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If Experience is the Greatest Teacher, Why Don’t We Let Experience Teach the Group?

If addiction was taught, learned, and developed in the classroom through lectures and presentations, would any of us have become addicted? How many of us even remember much of what was taught in class when we were younger? Unless we put that information to use, most of it went in one ear and out the other. I wonder if addiction would even stick without being reinforced outside of the classroom. Those of us who developed addictions were likely to have genetics that predisposed us, but the rest was learned through the experiences that shaped our development. Perhaps we had an experience with being vulnerable and finding out we were viewed as “weak” when we talked about our emotional struggles. We then had an experience with shame and vowed never to expose ourselves to criticism or ridicule again. Perhaps we felt anxious and uneasy around people, but when we had our first drink of alcohol, we had a powerful experience with being the life of the party and could effortlessly socialize. We learned that we could control how we felt in the short term and became obsessed with that control, completely blind to how we ended up being controlled and hopelessly dependent on chemicals. Perhaps we experienced turmoil in our relationships, abuse, neglect, or trauma that forever changed how we viewed ourselves, others, and the world. We learned to protect ourselves at all costs, even if that cost us the human connection we craved and left us isolated and alone. These lessons were not taught to us by a teacher writing on a whiteboard. We experienced these things, and they impacted our body, brain, nervous system, and spirit. So why do we think the solution to addiction and the damaging trauma, grief, and self-destruction that comes with it is to teach people material on a white board as if we are back in high school?

I’m not saying that didactic lectures don’t have their place. There are plenty of topics that are difficult to learn without covering the material in a presentation style. But if the solution you are communicating to people in treatment is not accompanied by a powerful experience, how is it supposed to overpower the previous experience of trauma, grief, and shame, and the old solution of substance use? At Spearhead Lodge, we work with young men who, despite their substance use, can recite back to you just about anything you put in front of them. They are around the age of the typical college student and quickly memorizing things long enough to pass a test is an in-tact skill at that age. But that doesn’t translate into processing their emotions and experiences and gaining the level of transformation needed to overcome addiction. To make our therapy groups more transformative and engaging, we use an experiential approach to teach the concepts of recovery and process the experiences that continue to haunt these young men. One of our most powerful groups, family sculpting, makes use of psychodrama to put clients back into the relational roles they played in their family system and then create a corrective experience of their choosing in a real-life reenactment. What is “psychodrama?” Dayton (2005) offers a great explanation: “In the heat of psychodrama, thinking, feeling, and behavior emerge along with a web of associated meaning. The roles that individuals learn in childhood and later play have a web of unconscious, associated meanings from gesture and word embedded in them. Psychodrama reawakens the sleeping child or adolescent inside the adult. As client’s experience their own real-life enactment unfolding around them or witness a protagonist with whom they identify, they enter into a forgotten world” (p. 4).

If you ask a client which groups they remember, they will quickly list off all the groups where they had to be an active participant and experience emotions, memories, interactions with other clients, and the collective energy of the group. They will rarely tell you they remember a group on relapse triggers or how to avoid getting STD’s. We use outdoor team-building activities, games, role plays, logic puzzles, experiential exercises, and psychodrama to create an experience with the topics we cover. The most powerful learning takes place in the context of real-life emotions and thoughts as the body is engaged in real-time with other people. Reading about how to improve self-esteem will not improve self-esteem. But having an experience with helping another client and forming a genuine bond with another person will. Our task as treatment providers, role models, and people in recovery is to help facilitate the experiences that will cement the concepts and lessons that make up the theory of recovery. Training to become a skydiver can be very informative, but you can’t really consider yourself a skydiver until you jump out of the plane. Learning the knowledge that is available on the topic of recovery could take a lifetime, but all it takes is one corrective experience of walking through fear and finding out you are stronger than you think to consider yourself in recovery. On that note, I will conclude with the same question that started this blog, if experience is the greatest teacher, why don’t we let experience teach the group?


Dayton, T. (2005). The use of psychodrama in dealing with grief and addiction-related loss and trauma. Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama & Sociometry (15453855), 58(1), 15–34.

Written by: Alex Penrod, LCDC | Lead Counselor, Spearhead Lodge