Counseling is a journey that two people take together - the counselor and the client working in tandem to gain insight and understanding into the client's world. It is a shared process, and as such, clients have a right to know about the philosophical reasonings and approaches of their counselor.
My theoretical approach to counseling is integrative and drawn from Rogerian, Existential, Narrative, and Feminist therapy. These four theories deal with the past in ways that are empowering, client-focused, and client-driven rather than problem-focused. Furthermore, they encourage the client to integrate and synthesize the past with the present and promote authenticity. I should note, however, that my theoretical approach is not exclusively aligned with the techniques that I use in counseling (which will be discussed in the next section), but it is aligned with my conceptualization of client experiences.
Rogerian theory is my base for counseling practice. From the side of the counselor, the constructs of unconditional positive regard, empathy, genuineness, and congruence are vital for building a therapeutic alliance that is a safe haven and judgment free zone for the client to explore their past and present experiences, behaviors, and thoughts. Genuineness and congruence allows the counselor to model such behavior for the client and can allow the client to internalize feelings and thoughts of positive regard and empathy for themselves. Internalizing unconditional positive regard and empathy for the self can work towards combating negative self-talk.
I am drawn to Existential theory because of its focus on the four themes of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness (Yalom, 1998) that must be grappled with on the path to the authentic self. Existentialism focuses on an individual’s place in this world and promotes authenticity and responsibility. As a present-centered theory, it also requires that the client continually reevaluate automatic thoughts and reassign responsibility from others to the self. It is easy to blame the problems and struggles that we are experiencing today on the past, but to truly take responsibility for how it is affecting our present life is very empowering. When I was a teenager and struggling with my own values and being who I am, despite societal norms, someone wrote on my bathroom mirror “To thine own self be true” and it is written on a piece of paper and taped to my mirror to this day. For me, there was an amazing shift in my thoughts, behaviors, and feelings when I realized that the only person I had to be accountable to was myself - how others thought of or viewed me were not within my control and did not need to dictate my own self-concept or esteem.
Narrative therapy examines clients stories and explores new ways to understand one's personal story. I think that this is a very powerful and unique way of exploring a client's history and negative self-talk. The counselor in narrative therapy is involved in helping the client recount, deconstruct, and rebuild their story and personal history. Using paradoxical questioning and reframing, the counselor assists the client in exploring the historical basis for beliefs and behaviors while focusing on the positive and strength-based attributes of the client.
Over the years, I have explored many theories and embraced many of their constructs. Yet there has always been this missing piece, this nagging feeling that something was missing, something I could not quite identify or name. Then I found feminist theory. For me feminist theory speaks to the experience of truly living in the world, not just being of the world. It validates the often unspoken and yet very real experience of being a member of a minority group inundated with negative messages. I think it is crucial to attend to this within counseling process because we are often unaware of these messages or how they are impacting us. When the country that I live in engages in non-stop debates about whether or not I should have the same rights as the majority group and debate the validity and legitimacy of my relationship, it impacts me in ways that I am not always aware. The activist in me would like to deny this impact, would like to think that I have accepted myself enough to not be bothered by the rhetoric. However, I see the process and effects as akin to a thin crack in a house’s foundation – unnoticeable and unproblematic at first, but over time, the crack widens and the foundation becomes less stable. A tremor in the earth and the house comes crumbling down.
The Counseling Process
I believe that people seek counseling when they are suffering and in this suffering comes the awareness that change is necessary. Suffering, in this context, can mean many things: depression, anxiety, loneliness, a sense of disconnection or meaninglessness, or simply a desire to change certain thoughts or behaviors. In some cases, the need to have someone simply listen and hear what they have to say without judgment might be the most cathartic release. To some degree, as humans, we all suffer and we are all inherently striving towards a greater sense of self, autonomy, and meaningfulness in our lives.
Change can occur in as many ways as there are reasons for why individuals seek counseling and the way to go about achieving such changes should be driven by the client's needs, their emotional and intellectual ability, and the amount of time available for counseling. I think that the most profound change in clients comes from the personal insight achieved through an exploration of the past in an attempt to understand the present. All of the experiences that lead up to the present greatly affect and shape our thoughts and behaviors. In order to change the internalized perception of these experiences, counseling can offer the client an environment to rewrite their story through an exploration of alternate thoughts, beliefs, and cultural acceptability, thereby providing the client with the opportunity to change the thinking that is associated with these automatic thoughts. By doing so, the focus remains present-centered and positive-focused, with attention directed towards assisting the client in finding meaningfulness and authenticity.
I believe that the counseling process is a living and dynamic relationship, which requires vulnerability. My use of technique is far more varied than my theoretical orientation because I feel that it is important to match the client’s desire, need, presenting complaint, and allotted time for resolution. For instance, while I do not necessary subscribe to cognitive behavioral theories (CBT) core constructs, I feel it would be a disservice to my client to ignore CBT’s short term and empirically based techniques for treating depression and anxiety.
As for the actual relationship, I agree with the core feminist therapy constructs of egalitarianism and empowerment. Both clinically and personally, I have witnessed the change that occurs during discussions of personal responsibility and that each person in the relationship is an expert in their own right. Clinically, I have had numerous clients come in with the expectation/belief that I will extract, sift through, and repackage their lived experience for them, thus “curing” them. Discussions regarding this expectation have often been the first step towards the client’s empowerment because in reality, I view my role as the one who has the benefit of objectivity and can assist the client with connecting the dots of their life story.