Why Bother Studying Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories?


rita-and-john-tippet

A photo of me and my feminist inspiration.

People are often curious about why I would bother writing (and revising) a book on Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories. I usually tell them “I do it for the money” and then laugh like the witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Okay. So it’s obviously not about the money, and I don’t really laugh like that witch, because that would just be frightening and weird and ever since I fell down and hit my head while engaging in a frightening and weird act, I’ve had a pact with myself not to do things that are frightening and weird.

Anyway, to refocus . . . in response to this “Why bother” question, and to elaborate on the post from last week about “What’s your theoretical orientation?” I’m including an excerpt from Chapter One of our Theories textbook. Enjoy.

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About a decade ago, we were 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 us. He sat down, and initiated the sort of conversation that probably only happens among university professors.

“I think 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 (John) like to pretend I’m Carl Rogers (see Chapter 5), 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. We waste time reviewing outdated theories that were developed by old white men. What’s the point?”

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

“Worse than pointless.” He glared. “They’re destructive! We live in a diverse culture. I’m a white heterosexual male and they don’t even fit me. We need to teach our students the technical skills to implement empirically supported treatments. That’s what our clients want, and that’s what they deserve. For the next edition of your theories text, you should put traditional theories of counseling and psychotherapy in the dumpster where they belong.”

John’s Carl Rogers persona was about to go all Albert Ellis (see Chapter 8) when the plane’s intercom crackled to life. The flight attendant asked everyone to return to their seats. Our colleague reluctantly rose and bid us farewell.

************

On the surface, Darrell’s argument is compelling. Counseling and psychotherapy theories must address unique issues pertaining to women and racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities. Theories also need to be more practical. Students should be able to read a theories chapter and finish with a clear sense of how to apply that theory in practice.

Darrell’s argument is also off target. Although he’s advocating an evidence-based (scientific) orientation, he doesn’t appreciate the central role of theory to science. From early prehistoric writing to the present, theory has been used to guide research and practice. Why? Because theory provides direction and without theory, practitioners would be setting sail without resources for navigation. In the end, you might find your way, but the trip would be shorter with GPS.

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 autism is caused by biological fathers who played too many computer games when they were children” it’s not a theory. 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 an effort to prove a point or sound clever, but it’s not a theory (actually, that particular idea isn’t even a good dissertation hypothesis).

Theories are foundations from which we build our understanding of human development, human suffering, self-destructive behavior, and positive change. Without theory, we can’t understand why people engage in self-destructive behaviors or why they sometimes stop being self-destructive. 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 rests on the shoulders of counseling and psychotherapy theory.

In life and psychotherapy, there are repeating patterns. I recall making an argument similar to Darrell’s while in graduate school. I complained to a professor that I 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 or I could grapple with deeper issues and become a real therapist with a more profound understanding of human problems. If I chose the latter, then I could articulate the benefits and limitations of specific psychological change strategies and 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.

Both viewpoints have relevance to counseling and psychotherapy. We need technical skills for implementing research-based treatments, but we also need respect and empathy for idiosyncratic individuals who come to us for compassion and insight. We need the ability to view clients and problems from many perspectives—ranging from the indigenous to the contemporary medical model. To be proficient at applying specific technical skills, we need to understand the nuances and dynamics of psychotherapy and how human change happens. 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 are more popular than others, they shouldn’t be confused with “pop” psychology.

Another reason these theories don’t belong in the dumpster is because their development and application include drama and intrigue that rival anything Hollywood has to offer. They include literature, myth, religion, and our dominant and minority political and social systems. They address and attempt to explain big issues, including:

  • How we define mental health.
  • Whether we believe in mental illness.
  • Views on love, meaning, death, and personal responsibility.
  • What triggers anger, joy, sadness, and depression.
  • Why trauma and tragedy strengthens some people, while weakening others.

There’s no single explanation for these and other big issues; often mental health professionals are in profound disagreement. Therefore, it should be no surprise that this book—a book about the major contemporary theories and techniques of psychotherapy and counseling—will contain controversy and conflict. We do our best to bring you more than just the theoretical facts; we also bring you the thrills and disappointments linked to contemporary theories of human motivation, functioning, and change.

3 thoughts on “Why Bother Studying Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories?”

  1. John, I fully agree with your inclusion of our historically used theories because they often focus on the core trust and relationship factors necessary for the client’s acceptance of more technical interventions.
    My graduate students often resisted these theories of intervention. Many of those students commented on their value after practicing in the field for a few years. Carry on!

  2. Hey there Mr. John,

    Bringing out your Carl Rogers and on the verge of Ellis, was hilarious to me! I absolutely love your response to Darrell’s question. We need theoretical foundations for history’s sake because we did not have empirical research or evidence-based practices then. Had it not been for Freud, regardless who “likes him or not,” I would have never known of the history of psychoanalysis; that Adler and Jung were working with him but eventually pulled away and some of what Freud revealed about the unconscious, they have incorporated in their theories. We should be open minded about the past and learn from it. Every student needs to learn of theoretical and psychological history. For me, it’s like learning about the history of our ancestors. It helps us to obtain a greater sense of who we are as individuals, our family constellation, and family dynamics. Without the past, well, how can we build a strong foundation for the future. My Daddy always told me, “Chell, we live and we learn.” As simple as that statement is, I understand that deeply.

    I always enjoy learning from you. Ms. Rita’s talks with God are very profound. You are blessings!

    Love and Peace,
    Michell

    1. Hello Michell,

      Thanks for your nice note. I’m very happy to hear that your were entertained and that you see things from a similar perspective. Your Daddy sounds like a smart man.

      I’ll pass your comments about Rita’s blog onto her. Thanks for that!

      All my best,

      John SF

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