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Mar 18, 2015

Theoretical Orientation

As counselors, we've all been asked the question (or maybe asked the question): What is your theoretical orientation?

In my opinion, our theoretical orientation is extremely important because it’s a large part of the professional identity as a counselor. For instance, it is how we conceptualize our clients and their presenting issues. As a result, it provides a foundation for treatment planning and the interventions we use. Additionally, a deeper understanding of one’s theoretical orientation can establish guidelines or expectations of our approach, area of expertise, and services to clients. Furthermore, it particularly becomes helpful to understand during times we receive supervision, consult, and complete documentation.

Like many counselors-in-training, my first exposure to counseling theories came from an introductory course during my master’s program and later in an advanced course in theories through my doctoral program. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about this question as it relates to my professional identity, particularly as a doctoral student. It’s my observation that there can be confusion as to the level of importance and energy placed on understanding counseling theories and one’s theoretical orientation.

This leads me to wonder: Does developing a strong theoretical orientation take time, applied professional experience, and exposure to various theories and clientele? Is there confusion because theoretical orientation sounds abstract, dry, and thought of more as philosophy? Are there variances in curriculum that do/do not incorporate the discussion of theories? Does understanding this aspect of professional identity vary in importance among supervisors/professors/mentors and therefore the delivery methods are different? Do master’s level counseling students, generally, not have the professional experience or practice to understand and test which theoretical orientation is right for them?  I wish I knew the answers.

Often, when informally presented with the question, first year master’s level counselors will say they are “person-centered” or “humanistic.” But, when I ask them exactly what that means, the answer is not detailed or deep. One time, a student told me they do not believe in subscribing to a theoretical orientation, because they believe in treating the individual’s needs. (Not that this is wrong to think, but I think there is more to it in the context of the subject.) Sometimes, I will hear graduate level counselors say they are “CBT” (…which are a set of interventions/skills and not a theoretical orientation). Other common answers include: “I don’t know” or “I am eclectic.”

…So, maybe this isn’t a big deal? People seem to get by just fine not entirely knowing exactly what their theoretical orientation is. Maybe it goes back to that age old question of healthcare/human services: is it better to be a generalist or a specialist? Does owning a primary theoretical orientation and working on those related skills, limit you from understanding all other theories or helping others? If yes, where does this idea come from? Is it even possible to be an expert or identity with many theories? If yes, what is the quality that we are compromising for quantity at that point?

One thing I am thankful for is my professional experience while in school. During the first year of my master’s program, I balanced a full-time job as a residential counselor and a full-time course load. During the second year of my master’s program, I worked a full-time job as a residential counselor, a part-time job as a state rehabilitation counselor, and a full-time course load. I took a year in between my master’s program and doctoral program to work as a full-time counselor at an outpatient day program. Now, I am balancing a part-time job as a counselor for a county and a full-time doctoral course load. Of course, I am not counting all of the additional internship/practicum requirements; documentation/case management; supervision/client contact hours; homework/projects; volunteer/social justice work; and conference presentations outside of the classroom. My point in sharing all this is that I think there is something to having a balance between academia and applied experience. I think the exposure to these domains fosters the exploration of this question.

Now, I cannot speak to private practice settings, although I can imagine counselors would have more flexibility in deciding how you work with clients. However, in my experience and observations, many established agencies and treatment teams do not ask you about your theoretical orientation or the culture of the work place may have an established way of doing things.

Overall, I think consistency in asking this question and actively seeking experiences to challenge your orientation will help you grow. Establishing a theoretical orientation will provide you, if at the very least, with a sense of direction, when working with clients. It’s worth taking time to understand.
Monica Paige Band is a counselor working in Northern Virginia and holds a certification in Rehabilitation Counseling. Monica is also a doctoral student, studying Counselor Education and Supervision at Marymount University. Her interests include multicultural issues, motivational interviewing, clinical supervision processes, as well as career and professional development.  


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  1. 1 Alisia Waguespack 15 Oct
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