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Group Counselling vs Individual Counselling: A Complete Guide

Individual Counselling

How individual counselling differs from group counselling in terms of privacy, flexibility, personalized attention, and cost?

When it comes to therapy, individual counselling is the main anchor and foundation of personal work. It provides a thread of consistency and personal attention that keep you oriented toward who you are and who you are becoming. I always recommend having a relationship with an individual counsellor as a pillar to help integrate any other work you choose to do—e.g., groups, retreats, workshops, psychedelics, travel, etc.

Individual work is by nature more confidential than group work because a room full of others only has privacy as strong as the secrecy of its participants. While I have seen group members generally very good about not telling others’ stories, it obviously cannot match the ethical and legal confidentiality sworn to by individual counsellors who only carry the information of one individual.

One-on-one therapy tends to be more expensive (though there are low-cost options) given that in a group, costs can be diffused across many participants. While groups may cost something like $1,500 for a weekend, this still works out to a lower rate than individual work, given that groups often require two leaders working several full days.

In terms of flexibility, individual counselling appointments can be shifted much easier than groups. In the sort of groups I deliver, at least, we ask that participants do not change and rotate because each time a member is absent, the entire dynamic of safety changes. Others are counting on you! One-on-one work gets around this, provided at least you can offer 48 hours of notice for cancellations outside of emergencies.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Individual Counselling

First off, while this gets asked a lot, it creates a sense of ‘one being better than the other’ when in reality, they compliment each other beautifully, particularly in using individual counselling to help ‘integrate’ the often massive experiences that happen in a group.

…But if asked to weigh the pros and cons, I can tell you that individual counselling most often is easier to form safety quicker. The rooms are easily controlled and soundproofed, small and contained. The therapist and yourself are only navigating one relationship of interaction, communication and nervous system energy. This often allows a more efficient arrival at the safety necessary to do deeper work.

A downside, however, is that one-on-one work only has one ‘witness’ present. Instead of having a whole room of nervous system mirroring, interpersonal feedback and curative community, things move at a slower pace. The change process is more humble and patient, however, it tends to become incredibly powerful as your trust in your therapist grows.

 

Group Counselling

How group counselling differs from individual counselling in terms of social support, accountability, and the opportunity to learn from others?

There is no replacement for the level of social support and intimacy possible in a group. When designed and run safely, groups allow a neuro-chemical cascade of positive healing interaction made possible by the community setting, simulating the curative family dynamics we often lacked in less-than-ideal childhoods.

Beyond that, groups allow a container of witnessing and accountability to keep us stay attuned to who we are becoming. Pair this with the social learning of seeing and modelling others, and you have a laboratory of how to become productive, more social and generally effective in life.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Group Counselling 

If careful attention has been given to building a ‘safe container,’ groups allow for faster and more efficient change. Being around many others ‘brings up our stuff’ more than sitting one-on-one with a single therapist. If leadership is solid, this means a chance to uproot and heal old pain in life-changing transformative experiences.

A major disadvantage is the possibility of unsafe groups. I have been leading complex trauma groups for veterans for 11 years—these being incredibly structured and safety oriented. As a result, I have become somewhat of a safety snob. I have seen many (as an understatement) of the groups run around the Lower Mainland to not have a theory of group development at their core, with little attention placed on creating safe group norms. This creates a high possibility of participants leaving triggered while the leader is unaware, thinking that upsetting emotionally cathartic experiences were helpful.

Groups can be transformative, but they are not a party trick and require profound confidence and expertise on the part of the leader.

 

Group Therapy vs Individual Therapy: Choosing the right type of counselling for your needs

Factors to consider and how to decide between Individual and Group Counselling

My personal recommendation would be to access individual counselling as your staple and bedrock. Having someone you trust to help integrate overwhelming life experiences is invaluable. Having someone in your corner is a ‘safe home base’ that can help you to go explore deeper adventures of healing. With this in place, accessing more grandiose experiences of transformation, such as groups, workshops, retreats, and psychedelics, may be safe and more advisable.

If you feel deeply drawn to a group and prefer not to access individual counselling, I urge that you have friends and family who can non-judgmentally listen as you unpack your experiences. The majority of the change from group work happens based on how you ‘integrate’ it into your ordinary life, and that requires a safe space to make sense of what happened with others that you trust.

 

When and how to combine Individual and Group Therapy to address different aspects of your mental health and well-being?

Now we’re talking! A great way to go about this would be to take steps to find the right therapist and form a trusting relationship by having enough sessions where you are safely able to feel at least some feelings around your counsellor.

You might work with them to identify intentions to bring to a group. Who am I? What do I want? What needs to change? What memories and feelings keep haunting me? What events do I know I need to talk about? What does my best life look like?

Sorting this out with an individual counsellor is like a volleyball setup. Once the ball is in the air, the group is like the spike that delivers your therapeutic intention across the net. If the group goes like a well-run group generally does, you’ll experience a great deal during the days it runs. This is healing, for sure, but not as much as what you do with that experience. That’s when it’s time to bring what happened in the group to your individual therapist to unpack, make meaning, and integrate the change process into meaningful and productive life behaviours.

Carson Kivari
Carson Kivari

Carson Kivari is the Founder and Clinic Director of Thrive Downtown, with 17 years of experience helping individuals and couples overcome anxiety, depression, and burnout. He guides clients on a journey of self-exploration and trauma release to find purpose, connection, and safety. Take the first step towards healing and contact Carson today to schedule a session.