What is Counseling?

Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Counseling is a profession dedicated to helping people experiencing both situational and long-term problems. Learn more about counseling theories and experience the roles of both the client and the counselor.

Counseling Definition

When you think about mental health counseling do you imagine a long couch and a silent doctor writing notes on his clipboard? This may have been true in the psychoanalysis days of the well-known Sigmund Freud, but today it is not. Counseling, often referred to as therapy, has developed significantly through research and treatment experience by counseling psychologists and psychiatrists. Treatment methods and techniques have been developed through more recent counseling theories.

Counseling has many varied definitions through the field of psychology, but a few standards are constant. Counseling is:

  • performed by licensed, certified mental health counselors
  • confidential
  • a profession with a range of specialties within the field
  • often done in an outpatient clinic or private practice
  • available for families, couples and groups of people that share symptoms
  • based on scientific theories
  • a personal and confidential experience
  • for people with mental health problems
  • for people without mental health problems
  • for people with stress, anger, pain, grief or other emotional issues
  • for people who just need someone safe to talk to
  • a developing science
  • sometimes supported with art, nature or pet therapy
  • good for children, adults, the elderly, the disabled… everyone!

Counseling does not:

  • mean a client is 'crazy'
  • involve judgment on the clients actions
  • provide a quick fix
  • involve the therapist giving you answers
  • have anything to do with 'shrinking' anything!
  • need to go on forever
  • give out your personal information without your consent

Counseling Theories and Therapies

Since the time of Freud, psychologists have developed many theories about how best to approach helping others in counseling. Most of these theories are based on a combination of the views of the psychologist that created them and generally accepted psychological theories.

Some of the major counseling theories and techniques today are listed below.

  1. Psychoanalytic theories and psychoanalysis
  2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  3. Existential therapy
  4. Person-centered therapy

1. As you can see, Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories of counseling are still used today! These theories have evolved significantly since the time of Freud, but are still used in the counseling setting. This type of therapy often focuses on childhood memories, unconscious thoughts and feelings and exploring a client's resistances to therapy.

2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the most widely used therapies today. This theory is based on the idea that all problematic behaviors are learned and thoughts and behaviors can be modified in counseling therapy. Therapists using cognitive-behavioral theories are goal-oriented and work with the client to modify behaviors that are causing emotional difficulty and problems for the client.

3. Counseling using existential therapy focuses on the client's personal experiences and personal thoughts on the meaning of life. Therapists using existential theories believe in a client's freedom to choose their own lifestyle free from anxiety.

4. We saved person-centered therapy for last. Also called humanistic therapy, this person-centered method is easy to remember because it focuses on the uniqueness of every client. Because every client is unique, person-centered therapists may use other theories and therapies when they apply to the client's situation. Person-centered therapy emphasizes that humans are naturally good, positive and trustworthy. Due to this view, these therapists focus on self-exploration with their clients.

Licensed therapists are required to know these and all the other theories of counseling. Most counselors today use a combination of many types of therapy. However, due to the limitations that many insurance companies place on the amount of counseling sessions for insurance clients, cognitive-behavioral therapy is very popular. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can focus on specific, short-term behavioral goals.

Client Perspective

Let's pretend we are a counseling client. We show up for our appointment on time and are brought into a comfortable room that often looks like a living room. The first session includes paperwork and a confidentiality agreement. Then it's time to get to work.

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