What are counseling theories

Five Counseling Theories and Approaches

June 1, 2015 

Psychotherapy theories provide a framework for therapists and counselors to interpret a client’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings and help them navigate a client’s journey from diagnosis to post-treatment. Theoretical approaches are an understandably integral part of the therapeutic process. But with so many different methods out there, how do you know which counseling approach works best for you? Whether you’re a student learning about counseling theories or a client looking for the right therapist, the following detailed descriptions will give you a deeper understanding of each counseling method. These theories are integrated throughout the curriculum of Counseling@Northwestern and are built into a foundation grounded in the psychodynamic perspective.

Psychoanalysis or psychodynamic theory, also known as the “historical perspective,” has its roots with Sigmund Freud, who believed there were unconscious forces that drive behavior. The techniques he developed, such as free association (freely talking to the therapist about whatever comes up without censoring), dream analysis (examining dreams for important information about the unconscious), and transference (redirecting feelings about certain people in one’s life onto the therapist) are still used by psychoanalysts today.

Counseling@Northwestern uses this theory to train counselors, and it is embedded throughout the counselor training process. In general, psychotherapists and counselors who use this approach direct much of their focus and energy on analyzing past relationships and, in particular, traumatic childhood experiences in relation to an individual’s current life. The belief is that by revealing and bringing these issues to the surface, treatment and healing can occur. This theory is highly researched, and as the field of neuroscience advances, counselors are finding how psychodynamic theory can actually positively affect a client’s brain. Psychodynamic theory can be more time intensive in comparison to some short-term theories because it involves changing deeply ingrained behaviors and requires significant work on understanding one’s self.

Behavioral theory is based on the belief that behavior is learned. Classic conditioning is one type of behavioral therapy that stems from early theorist Ivan Pavlov’s research. Pavlov executed a famous study using dogs, which focused on the effects of a learned response (e.g., a dog salivating when hearing a bell) through a stimulus (e.g., pairing the sound of a bell with food).

B. F. Skinner developed another behavioral therapy approach, called operant conditioning. He believed in the power of rewards to increase the likelihood of a behavior and punishments to decrease the occurrence of a behavior. Behavioral therapists work on changing unwanted and destructive behaviors through behavior modification techniques such as positive or negative reinforcement.

In the 1960s, psychotherapist Aaron Beck developed cognitive theory. This counseling theory focuses on how people’s thinking can change feelings and behaviors. Unlike psychodynamic theory, therapy based on cognitive theory is brief in nature and oriented toward problem solving. Cognitive therapists focus more on their client’s present situation and distorted thinking than on their past. Cognitive and behavioral therapy are often combined as one form of theory practiced by counselors and therapists. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has been found in research to help with a number of mental illnesses including anxiety, personality, eating, and substance abuse disorders.

Humanistic therapists care most about the present and helping their clients achieve their highest potential. Instead of energy spent on the past or on negative behaviors, humanists believe in the goodness of all people and emphasize a person’s self-growth and self-actualization.

Humanistic theories include client-centered, gestalt, and existential therapies. Carl Rogers developed client-centered therapy, which focuses on the belief that clients control their own destinies. He believed that all therapists need to do is show their genuine care and interest. Gestalt therapists’ work focuses more on what’s going on in the moment versus what is being said in therapy. Existential therapists help clients find meaning in their lives by focusing on free will, self-determination, and responsibility.

Holistic and integrative therapy involves integrating various elements of different theories to the practice. In addition to traditional talk therapy, holistic therapy may include nontraditional therapies such as hypnotherapy or guided imagery. The key is to use the techniques and psychotherapy tools best suited for a particular client and problem.

There are various therapies that counselors can choose to study, but the type of theory matters less than the success of the relationship between client and therapist. In the Counseling@Northwestern online Master of Arts in Counseling Program, students are prepared to become self-reflective practitioners and learn to examine the factors that influence the client-therapist relationship to become successful counselors.

Counseling Theories and Approaches

By Charles "Rip" McAdams, Ed.D.
Professor and Chair, School Psychology and Counselor Education
William & Mary

Professional counselors apply a variety of clinical approaches in their work, and there are hundreds of clinical counseling approaches to choose from. The most recent edition of The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy lists over 300 different approaches to counseling practice.1 So how do counselors come to know what approach is the right one for them? To answer that question, it is first necessary to understand that no one counseling approach is better than the rest. That is because counseling approaches are based upon theories about human function and change as opposed to hard evidence.

Determining whether one counseling approach works better than another is difficult, because there are so many variables to consider in the counseling process. For example, if we try to compare the effectiveness of two counselors applying the same theoretical model, there can be major differences in the counseling outcome due to differences in the clients' histories and situations, differences in the counselors' communication styles, and even differences in client and counselor mood on the day of the comparison.

Such differences are hard to control for experimentally, thus making it almost impossible to prove that one approach to counseling is the absolute best way. Without such proof, it becomes the responsibility of counselors to do all they can to see that the treatment model(s) they apply are the best ones to address each client's needs. That responsibility starts with becoming familiar with the models that have shown to be most beneficial in actual practice.

Fortunately, almost all of the many individual theoretical models of counseling fall into one or more of six major theoretical categories: humanistic, cognitive, behavioral, psychoanalytic, constructionist and systemic.

Counseling Theories: Exploring 6 Major Theoretical Categories

Humanistic: Humanistic counseling theories hold that people have within themselves all the resources they need to live healthy and functional lives, and that problems occur as a result of restricted or unavailable problem-solving resources. Humanistic counselors see their role not as one of directing clients in how to address their problems but, rather, as one of helping clients to discover and access within themselves the restricted resources they need to solve problems on their own. Some currently preferred humanistic counseling therapies include person-centered, existential, emotion-focused, Gestalt and positive psychology.

Cognitive: Cognitive counseling theories hold that people experience psychological and emotional difficulties when their thinking is out of sync with reality. When this distorted or "faulty" thinking is applied to problem-solving, the result understandably leads to faulty solutions. Cognitive counselors work to challenge their clients' faulty thinking patterns so clients are able to derive solutions that accurately address the problems they are experiencing. Currently preferred cognitive-theory-based therapies include cognitive behavior therapy, reality therapy, motivational interviewing, and acceptance and commitment therapy.

Behavioral: Behavioral counseling theories hold that people engage in problematic thinking and behavior when their environment supports it. When an environment reinforces or encourages these problems, they will continue to occur. Behavioral counselors work to help clients identify the reinforcements that are supporting problematic patterns of thinking and acting and replace them with alternative reinforcements for more desirable patterns. Currently preferred therapies based in behavior theory include behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, multimodal therapy and conjoint sex therapy.

Psychoanalytic: Psychoanalytic counseling theories hold that psychological problems result from the present-day influence of unconscious psychological drives or motivations stemming from past relationships and experiences. Dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns from the past have become unconscious "working models" that guide clients toward continued dysfunctional thought and behavior in their present lives. Psychoanalytic counselors strive to help their clients become aware of these unconscious working models so that their negative influence can be understood and addressed. Some currently preferred therapies grounded in psychoanalytic theory include psychoanalysis, attachment therapy, object relations therapy and Adlerian therapy.

Constructionist: Constructionist counseling theories hold that knowledge is merely an invented or "constructed" understanding of actual events in the world. While actual events in the world can trigger people's meaning-making processes, it is those meaning-making processes, rather than the events themselves, that determine how people think, feel and behave. Constructionist counselors work collaboratively with clients to examine and revise problematic client constructions of self, relationships and the world. Some currently preferred constructionist-theory-based therapy models include solution focused brief therapy, narrative therapy, feminist therapy, Eriksonian therapy and identity renegotiation counseling.

Systemic: Systemic counseling theories hold that thinking, feeling and behavior are largely shaped by pressures exerted on people by the social systems within which they live. Accordingly, individual thinking, feeling and behavior are best understood when examined in relationship to the role they play within a person's family or other important social networks. Systemically focused counselors work to revise social network dynamics that influence a client's undesirable thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Some currently preferred therapies drawing from systemic theory include structural family therapy, strategic family therapy, human validation process family therapy and Gottman method couples therapy.

During their initial training, counselors are typically introduced to a variety of currently preferred counseling models falling under each of the six main theoretical categories. From there, the counselors' task is to determine through continued training and experience which models best fit (a) their personal view of human function and change, (b) their preferred style of communication and (c) the needs of the client population they are currently working with and/or the client population they plan to work with in the future.

Most counselors will find that some therapy models are a particularly good fit, while others may not be a good fit at all. Consequently, they are most likely to apply those models in counseling practice that fall within their "comfort/competency zone" and avoid those that do not. When confronted with client situations that fall outside of their zone of comfort and/or competency, counselors must decide between (a) working to expand their comfort/competency zone to include alternative models more appropriate to the client's needs or (b) referring the client to another counselor who is more comfortable and competent in the needed alternative models.

Above all, this important decision must always be determined by what action is needed to best meet the counseling needs of each client.

Find Your Fit at William & Mary

The esteemed faculty in the Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Counseling in William & Mary's School of Education help aspiring counselors choose the counseling theories and approaches that best fit with their personal and professional strengths and preferences. Explore our paths in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Military and Veterans Counseling (a specialization within Clinical Mental Health Counseling) and School Counseling.


  1. Neukrug, E. S. (Ed.). (2015). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

R. Kociunas. Basics of psychological counseling >> 1. 3. THEORIES OF PERSONALITY AND THE PRACTICE OF COUNSELING The importance of theory in psychological counseling, as in other areas of psychological practice...

1. 3. THEORIES OF PERSONALITY AND THE PRACTICE OF COUNSELING The importance of theory in psychological counseling, as in other areas of psychological practice, it is difficult to overestimate. It can be said that an attempt to expertly help another person in resolving his problems without relying on a system of theoretical views is like flying without reference points. Such a "pilot" in counseling is not only ineffective, but sometimes dangerous. In psychological counseling, the role of a map is played by personality theory, which opens up a broad perspective of understanding the client's problems and indicates effective methods for resolving them. Theory helps the counselor to formulate dynamic hypotheses that explain problems to the client and makes him feel safe in dealing with the chaotic, disorganized inner world of some Bramer, Shostrom clients (1982) emphasize that a consultant who has not mastered the theoretical foundations of his profession, who has not become familiar with the research carried out in this area, will not be able to do anything for the client, except for the use of private technology.

Each theory performs four main functions: generalizes the accumulated information; makes complex phenomena more understandable; predicts the consequences of different circumstances, contributes to the search for new facts (George, Cristiam, 1990).

These functions are well suited to any theory underlying counseling practice. Theory helps the consultant generalize experience with a wide variety of clients, understand the nature of most of their problems and forms of manifestation of conflicts, and contributes to the effective application of specific methods. Thanks to theoretical training, the consultant can put forward hypotheses in his practical work and anticipate the results of counseling. Each consultant, on the basis of practice, "constructs" his theory, which most often relies on already known theoretical paradigms, or orientations (psychoanalytic, behavioral-cognitive, existential-humanistic). With the accumulation of experience, there is a constant adjustment, expansion, strengthening of the theoretical base on which the choice of one or another theoretical orientation depends. First of all, it is determined by the consultant's point of view on human nature. It determines the nature of the answers to fundamental questions - what is a person? What innate tendencies does he have? - whether a person's choice is free under any circumstances or is determined by heredity and past events - are there prerequisites for a person to change and how he can change Answers to these questions determine how the consultant understands the structure of personality, the determination of behavior, the genesis of pathology, the prospect of normal development Table 2 (pp. 16 - 17), the main principles of the main schools of psychological counseling and psychotherapy differ significantly (George, Cristiam, 1990).

Each consultant is free to choose one or another concept as the basis of practice, depending on the characteristics of his personality, worldview, theoretical and psychological sympathies. At the same time, we emphasize the incorrectness of the statements about the truth of the postulates of any single psychotherapeutic school in spite of other schools. The results of numerous studies show that in practice, with an orientation to any direction, a similar effectiveness of counseling can be achieved. Of decisive importance is not so much the theory itself, but the maturity of the consultant's personality and his professional training, which implies a high integration of theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

Eclectic counseling is currently spreading around the world, which is an attempt to integrate the best aspects of various schools. Of course, this does not mean a set of different theoretical principles, views, or an accumulation of methods and techniques that have proven practical effectiveness, regardless of the context of possible application. Eclectic counseling relies on the systematic integration of several theoretical approaches in an effort to find a common ground and test how the new system "works" in practice. We can say that the creation of eclectic.

Man is born with a tendency towards rational thinking, but at the same time with a tendency towards paralogicality. He can become a victim of irrational ideas. Life problems arise because of erroneous beliefs. Normal behavior is based on rational thinking and timely correction of decisions.

Emphasizes the positive nature of man - his inherent innate desire for self-realization. Problems arise when some feelings are forced out of the field of consciousness and the evaluation of experience is distorted. The basis of mental health is the correspondence of the ideal I to the real I, achieved by the realization of the potential of one's own personality, and the desire for self-knowledge, self-confidence, spontaneity. the search for a unique meaning in a meaningless world, loneliness and relationships with others, the temporality of life and the problem of death. The normal development of personality is based on the uniqueness of each individual.

R. Kociunas. Fundamentals of psychological counseling. M., 1999.

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Modern approaches and methods of psychological counseling

  • Methods of psychological counseling

  • Transactional Analysis

  • How does the transactional approach work?

  • Cognitive-behavioral (cognitive-behavioral) approach

  • How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works

  • Existential Analysis

  • How Existential Analysis Works

  • Body-oriented approach

  • How the Body-Oriented Approach Works

  • Gestalt therapy

  • How Gestalt Therapy Works

  • Conclusion

The term "psychological counseling" appeared for the first time in the United States, in 1951 years old. It was then that they began to understand that it was necessary to separate psychological counseling from the field of clinical psychology, as a help to people who are mentally and somatically healthy.

Prevention of mental disorders, destructive forms of communication, an irrational way of organizing activities - all this is the task of psychological counseling.

The methods of work of a psychologist depend on the specialist himself and on the direction in which he works (coaching, family therapy, individual or group consultations, etc.).

We will tell in the article about the methods and modern approaches in psychological counseling.

Methods of psychological counseling

We list below the main methods of psychological counseling.

  • Conversation - in the process of conversation, the psychologist carefully collects the necessary information about the state of his client, establishes a trusting relationship. This method of psychological counseling can be used as a tool to reduce the client's anxiety. The conversation can be conducted intuitively, spontaneously, or it can be clearly structured and planned in advance.

  • Interview - in psychological counseling there are several options for interviews. Standardized - with a clear strategy and structure, partially standardized - with a clear structure, but changing tactics, free diagnostic - with a pre-designed strategy and free tactics that can be "customized" to the individual characteristics of the client.

  • Active listening - when the psychologist is sincerely interested in what the client says to him, asks clarifying questions, repeats remarks, sums up, etc. Active listening is a mandatory method in psychological counseling.

  • Empathic listening - the specialist is a "reflection" of the feelings of his client, empathizes with him, does not try to evaluate or interpret his words and emotions.

  • Observation - the specialist observes the verbal and non-verbal behavior of the client in order to investigate changes in behavior and find the reasons for these changes.

And then we list the main approaches in psychological counseling.

Transactional Analysis

The theory of the transactional approach was developed by the American psychologist Eric Berne. This method is based on the assertion that in every person there are three Ego-states: parent, adult and child, which can take turns in succession.

Ego-parent - this state is formed in us under the influence of other authoritative adults (parents). We think, feel, act like our parents, transfer their attitudes, values, prejudices, etc. into our lives. For example, if our parents yelled at us in childhood, then most likely we will also raise our own children.

The ego child is an experience that we take away from our childhood. This is our creativity, originality, dreams, desires, hopes, fears. The ego-child is responsible for the patterns of childhood behavior in adults - whims, dissatisfaction with small things, whining, etc.

The ego-adult acts as an intermediary between the Child and the Parent. The ego-adult decides which particular model of behavior needs to be applied now, how to find a compromise between the Parent and the Child. This state is responsible for objective and deliberate decisions that are made on the basis of experience.

Due to the internal conflicts of our egos, we can fall into the same life scenarios, where the same problems and stressful situations will be repeated. Such is the vicious circle.

The task of a consultant psychologist who uses transactional analysis is to find harmony between the three egos, bring them to agreement and give you the opportunity to get rid of the problem that prevents you from living a peaceful life.

How does the transactional approach work?

In the psychologist's office, you will be able to analyze a specific situation and separate the desires and needs of the Ego-child from the attitudes of the Ego-parent. Then the ego-adult is activated, which makes the right decisions.

The psychologist helps the client to understand what ego states he is most often in, how this affects his life and work. As a result, the client gains inner harmony, self-confidence, learns to express his emotions in an acceptable form, communicates effectively with others.

Cognitive behavioral approach

The founder of cognitive behavioral (CBT) is Aaron Beck, an American psychotherapist and professor of psychiatry.

The CBT method addresses the human mind, helps to get rid of stereotypes that can deprive the freedom of choice and force one to act according to a certain pattern. CBT corrects a person's unconscious ("automatic") thoughts. They are perceived as truth, but in fact they distort the real state of things. It is these thoughts that become the source of negative emotions, painful conditions, depression, inappropriate behavior, etc.

In the course of work, the psychologist, together with the client, understands whether the usual train of thought interferes with him or helps. The approach used assumes the active participation of the client, who not only "turns on" at the consultations, but also does the psychologist's homework.

At the beginning of the work, the psychologist, together with the client, analyzes complaints and symptoms and gradually comes to unconscious beliefs and attitudes that may come from childhood.

How CBT works

The psychologist, together with the client, finds out exactly how the problem of “automatic” thoughts appears, how they affect his mood, state, behavior, etc.

During the first consultation, the psychologist only listens carefully to the client, and already at the second and subsequent consultations, they discuss the client’s thoughts and behavior during the day, and make a list of disturbing moments and situations.

Then the specialist and the client develop a program of action - to complete tasks that affect "alarming" points (talk to the boss, ride the elevator, etc. ). These tasks help to change the client's behavior and consolidate skills, a person learns to see new sides of an alarming situation.

As a result, the client's emotional state changes, he stops following other people's thoughts, learns to distinguish his own emotions, stops judging himself, feels freer and happier.

Existential analysis

The founder of existential analysis (EA) is Viktor Frankl, a Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist, and Alfried Langle, an Austrian psychotherapist, developed and supplemented this method.

EA sets itself the goal of helping a person say the four "yes": to life, to himself, to the world and to meaning. The method is based on the statement that a person is driven by four main motivations:

  • the opportunity to be in the world, in the conditions that exist;

  • to have many good feelings to enjoy life;

  • feel the uniqueness of your life;

  • see the meaning.

A person must freely live his life, get rid of distortions and negative fixations, take responsibility for his own life. In the view of EA, a person is a trinity of bodily, mental and spiritual. The spiritual dimension (Person) is the potential of a person, what makes him unique. If the potential is not realized, then the person is dissatisfied with his life and suffers.

EA is unique in that it does not try to explain the actions and behavior of a person, but aims to understand what is important and valuable for a person.

How Existential Analysis Works

At a consultation with a client, a psychologist talks to him, talking about what worries the client, what worries him. A specialist, asking a lot of clarifying questions about a problematic situation, creates a kind of three-dimensional view of what is happening.

In the process of communicating with a psychologist, the quality of life improves, a person begins to better understand himself and his emotions, realizes his life.

As in any other type of psychological approach, the specialist can use his techniques and exercises, which he considers the most effective for each particular case.

Body Oriented Approach

The founder of the theory of the body-oriented approach (BOT) is Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian and American psychologist, a student of Freud. According to TOP, our body and mind are inextricably linked. Each negative emotion is reflected in our body in the form of muscle "clamps", spasms and pains.

A certain “muscular corset” or “shell” appears in a person, which does not allow free circulation of vital energy. With the help of exercises that are aimed at achieving a specific goal, you can influence the state of a person.

TOP is used to get rid of stress, chronic fatigue, complexes, fears, treatment of psychosomatic diseases, depression, neuroses.

How the body-oriented approach works

In the body-oriented approach, there are many techniques and exercises with which the specialist works with your body, these are auto-training, meditative techniques, relaxation exercises, bodynamics, dance therapy, biosynthesis, massage, etc.

During the exercises, muscle clamps and spasms are removed, a person begins to feel better, anxiety and neuroses go away.

Gestalt Therapy

The founder of Gestalt therapy is Frederick Perls, a German psychiatrist. In the center of Gestalt therapy is a person with his interests, needs and desires, the integrity and fullness of life.

Each of us has unfinished desires, unsatisfied needs, unlived feelings, etc. (gestalts). Everything that we could not “finish” prevents us from living.

There are several stages of development of our needs:

  • we form and realize;

  • our body is in contact with the external environment in order to satisfy the need;

  • satisfy the need;

  • reflect on the experience.

How Gestalt Therapy Works

In a conversation with a specialist, the client pronounces his feelings associated with the problem. This helps him understand his attitude towards unfinished business and find the cause of his anxiety.

The psychologist will definitely listen to the client, ask him about life, inner experiences, while observing how the client manifests himself in a conversation (intonation, facial expressions, body language). One of the features of Gestalt therapy is that a specialist can express his emotions in relation to the client's problem.

In the process of work, a person develops respect for himself, for his own interests and desires.


Psychology does not stand still, like any other science, new methods and approaches appear in it, completely new or separated from classical theories. For example, most psychological approaches emerged from classical psychoanalysis, founded by Sigmund Freud.

Modern people have begun to think more and more about their mental health, they are trying to figure out what is the root of the problems or find the cause of anxiety, improve communication with other people, increase self-esteem, etc.

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