Women’s Support Groups: What type is right for you?

Santa Rosa counselor Patty Bechtold explains the different types of women's support groups at wiselifetherapy.com

Have you ever wondered about women’s support groups? Perhaps you’ve considered joining one, but aren’t exactly sure what you’re looking for.

If so, you’re not alone. It can be difficult to sort through the many different offerings that provide group support to women.

So this week I’m writing about four different types of groups that support women.

In fact, they make up a kind of ladder of support: group therapy, support groups/self-help groups, group coaching and women’s circles.

We’ll work our way up the ladder, starting at the bottom rung with the most enduring, structured type of group and ending at the top of the ladder with the newest, least structured group.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the groups at the top of the ladder have no structure. They simply have a different kind of structure, usually more fluid.

First: almost all groups have a few things in common.

All groups on the ladder provide support. That’s a given.

And all groups tend to go through certain stages, no matter the type of group or setting.

While there are different names for the stages, depending on which expert you consult, the most well-known are the group development tasks or phases that were identified in 1965 by Bruce Tuckman:

  • Forming: coming together; learning about each other
  • Storming: conflict; challenging each other and the facilitator
  • Norming: gaining consensus; working with each other
  • Performing: group takes on a life of its own; functioning as a whole
  • Adjourning: transitioning to leaving/letting go; acknowledging one another

As you read through the following group descriptions, keep in mind that a commitment to confidentiality is one of the most important features of group support, no matter what stage the group is in. Members need to feel safe in a group setting, agreeing that what’s said in the group stays in the group.

Women’s Support Groups: Group Therapy

Group therapy is on the bottom rung of the ladder, because it is the most structured and enduring. In other words, it’s been around a long time.

In fact, Irvin Yalom literally wrote the book on group therapy, with The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, originally published in 1970.

-Modern group therapy has been greatly influenced by Yalom’s theories and methodologies. 

In particular, he identified 11 therapeutic factors that are critical to the effectiveness of group therapy:

  • instillation of hope
  • universality
  • imparting information
  • altruism
  • corrective recapitulation of the primary family experience
  • development of socializing techniques
  • imitative behavior
  • interpersonal learning
  • group cohesiveness
  • catharsis
  • existential factors

-Group therapy is usually delivered in a face-to-face setting.

Although many types of women’s support groups are delivered in alternative formats (online, teleconference and videoconference), I’ve yet to see group therapy delivered any other way than in-person in real time.

Meeting in-person fits best with the sometimes intense group therapy environment.  Members may be processing trauma, challenges and/or difficult symptoms, as they develop new coping, relational and life skills. So the presence of an in-person leader is critical for a safe group experience.

According to the Women’s Center, “the content of therapy group sessions often leaves members feeling vulnerable, [and] in order to ensure that the group remains safe and confined, members are discouraged from outside communication.”

-Group therapy leaders facilitate therapeutic progress.

The Women’s Center notes that, “the leader takes an active role in the group’s process, providing psychoeducation when necessary and utilizing therapeutic interventions to facilitate therapeutic progress.” 

Of all the different types of women’s support groups, the leader’s role in group therapy is generally the most structured. Consequently, therapy group leaders are invariably mental health practitioners with clinical skills in assessment, evaluation, intervention and treatment, and of course, group psychotherapy.

Women’s Support Groups: Support Group/Self-Help Group

This is where things get a little confusing. I’m writing from the overall ladder perspective of women’s support groups here, but on the second rung of that ladder there is something actually called a support group. 

To make things even more confusing, there are self-help groups, similar to support groups. So to make things a little less confusing, let’s bundle self-help groups in with support groups for our purposes here.

-Support groups have some things in common with group therapy, but also have significant differences.

In a support group the environment tends to be more relaxed and less intense than group therapy. There will likely be less confrontation and little, if any, interpretation of member’s personalities, behaviors and actions. 

On the other hand, there will likely be more positive, encouraging interactions among group members. And what often brings people to a support group is a shared challenge or experience (i.e., mental health or physical health diagnosis, unemployment, grieving a loss, caregivers of elderly parents) and/or a shared life-stage (i.e., mothers with young children, elders, women in midlife). 

-Shared life experiences and challenges tend to unite group members.

These shared experiences can create an immediate bond among members. As a result, the environment tends to be looser and less structured. For instance, support groups are delivered in multiple formats, including in-person, virtually and online. And members may choose to socialize outside of meetings, as they begin to create (or enhance) their support networks. 

Themes are often fluid as well, and there is an emphasis on normalizing members’ experiences, without any need to fix themselves (or one another). Attention is placed on connecting and sharing, rather than giving advice.

-The facilitator’s role in a support group has been called a guide from the side.

The guide encourages interaction among members, listens for underlying themes, helps deepen discussions and attempts to ensure that everyone is heard. Facilitators may or may not be mental health professionals, but training in facilitation skills and experience in group facilitation is tremendously helpful. Additionally, some self-help groups are actually leaderless.

Finally, Shoshana Bennett Ph.D. makes the case that a truly helpful support group needs to go beyond complaining and venting. She contends that in a good support group, the facilitator “will make sure the group ends on a note of empowerment…which propels [group members] into accountability.”

Women’s Support Groups: Group Coaching

Moving up the ladder of women’s support groups, group coaching is less structured, especially in its agenda. It differs from group therapy because members help to create the agenda, rather than the therapist alone setting the agenda.

Unlike group therapy and support groups, the focus tends to be on the present and future, with little exploration of past issues. Depending on the nature of the coaching group, members may be encouraged to share whatever is coming up for them, past, present or future. However, in a coaching group it is unlikely time will be spent delving into these issues.

-Coaching, either individually or in groups, is considered a co-created process.

Group coaching focuses on mining the wisdom of both individual members and the group as a whole. The group coach’s role is collaborative, a partner rather than an expert.

According to the International Coaching Federation, “coaching honors the client as the expert on her life and work, and believes that every client is creative, resourceful and whole.”

Traditionally, group coaching has been goal-oriented and accountability-oriented. However, in recent years, coaching has expanded to embrace more open/less rigid definitions of goals and accountability.

For instance, in a personal growth group, a goal might include an intention to move toward something, such as a different mindset or different response to difficult situations. And accountability might include actions that are internally-oriented, such as reflecting on meaningful experiences or personal values.

-Jennifer Britton, author of Effective Group Coaching, notes the importance of peer learning…

Group coaching clients benefit from the peer learning with others, commonly referred to as the collective wisdom of the group. This peer learning is often as important as the interaction with the coach. Many clients find the process [gives them] more time to reflect and integrate their insights. Masterful group coaches step back and create a strong process framework for the coaching to emerge from.

-Frequently, the coach will guide the group in activities or assign homework.

Depending on the focus of the group, the role of group coach may exist on a continuum. It can extend from the facilitation of group process to the teaching/presenting of information, and everything in between. Group coaches are usually trained in coaching, with additional skills in group facilitation and often teaching and/or training.

Similar to other types of women’s support groups, coaching groups may be themed around a shared experience or challenge. And members are free to socialize outside of group meetings.

The delivery itself is fluid as well, and group coaching is offered in-person, online and virtually (video/teleconference). However, in recent years, as technology has taken hold, I’ve noticed there are far fewer in-person group coaching offerings.

Women’s Support Groups: Women’s Circles

As we get to the top of the ladder of women’s support groups, we find the newest (and in many ways the oldest) of women’s groups—the women’s circle—defined in varying ways by a number of different writers.

Happily, we can look to Jean Shinoda Bolen for deeper insight into the nature of women’s circles. She is a Jungian analyst and author of The Millionth Circle who believes that, “When women come together and make a commitment to each other…they are creating a vessel of healing and transformation for themselves, and a vehicle for change in their world.”

-Shinoda Bolen writes eloquently of the invisible power of circling up with other women…

The intention to be in a circle with a spiritual center invites the invisible world of spirit or soul to be in the center of the circle and in the center of the psyche of each person in the circle. Through meditative silence or silent prayer, wisdom and peace enters. Circles foster both the ability to voice what matters and say out loud what is in the heart and mind, and an equally important ability, to listen with compassion. Circles evoke a sense of sisterhood, and also a feeling of being in a maternal space. There is a deep sense of being connected to one another, at an archetypal level.

-Participants in women’s circles often engage together in shared, transformative experiences.

While there are no set guidelines for women’s circles, shared experiences and rituals show up frequently. For instance, there might be time set aside during the circle to practice yoga, meditation, expressive art, reflective writing, etc. 

The shared activity can provide a quiet, silent container for connecting, bonding and healing. It can also be a transcendent and spiritual experience, helping members feel freer to voice what matters most, as well as to be compassionate listeners and witnesses for other women in the circle, as well as themselves.

Although it is difficult to articulate, women’s circles tend to evoke feelings of connection to something deeper and larger, beyond what an individual member might feel on her own. Not surprisingly, in this environment, members may be moved to connect with each other outside of circle gatherings.

As with other women’s support groups, circle members often come together based on similar experiences or life stages. However, many circles are also convened around repeating events or rituals. These can include moon ceremonies, red tent circles and goddess celebrations. Depending on the circle, they may be held in-person, online or virtually.

-Women’s circle facilitators come from many different backgrounds and professions.

A quick online search shows that there are now actual trainings to become a circle facilitator, as well as books and blog posts on the topic.

Women’s circles are both an emerging type of women’s support group, as well as an ancient type that has regained popularity in the last decade. Given the transcendent qualities of a women’s circle, who knows exactly what makes for a good facilitator? To complicate things even more, facilitation of women’s circles is sometimes a shared or rotating role.

Still, an understanding of group facilitation and group process are important. Additionally, personal qualities of compassion, empathy and warmth, as well as a desire to connect at a deeper level, are likely to create a welcoming environment for women to come together in circle.

My journey as a guide and facilitator

The very first class I took in grad school lasted five hours on Wednesday nights. It began with 90 minutes of group therapy. Newbie students like me were the clients, while soon-to-graduate students were the therapists.

I was hooked, and I knew almost immediately I wanted groups to be part of both my work in the world and my own life experiences.

Luckily, I had many opportunities to study group therapy and group process in school, both as a student and a teaching assistant. I even had one course that focused solely on creating, developing and delivering group programs.

-My first group started right after graduation.

It was a support group for creative people in the midst of life transition. It was modeled on my master’s thesis, using the group curriculum I developed. And although it was many years ago, I still have incredibly fond memories, and even occasionally hear back from group members.

A few years later I returned to school, this time as an adjunct professor. I taught some classes with as many as 30 to 40 students enrolled. But my favorite classes were the small seminars. I particularly liked the ones where I was facilitating a group of new counselors in their first practicum or field study experience. During this time, I also trained and became certified as a coach, studying both individual and group coaching.

-And then, something unexpected happened about 10 years ago.

I became enchanted by a phrase I’d never heard before: women’s circles. The rest, as they say, is history.

But that’s another story, which you can read right here.

I guess you could say I’ve spent some time traveling back and forth on the ladder of women’s support groups. These days, I definitely hover around several different rungs. And looking back, I can see how my life has been enriched immeasurably from doing this work with women.

* * * * *

There is undeniable power in the shape of the circle. It is one of the fundamental energy patterns in the natural world. Circles collect and focus energy. We sit facing one another, mirroring one another, no one higher or more prominent. The roundness of our circle reflects the roundness of our bodies. There is no outward diversion, no distraction from the focus of one another and ourselves. Circles are soothing, comforting and challenging.

–Robin Dean Carnes & Sally Craig, Sacred Circles

Patty Bechtold

Patty Bechtold

Welcome. I'm a Santa Rosa therapist and life coach, and I help women who feel like something’s missing in their lives or themselves. I specialize in self-esteem, anxiety, depression, grief, life transition, and women's groups. On this blog I write about different approaches to help you find your way back to your deepest wisdom. Thank you for being here.