Your theoretical orientation is one of the most important decisions you will make as a counselor. Right along with your area of specialty and populations you serve, your theoretical orientation plays a large role in determining your professional identity. Or, as my professor would put it, “What’s in your toolbox?”
Your “toolbox” is your personal collection of interventions that you can pull out as needed when you are treating clients. But, before you determine what’s in your toolbox, you’ll have to decide what your theoretical orientation is. This is because you have to understand why something is broken and what the problem is before you can choose a tool. You wouldn’t get out your hammer before first deciding that the problem was a loose nail, right? So you must understand the problem first.
Deciding on a theoretical orientation is sort of like dating. You may have to try a few different theories before you find the right fit, so don’t marry the first one you see. It’s probably better to keep your options open until you have more experience. And, just as in long-term relationships, your tastes may change over time; so what was a great theory to you in your early career may not be such a great fit for you as you grow and change.
Your master’s program will go over counseling theories in detail, and will help guide you in choosing a theory, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. Rather, I’ll just give you some ideas to reflect on so that you can be better prepared.
Counselors generally choose personal theories based on which theory makes the most sense to them, and which techniques feel the most natural. Since a counseling theory is an explanation for human behavior, you must buy into that explanation in order to use the techniques of that theory effectively. There are over 400 counseling theories, with maybe 20 or 30 commonly used. Your master’s program will typically teach about 10 or so theories to you in-depth. Just keep in mind there are many, many more.
It is important to note that there really isn’t any comprehensive meta-research that tells us which theory is most effective. Some issues seem to respond better to some interventions. For example, the research indicates that anxiety and depression respond best to cognitive-behavioral interventions (CBT). However, CBT also has the most research behind it, whereas other theories haven’t been studied nearly as extensively. Therefore, CBT may or may not be better than other less researched theories. So, when choosing a personal theory, consider the empirical evidence but don’t let that be your only guide.
You can also choose more than one theory. Yes, you can mix and match! For example, you may decide that a mixture of psychodynamic and person-centered approaches is the way to go, This is called being “eclectic.” But don’t just mix and match randomly. The techniques of the theories must compliment each other in some way; do not mix techniques that counteract each other.
Your work setting is another consideration in determining what’s in your toolbox. If you’re in private practice and take insurance, or you are working in an agency setting, you may be required to use a particular theory. Panic not. Why not just try that theory? See if it fits? You may surprise yourself. Who knows? Sometimes the universe puts things in our path we do not understand so that we will try things we never intended to do. That said, however, if you really feel in your heart that you don’t believe in the prescribed theory, then you may want to seriously consider changing venues.
Remember, your theoretical orientation is never cast in stone. In fact, as a licensed practitioner you will be required to receive training each year. Some of this training may be on new techniques, even new theories. Whereas you should consider each tool carefully before adding it, don’t close the lid on your toolbox.
Yours in the Joy of Knowledge,