Counselling Psychology

Psychologist Terry Hanley on humanism, creativity of a therapist, and making ethical decisions

videos | June 20, 2016

Counseling psychology is a discipline that is looking at supporting psychological and emotional well being of individuals that sits alongside other professions like psychiatry and clinical psychology. I think one of the main differences for counseling psychology is that it isn’t quite so embedded in the medical model, so really sort of viewing people from that more medicalized position and adopts a very humanistic position towards psychology. So it’s embedded within the humanistic psychology movement where an individual is viewed as someone who has the capacity within themselves to grow and develop without necessarily the need for outside interventions. The other components to humanistic psychology really thinking about the uniqueness of the individual as well, so psychologists traditionally have interest in breaking people apart.

Thinking about different components that make the human, we like to say that they’re depressed or they’re anxious, or have certain personality times, whereas I think humanistically oriented counseling psychologists commonly like to view the whole of the person.

There’s a very famous story of some blind men who were asked to identify an object in front of them, and the first person goes to the object and touches the object, and he sort of finds this wiggly kind of thing and he identifies it as a snake. As a second person goes along and identifies it as a hard object, he identifies it as a spear. And these people keep going along and they identify different objects. And it’s only when all of the information is put together that they recognize that actually it’s an elephant and it’s almost that they’re taking and deconstructing the object into all these different components. They missed the essence of what the object was.

So from the counseling psychology perspective, I think we’re always trying to keep the whole person in mind when working therapeutically with them, rather than necessarily treating a particular symptomology that they may be presenting with. And another area of the humanistic position is really valuing the idea that people have a choice in the world that they live in. So that every person is intentional and that they will be working towards their own goals and have their own desires that they wish to achieve within that life. And the therapist’s role commonly becomes trying to support a person in understanding that they can become the author in their own story.

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This is often quite different from the kind of more typical psychological position where I think the therapist is viewed as the hero of the story. So someone who has a problem will go to a therapist and seek support, and they will be the kind of the person who helps through things, rather in a counseling psychology or humanistic position is really that the client would be the hero of the story and he’s really trying to tap into their resources for them to help themselves. This is quite different as well to the framework that health services typically take. Taking a quite medicalized position, theoretical counseling psychologist would typically use particular therapeutic theory and therapeutic approaches.

Historically, things like psychoanalysis or Freudian psychoanalysis, and developments around behaviorism where they may be deconstructed to particular tools as therapists work with and rather at the heart of the work that counseling psychologists. I think really there’s a valuing of the relationship itself, so although I think that psychoanalysis and all these therapeutic theories build together to inform the work that they’re doing. At the heart is really thinking about developing a really strong relationship that enables an individual or provides fertile environment for that person to grow and to develop.

Probably the most influential humanistic psychologist was Carl Rogers, who talked about developing a relationship in which the therapist provides the environment where you’re congruent with a person who you’re working with.

You’re empathic, so you’re trying to understand the world from their own position and you’re non-judgmental. You’re accepting of the kind of issues that someone is presenting with to try and create a trusting warm environment for that person to actually explore the difficulties they’re fighting at that point in time. I think often counseling psychologists also try to embrace or understand some of the power relationships that go on within those types therapeutic work.

The therapist will be to create a warm and accepting fertile environment for that person to explore the complexities they’re encountering within their life. That sort of brings with it an exploration of the power relationships within the therapeutic work as well. So really thinking that therapist is in a very powerful position, people commonly present or come to counseling in a relatively vulnerable position and so being mindful of being able to create that warm facilitative environment in which someone may not feel that the therapist is going to tell them what to do. It becomes very important to counseling psychologists and instead of adopting this position that is really kind of embracing the idea that people can grow, that they have choices within their world. It sort of counters some of the typical psychological frame in which I think we commonly view people as having problems and then they will be resolved by the therapist. This creates a conflict between the kind of position that researchers now go within the works of psychologists.

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So empiricism and empirical research often frame and direct the policies that I think organizations make in terms of how psychological care will be delivered. Those frameworks are commonly based upon quantitative research methods just randomized control trials. And although counseling psychologists don’t want to discount that type of evidence, it becomes incredibly important in terms of our decision-making. Making ethical decisions to support people. I think this is challenging that it’s the only type of evidence that people can utilize. So that the position that I would advocate will be more about being research informed rather than driven by research, which seems to be a position that when you ask therapists what it is and how he works seems to be more reflective of the real world situation. So commonly if people are asked what it is that influences him, they will say maybe the client that they’ve been working with, or it might be their own personal history, rather than a necessarily particular and strict adherence to a particular psychological framework.

That sort of combination of valuing the theory and being informed by the theory and valuing the research and being informed by the research creates a complex decision-making process rather than a necessarily simple one where a person has a particular diagnosis and this response will cure them. I think it often becomes a much more creative responsive human-to-human endeavor. That creativity and flexibility become an important part of the work that I can see psychologist would undertake with someone. The two frames I guess you might consider are that the commonly described as even the scientist’s practitioner framework, the one that’s very informed by science and research and maybe the reflective practitioner side. So the reflective practitioner side, unlike the scientist’s, which may be dictated or dominated by research, is really the area of therapist’s work that is influenced by themselves and they use themselves as a tool.

Typically a counseling psychologist would not only understand the theory and research that they may be utilizing, but they will also undertake personal therapy themselves and they would engage in clinical supervision.

And clinical supervision is commonly, or it might crudely be viewed as a form of therapy for therapists. So when an individual is working with people who might be very seriously distressed, clinical supervision could be a very useful space for the therapist to talk about how they are responding to their own personal responses to hearing all this trauma, or whatever presenting issues people commonly come with. To summarize in terms of the key bits that I would flag up, I think counseling psychology and counseling psychologists use of theory is often really embedded within the humanistic framework that may be challenging to the more medical model side of psychology or emphasis that gets placed on in psychology.

Valuing of the therapeutic relationship and really creating a strong relationship for complex and hard conversations to be held, alongside this almost willingness to understand oneself as a therapist, coverage is talked about the idea of therapeutic work being. And I think commonly a lot of therapists and counseling psychologists would resonate with that as an idea in a sense that I may be working as a professional counseling psychologist, but lots of the ideas and concepts are valuable to me, would also be parts of my everyday life as well.

PhD, Senior Lecturer in Counselling Psychology, University of Manchester
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