ACA Blog

Joan Phillips
Mar 04, 2010

"Theories are Like Toothbrushes..."

"Theories are like toothbrushes..... everyone has one- and nobody wants to use anyone else's." This anonymous quote was shared with me during my doctoral study and really stuck, I think because of how very truthful it feels at both an intellectual and gut level. Having been in practice now since 1977 I have gone through many iterations of various theories, as I am sure many of you have. I can actually remember when child abuse was an emerging clinical focus and when there were no personal computers in every family room and marriage. Prevailing theoretical orientations when I began work were Rogerian and Freudian. The emergence of cognitive-behavioral thinking as well as post-modern deconstructionism, narrative therapies, and now positive psychology (just to name a few toothbrushes) all unfolded over the years I have been growing as a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family therapist.

I have seen raging debates in every professional association i have been honored to be in about "who are we" and "what are we doing" in some form or another. Not only do we not want to share theories or toothbrushes, it appears that we have a very hard time sharing turf- which only hurts clients as there is such a need for caring providers of all our services in so many places in this world.

I too can become enamored of a particular position, theory, idea, approach, you name it.... but essentially this kind of love affair with ideas and labels draws me further away from, rather than closer to, my clients. Maybe a sequel to the toothbrush truism is this- theories are like toothbrushes in another way- they are only valuable to the extent that you use them.

All the ideas in the world don't help our clients if we can't apply them, live them, understand more through them. Without application- a theory is pretty useless. So I manage the proliferation of theory and thought by seeing what works.... and I suspect this is true for most counselors. We are nothing if not a pragmatic group. The more I continue to study and learn the many theories of counseling, therapy, creativity, systems, and human change, the more overhwhelmed I sometimes feel. I felt that way as a graduate student, and still feel that way sometimes now. But then I think of another good quote that has also guided my thinking. The poet Robert Frost said: I can sum up everything I have learned about life in three words: "it goes on." These are words from a poetic genius, one that could sum up so much in one image or stroke of the pen. When I feel overwhelmed by what I don't know, or theories I have not learned or mastered, or even by the myriad moments in counseling that confound all theory and toothbrushing... I just remind myself that life goes on. And it helps.

Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.

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