read some feedback from one participant. She wrote, “I believe Xiaojie directed the sessions to make them less about her as a therapist and more about us as active participants in the process of recovery. We were encouraged to practice active listening while others were unpacking, and then report on their body sensations, thoughts, emotions and beliefs that we noticed in that narrative. We even had a chance to sketch it out in a diagram. What I mean by this is that this program is not for us to passively receive information but to actively participate in the creation of material.” This is also the power of group therapy of actively engaging participants to interact with one another.
While another advantage of group therapy is cost-effectiveness in psychoeducation, it’s also good for participants to develop the skills they need to have healthier social interactions. People with trauma often need more skills on being assertive. Instead of having five separate individual sessions, we could talk about and practice assertiveness in one group session. This allows us to not only better allocate the funding to help more people, but also offer participants the chance to work on interpersonal skills. Similar to our first round, this group members also are on different levels in the spectrum of being passive and aggressive. We had one participant, very in touch with her emotions, behaviors and thoughts, come to the realization in our third session that she might be on the aggressive spectrum when dealing with conflict of interests and needs with friends and partners. It was very interesting to see each person map themselves out in sub-categories of aggressive or passive behaviors in terms of frequency and intensity. We had two participants who struggle with “asking for help” for two different reasons. The passive one stems from the difficulty to express their needs and opinions, and the aggressive one stems from the fear of appearing to be weak. By being in the group, it was so clear how different each person is. By talking about their stories and unpacking their critical moments, it puts their own stories in a picture that’s bigger than them too.
We ended the sessions by looking back on the journey we had by being honest, vulnerable and strong together for six weeks. “It was foggy to me when I recalled the image of what's ahead of me six weeks ago. Now, I closed my eyes, and that image of mountain ahead of me became clear, and I have this grand 180 degree view.” I could picture that as she was saying it.
It brought a smile to my face when I heard that. I, being the therapist, looking at them in the circle in our last session, seeing their shoulders relaxed, smiles on their faces, had a sense of accomplishment and joy. I felt like I was sitting in the garden with sunlight and flowers. So much ease, growth and inspiration unfolded during our time together. This is by no means an end to any recovery, but a start for some, a continuation for others. As for Megan and I, I look forward to welcoming the next group onto this journey in a few months.
We encourage you to share this article with other women who were in abusive relationship to apply for our next round of therapy. We also encourage you to donate to Project A, which provides funding to make therapy possible for people who have lived through abusive relationships. Please find our contact information below.