For many counseling students, September brings with it the question, “What’s my theoretical orientation?” This is a big question . . . and its bigness is probably the reason why many of our old “theoretical orientation” blog posts suddenly get hot this time of year.
Below, I’ve excerpted a section from the end of chapter 1 of our Counseling Theories textbook. If you’re exploring your theoretical orientation, reading this section might be useful.
Here’s the excerpt
If you want to be an excellent mental health professional, then it makes sense to closely study the thinking of some of the greatest minds and models in the field. This text covers 12 of the most comprehensive and practical theories in existence. We hope you absorb each theory as thoroughly as possible and try experiencing them from the inside out. As you proceed through each chapter, suspend doubt, and try thinking like a practitioner from each theoretical orientation.
It’s also important for you to discover which theory or theories are the best fit for you. You’ll have opportunities reflect on the content of this text and hopefully that will help you develop your own ideas about human functioning and change. Although we’re not recommending that you develop a 13th theory, we are recommending that you explore how to integrate your genuine self into these different theoretical perspectives.
Some of you reading this book may already have considerable knowledge and experience about counseling and psychotherapy theories. However, even if you have very little knowledge and experience, you undoubtedly have some preexisting ideas about what helps people change. Therefore, before reading chapters 2 through 14, we encourage you to look at your own implicit ideas about people, and how they change.
Your First Client and Your First Theory
Pretend this is the first day of your career as a mental health professional. You have all the amenities: a tastefully decorated office, two comfortable chairs, a graduate degree, and a client.
You also have everything that any scarecrow, tin man, or lion might yearn for: a brain full of knowledge about how to provide therapy, a heart with compassion for a diverse range of clients, and courage to face the challenge of providing therapy services. But do you have what it takes to help a fellow human being climb from a pit of despair? Do you have the judgment to apply your knowledge in an effective way?
You walk to the waiting room. She’s there. She’s your first client ever. You greet her. The two of you walk back to the office.
In the first 20 minutes, you learn quite a lot about your client: She’s a 21-year-old college student experiencing apathy, insomnia, no romantic interests, carbohydrate cravings, an absence of hobbies, and extremely poor grades. She’s not using drugs or alcohol. Based on this information, you tentatively diagnose her as having some variant of clinical depression and proceed with counseling. But how do you proceed? Do you focus on her automatic thoughts and the core beliefs about herself that might be contributing to her depressive symptoms? Do you help her get a tutor, thinking that improved grades might lift her depressive symptoms? Do you recommend she begin an exercise routine? Do you explore her childhood, wondering if she has a trauma experience that needs to be understood and worked through? Do you teach her mindfulness skills and have her practice meditation? Do you have her role play and rehearse solutions to her problems? Do you focus on listening, assuming that if you provide her a positive therapy environment, she’ll gain insight into herself and move toward greater psychological health? Do you help her recast herself and her life into a story with a positive ending more adaptive identity? Do you ask her to sit in different chairs—speaking from different perspectives to explore her here and now feelings of success and failure? Any or all of these strategies might help. Which ones seem best to you?
You have many choices for how to proceed, depending upon your theoretical orientation. Here’s our advice: Don’t get stuck too soon with a single theoretical orientation. It’s unlikely that all humans will respond to a single approach. As suggested in Putting it in Practice 1.3, experiment and reflect before choosing your preferred theory. (Complete the ratings in Table 1.2 and then look through Table 1.3 to see which major theoretical perspectives might fit best for you).
Note: the info from Tables 1.2 and 1.3 are linked in this previous blog post: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2019/07/27/whats-your-theoretical-orientation/