If you’ve already been to individual therapy, you likely know its power. If you’ve never been to therapy, you may need more convincing. Why would talking for 50 minutes, once a week, to a perfect stranger, enhance your overall well-being? What is the true value of these sessions? 

To answer these questions fully, we have to talk about Sigmund Freud, truth bombs, and the nature of human happiness. If you have experienced one-on-one therapy and you’re already sold on its merits, then you may want to skip ahead to more advanced tips, like what’s the best therapeutic modality for your particular mental health concern. But if you’re new to this helping profession, then you may prefer to start with the fundamentals, like “What is individual counseling?” and “What exactly am I paying my therapist for?”

How ever you approach the individual therapy guide below, we hope that our information will lead you to one place–Thriveworks–where the best, most compassionate therapists and counselors working in the field today inspire clients across the US to improve their lives. But it’s also okay if we just lead you to feeling more of your feelings, and to cultivating deeper human relationships, and to being a bit easier on yourself. We have faith that individual therapy will find you when you’re ready. And when it does, you’ll have the facts you’ll need to make your journey successful.


What Is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is the dynamic process of alleviating mental suffering and personal difficulties through the exchange of words. Individual psychotherapy, also called talk therapy or counseling, takes place between a client and a mental health professional during paid sessions. Outcomes are frequently determined by the quality of the relationship between a client and their counselor. Therapy can be short-term or long-term, and it’s often a life-changing experience. 

Talking to a Therapist vs Talking to a Friend or Family Member

Why should someone hire a therapist rather than just talk through their problems with a friend or family member? First of all, if you have someone in your life to whom you feel comfortable opening up, that is awesome. Keep doing that. We all need these vital human connections. But a therapist brings something a little different to the table than a best friend. 

  1. Therapists are trained to empathize with their clients’ experience without becoming overwhelmed. They can regulate their own emotions while sitting with your pain. They can bear witness to what you’re going through without running away, or jumping in to fix it, or telling you that it’s not a big deal. This makes them the world’s best listeners.
  2. Therapists are trained to help you find your blind spots. Friends aren’t always going to point out unhealthy patterns in your life. They often tell you what you want to hear, i.e., that you’re blameless, that someone else wronged you. Therapists will ask the right questions, without judgment, to make you curious about your own beliefs and behaviors. And they will drop truth bombs if necessary, making you aware of flaws in your thinking.
  3. Therapists are trained to help you find your inner strengths. They can hear your personal story and identify the underlying characteristics that will eventually drive change. 
  4. Therapists frequently develop an intuition for what author Lori Gottlieb calls “the music beneath the lyrics.” This means they can listen to a client’s presenting problems while also attending to their deeper struggles–as well as their strengths. 

Granted, therapists and friends aren’t all made alike. A good friend is probably better than a bad therapist. But there is tremendous value in both kinds of relationships, the personal and the personal/professional. So please cultivate both!

Talking to a Therapist vs. Self-help

Why should you see a therapist when you can just read the entire self-help section of the library? Why see a therapist when you can just work through all that emotional stuff by hitting the punching bag or writing in your journal or going to yoga classes? No one is saying that self-help, self-care, and self-improvement strategies don’t figure into happiness. But the magic of therapy occurs through human connection, not solo exploration. A great therapist knows that you already have the answers inside you. But books and wellness websites can’t always unlock them. For that, you may need a trusted, insightful guide. 

What Is the Aim of Individual Therapy?

We make a lot of statements on the Thriveworks website about the benefits of therapy. That’s because we believe in this profession, wholeheartedly. But the truth is that the goals for individual therapy are between you and your therapist. They’re going to be unique to you, and they’re probably going to change as you go. 

The goal of therapy is sometimes to no longer need a therapist. You may benefit from therapy throughout your life, or you may terminate therapy after seven sessions because you have learned the skills and found the inner resources to meet your life challenges on your own, with your well-being intact. (Though it never hurts to go back for a refresher now and again!)

People often come to individual therapy because they want to improve their lives in some way. They’re ready for a change. Here are some examples of individual therapy goals:

  • I want to feel better about myself.
  • I want to break a cycle and quit making the same mistakes.
  • I want to feel less depressed or anxious.
  • I want to become better at tolerating stress and frustration.
  • I want to find more meaning in my life.

And of course some people come to therapy with very specific, concrete goals:

  • I don’t want to turn into my father.
  • I can’t make a decision about a career change.
  • I keep erupting at my kids.
  • I need help getting through a major life transition. 
  • I want to stop sabotaging my romantic relationships. 

It’s often the case, however, that even specific therapy goals can lead to reflection on deeper material. This doesn’t mean that everything leads back to your childhood. (Though, let’s face it–sometimes it does.) It means that current problems can sometimes be a gateway to exploring longer-standing patterns in your life. And you have to look at what has worked and not worked for you in the past in order to build a better future.  

How Does Individual Therapy Work? And Does It Work?

Individual therapy works because people have the ability to change. Neuroplasticity–our brain’s ability to adapt and make new connections–is our superpower. Sometimes emotional or behavioral changes happen little by little, and other times a single therapeutic breakthrough will set off a huge chain reaction. 

Mental health professionals are agents of this personal change. Studies show that the therapeutic process is most effective when it’s based on a strong alliance between counselor/therapist and client. This means that the client feels safe and supported. The therapeutic relationship makes the client feel heard and understood. The client feels that their therapist shares their goals and has their best interests at heart. In the words of the psychologist Carl Rogers, client and therapist have an “unconditional positive regard.” 

This special bond promotes honesty, insight, flexibility, accountability, curiosity, healing, self-compassion, and, ultimately, personal growth. Therapy clients aren’t working with someone who will briefly tune into their problem, then tell them what to do. Because those kinds of directives don’t stick. Real change has to come from within. And therapists are skilled at helping clients discover their own motivation and ability to effect real, long-term change.

What Approaches Are Used in Individual Therapy?

Though philosophers and physicians in the ancient world made inroads in the science of mental health, what we know as psychotherapy is a relatively young profession. The first psychological clinic only opened in 1879, and Sigmund Freud didn’t use the term “psychoanalysis” for another 17 years. Since then, various schools of thought have emerged in the field of individual psychotherapy. Some of these theories became outmoded, others splintered into additional types of therapy, and many are commonly used in clinical practice to this day. 

Therapies that have been heavily researched and “proven” are called evidence-based. This means that clinicians can point to scientific papers that say, “This method works.” But it can be hard to measure the success of different modalities (ways of doing therapy) because collaborations aren’t one-size-fits-all. Great therapy is often flexible and integrative, moving from one approach to another as the session demands. Just because a particular intervention doesn’t have the support of decades of empirical research, it doesn’t mean it won’t work for a client. 

Types of Psychotherapy

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are five main categories of individual psychotherapy approaches:

  1. Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy
  2. Cognitive therapy
  3. Behavior therapy
  4. Humanistic therapy (i.e., client-centered/person-centered therapy, existential therapy, Gestalt therapy)
  5. Integrative or holistic therapy

Sometimes a modality falls directly in one category or another, like Jungian psychoanalysis under #1, but these days, it’s more often the case that therapists draw from multiple modalities to customize their approach to each unique client. They may also care more about the therapy process itself than the theories that guide it. This is called process-based care. 

Integrative therapy approaches include the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) 
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
  • Metacognitive therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Functional analytic psychotherapy
  • Strength-based therapy
  • Solution-focused therapy
  • Solution-focused brief therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Somatic experiencing
  • Embodied-relational therapy (ERT)
  • Emotionally-focused therapy (EFT) 
  • Trauma-focused therapy (TFT)
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
  • Multiple channel exposure therapy (MCET)
  • Stress inoculation training (SIT)
  • Play, art, and music therapy
  • Psychedelic-assisted therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
  • Reality therapy
  • Narrative therapy
  • Adlerian therapy
  • Schema therapy

This list is hardly exhaustive, and it’s updated all the time. What are the most effective individual therapy approaches? Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is frequently called the gold standard of the psychotherapy field. Extensive research has demonstrated its success in treating depression, anxiety disorders, and a host of other mental health issues. We are currently in the “third wave” of CBT, meaning that therapists tend to incorporate mindfulness and acceptance-based methods in their practice. 

But the best therapy modality for you will be the one that treats your issue. For example, if you’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), then you may benefit from a combination of TF-CBT, EMDR, and narrative therapy. If you have a mood disorder, you may benefit from a combination of IPT and CBT. And if you don’t know what’s causing your dissatisfaction with life, you and your therapist can figure it out together using a person-centered approach. 

Lastly, you can also categorize types of therapy by what they help with, and who they aim to help, rather than by psychological theory. For example:

What Techniques Are Used in Individual Therapy?

Every mental health professional has their own toolbox of individual therapy techniques. For example, some therapists rely more on psychoeducation, where information itself is an intervention. Some therapists take more risks in sessions, or challenge their clients more than others. Often the therapist lets the client’s needs determine what techniques will work best.  

But there are some skills that individual therapists and counselors commonly use to generate the best outcomes for their clients. For example, 

  • Active listening
  • Reflecting feelings
  • Reframing
  • Positive self-talk
  • Collaboration
  • Open-ended questions
  • Validation
  • Being fully present
  • Empathy
  • Positive regard

What Are the Benefits of Individual Counseling?

One of the primary benefits of individual counseling is to show clients that they have choices. We humans tend to get caught up in our same-old patterns of thinking and behaving. We assume that we have to maintain these learned patterns because they’ve worked for us in the past. They’re safe and familiar, while change is scary and uncertain. But therapists can hold up a compassionate mirror to their clients and help them see who they are, and who they’re capable of becoming. They can observe that those old patterns might not be serving you anymore. They can help you evolve.

What are the disadvantages of individual counseling? Naturally, the therapeutic process can be emotionally painful at times. It can be exhausting. It can be hard work. But it’s hard work with a huge payoff. As David Richo famously stated, “Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful parts of us.” It’s often necessary to become fully aware of your feelings in order to have a healthier relationship with yourself. And therapy is a safe place to feel…everything. After all, when we hide from our pain, it tends to surface elsewhere, usually in unhealthy ways.

“Therapists don’t perform personality transplants; they just help to take the sharp edges off. A patient may become less reactive or critical, more open and able to let people in. In other words, therapy is about understanding the self that you are. But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself—to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are so that you aren’t trapped by them, so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.” 

Lori Gottlieb, from “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed

What Are Some of the Major Differences Between Individual and Group Therapy?

What is the difference between individual and group therapy? Besides the fact that the former  is one-on-one and the latter involves two or more clients, group therapy (often family therapy or marriage counseling) tends to be more focused on relationships than individual therapy. But certain kinds of individual therapy work best in tandem with group therapy. For example, dialectical behavior therapy requires both individual and group treatment, accomplished in stages.

Do Psychiatrists Provide Individual Therapy?

Research shows that the number of American psychiatrists who practice psychotherapy declined about 50% between 1996 and 2016. But psychotherapy training is part of medical school psychiatry programs, and psychiatrists are often knowledgeable in evidence-based therapies like CBT. Many psychiatrists (MDs) and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) offer clients a combination of psychopharmacological treatment and psychotherapy to treat mental health disorders. 

The following mental health professionals more commonly practice individual psychotherapy. (At Thriveworks, these providers can meet with clients through online therapy or in-person therapy, while our psychiatrists are telehealth only.) 

  • Licensed professional counselors (LPCs)
  • Psychologists (PhDs or PsyDs)
  • Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs)

Can Individual Therapy Help Me?

Some people still believe that you’re required to be in crisis to book a psychotherapy session. For example, you’re suffering from an acute mental health issue, or you’re severely traumatized, or someone you love just died. But individual therapy can help people with an abundant range of issues, from the most low-level dissatisfaction with life to the highest levels of dysfunction. 

People usually go to therapy because they’re suffering in some capacity, which means they’re in need of healing. The word psychotherapy is actually derived from the Greek words for “curing of the soul.” You don’t have to compare your suffering against anyone else’s. You don’t have to say, “Oh my problems aren’t that bad.” Why not just be kind to yourself? Say, “I’m hurting. And I’d like to talk about it to someone who will truly listen.” Because if you’re even thinking about therapy right now, it’s probably time to book a session. You want to feel better, and you know you need care. You deserve care. Everyone does. 

Therapy isn’t a mystical experience. It’s normal. It’s a relationship founded on ancient principles of what makes humans happy. And going to therapy isn’t anything to feel ashamed of. It’s a way of reconnecting with yourself, and knowing that you’re not alone.

How to Succeed in Individual Therapy

Thriveworks therapists are always learning how to serve their clients better, and we also like to give clients advice on how they can succeed in therapy. Remember that individual therapy should first and foremost lead to greater self-acceptance and greater self-knowledge. These benefits tend to have a trickle-down effect in life, improving relationships, compassion, coping skills, mental health issues, maladaptive behaviors, and much more. 

To gain self-acceptance and self-knowledge, you must be open with your therapist. It’s okay if this takes time–therapists are very patient people!–but you need to commit yourself to being honest and accountable. If you’re having trouble with the process, tell your counselor. It’s okay to talk about therapy in therapy! Your feedback is often enlightening, and can lead to greater intimacy. And remember: Everything you say in therapy is confidential.

What to Expect in an Individual Therapy Session

If you’re nervous about going to individual therapy for the first time, we totally understand. Daily life has a way of keeping our vulnerable psyches under wraps, and therapy threatens to expose our soft spots. But most people don’t spill their guts in the first session. You have to develop a bond with your therapist first. And you may decide that you don’t like the first provider you meet with. You don’t think you can trust them, or the vibes are just off. You can switch! Therapists are used to this and they are more than capable of managing their own feelings of rejection. The most important thing is that you find someone with whom you can work well.  

And be aware that some weird stuff can come up in your first therapy sessions. You might worry that your therapist doesn’t like you. You might not know what the boundaries are. You might worry about being boring so you become performative. You might get anxious when your therapist makes room for silence. This is all very interesting material for you and your therapist to look at together. 

Mental health professionals typically structure their sessions so you don’t leave with any major business unfinished. They may glance at the clock now and again to keep track of time. This doesn’t mean that they’re trying to get rid of you! It usually means that they want to ensure you can cover what needs to be covered during the session, and that you will depart on an encouraging note.  

Finally, remember that therapeutic progress isn’t linear. You might have phenomenal sessions where you walk out feeling like you have a new lease on life; and you might have dud sessions where you feel worse than when you came in. Keep going. Tell your therapist when you feel like you’ve figured everything out, and tell them when you feel disappointed. This feedback can be vital in steering the dynamic therapeutic process.

How to Find the Right Therapist for You

Finding the right therapist is both a science and an art. You can research specialties and make phone calls and read dozens of clinician bios, but ultimately you will be alone in a room with this person (or videoconferencing in the case of online therapy), and you will have to feel a rapport. 

If you’ve never given much thought to exactly what type of therapist you’d like to see, you can start with some basic questions:

  • Do I feel more comfortable talking to a person of my same gender? My same racial or ethnic background? My sexual orientation? My religion?
  • Do I have an existing mental health condition and need a therapist who has experience treating it?
  • When and how will I be most comfortable meeting with a therapist? Can the therapist accommodate my needs? 
  • Is the therapist available quickly?
  • Is the therapist in my health insurance network?

Many of these questions can be answered online, but you can also call Thriveworks customer service if you need guidance. It is our great joy in life to match people to a therapist who will end up changing their life for the better. We look forward to serving you. 

Is There Individual Counseling Near Me?

If you’re searching for exceptional individual therapy services, find your nearest Thriveworks office to schedule an appointment. We have hundreds of brick-and-mortar offices across the country, and we’re opening more all the time. As part of our continuing efforts to improve mental health care accessibility, Thriveworks also offers online counseling sessions in addition to in-person therapy. Many people enjoy the comfort and convenience of virtual therapy sessions that take place over secure, HIPAA-compliant videoconferencing. 

Thriveworks understands the importance of finding a counselor who has availability. For this reason, we do not operate with a waitlist. Instead, we schedule individuals, couples, and families with their first appointment immediately upon their call. Additionally, new clients often meet their provider in-person or via online therapy within 3-5 days. We offer benefits that can’t be beat — here’s how we stack up against other counseling services:

  • No Waitlists: Average wait times for mental health care can be three weeks or more. Our new clients often have their first session within 3-5 days of scheduling.
  • Only Top Providers: The search for an exceptional provider can be discouraging. We hire only the top 4% of providers to join our team and provide the very best care to our clients.
  • Full 50-60 Minute Sessions: Others hide how long your counseling session is, and it’s often only 20-30 minutes. We offer full 50-60 minute sessions. 
  • Affordable Rates: Most counseling practices don’t take health insurance and have expensive rates, starting at $250 a session. We accept hundreds of insurance plans and offer affordable out-of-pocket rates as low as $99 a session.
  • Evening and Weekend Appointments: Finding a convenient time to get mental health care is a challenge. We offer options that work with busy schedules like evening and weekend appointments.
  • High-Touch Support: On-the-spot support is hard to come by. Our support team is available 7 days a week including holidays, and your provider is available between sessions by phone or email.
  • Real, Lasting Relationships: Many counseling services aren’t practices but loosely affiliated directories of therapists. We have a full-time, dedicated team who build long-standing careers here and lasting relationships with clients.

If you think you could personally benefit from individual therapy, Thriveworks is here to help.

Table of contents

What Is Psychotherapy?

Talking to a Therapist vs Talking to a Friend or Family Member

Talking to a Therapist vs. Self-help

What Is the Aim of Individual Therapy?

How Does Individual Therapy Work? And Does It Work?

What Approaches Are Used in Individual Therapy?

Types of Psychotherapy

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  • Clinical reviewer
  • Writer
Emily Simonian

Emily Simonian, M.A., LMFT

Emily Simonian is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) who has direct training and experience working with family and relationship issues, as well as working with individuals. She also specializes in treating stress/anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, as well as self-esteem issues and general self-improvement goals.

Wistar Murray

Wistar Murray

Wistar Murray writes about mental health at Thriveworks. She completed her BA at the College of William & Mary and her MFA at Columbia University.

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