It isn't really possible to define precisely or predict ahead of time what your experience in individual therapy will be like. That's because experienced therapists strive to tailor their counseling approach to the needs of their clients. Thus, every therapy has a unique quality formed from a combination of client characteristics, client presenting problems, therapist characteristics, and interventions used. Given the above, a meaningful definition of a good therapist would be one who has extensive first-hand experience (not just book-learning) with as many permutations of client and problem characteristics as possible, while also being highly effective at using many different kinds of psychotherapy techniques. This combination calls for perceptiveness, tact, confidence, humility, flexibility, attuned empathy, assertiveness, intuition, and the ability to process multiple streams of information and multiple levels of analysis simultaneously and in real-time. This set of therapist skills is not common, but you should not compromise in searching for a good therapist with whom you feel well matched.
So, once you've started individual therapy (with a good therapist, we hope), what can you expect? Psychotherapy is useful to the extent that it can cause change. It follows from this that a useful way to talk about what goes on in therapy is to highlight for you the possible ways in which the process will try to change you. Here are the main targets of change that may be a part of your therapy experience:
* A major focus of personal therapy is on the inner world of the client - the world of emotions, feelings, impulses, motives, and aspirations. These inner experiences might need to be changed in their own right because they are a source of pain or distress, or they may require alteration because they are mediating or causing some unwanted behavior that needs to be changed. Broadly speaking, feelings change in psychotherapy as the result of insight, self-acceptance, acceptance by others, altered thinking, desensitization, catharsis, behavior change, and the acquisition of new experiences.
* A second major focus of individual therapy is on observable behavior. Specific behaviors might need to be changed in their own right because they are self-damaging or, in an interesting reversal of the view of causality outlined above, because they can be seen as causing some emotions or beliefs that need to change. Broadly speaking, behavior changes in counseling as the result of practice, the learning of new skills, modeling, a changed environment, reward/reinforcement, altered thinking, and improved feelings of self-efficacy.
* The third main target of change in individual psychotherapy is the interpersonal relationships of the client. Our relationship patterns are usually the result of a stubbornly entrenched intertwining of emotions and behaviors and so most of the change agents mentioned in the first two points above apply to therapeutic efforts to change our relationships. However, one additional element is of vital importance in causing changes in the relationship patterns of the client: the relationship in counseling with the therapist him- or herself. Inherent to a good working relationship with a therapist is a fairly unique combination of offered acceptance, affirmation, non-judgment, empathy, and self-denial (on the part of the therapist). Experienced together, these amount to a special case of 'acquisition of new experience' because they provide what is usually called a "corrective emotional experience." Experiencing the kind of relationship in counseling that was lacking during our formative years or at least missing during crucial times in our lives is seen as having the power to undo the effects of those disappointments and return us to our natural ability to thrive in relationships.
We hope that the above explanation gives you something to go on when anticipating the beginning of personal therapy. We want to de-mystify psychotherapy as much as possible for you because we know that you will maximize your benefits from treatment if you act as an equal, informed collaborator with us on each step of the journey of change. Please let us know if you have any questions.