Individual Counseling & Psychotherapy
To help people deal with a wide range of issues, the field of psychotherapy has developed many different theoretical orientations. This array can be confusing to anyone who has not studied psychology in depth. This page is devoted to helping you identify what approach might work well for you.
My own orientation is eclectic. I have trained in many approaches to therapy in my masters, doctorate and post-graduate study. Exactly how I work depends on the goals and needs of each particular client. I describe the basic principles behind all my work in the section below. Further down the page are brief descriptions of the different counseling modalities I commonly use. After that are descriptions of how therapy can help with specific issues.
My Basic Principles of Counseling
People are Inherently Good
With this premise I choose to identify each person as the part of him or her self that is trying to do their best, seek win-win solutions, and live gracefully in a sometimes difficult world. Despite any dysfunctional patterns we may have picked up along the way, it is this goodness inside that remains who we really are at our core. Any way in which we have hurt others, hurt ourselves, or shrunken from our potential can be understood as coming from some way in which we ourselves have been hurt, neglected, or suffered. As we heal ourselves we increase our ability to drop dysfunctional patterns and let our good intention manifest more clearly.
Each Person is the Ultimate Authority of Their Own Experience
Each person has an inner voice that speaks his or her truth. Others (therapists, for instance) may have hunches about what is true for you, but only you can decide if their theories fit your experience. When a therapist becomes attached to his theory he may push it in a way that just increases his client’s experience of distress. Alternatively, when a therapist keeps sincerely trying to understand his client as a unique individual, his client is free to continue the healing process of self-discovery.
Personal Growth includes both Empowerment and Self-acceptance
There are two main branches of personal growth. One heightens our sense of empowerment. Through self-reflection and insight we are better able to seize the power we have to make new choices and transform our lives. At the same time, however, the other branch reminds us that who we are is already beautiful and whole. While part of our nature always seeks growth, one aspect of that growth is fully appreciating ourselves just as we are now.
Reality is in the Present Moment
Each moment offers a fresh look at how we feel and what meanings we are creating out of our circumstances. It is true that understanding our past can be helpful in identifying the nature of the dysfunctional patterns that still affect us. But it is the stories about our past that we continue to tell ourselves in the present that most affect how we currently feel. By becoming mindful of our present experience we can best identify what choices might help us improve our lives.
The Mind and Body are Connected
Emotions are a combination of body sensation and mental interpretation. Understanding our emotions, therefore, requires both paying attention to our awareness of our bodies and to the meanings our mind creates for us. Slowing down helps us focus this awareness. Therapists can be helpful by encouraging clients both to really feel their bodies, and to carefully track the thought processes that result in distress.
Approaches to Therapy
The tables below offer links to brief descriptions of the orientations I use, and brief descriptions of how therapy can help deal with specific issues.
Anxiety & Phobias
Grief & Loss
Life Transitions / Midlife Crisis
Humanistic psychology is one of the major branches of the field. All of the approaches to therapy I use fall under this umbrella. Humanistic approaches spring from a foundational belief in the potential for conscious self-awareness to transform our lives. While acknowledging the influences of unconscious patterns and behavioral conditioning, humanistic psychology focuses on the power people have to formulate meaning and exercise choice. Humanistic approaches support the inherent goodness within each person that seeks to actualize their potential to choose a rich and fulfilling life.
Cognitive therapy addresses the beliefs and interpretations that determine our experience. It helps people identify the thoughts they have about the things they perceive. We may not be able to change everything about the world around us, but we can consciously evaluate the meanings we give to events. These meanings and interpretations have a profound impact on what emotions we experience. With self-reflection, we can change any beliefs that may be causing unnecessary distress. There are many versions of cognitive therapy including: narrative therapy, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), Byron Katie’s work, motivational interviewing, and rational-emotive therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy combines cognitive therapy with an additional focus on generating desired behavioral changes. Clients are asked not only to identify the thoughts that generate problematic emotions. They are also asked to reflect on how they might change the ways they respond to stressors in their lives. This can include breaking counterproductive habits or addictions and establishing new healthier habits. It can also include developing new skills or overcoming fears through successfully changing behaviors one small step at a time. CBT is a highly researched approach that has often been proven to be very effective.
AEDP is a relatively new approach that involves a a strong emotional connection between therapist and client. Emotional awareness is developed in clients by the therapist’s willingness to deeply attune to the client’s feelings. By alieviating a client’s sense of aloneness with their feelings, clients are helped to more deeply connect with themselves. The therapist’s strong acceptance and welcoming of a client’s emotions helps them become more deeply accepting of themselves. AEDP also helps clients focus on their natural, positive emotional experience, enhancing their ability to identify with their own sense of happiness, love and well being. For a full description of AEDP click here.
Psychodynamic approaches to therapy focus keenly upon the effect of our childhood experiences on our adult lives. Our early relationships form a template from which we see the world. By exploring our memories of childhood we can identify how our past circumstances may have shaped or limited us. With insight and healing, we gain greater compassion for ourselves and our families. And we open to new possibilities in life when we fully realize how to release any limitations we learned in the past.
Existential psychotherapy springs from the philosophical belief that human existence presents certain challenges that all people must face in some way. These challenges include dealing with the realities of:
The Inevitability of Death,
The Need for Meaning,
The Struggle of Aloneness, and
The Responsibility for Our Choices
By viewing these challenges as universal human dilemmas, existential psychotherapy does not pathologize people for their difficulties in dealing with these challenges. Rather, therapy offers each person assistance in resolving these issues in their own unique way. There are no right or wrong answers, only an artful search for each person’s inner truths.
Transpersonal psychotherapy addresses our connection to that which goes beyond the individual sense of self. However it may be defined, we are all in some relationship to the rest of the universe. For some, this connection is understood through existing religions or philosophies. For others, the nature of the connection is less formalized. Transpersonal psychotherapy helps people identify their unique understanding of their place in the world and the greater forces of which we are all a part. Grounding yourself in a spiritual perspective that works for you can have profound effects on the way you approach your life and whatever challenges it presents.
Brief therapy is a style that addresses a client’s most pressing issues as quickly and efficiently as possible. Brief therapy often utilizes cognitive and behavioral approaches (CBT). It begins by helping a person clearly articulate their goals for therapy. Each goal is defined by achievable criteria. Then clear steps toward progress are identified. The therapist encourages and coaches the client to stay focused on the solution, problem solving any impediment to success. This style was born from the fact that many people do not have enough money or time for more than a few counseling sessions. While critics contend that more profound changes are not likely through this approach, some clients find the clarity and directness of brief therapy to be a good fit for their goals.
Gestalt therapy was originated by Fritz Perls. The name comes from the German word for wholeness. Gestalt therapy helps clients achieve a greater sense of wholeness by increasing self-awareness and resolving inner conflict. Often emotional distress, impulsive behavior, anxiety or depression is a result of painful battles between one part of yourself and another. Gestalt therapy helps clients give voice to all parts of themselves so that a more integrated self-knowledge can be attained. One common technique involves using different chairs when speaking from different parts of oneself. The resulting self-integration helps people be more authentic, confident, and decisive. It also helps people establish personal boundaries and clearly negotiated relationships.
Gestalt awareness techniques also teach clients to heighten their awareness of themselves in the present moment. People learn to differentiate between the old stories they have been telling themselves and present moment truths arising from their spontaneous thoughts and feelings. Being able to competently track present awareness is considered more useful than lengthy explorations of the past.
Client-centered therapy was originated by Carl Rogers, a pioneer of humanistic psychology. A client-centered therapist’s job is to create a fertile atmosphere for honest self-reflection. The therapist does not offer interpretations or analysis of the client’s experience. Instead, the therapist uses reflective listening to help clients understand themselves more deeply. Client-centered therapists focus on providing three essential ingredients for therapeutic growth: empathy, authenticity, and unconditional positive regard. When clients receive genuine understanding and authentic respect, they can be honest with themselves in new ways.
To provide all three elements, therapists must be very clear within themselves. Any unexamined judgments or rigid thinking can prevent a therapist from fully embracing the goodness of the client. Client-centered therapists must have good access to their own feelings in order to provide accurate empathy. But they also need clear boundaries, so that they do not become enmeshed in the client’s experience.
Re-evaluation counseling is a peer counseling approach formulated by Harvey Jackins. Many of the principles and techniques, however, are usable in professional therapy as well. Re-evaluation counseling places a high value on the natural process of discharging emotions. The counselor assists the client to talk, cry, tremble, yawn or otherwise release feelings physically. These natural forms of release are often suppressed or inhibited by cultural messages that discourage any show of emotion. When a counselor can help a person feel safe, however, feelings often spontaneously discharge. When this healing release occurs the client often experiences a fresh ability to re-evaluate limiting beliefs that have been generating stress. Cognitive shifts are facilitated by the reduced burden of pent-up emotion.
Somatic approaches to therapy focus on awareness of the body. Each emotion has a sensory component (feeling) and a cognitive component (interpretation). Whereas cognitive therapies focus on thoughts, somatic approaches begin by tracking awareness of sensation. The natural release of emotions is often blocked by habitual patterns of tension that clamp down on suppressed feelings. Somatic approaches help a client release these holding patterns in order to free up the natural process of emotional discharge. This approach is primarily kinesthetic, and works well with people who are less inclined toward verbal processing, or who want to increase their self-reflection tools beyond the realm of talk-therapy.
Mindfulness and Focusing are both self-awareness practices that are often used in counseling sessions. Focusing is a specific technique developed by Eugene Gendlin. It guides a client to track the subtleties of emotional experience by identifying the “felt-sense” of chronic vague feelings. Articulating feelings through focusing helps clients then identify the source and ways to release the emotions identified.
Mindfulness is a general term for the practice of observing oneself. The concept is central to meditation (particularly Buddhist styles). In mindfulness, a person cultivates a state of consciousness wherein they can observe their thoughts and feelings from a neutral perspective. They learn to remain a detached witness as their thoughts and emotions arise and recede. The practice is particularly useful in preventing anxiety or anger from escalating.
Hakomi is a body-oriented psychotherapy developed by Ron Kurtz. It combines elements of multiple approaches into a single therapeutic orientation. Hakomi draws upon psychodynamic therapy, somatic approaches, mindfulness, gestalt, and hypnotherapy to help clients deeply explore the experiences that have shaped their personalities. Hakomi is especially helpful in healing traumatic past experiences. It not only offers insight into family relationship dynamics, it also provides healing experiences that release feelings and allow new possibilities for personal growth.
Narrative therapy is a cognitive approach that focuses on the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Regardless of events in our past, it is the narrative we continue to tell ourselves that determines our experience of our lives. In narrative therapy, the storylines we have (consciously or unconsciously) invented are examined. In the process, we have a chance to evaluate both the accuracy and the emotional impact of our stories. Often, clients choose to rewrite the narrative of their life in ways that result in greater self-compassion and greater personal empowerment. Stories of victimization, for instance, may be re-written as stories of courageous survival. There are many sides to truth. Narrative therapy helps us to consider alternatives when we are stuck in a perspective that only recycles painful emotion.
Relationship difficulties can be addressed through either couples counseling or individual therapy. Couples counseling has the advantage of facilitating change in both partners at the same time. Individual counseling, however, can also be useful for anyone seeking to understand their personal relationship patterns and learn communication skills that can improve all their relationships.
Individual counseling is particularly helpful when someone is trying to evaluate whether they want to continue or end a relationship. It may be useful to explore such ambivalence privately, until you can clearly identify what issues are important to address with your partner.
Individual counseling can also help a person identify and change recurring relationship patterns. When several of your relationships suffer from similar dynamics you may benefit from insight about how you choose partners, and how you manage the stages of development common to all intimate relationships.
All people experience anxiety. Fears arise and recede frequently in the natural course of human life. For some people, however, the level of anxiety experienced can be very uncomfortable. Thus, when anxious feelings begin, a person may become afraid that their anxiety will overwhelm them. This fear actually escalates their anxiety and produces the panic feeling they most dread.
Counseling can help people manage their anxiety and gain confidence that normal levels of fear can come and go without escalations. Clients can learn to address their fears in ways that dissipate anxiety. And they can learn to ground the energy in their bodies whenever uncomfortable levels of anxiety emerge.
Phobias are fears associated with specific triggers (objects, places, situations, or activities). Having phobic responses can limit your life experiences, particularly if it is difficult to avoid the triggers of your phobias in the course of your normal life. Therapy can dramatically reduce phobic responses. This is accomplished by both learning to effectively deal with fear and anxiety, as well as gradually reducing the power of the specific triggers to induce fear.
Depression, in mild, moderate or severe forms, is a very common experience. There can be many different sources of this very troubling malaise. Counseling begins by helping a person identify the contributing factors to his or her specific experience of depression. Often, depression is an indication that vital human needs are going unmet. These needs may be social, occupational, or metaphysical. We all need connection with others, a sense of accomplishment and contribution, and a sense of meaningful purpose. When important needs go chronically unmet we can lose the motivation to improve our lives. If this results in our needs going even further unmet, depression can deepen without hope of relief.
Therapy for depression helps a person reverse this cycle of hopelessness. With the support of the therapist, clients identify the unmet needs in their life and develop doable strategies to address them. Patterns of thought or behavior that undermine success are identified and replaced with newly chosen beliefs and habits that support an enriched experience of life. Sustained efforts begin to bear fruit, which can generate an upward cycle of increased motivation and an increasingly fulfilling life. Energy levels increase when hopefulness and a sense of personal empowerment is rebuilt.
Anger is an emotion all people experience. It arises in us when we interpret events to be unfair, unjust, or personally offensive. It tells us when something is not right for us, when our legitimate needs are going unmet. Unfortunately, the expression of anger is usually poorly received. Angry expressions often scare or offend others. Angry outbursts may temporarily intimidate others into complying with our demands, but they usually tax the health of our ongoing relationships.
Counseling can help people learn to use their angry feelings to improve, rather than undermine, their relationships. Increasing self-awareness helps you identify the needs and vulnerable feelings that lay beneath any anger you may feel. Knowing these needs can help you identify how to better manage your life. The better you are at getting your needs met through positive interactions with others, the less vulnerable and dependent you will feel about what other people choose to do.
Understanding the real sources of your anger will also help you learn how to communicate more effectively with people. Clear requests can replace broken expectations, unspoken wishes, and chronic disappointments. Cooperative agreements can replace coercive tactics such as intimidation, guilt-trips, criticism, threats, shame, blame, sulking, martyrdom, etc.
Unfortunately, because people are often shamed for their angry feelings, we tend to suppress anger until it overwhelms us and we blow up. Therapy can help you learn from your anger before it escalates. And what your anger teaches you can improve your life.
Grief is a natural response to the loss of anything or anyone who has been important in your life. The loss may be due to a sudden or gradual death or departure. Grief can be overwhelming at times. Sometimes you may feel that you will never get through it. Grieving, however, is a natural healing process that can help us recover from even the most traumatic losses.
Unfortunately, grief can be so overwhelming that we may not have the support we need to go through it. Counseling can offer that support. It can help a person gradually release the pain of their loss. When we open ourselves to grief we often find that the pain is actually a result of our body’s desperate resistance to grieving. When grief begins to flow, it can actually be very satisfying. We are in touch with whatever is most important to us. And a sense of profound relief usually follows.
Our need for social connection is very strong. And we feel the pain of loneliness when that need goes unmet. Unfortunately, the despondent feelings of loneliness can make us doubt our value to others. Thus, instead of reach out for the connection we need, we may isolate ourselves and increase our loneliness.
Counseling can help people increase their self-esteem and confidence in social interactions. By identifying personal strengths, you can regain a belief in the value you have to offer others. By re-evaluating distorted negative perceptions of yourself, you can decrease self-consciousness and anxiety in social situations. This paves the way to more satisfying connections with others and relief from loneliness and isolation.
Lonliness may also be the result of isolating patterns that spring from a distrust or dissatisfaction with others, rather than negative feelings about oneself. We may feel a desire for connection, but not believe that it is possible to interact with others in a way that does not drain ourselves more than it feeds us. Therapy can help people identify negaitve generalizations they may have about others. It can also help people be more effective in making their relationships more responsive to their needs. For instance, someone who feels drained by chronically addressing other people’s needs can learn to learn how to more effectively receive real support.
Self-esteem is a vital ingredient of personal happiness and success. The relationship you have with yourself is the most important relationship in your life. Unfortunately, we often treat ourselves the same way we have been treated in our past. Thus, if we were frequently criticized, misunderstood, shamed, or neglected, we may not know how to have a supportive, appreciative relationship with ourselves.
Counseling can help people develop higher self-esteem. Negative self-images that spring from past hurts can be re-evaluated. Habitual critical self-talk can be identified and modified. A self-attitude of compassion and respect can be cultivated. These changes can be difficult to make alone, without input. But with the support of a counselor, people often reclaim a more expansive sense of their self-worth, and a new way of relating to themselves.
Communication skills are one of the most basic competencies necessary for good relationships and a satisfying life. Unfortunately, interpersonal communication has still not made its way into our society’s basic educational curriculum. Thus, most of us learn to communicate from the people around us. And so our skills sometimes remain quite limited.
Effective communication, however, requires much more than learning techniques of forming and delivering messages. Self-reflection is an essential part of being able to communicate clearly. We must begin by knowing ourselves. By closely examining how we communicate, we can gain insight into how the thoughts and emotion behind our words may be confused or misguided. Thus the practice of effective communication can be a pathway to self-discovery
Non-violent Communication (NVC) is a style of communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg. Its simple but profound principles can be used both as a tool to improve relationships and as a tool to enhance personal growth. In individual counseling, the concepts of NVC can help people examine their feelings, needs, and the strategies they use to improve their lives. The skills learned in therapy can also be applied outside the counseling office in ways that can dramatically improve relationships.
Substance abuse is a common problem that takes many shapes. Many different addictive agents are readily available in our modern lives. Unfortunately, many people develop habits of usage that undermine their life goals and their most cherished relationships. The courage to admit to an addiction and enter recovery is a vital first step to a healthy future.
Usually, addiction recovery is most easy to achieve within a strong, socially supportive community. Alcoholics Anonymous or other treatment programs can provide this support when needed. But since each person is unique, no program is the perfect answer for everyone. Individual therapy can provide a valuable place to identify and address any personal needs that are not well met by available programs.
There are many was that counseling can help with recovery. Sometimes shameful feelings about an addiction lead people to prefer to address the problem in a counseling office rather than in a public group. Sometimes people need a safe place to air their objections to aspects of the treatment programs they attend. Sometimes very individualized recovery plans need to be developed to address the unique circumstances of one’s life. And finally, individual counseling can help people in recovery reach for goals beyond sobriety. Continued personal growth is probably the most effective way to prevent relapses.
Co-dependency is a term used loosely to describe the common patterns of emotion, thought, and behavior that may be evident in people who have been in close relationships with addicts or alcoholics. The dynamics of addiction affect everyone near it. Counseling can help adult children of alcoholics, or people with alcoholic spouses or other family members, identify how their contact with the addiction has affected them.
Counseling can help people learn to establish healthy boundaries, so that you can have a happy live, independent of the course of your loved one’s addiction. Counseling can help you identify how you can and how you cannot help someone in active addiction. It can also give you insight into how the habits you may have developed in response to someone’s addiction may be limiting your effectiveness in other relationships. Emerging from co-dependent patterns can be a recovery process itself.
Parenting children is clearly one of the most important jobs a person can do. It is also a very complex task. A developing child is a moving target, and parents must continually update their approach in order to keep pace with their child’s continuing development. Unfortunately, many parents unconsciously repeat the parenting style they were raised with, whether it was effective or not. Counseling can help parents identify how their parenting can change to generate better cooperation, success, and emotional health in their children.
The advances in understanding how to raise healthy children have been tremendous over the past few decades. Many traditional child-rearing pedagogies have been proven to be counter-productive. And new principles of parenting hold great promise for improving the emotional health of future generations. Learning and applying new approaches to parenting, however, may involve some careful reflection on your goals as a parent, the approaches you are comfortable with, and any difficulties you may have making changes in your family. Counseling can help guide you in the self-reflection necessary to become the parent you really want to be.
I have written many articles about parenting and I wrote a monthly column for many years in Growing Up in Santa Cruz, our local parenting magazine. I also present often as a parent educator in local schools and pre-schools. Some of these articles are available on the Articles page of this website.
Sometimes life throws big changes at you. Sometimes these changes emerge from inside. Either way, it can be confusing and difficult to adjust to significant life transitions. While the term “mid-life crisis” is sometimes used to trivialize the experience, people often do go through a serious re-evaluation of major choices at some point in their lives. Whether your transition is due to circumstances beyond your control, or due to your own personal development, counseling can help you find your own way to proceed.
The safety and confidentiality of a counselor can provide a way to explore options that might be difficult to discuss with others (until you are clear about your own perspective). Identifying your needs, assessing potential strategies, grieving what may be lost through change, and finally coming to a decision are all steps through a life transition. The support of a counselor can help make these steps easier to navigate.
Divorce can be a particularly difficult life transition. There is still significant stigma in our culture about divorce. And when there are children involved, the multiple impacts of divorce must be very carefully considered. Still, if you are considering divorce, there must be important reasons why. Individual counseling is often the best place to sort through your feelings about divorce. With greater self-understanding you may then be able to bring more clarity toward resolving issues with your partner. Alternatively, you may more clearly understand why you consider divorce your preferred option.
If you decide to divorce, or if you are divorcing in spite of your preference not to, counseling can continue to offer valuable support. You may need help dealing with grief, setting new boundaries, or attending properly to your children to make sure their needs are taken care of. You may need understanding for any angry feelings. You may need assistance reducing conflict with your divorcing partner. And you may need support to envision a positive future: financially, romantically, and as a co-parent.
Some of these adjustments might benefit from co-parent mediation or co-parent counseling. For the sake of the children, many issues will need to be discussed cooperatively. Other aspects of the transition divorce brings may be personal, and best addressed in individual therapy.
Sexual issues can be very troubling and difficult to talk about. Our culture both sensationalizes and shames sex. It can be vary helpful, therefore to talk confidentially with a counselor who is comfortable and familiar with sexual issues. Unfortunately, some counselors are very uncomfortable talking about sex, so it is important to find someone who is not embarrassed by the subject.
Your concerns about sex may have to do with sexual orientation, level of desire, sexual functioning, difficulty finding a suitable partner, difficulty finding satisfaction or orgasm, acceptance of your particular sexuality, or stopping compulsive sexual behaviors. You may need help determining if you have a sexual addiction. Or you may just need help learning to communicate about sex with your partner.
Counseling can help you identify what feelings are associated with your sexuality and how to deal with them effectively. You can get support to communicate your needs, and you can learn to validate your feelings about sex even if your partner does not. Our sexualities are a rich and natural part of our lives. We all deserve to talk about sex with someone who will not shame us, but will help us to accept and understand ourselves more fully.
Many people have relationships that differ from our cultural norms. It is important to find a counselor who is comfortable helping you in whatever type of relationship you may be in. People in gay or lesbian relationships deserve to have a counselor that is familiar with and sensitive to hetero-normative assumptions that do not apply to them. It is not enough to have tolerance for same sex relationships. Successful counselors must be able to genuinely celebrate the beauty and courage of same sex couples.
Some people (gay, straight, or bisexual) have relationships that differ from the norm in other ways. Non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships, for instance, are becoming more common. People who choose such alternatives may benefit from help dealing with the emotional and communication challenges that may arise. Counselors who are accepting of such choices can help people successfully navigate their quest to enrich their lives by breaking away from conventional paradigms.
There are many ways to connect with others. And there are many forms relationships can take. Couples can be married, but not live together. Divorced partners can remain “friends with benefits.” Counseling can help people find what variations of relationship will work best for them. By allowing each person to identify their own truth, counseling can help free people to courageously pursue their personal visions of relationship.
Many people have experienced very difficult or traumatic experiences in their childhood or recent past. The effects of abuse, neglect, or other trauma can be overwhelming. And the unhealed wounds of the past can limit or undermine a sense of well being as life moves forward. Fortunately, therapy can provide a forum where true healing can happen. Successful therapy can profoundly transform lives that have been hampered by abuse, freeing people to experience a new sense of safety, freedom, and joy.
Abuse comes in many forms, but the conditions needed for healing are often very similar. Therapists can help by providing a deeply compassionate presence and an undying confidence in the power of each person to heal. Additionally, therapy can help people identify the self-defeating messages they may still be telling themselves about how and why they were abused. A strong belief in the goodness of each person shines a light that is needed for healing, recovery, and forgiveness.