Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Personal Theory of Counseling or Psychotherapy

Personal Theory of Counseling or Psychotherapy

One of Paul Gaugin's most famous paintings, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? reflects a basic human desire to understand existence. The ability to do so has been correlated to contentment and well-being (Ryff & Singer, 1998). From this foundational theory, I believe finding meaning and purpose is central to psychological health and must be included in counseling applications that encourage healing. The approach described herein is predicated on evidence that suggests finding meaning and purpose in one's life is central to one's psychological health and healing.

Basic View of Human Nature

"Meaning, by its very nature, appears to be an integrating factor in people's lives, drawing together the threads of their efforts to achieve happiness, withstand distress, and attain transcendence beyond their solitary selves" (Steger, 1998, p. 1). Frankl (1963) found a sense of purpose supportive in challenging circumstances. In human nature, meaning and purpose promote health, psychological well-being, and perhaps, happiness (Ryff & Singer, 1998). People are inherently good and have the fundamental ability to grow and evolve when conditions are appropriate for this type of growth (Corey, 2009). In addition to the intrinsic capacity for reflection, self-awareness, and psychological development, people have self-preserving mechanisms, such as maladaptive reactions that enable survival in less than optimal conditions (Wickens, 2005). People have the ability to positively influence the course of their lives. They will accomplish this whether in a healthy state of well-being or in a state of continual maladaptive reactions. The former supports maintaining a healthy sense of purpose and well-being, the latter contributes to the degradation of people's overall condition, rendering them estranged from a sense of purpose and meaning (Frankl, 1963).

Accounting for Changes in Behavior

"Valuing one’s life, having a sense of direction and purpose, and being able to comprehend one’s experience seem contradictory to many manifestations of psychological distress" (Steger, 1998, p. 9). Chamberlain and Zika (1998) demonstrated an inverse relationship between having meaning in one's life (specifically, religiosity) and psychological well-being. Steger (1998), as well, found personality traits like neuroticism inversely related to experiences of meaning and purpose. The approach described herein is predicated on the belief that humans tend to minimize meaning and purpose when such constructs become secondary to self-preserving maladaptive responses. Eventually, these responses disable the capacity to perceive meaning and purpose and the individual learns to rely on maladaptive responses, which consequently cause psychological ill health (Steger, 1998).

The Therapist-Client Relationship and Its Relative Importance

The therapist-client relationship is pivotal in psychological healing. It is intimate in its ability to support clients' exploration into challenging and deeply affective personal belief systems and self-preserving mechanisms. The therapist deeply understands and validates client's unique circumstances and provides unconditional care and encouragement (Corey, 2009). The safe therapeutic relationship enables clients to revitalize latent claims to deep meaning that have been lost because of early childhood and later life experiences, challenges, and trauma. The therapeutic relationship is an ideal vehicle in which clients can safely confront dysfunctional maladaptions and challenge thoughts and behaviors that derive from the lack of definitive individual purpose.

Key Functions and Role of Therapist

The therapist's responsibility is to collaborate with clients to develop the goals and boundaries for the therapy, specifically to help clients re-establish meaning and purpose in their lives. The therapist provides a safe, deeply encouraging, therapeutic environment, in which clients can develop self-awareness and reflect on experiences that caused them to deviate from their original well-being. Therapists define and explain the client-therapist relationship that includes financial arrangements, confidentiality, legal responsibilities, and any other administrative and ethical aspects of counseling. They respect clients' unique cultures, listen attentively to their life stories, and develop an objective narrative of clients' lives, and provide logical understanding of circumstances that provoked a loss of self-purpose. The therapist instills in the client an understanding of how the eventual loss of purpose and meaning directly contributed to the client's inability to cope with present circumstances.

Goals of Therapy

Diener and Seligman (2004) state people who believe their life matters, have a sense of purpose and a deeply reflective understanding of their lives, have a greater sense of well-being. A primary goal of therapy is to assist clients in the reevaluation and reorganization of their lives to include the forgotten sense of purpose and meaning. Uncovering intrinsic meaning and purpose are the primary tools for this accomplishment. The therapeutic process helps clients gain a narrative perspective of their lives and where, and for what logical reasons, specific maladaptions became essential to thriving and self-preservation.

As clients remember and revitalize personal meaning and purpose, maladaptive mechanisms are replaced by a greater capacity for logical thought and a positive self-perspective. The safe encouraging environment of therapy supports clients' self-exploration and engages them in deep self-reflection, and an appreciation of their strengths and virtues. Clients learn self-correcting techniques to re-evaluate and reorganize their thoughts in challenging circumstances. From this understanding, clients gain greater self-esteem and self-efficacy, and a stronger sense of self-acceptance, meaning and purpose.

Personal Techniques and Procedures

Rather than focusing on techniques and procedures, it is important for the therapist to deeply understand the client's experience. This caring and responsive counseling relationship will provide clients with an environment within which they can reflect upon their history and develop self-understanding and self-appreciation (Corey, 2010). The therapist may borrow techniques from other approaches and perspectives, specifically those that emphasize cognitive awareness. The client/counselor relationship is central to this approach.

As part of this approach, clients revisit events in their lives to gain perspective of how these circumstances decreased their intrinsic ability to sustain purpose and meaning throughout their development. The therapist helps clients reframe their maladaptive responses as a tremendous self-preserving effort that was needed to navigate destructive influences, loss, abuse, or sadness during their development. These self-preserving mechanisms supported their psychological survival, although disturbed their ability to maintain well-being. The therapist encourages the revitalization of spiritual beliefs and goals to re-ignite clients' sense of purpose and meaning with a variety of techniques including deep self-reflection, and discussions about future goals and ideals.

Specific Populations for Designed Approach

Populations and Issues Best Suited

This approach is well-suited for individuals who have a natural proclivity toward self-awareness and questioning how and why they arrived at their current psychological state. The process of this approach uses self-reflection and awareness as tools for discovering and strengthening a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. Clients must be willing to explore self-preserving adaptations that enabled their development within their unique life contexts. This approach is appropriate for people experiencing grief or loss, facing death, or in the midst of major life changes, as well as coping with life-altering circumstances. It is also beneficial for people who want a greater sense of well-being in their lives.

Populations and Issues Least Suited

For populations with acute symptoms, the initial goal must be to determine the severity of symptoms as well as relieving their most immediate needs (Corey, 2009). This therapeutic approach can have immediate results for this population, although cognitive-behavioral interventions may be more appropriate for some clients with acute symptoms (Corey, 2009). In some cases, client needs may include psychopharmacological therapy as well as in-patient care. This approach is not suitable for clients looking for self-therapeutic tools similar to those provided by cognitive and behavioral therapies. Furthermore, because of the emphasis on self-awareness and self-reflection, it may not be effective for individuals from cultures that value collectivist rather than individualist ideals. Additionally, this approach may not be successful for individuals who prefer to seek expert advice as a solution to psychological issues.


Research has determined that meaning in life is relevant and does correlate with well-being and psychological health (Brassai, Piko, & Steger, 2011; Hicks, Jason, William, & King, 2012; Steger, Oishi, & Kashdan, 2009; Steger et al., 2010; Wadsworth & Baker, 1976). Focusing on revitalizing meaning and purpose in therapeutic interventions may have a meaningful and long-lasting affect on clients.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 1-31.
Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (1998). The contours of positive human health. Psychological inquiry, 9, 1-28.

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