Why Learn Theories?

Happy Sunday morning. I’m at my standing desk, working on the revision of our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories text. What fun. Actually, because I’ve been getting great and constructive feedback from many different reviewers, THIS IS much more fun than it might be otherwise.

Today I’m posting a potential new start to the theories text. It came to me because some academics have questioned the value of teaching counseling and psychotherapy theories. If you’re interested, I’d love to hear your opinion on that. Also, if you have feedback on whether the following piece makes for a good start to a theories text (or not), I’d love to hear your opinion on that too.

Here it is:

Why Learn Theories?

About a decade ago, I (John) was flying back from a professional conference when a professor (we’ll call him Darrell) from a large Midwestern university spotted an empty seat next to me. He sat down, and being aware that I have a book on counseling and psychotherapy theories, initiated the sort of conversation that probably only happens among counseling, psychology, or social work professors.

He plunged right in, “I think counseling and psychotherapy theories are passé. There has to be a better way to teach students how to actually do counseling and psychotherapy.”

When confronted like this, I like to pretend I’m Carl Rogers, so I paraphrased, “You’re thinking there’s a better way.”

“Yes!” he said. “All the textbooks start with Freud and crawl their way to the present. Too much time is wasted reviewing outdated theories that were developed by old White men. What’s the point of that?”

“The old theories seem pointless to you.” I felt congruent with my inner Rogers.

“Worse than pointless,” he glared, “they’re not just unnecessary; they’re destructive! We live in a diverse culture. Those theories weren’t built for today. I’m a White heterosexual male and they don’t even fit for me. We need to focus our students on empirically-supported treatments and then teach them the technical skills they need to implement those approaches. We live in a time and a place that values action and effectiveness. That’s what our clients want and deserve. For the next edition of your theories text you should put traditional theories of counseling and psychotherapy in the dumpster where they belong.”

I lost my connection to Carl Rogers and was about to go all Albert Ellis on him when the intercom crackled to life. The flight attendant directed everyone to return to their seats. My academic colleague reluctantly rose and bid me farewell.


On the surface, Darrell’s argument is compelling. Counseling and psychotherapy theories must adjust themselves to address unique issues of women as well as racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities. Theories also need to be more practical. “Crusty” old theories need updating and need to be more user-friendly. Students should be able to read a theories chapter and finish with a clear sense of how to apply that theory in practice.

But Darrell’s argument is also off target. Although he’s advocating an evidence-based (scientific) orientation, he doesn’t seem to appreciate the central role of theory to science. As Carl Zimmer (2016) of the New York Times recently wrote: “Theories are neither hunches nor guesses. They are the crown jewels of science” (p. D6).

Counseling and psychotherapy theories are well-developed systems for understanding, explaining, predicting, and controlling human behavior. When someone on Twitter writes, “I have a theory, that cats are actually in a liquid state some of the time,” it’s not a theory (Zimmer, 2016). More likely, it’s a thought or a guess or a goofy statement pertaining to that person’s idiosyncratic take on reality. It might be a fascinating thought or statement, but it’s still not a theory.

Instead of “crown jewels,” we like to think of theories as the “foundations” from which we build our understanding of human development, suffering, self-destructive behavior, positive change, and other human experiences. Without theory, we can’t understand why people engage in self-destructive behaviors or why they sometimes suddenly stop engaging in those behaviors. If we can’t understand why people behave in certain ways, then our ability to identify and apply effective treatments is compromised. In fact, every evidence-based or empirically-supported approach that exists rests on the shoulders of counseling and psychotherapy theories.

In life and psychotherapy, there are often repeating patterns. I recall making an argument similar to Darrell’s, way back in the 1980s. I complained to a professor that I just wanted to focus on learning the essentials of becoming a great therapist. Her feedback was direct: I could become a technician who applied specific procedures to people with specific problems or I could grapple with deeper issues and become a real therapist with a more profound understanding of human problems, who could articulate the benefits and limitations of specific psychological change strategies, and who could modify those strategies to fit unique and diverse clients.

Just like Darrell, my professor was biased, but in the opposite direction. She valued nuance, human mystery, and existential angst. She devalued what she viewed (at the time) as the superficiality of behavior therapy.

Looking back, I can see both perspectives. Therapists need technical skills for implementing research-based treatments. But we also need respect and empathy for the idiosyncratic individual who comes to us for compassion and insight. We need to be able to view clients and problems from many perspectives—ranging from the indigenous to the contemporary medical model. To be really good at applying specific technical skills, we need to understand the nuance and dynamics of psychotherapy and how human change happens. And in the end, that means we need to study theories.

Contemporary Theories, Not Pop Psychology

Despite Darrell’s argument that traditional theories belong in the dumpster, all the theories in this text—even the old ones—are contemporary and relevant. They’re contemporary because they (a) have research support and (b) have been updated or adapted for working with diverse clients. They’re relevant because they include specific strategies and techniques that facilitate emotional, psychological, and behavioral change. Although some of these theories of human development and change are more popular than others, they shouldn’t be confused with “pop” psychology. In fact, these theories usually aren’t well understood or accurately portrayed in the popular media.

Another reason why these theories don’t belong in the dumpster is because they’re exciting and intellectually stimulating. Put simply, the drama associated with the development and application of these theories rivals anything Hollywood has to offer. The theories in this text are woven into and derived from great literature, myth, religion, and our dominant and minority political and social systems. They can explain and predict ways we interact with each other, including how we define mental health, whether we believe in mental illness, and our views on love, meaning, death, rehabilitation, and personal responsibility. They also help us answer big questions like:

  • What motivates people to do what they do?
  • What disturbs thinking processes, triggers unmanageable anger, diminishes personal productivity, and destroys relationships?
  • What causes one person to be satisfied with a simple and cheerful life, while others claw their way ruthlessly to the top?
  • What makes some people come out stronger after facing tragedy or hardship, while others are weakened or permanently damaged?

If you’ve come this far in your studies of psychology and counseling, you know there’s no single answer to these questions. It’s common for mental health professionals to strongly disagree with each other on just about every topic under the sun. Therefore, it should be no surprise that this book—a book about the major contemporary theories and techniques of psychotherapy and counseling—will contain stunning controversies and conflict. In the following pages, we do our best to bring you more than just the theoretical basics; we also bring you the thrills and disappointments linked to these theories of human motivation, functioning, and change.


6 thoughts on “Why Learn Theories?”

  1. John,
    Please, please, run for the Senate. Prepare. I/we need you. Something has to change to the mentality and knowledge of the general public. I am feeling more helpless…hopeless. I could be very specific and personal (something lacking in the general critique of human/social justice and the needs of human beings) yet I see hope as I hear-see-read you. Keep doing what your are doing and consider, again, public office. Yea, I know, this says more about me than you. And I am right about you! Hope you will hear this as constructive feedback. Blessings.


  2. This was much more useful and enjoyable for my Sunday reading than the conflict in the newspaper! Thanks.

    When I teach theory (unfortunately not your book), I challenge students to think of them as foundational, as well as provide newer research that might support, refute, or revise them (We don’t throw out Newton because physics has advanced). I also have them take a newer technique and explain it within the context of a classical theory.

    Speaking of politics–in this case professional or institutional–I point out that none of these classical exemplars would qualify as “core faculty” in a CACREP program, and wonder out loud whether that makes sense. –John

    1. Hi John. I really like your “We don’t throw out Newton” comparison. It does seem that the puzzling phenomenon of professional identity has sometimes overshadowed what makes sense. Thanks John. The newspaper and social media is difficult right now. Best, John SF

  3. Hi
    First I want to state your text is extremely useful Next, reading the commentary by Darrell and your response I want to chime in that a more contemporary chapter that emphasizes the current state of Psychoanalytic thinking. For example the following are very recent and definitively more contemporary in tone: Intersubjectivity theory (Stolorow, Atwood and others); Specificity theory(Bacal); the integrative work of Matt Solme where he integrated neuroscience with psychoanalytic thinking; and finally the whole Boston Study Group that is so evidence based (Sendler and Schoreetc). It does raise an argument too about the efficacy of empirically based studies. I will continue to be an effective therapist if I never read another CBT controlled study. Not that there is anything wrong with them but does one really become a good therapist relying on such data? Finally, it is amazing to me how few students enter into their own personal therapy. I think as, a tradition from psychoanalytic training, it should be taught in the theories course. I do


    1. Hi Daniel. Thanks for your great comment. We definitely address intersubjectivity and two-person psychoanalysis, but I’m just recently been pursuing Solme’s work, which seems fascinating. I really appreciate the input and will check out Bacal. Do you mean Schedler or Sendler? Just curious. Take care and thanks again.

      John SF

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s