Individual Therapy

The foundation on which individual therapy is based is the natural network of human social relationships. Discussions of personal life and personal concerns occur continually between family and friend dyads. Primary dyads for personal discussions include mother and daughter, sisters, husband and wife, mother and son, and friends. These universal networks of two people form a foundation for the value, structure, and form of individual therapy.

Within the context of individual therapy, the therapist facilitates, with the client, an exploration of what the client brings to the therapeutic setting. Thus the client is able to receive feedback from someone with a professional viewpoint. A trained counselor is unique in contrast to a friend, as he or she is emotionally present for but not engulfed in the person’s life or difficulties. As in other forms of therapy, in individual therapy, a therapist’s role includes reflection, active listening, giving feedback, listening with the “third ear,” and modeling positive behaviors.

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Many contemporary therapists identify themselves as adopting an integrated/eclectic theoretical approach rather than practicing within one single theoretical frame. Though approaches to therapy vary greatly among practitioners, therapists are generally accepting, genuine, and trustworthy.

The opportunity for undivided attention—for listening and processing to be focused just on the individual client—is a relatively unique feature of individual therapy. Total attention to the growth and development of one person gives individual therapy its popularity and contributes to its efficacy. The therapy process, operating like a greenhouse effect, magnifies the individual’s concerns and needs, illuminates the individual’s self-concept, and allows a person to focus on the modification of aspects of the self that are creating problems and limitations.

Logistics of Individual Therapy

Individual therapy occurs in many settings, including college counseling centers, community counseling centers, hospitals, prisons, K-12 schools, and private practice. The fee for individual therapy depends on the setting. In schools, colleges, the military, county clinics, and nonprofit centers, clients may receive free service. In private settings and HMO clinics, health insurance is used. Occasionally, people pay “out of pocket.”

Professionals who provide individual therapy include psychiatrists, certified counselors, licensed psychologists, licensed family and marriage therapists, and licensed social workers. Some individuals seek individual therapy for clinical conditions such as depression, anxiety, anger, eating disorders, psychotic disorders, and substance-related disorders. Others seek assistance in dealing with life changes or transitions that exceed their coping resources, such as divorce, self-esteem issues, and work issues. In these instances, individual counseling is analogous to having one’s own educational consultant or emotional development coach.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic theory, laid the theoretical foundation for individual therapy. Successors proposed other significant theories (e.g., psychodynamic theory, person-centered theory, existential theory, cognitive-behavioral theory, and Gestalt theory) that today provide a rich and multifaceted theoretical framework for individual therapy.

Individual Therapy in Contrast to Other Forms of Therapy

Neither group nor couples counseling permits an in-depth exploration with the focus solely on one person. For example, in couple therapy, the therapist’s attention is primarily on the space between the two partners, and in a group setting, the attention is often on the group process and the sharing of time among members. While the individual focus is appealing in a time-starved and attention-starved world, sometimes it is more intense than desired. The focus is on the client’s life and is not diluted by the relationship with other clients. The structure of individual therapy makes it difficult for clients to avoid facing difficult problems.

Individual therapy may be a particularly apt choice when the topics discussed are intensely personal or traumatic for the individual. Individual therapy provides maximum privacy, so as therapy progresses and clients come to know the therapist as an accepting, understanding, and trustworthy confidant, they become less likely to manage their image and less likely to conceal critical information.

Goals of Individual Therapy

Clients are able to assert their own personal hopes and therapy goals during individual therapy. Individual therapy offers the opportunity for the client to work on external relationships from his or her own viewpoint, with input from the therapist. This allows the client to focus on the changes he or she would like to make that can affect his or her outside relationships.

In many ways, the therapeutic process is collaborative, as two people work together to identify hopes and goals for the therapy process. Individual counseling is a place where clients can practice new skills or behaviors through role-playing, cognitive changes, and emotion management. Evidence gleaned from half a century of research demonstrates convincingly that the outcome of therapy depends less on theory than on other common factors such as the therapeutic relationship, how much clients believe they will benefit from therapy (i.e., expectancy of therapy), and environmental factors.

Individual Therapy Mechanisms That Produce Change

The therapeutic relationship, or working alliance is of the utmost importance in most schools of therapeutic thought. The working alliance is an emotional bond between therapist and client that forms as they work collaboratively to achieve an agreement on the goals of therapy, and tasks will be undertaken to achieve those goals. The formation of a strong working alliance greatly increases the likelihood of a successful therapeutic outcome.

Attitudes Toward Individual Therapy

In highly individualistic cultures, individual therapy is a modality that fits with the culture because the client is responsible for his or her own decisions, achievements, and losses. The losses—achievement failures, personal betrayals, geographic moves, job changes, changes in friendships—are especially difficult because they are often conceptualized in an individual culture as the individual’s responsibility. Thus, therapy is a healing process, and is a way to overcome loss. In an individual, achievement-oriented culture, it is important to learn how to manage failure and loss and continue to try and to compete.

Using individual therapy as a way to improve the quality of one’s life and to live effectively, as well as to lessen the distress caused by emotions such as anxiety, depression, and anger, is perceived positively by some culture groups. It is still stigmatized by other groups, in which individuals who seek the assistance of a therapist are perceived as “being crazy” or “insane.”

Individual therapy can be an excellent means to achieve more personal maturity and to manage the many demands of contemporary human life. Through listening, goal setting, practice, and the like, individual therapy is a medium that can inspire change and growth at the personal level.


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