Counseling is broadly defined as the professional provision of assistance or guidance to those seeking help with personal problems or difficulties. This modern definition, though generally accurate, makes it easy to conflate counseling with other mental health practices. It also belies the roots of counseling that reach back for centuries.
Counseling Is Different from Therapy
The term “counselor” is often used interchangeably with “therapist” and even “psychiatrist.” However, the fields are distinct from each other. Counseling refers to a professionally trained individual helping others focus on correcting specific issues that affect their lives. More specifically, the American Counseling Association defines counseling as “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”
These issues may be anything from marital problems to addiction to self-sabotaging habits. Whereas therapy may go on for many years with no specific end in sight, counseling is focused on discrete solutions for specific issues, and often involves learning specific techniques for either coping with problems, avoiding them, or preventing their occurrence.
Counseling as a Historic Tradition
Those who read historic literature will find numerous instances of the word “counselor,” along with synonyms such as “advisor” or “elder.” In the past, figures of authority routinely gathered trusted companions around them to help with decision-making, while family members transitioned with age into role of providing wisdom to younger generations.
But as tribal communities gave way to cities and families dispersed across the world, the organic establishment of counselor figures was replaced by dedicated professionals who made a study of cultivating wisdom and making it available to those in need. Up until the twentieth century, people sought counselors among academia, the clergy, the medical profession and, of course, within the burgeoning field of psychotherapy.
Three Major Approaches to Counseling
As psychotherapy cemented its credibility, the field began to evolve into new schools of thought. Varieties of practitioner-patient dynamics emerged and opinions on best practices began to diverge. This is the point at which counseling became seen as distinct from therapy, psychiatry and other fields.
But even in counseling, there are a variety of practical approaches. Experts seem to agree that these differences in counseling practices boil down to a perception of the patient.
The three major approaches of counseling include:
Psychodynamic: Evolved from the work of Sigmund Freud, this approach has much in common with traditional psychotherapy. It seeks to address behavioral issues by addressing past experiences that have fostered unconscious beliefs.
Humanistic: Developed by Carl Rogers, this approach revolutionized the field of counseling by calling for patients to explore their own present thoughts and feelings. It urges clients to work out their own solutions to problems with their counselor’s help.
Behavioral: If you’ve heard of a “Pavlovian response,” you understand the basics of this counseling approach. The guiding principle is that every behavior is learned, and therefore harmful behaviors can be corrected by learning new, helpful behaviors.
Embarking upon a degree in counseling means entering into a long legacy of conscientious care for the social good. As you pursue your masters in counseling, you will uncover personal passions and areas of skill that will guide you into the right combination of approaches for your practice.