If I were to begin my adventure with personal development once again, I would definitely refrain from taking so many seminars, which I paid for without considering how they would benefit me, and I would instead spend that money on individual work with a specialist—either a coach or therapist. I am writing about refraining from seminars to show that, very often, you don’t have to have more money to attend individual sessions, you just need to manage the money you are already spending more efficiently. I’ve met a lot of people who have burned a lot of cash on different workshops (mostly because it’s trendy to “develop yourself”) and for years they haven’t even thought about trying individual work with a coach or therapist. When I suggest doing so, they react with suprise—“Good idea! Why haven’t I thought about that?”—and after trying this, they often regret not doing it sooner.
There is also a group of people who are trying to solve all their problems on their own, no matter what. Taking care of your problems on your own is generally a good idea. I myself solve about 90 to 95 percent of the problems in my relationships, business, or life on my own—and I am talking about strictly psychological (or spiritual) problems, not repairing a broken washing machine. Nevertheless, the effect of too strong an attachment to self-help is that people struggle with problems that could be quickly and painlessly solved with the help of a competent person.
It’s worth noting that in traditional psychology, psychotherapy, and many schools of coaching, what takes place in the self-development world is unacceptable. Problems were always solved with the specialists (who had prepared for their profession for many years) through face-to-face meetings and it was unthinkable that a person could perform emotionally profound exercises after reading a short description in a book or after watching a 15-minute video on YouTube.
At the same time, I fully understand that people who (accurately or not) consider themselves “normal” stay away from therapeutic offices that advertise using such words as “depression,” “addictions,” or “mental disorders.”
To summarize, I am absolutely happy that self-development work has left the psychotherapeutic offices and is now available (often free or very cheaply) to everyone, who now also don’t have to consider themselves “patients with disorders.” On the other hand, I have to admit that the “classical” approach to this matter made sense: working with your problems on your own is not a piece of cake and many people experience a lot more problems by trying to do so, or get stuck at a certain point and cannot go further (often also coming to the conclusion that “self-development doesn’t work”).
Here are 18 reasons why individual sessions with a specialist will often be more effective than self-help or attending a seminar (particularly Large Group Awareness Trainings).
1. Making a symbolic declaration
Very often, just the act of setting up a meeting with a coach or therapist is very meaningful. By doing so, people send themselves a message that solving a certain problem is important for them. Oftentimes in everyday life, people think that it would be good to sort out certain issues, but these thoughts have no real repercussions. Making the decision to attend individual sessions with a specialist is the turning point (obviously not for everyone; for example, people with addiction problems have a tendency to put all the responsibility onto the therapist and put no effort into the changework themselves). In some cases, a big part of the work is done just by this act of making the decision—an individual admits he has a problem, identifies the problem, and confronts it. I know several cases of people who started to cry just after stepping into the therapist’s office, before the official changework had even begun (because committing to the sessions signified real change in itself).
2. The engagement effect
Individual sessions require you to pay a specialist’s fees. The process also takes time. Moreover, as you talk about your problem, you engage another person with it. This all increases the motivation to put effort into the changework—it would be silly to waste all that energy, time, and money. It is hard to imagine a situation, which happens a lot in the case of self-help work, where a person decides after 10 minutes to finish the session and do something else. The effect of engagement also makes people more willing to keep their declarations and do their “homework” more carefully.
3. Stronger concentration
Humans evolved to be much more focused during conversations than during lonely contemplation. Many people experience this in the context of business projects—while working alone, one’s vulnerability to distractions is higher than while discussing the project with team mates. Writers use a similar practice; they tell others about their idea and modify the weaker parts of their story as they discuss it. The same mechanism works for changework—when you work alone it is easy to get distracted, whereas conversation with a specialist keeps you focused.
As simple as that. The specialist most likely has much deeper and broader knowledge on the subject than you do, as well as the necessary skills and experience. Even if you are such a specialist yourself, generally another person will have some knowledge you don’t have. And even if you can acquire this knowledge on your own, working with a skilled specialist saves you a lot of time.
5. Pointing out what you cannot see
Specialists can help you uncover aspects of your problem that you are unaware of. They can show you the underlying beliefs that seem so obvious to you that you don’t even notice them (for example, a belief that a man always has to be able to get an erection). They can point out the emotions that you display when you talk about a specific issue (maybe you always raise your voice while talking about your father). They can point out that your body language is not congruent with what you are saying (for example, perhaps you always hang your head when you claim that cash flow problems in your company are temporary and will be solved). Specialists can put together seemingly unconnected details into one larger picture, and can point out the dysfunctions of the system you live in that you don’t notice (for example, dysfunctional behaviors in your family that you consider normal because you’ve gotten used to them).
6. Hitting the right spot
Observing from an outside perspective, the specialist can immediately find out what exactly you need the most. He or she can determine which questions you should ask yourself, from what perspective you should look to find the solution, what exercises would work best for you, what skills you lack, and how you can acquire them in a safe way. In other words, the specialist will see a hole in your understanding of reality and will know what practices can help to remedy this.
7. Support from someone outside the process
When someone recalls a traumatic event, or finds a set of beliefs from which he or she can’t see a way out, or just gets lost in the whole therapeutic process, the support from a person leading the session is priceless. This is especially true because, for a trained specialist, the trap a client is stuck in may be easy to identify and resolve.
Some processes are overwhelming cognitively or emotionally (especially in transpersonal changework, during which the client is in an altered state of consciousness). Trying to distance yourself from the state you’re in, in order to manage the therapeutic process, may fail (and this may end tragically, potentially even in suicide) or may make going back to the previous state and continuing the work more difficult.
While working on the very basic pillars of personality, many times so-called resets happen. Resets are moments of lost concentration and total confusion caused by overwhelming internal processes. To get out of one of these, the specialist needs to patiently repeat (perhaps several times) the part of the session that caused it. Dealing with this defense mechanism on your own can be frustrating and demotivating, because you may keep forgetting what you were thinking about.
8. Sharing responsibility
The responsibility of solving your problems may make you feel overwhelmed and prevent you from taking any further steps. Sharing the responsibility with a specialist and knowing that you are not alone with your problems can be a huge relief. It can immediately change your attitude toward the issues you are dealing with.
However, this can also be a trap, because some people have a tendency to run away from responsibility so they may try to put 100 percent of it onto the specialist. They may get lazy and not put enough effort into the work, expecting that the coach or therapist will solve their problems for them.
9. Concentrating precisely on your needs and moving from theory to application
In contrast to seminars—and especially self-help events for hundreds of people—individual work focuses precisely on your needs. This has many positive consequences. First of all, it saves you time: even the best seminar won’t address your problems for 100 percent of its duration. Second, individual work involves more than listening to an explanation of the theory and nodding when it’s obvious or being suprised when it’s new. Let me use a business example to demonstrate: When listening to a lecture about marketing, almost everyone thinks that they know all the basic principles, such as finding the target group, communicating benefits, and building a positive public image. However, when it comes to applying these principles in practice, many people don’t know how to do it, or just omit doing it altogether. This is because logical understanding is something completely different from applying knowledge in real life.
10. Drawing attention to the difficulties in implementing new behaviors
When working on some problems, different forms of resistance to change may appear. Sometimes you will forget to complete the next step, or run in circles with the same thought processes, or prevent further change through certain defense mechanisms. In everyday life, when there is always something going on and something to do, it is difficult to vividly see these veiled forms of resistance to change. However, when a specialist works on only one specific problem, he or she will pay more attention to understanding how you handle your problems. For example, the specialist might notice that any time you approach a difficult subject, you find a new problem to solve and switch your focus to this. The specialist will also provide a rational point of view when you explain your difficulties with solving problems (whether these are just excuses or real obstacles).
11. Gaining insights from talking about problems out loud
When individuals try to solve their problems, most often they just think about them. Sometimes they don’t even verbalize this process, but think using images instead of words. As a result, they don’t notice a lot of important aspects of the problem that they might otherwise notice immediately. For example, someone might not realize that she expects her partner to guess what she needs from him; or that she plans her whole sex life and is not spontaneus; or that she doesn’t think about her marketing strategy when she wonders why her product is not selling well.
That’s why, when people talk about their problems out loud, they can be suprised at what they say. Expressing oneself may lead to an understanding of the essence of the problem or even finding a solution for it. Many clients have solved their problems just by talking to a specialist who was actively listening without interrupting them or giving advice.
12. Possibility of working on the relationship between the client and the specialist
According to some schools of psychotherapy, this is the single most important part of a therapeutic process. While working with a specialist, whether you like it or not, you have a relationship with him. For some people, this may be their first time talking to someone who is not judging them, imposing his own opinions, or interrupting to talk about his own life. Instead, the specialist reacts with acceptance, supports in difficult moments, and asks questions that lead to the solution (and gives credit for that to the client, not to himself).
During changework sessions you can observe your relationship patterns, receive and immediately implement feedback, or notice so-called transference (a phenomenon in which someone unconsciously associates the therapist with an important figure from her past and reacts to the therapist the same way she would react to, for example, her mother or father). Moreover, you can vividly see various pathological patterns of your behavior, such as constantly blaming yourself, bragging, or displaying obedience or avoidance. A changework session is a great (and safe) place to talk about these things.
As another example, during one of these sessions, a man who has problems interacting with women and who also sees his sexual impulses as something dirty and shameful, can openly express his fantasies with the therapist. She won’t insult him, but will rather react with acceptance and compassion. This one moment may be more important, impactful, and healing than the rest of the therapy sessions.
13. Drawing attention to your strengths
When you are absorbed in your problems, you can forget about your strengths. Your skills, positive circumstances, and past situations in which you’ve solved your problems may fade away in a vastness of chaotic thoughts and feelings. In such cases, the specialist may draw your attention to the resources you’ve got in order to find the solution.
14. Feeling safe
When working on heavy issues that may shake your outlook on the world or working on traumatic experiences that may trigger overwhelming emotions, you can lose control. Some people fear that they will go crazy, others fear that these strange emotions will never go away. For some, the fear of working on certain problems without help from a professional is so strong that they can’t take even the smallest step on their own.
Sometimes the support from the specialist is just about being close, sometimes it’s about saying that everything is going to be okay and encouraging you to follow the process. And sometimes it’s more complicated.
15. Using touch and the body
In some more liberal schools of changework, the specialist’s touch may play a very important role. Firstly, the therapist’s or coach’s touch can comfort the client and be a sign of support. Secondly, it can be an important aspect when working on the relationship between client and specialist (see point #12), especially in systemic psychotherapy. Thirdly, it can amplify the sensation in tense muscles that is caused by strong emotions and, as a result, it may make it easier for the client to experience and confront these emotions, especially in process-oriented psychotherapy.
16. Positive interjections
As a result of regular, ongoing work with a specialist, clients may develop a mechanism that works as an “internal therapist.” When a client talks about her problems and the therapist or coach repeatedly reacts in a certain way, this reaction may become internalized. For example, when the client experiences a failure, she may start to ask herself the same questions that the specialist would ask (instead of whimpering or self-criticizing). This way the client starts to think and act in a constructive, positive way as she overwrites the pattern that she learned from her parents, teachers, or peers.
17. Modeling functional behaviors
Talking about a behavior in an abstract way or knowing that a certain outcome is possible is one thing, but observing someone who actually models the behavior in real life is something very different. When you work with a specialist who doesn’t have the problems you do (or even better, a specialist who did have the same problems but was able to solve them), you can see with your own eyes what the constructive behavior looks like and what thought processes lead to it. For example, you can see the specialist demonstrating assertiveness, receiving feedback, reacting to criticism, or talking about difficult topics. You can also ask the specialist what his motives, emotions, or thoughts are when he performs a certain behavior.
18. Opening* the therapeutic (or coaching) process
* Opening a therapeutic process means making a mental space for certain emotions, thoughts, memories to come up and closing means summarizing, making conclusions, changing beliefs/value system/what the client identify with.
The last reason has to do with a fascinating phenomenon. In the case of regular, long-term individual work with a specialist, very often a therapeutic or coaching process may open. What this means is that the subconsciousness (and sometimes the consciousness as well) is strongly enagaged in the journey into yourself. As a result, between sessions you may encounter additional insights. Your dreams may become more focused on the issue you are working on, and you may notice more unexpected situations that are somehow related to your problem (this can be explained by the effect of selective focus).
Many clients feel like a special channel has been developed in their minds, designed specifically for understanding and resolving certain problems and that, after some time, it works independently, without the clients having to invest more effort (and this is why closing the therapeutic process at the end of the work is so crucial!).
Obviously, as with everything in life, individual work also has its disadvantages. First of all, individual work is fairly expensive (even though it is more cost effective than attending multiple self-help seminars). Second, it’s often time-consuming, especially in the case of short (e.g., 50-minute) sessions once a week. One-week-long seminars (and I’m not referring to Large Group Awareness Trainings) will most likely be more intensive, though this doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be more effective. Third, with individual work you miss out on the group process. In the case of certain problems, group therapy, workshops, or interpersonal training may be a better choice.
You may also like: Coaching, changework, psychotherapy, psychiatry — what kind of help should you seek?
The choice is yours, Dear Reader. I hope that, for you, the choice will be a thoughtful one.