Working Models: theories of counseling

by Judy Harrow

In all our activities, people work from some model of the world, some understanding of How Things Are and how they interact. This working model guides our choices of what to do next, so the more accurate it is, the more effective our actions are likely to be. Most professional fields have a body of theory, the condensed wisdom of the ancestors, that guides the work, and the further exploration, of contemporary practitioners. This cumulative heritage of knowledge is what allows each profession to develop. Without it, each generation would have to start again from scratch.

Counseling - like all psychology - is a relatively new field. There are many ideas about how people thrive and about how things go wrong for people, and many models, competing paradigms, for how to work with people for their healing and growth. Each of these theories of human development generates a set of techniques, a way of working that is consistent with that particular perspective.

You will be happiest working from a theoretical base that is congruent with your own personal values and with your own personal talent and temperament. So, it's best to "shop around" a bit before settling. For a good overview, I recommend an anthology called Current Psychotherapies, edited by Raymond Corsini. We used it twenty years ago in graduate school, and it's still in use in a new edition.

The process of developing your own comfortable style of counseling involves becoming familiar with several of these theories, and finding the one - or, far more likely, the synthesis of several - that fits you best. As you work through this exploration, you should, of course, also pay careful attention to what seems to work best with different sorts of clients or different sort of issues. The object of the exercise is to support their growth, not to amuse yourself.

I think it's important to notice that all of the current theories work with some clients and that none of them work with all clients. This tells me that all of them are partial, that each of them describes some particular aspect of human function, healing and growth, but not the whole thing.

Discovering our own Meta-Model...

In one of our own great symbols, the quartered Circle, I find a meta-model that puts several present-day counseling theories into context, guides me in choosing which one to draw on in any particular situation. This is how it works for me:

East - mind, knowledge, intelligence

Cognitive theories address themselves to the models that clients use in their daily lives. Does the client hold irrational beliefs, perhaps things s/he was taught as a small child, that lead to unrealistic expectations or maladaptive behavior? The goal of cognitive therapies is to make such beliefs conscious so the client may choose whether to change them. One good, accessible introduction to cognitive therapy is A New Guide to Rational Living by Ellis and Harper (1975) Another particularly useful book from this perspective about depression is Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy by David Burns (1980).

South - passion, will, energy

Psychodynamic theories hold that we invest a tremendous amount of psychic energy defending ourselves against old, painful memories. Some people have so many traumatic memories, and such ugly ones, that little energy is left for living their lives well here and now. So the object of therapy is to make these old hurts conscious and work through the grieving process, thus freeing the client to get on with life. This approach is, of course, rooted in the work of Sigmund Freud. His basic insight is still important, despite his reductionism, his sexism, his obsession with early childhood sexuality and other serious limitations.

West - insight, wisdom, compassion

Archetypal theories hold that there are certain basic issues, or themes, or energy patterns with which all humans must eventually deal in the course of their growth. Different cultures, even different individuals, will express these in different ways, but the core issues remain the same. Archetypal therapists are generally the most comfortable with spiritual issues, and have written many useful books about mythology, divination, etc.

The intellectual father of archetypal therapy was Carl Jung. The leading contemporary proponent is James Hillman, author of Facing the Gods (1980) More fine resources from this direction include Personal Mythology by David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner (1988), Jung and Tarot by Sallie Nichols (1980), or Working with Dreams by Montague Ullman and Nan Zimmerman (1979).

North - manifestation, the body

Body theories postulate that old traumatic memories become stored or anchored in the body. So, sore spots or stiff spots that don't stem from some specific physical injury may in fact hold old tensions. Body therapists will often combine massage or other touch with talk, and will certainly guide their clients to tune in to posture, breathing patterns, etc. If you've ever calmed yourself by deliberately breathing slowly and deeply, you share the basic insight of bodywork. Wilhelm Reich was one of the early thinkers along these lines. Alexander Lowen is more contemporary. Another good resource is Focusing by Eugene Gendlin (1981).

Watch out! Some conditions result from serious and correctable imbalances in brain chemistry. These are not counseling issues, but psychiatric ones. Bi-polar disorder, for example, is best managed with medication; traditional "talk" therapies do no good and may do harm. Conditions like these are beyond the scope even of professionally trained counselors. For a priest/ess doing ancillary pastoral counseling to tackle such situations is beyond irresponsible.

Behaviorism is another aspect of the North. This theory holds that meaningful change begins with changes in behavior, and is sustained by the different responses (the reinforcement) we receive from those around us when our behavior changes for the better. A slogan that well expresses behavioral therapy is "you don't think yourself into a new way of acting, you act yourself into a new way of thinking." The truth in behaviorism is that once a person has understood their situation and decided how they want to change, the way to change is to change. So behaviorism tells us a lot about how a person can maintain and extend a change for the better, but little about how they get ready to take that critical first step. The best known proponent of behaviorism is B.F. Skinner.

Center - choice - balance - integration

At Center we balance the functions, make our choices, and take responsibility for our own lives. I have placed two schools of thought in the Center, because neither alone seemed adequate.

First is the person-centered approach of Carl Rogers, my own philosophical base. Rogerians believe that each person has within themselves the full capacity to make and implement appropriate choices about their own life. Counselors provide a safe and supportive environment in which people can work through their own issues; we don't do it for them. For me, this is just another expression of the Wiccan teaching that we will find what we seek within ourselves or nowhere. One good introduction is Rogers' book On Becoming a Person (1961). The definitive classic is his Client-Centered Therapy (1951).

Second are the many theories that describe each person as a nexus in a web of relationships: family, community, workplace and many others, obviously including our covens. A lot of the thinking about what it means to come from a dysfunctional family, for example, is rooted in such theories. This approach, in contemporary counseling, is rooted in the work of Alfred Adler. Another important writer about interpersonal therapy is Harry Stack Sullivan.

Although they are no longer trendy, the theories of Transactional Analysis really do describe human communication and its pitfalls. A couple of key books about Transactional Analysis are Games People Play by Eric Berne (1964) and I'm OK - You're OK by Thomas Harris (1969). My personal favorite, one of my graduate school texts that is still in print and in use, is Born to Win by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward (1971).

To me, these are two utterly essential insights. No recognizably human life takes place outside of a social context and each of us is ultimately responsible for our own choices.

Deepening Your Understanding

Some of us are drawn, by talent and temperament, to the practice of counseling. If you find yourself spending increasing amounts of time this way, and it seems to you like counseling is going to be one of your major contributions to the Pagan community, you'll probably eventually want to take some classes or workshops to deepen your understanding and build your skills. Somewhere along the line, you'll also want to figure out what your own personal theory of counseling is, the model that works best for you and for those who seek your help. To that end, Dr. Richard E. Watts has suggested a practical and systematic approach for graduate students in counseling. I have adapted his steps for use by priest/esses who do some counseling in the course of their clergy function.
  1. Explore your personal values and convictions about human beings and life in general. How are these values informed by the teachings of our religion? Do not be afraid to test your personal values and beliefs. Any value or belief worth having is one that can withstand close scrutiny.

  3. Explore the major theories of counseling and psychotherapy. Choose the one that most closely resembles your own personal values and beliefs. That's your first approximation, your base.

  5. Study your chosen theory in depth. Read all you can by its founder and by those who have developed it further. Take any available workshops to get supervised practice with associated techniques. Identify what draws you to this theory, and why. Identify also your areas of disagreement, and the reasons for them. If you find that disagreement outweighs agreement, begin the process again from the beginning.

  7. Apply what you've learned in your work with coveners and clients. Observe how well this approach works for you. If you feel uncomfortable or ineffective working this way, it might mean you need to study the theory and its applications more thoroughly. Or you might simply be discovering your limits, identifying those situations where this theory doesn't seem to work well for you. If, on balance, this way of working doesn't suit you after all, begin the process again from the beginning.

  9. When you are feeling well grounded and comfortable working with your theory of choice, re-examine some of the other theories that you considered. Do they seem offer any technique that fit well with your chosen theoretical base? If you can explain these techniques in terms of the theory you are working from, try them and see how they work in practice.



    Do any of these other theories offer any explanatory concepts that are philosophically consistent with your base theory, and perhaps cover situations in which your base theory seems weak to you? Do these concepts also blend well with your own personal values and beliefs and those of our religion? Be mindful of philosophical and theoretical consistency, and of consistency of theory and practice.

  11. Keep learning about ways of understanding and working with people. Keep checking theory against your own lived experience. Keep cycling through these steps. Gradually, through them, you will discover your own personal working style.
The most important thing to remember is that it never stops. As your mind and heart stay open, you will keep learning from your experiences of working with people, in and out of the Craft. Others will be learning too, and publishing their own new insights and theories. You will be weighing each new contribution to the field against your own experiences and perceptions.

So, as the Gods grant us young and agile minds, our understanding of How Things Are and how they interact will never be set in concrete. A working model - a model that works - is one that is constantly being refined as our understanding grows. The dynamic interaction of theory and practice continues throughout our working lives. 

go back to:

  • Introduction
  • Counseling Basics menu
  • Proteus Library

  • The address of this page is
    Contents of this page are copyright © 1996, 1999, 2001 by Judy Harrow.