12 Fascinating Theories of Counseling to Apply in Practice

Theories of counselingSeveral psychotherapy theories underpin counseling.

It is counseling’s aim to offer clients a safe and confidential place to explore their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

While there are many theoretical approaches to counseling, each shares the goals of explaining and predicting behaviors and offering tools, skills, and techniques to solve clients’ problems (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).

This article explores several of these fascinating theories, identifying what makes each unique and how to apply them to clients during treatment.

Also, our popular ebook, On Becoming A Therapist, is a 96-page essential guide, providing a wealth of information about the education, certifications, and standard practices involved in becoming a therapist.

What Are Counseling Theories in Psychology?

Counseling theories attempt to answer difficult questions, including (modified from Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015):

  • What motivates us? And what makes or breaks us?
  • What disturbs our thinking and emotions, causing us anger and sadness, and damages relationships?
  • What causes some of us to be satisfied with our lives while others must claw their way to the top?
  • Why do some people recover from tragedy stronger and more resilient while others don’t?

We should note that there is no single correct answer to these questions, and psychologists, therapists, and counselors disagree on underlying theories and applied approaches. As a result, psychological research continues to contribute “both to creating counseling theories and to evaluating counseling processes and outcomes” (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 10).

It is important to remember that counseling theories are not isolated truths but result from a time and place–according to politics, beliefs, scientific approaches, and discoveries–operating together (while not always in agreement). Indeed, over the history of psychology and counseling, theories have been influenced by four critical perspectives (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015):

  • Biomedical
    Researchers have attempted to use biomedical procedures to target and impact brain functioning.
  • Religious/spiritual
    Past and even present psychosocial approaches include spiritual components (such as mindfulness).
  • Psychosocial
    Approaches often recognize that relationships and communications with others can drive psychological change and healing.
  • Feminist-Multicultural
    Historically, many voices in psychology were white and male, influencing both theory and application. Mental health professionals must be aware of theoretical bias and adopt other perspectives, including minority voices.

A successful counseling theory should “accurately describe, explain, and predict a wide range of therapist and client behaviors” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015, p. 9). Theories should also be relevant to their domain, explaining what is causing clients’ difficulties, and offering techniques and strategies to reduce or remove their problems.

Counseling & Psychotherapy Theories: A List

Counseling & Psychotherapy TheoriesUltimately, each counseling theory attempts to do the same thing: explore and explain human motivation, functioning, and change (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).

After all, “counseling approaches focus on altering how people feel, think and act so that they may live their lives more effectively” (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 10).

While there are many other counseling theories, we have selected a sample of several of the most fascinating and popular (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015; BACP, n.d.; Nelson-Jones, 2014):

Behavioral Counseling Theories

“Behavioral therapy seeks to modify learned behaviors that are problematic and undesirable and replace them with more acceptable positive behaviors” (Davies, 2013, p. 424). Rather than analyzing the past, clients learn new, positive behaviors to help them cope with difficult situations and emotions and overcome phobias, addictions, fears, and obsessive behaviors.

Multimodal therapy draws on techniques from behavioral theories, dividing personality into seven major areas and creating complex maps linking each aspect of the client’s personality together (Corey, 2013).

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT does not look at past causes for how we behave. Instead, it focuses on our present problems, cognitive processes (thoughts), and their consequences, finding practical solutions to feeling better now. How we think about situations impacts how we feel and behave.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists encourage clients to challenge negative thinking in an effort to manage stress, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders.

Other closely related therapies include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which invites a greater awareness of inner experiences, and Dialectical Behavior therapy (DBT), a talk therapy for clients that experience emotions very intensely (Crane, 2009).

In contrast to CBT’s approach to challenging dysfunctional thoughts, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) emphasizes non-judgmental awareness of cognitions and reduces unnecessary dwelling on the negatives (Corey, 2013).

Humanistic theories

The humanistic approach addresses the client as a whole. In therapy, it emphasizes self-development and a realization of a client’s potential rather than focusing on their problems.

Theoretical approaches include (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015):

  • Gestalt Therapy
    Gestalt Therapy focuses on the individual’s self-regulation, using self-awareness to restore equilibrium.
  • Person-Centered Therapy
    Client-Centered Therapy is based on Carl Rogers’s complex theory of personality and the view that the self is capable of both stability and change.
  • Transpersonal Therapy
    A holistic and spiritual approach to addressing the client’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs.

Helpful theories for school counselors

School counselors have many roles, including preventing dropout, managing poor behavior, supporting students through trauma, and remedying bullying.

There are many different approaches available to assist the counselor’s work in schools, two of which include (Wright, 2012):

  • Adlerian counseling
    Adlerian counseling suggests that children misbehave due to faulty logic regarding how the world works.
  • Behaviorism
    Arising from the understanding that a child’s actions result from experiences with their environment.

2 Marriage counseling approaches

Couples may enter counseling for many reasons, including poor communication, infidelity, parenting issues, and financial problems (Williams, 2012).

Helpful theoretical approaches include (Goltzman, 2022):

  • Emotionally Focused Therapy
    During Emotionally Focused Therapy, couples work together to uncover maladaptive behavioral patterns that may interfere with their relationship.
  • Narrative Therapy
    Narrative Therapy is when both members of the relationship describe their problems in narrative form before being helped to recognize there is no single story, accepting inconsistency and failure.

Treating addiction & substance abuse

Addiction and substance abuse can take many forms. Therefore, treatment must be specific to the individual and their circumstances. Several theories and approaches have proven successful, including (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015):

  • Reality Therapy
    Reality Therapy adopts the view that all behavior comprises choices based upon five genetically driven basic needs.
  • Interpersonal Theory (IPT)
    While Interpersonal Theory (IPT) was initially developed as a treatment for depression, it focuses on the addict’s social and interpersonal context and is as effective as CBT.

3 Popular Techniques Used by Counselors

As discussed, there are different counseling theories and approaches. And yet, the following powerful techniques are effective in most, if not all, of them:

Attending to feelings

The therapeutic relationship relies on creating a solid bond between therapist and client. Attending to the client’s feelings and needs and building upon this connection involves skillful techniques from the therapist, including (Nelson-Jones, 2014):

  • Assessing the client’s readiness and motivation to do the work
  • Creating a safe environment for the client to share their feelings and thoughts
  • Distinguishing between the client’s personal thoughts and those taught to them
  • Recognize the client’s defenses and identify when they are being resistant
  • Offer and provide support to your client during learning, rehearsal, and practice

Manage demanding rules

Progress can be hampered by demanding rules (musts, shoulds, oughts, and have-tos) that clients set regarding themselves and others, for example (Nelson-Jones, 2014):

I absolutely must do well in all my performances and receive maximum approval.
Others must treat me as I expect them to do so, or everyone should condemn them.

Counselors can support clients by:

  1. Helping them identify when they use language that indicates demanding rules or irrational beliefs.
  2. Disputing such demanding and absolute rules and beliefs, replacing them with more helpful ones.
  3. Restating demanding rules as preferential ones. For example, I must do well, is replaced by, I’d prefer to do well, but don’t have to.

Taking control of self-talk

Even if unaware, we spend a great deal of time talking to ourselves. Being in control of what we say can be a helpful tool for managing stress and anger and coping with difficult situations. And yet, negative self-talk can damage self-esteem and self-confidence and leave us unable to cope (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Help clients with reframing their self-talk by:

  1. Describing and demonstrating negative self-talk (I’m useless, I never do anything right) and positive self-talk (I’ve done this before, I can do it again).
  2. Walking through a problem situation, eliciting the client’s negative self-talk.
  3. Coaching the client to replace the negative self-talk with more positive statements.
  4. Practicing positive self-talk in session, then setting homework for the client.

A Look at Multicultural Counseling Theories

Multicultural counseling theories“Psychoanalytically oriented therapy can be made appropriate for culturally diverse populations if techniques are modified to fit the setting in which a therapist practices” (Corey, 2013, p. 91).

Therapists need to help their clients reflect on their own influences (cultural and otherwise) at critical turning points in their lives and consider their positive and negative effects.

Counselors must also identify and consider their own biases and those of the theories and interventions they adopt when working with clients to avoid racial, ethnic, or cultural stereotyping and potentially harm treatment outcomes. To best meet the client’s needs, they should confront their own expectations, attitudes, and assumptions resulting from the culture in which they grew up and now live (Corey, 2013).

Approaches to Group Counseling Explained

When group therapy was first introduced in psychiatric practice (often as a way of saving time), practitioners soon discovered that it was practical and effective for helping people change (Corey, 2013).

Research has found group therapy to be as effective as individual therapy, even in traumatic situations, such as individuals facing life-threatening illnesses (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).

Group work has proven particularly valuable where role-playing is involved, such as Gestalt therapy or psychodrama. Each member benefits by sharing their own experiences and witnessing those of others in the group. And while clients develop as individuals, they also grow as part of a group entity (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).

How to Apply the Theories in Practice

How to apply theories in practice“Because counseling is an intimate form of learning, it demands a practitioner who is willing to be an authentic person in the therapeutic relationship” (Corey, 2013, p.18).

Indeed, due to the nature and experience of counseling, who the therapist is, affects their bond with the client and the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Whatever theory–or theories–the counselor is adopting and applying in their practice, they must identify and consider how to apply the following (Corey, 2013):

Therapeutic goals

We can summarize and simplify the goals of psychoanalytic treatment as increasing adaptive functioning, reducing the occurrence and effects of symptoms, and resolving conflict.

In some approaches, the client’s past will be revisited, exposed, and worked through, while others focus on new coping skills for the present and the future. Whatever the approach, the needs and goals of the client remain paramount and must be revisited and reviewed, along with progress throughout treatment.

Counselor’s role

Different theories can have specific expectations of the counselor. A psychoanalyst may engage in little or no self-disclosure to encourage transference of emotions onto them from other significant figures from the past.

And yet, a therapist using Narrative Therapy or ACT may be less neutral, sharing experiences they have faced. Either way, it is essential that the counselor considers their role and remains consistent throughout the treatment.

Therapeutic bond

Whether striving for a nonparticipating role or one in which they are more fully engaged, it remains crucial to the therapeutic outcome that the counselor’s relationship with the client is one of trust, honesty, and openness.

If the relationship breaks down, it must be repaired quickly or risk damaging the process.

3 Fascinating Books Every Counselor Should Read

While there are many books on counseling, we have included three of our favorites below that encourage a strong foundational knowledge of counseling theory and the skills that underpin successful treatment.

The following books all provide insights which we find helpful and believe you will too:

1. Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice: Skills, Strategies, and Techniques – John Sommers-Flanagan and Rita Sommers-Flanagan

Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories

This valuable text introduces the reader to all the major theories in counseling and psychotherapy and explores their application to clients.

The authors contrast the history of each approach with the latest research and current cultural, gender, and spiritual perspectives.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy – Gerald Corey

Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy

Now in its tenth edition, this is a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in counseling and compares all the major theories.

Gerald Corey invites the reader to work through two case studies, apply each theory and learn how to create an individualized counseling style.

Find the book on Amazon.

3. Theory and Practice of Group Counseling – Gerald Corey

Theory and Practice of Group Counseling

Also, by Gerald Corey, this book introduces readers to eleven group counseling theories, their value, and how to apply them practically.

Written in a straightforward style, this is perhaps the definitive book for anyone wishing to explore, create and run group sessions.

Find the book on Amazon.

Counseling Tools From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available for counselors providing support to clients, helping them create stronger therapeutic bonds and improve positive treatment outcomes.

Our free resources include:

  • Levels of validation
    Levels of validation is a helpful worksheet to assess your own and others’ degree of validation inside and outside treatment.
  • Case Conceptualization Worksheet: Individual Counseling
    This valuable download is for counselors to complete while developing a case conceptualization for individual clients.
  • Types of speech
    Use these helpful prompts to become more aware during counseling sessions by identifying and reflecting on the different styles used by the client and their meaning.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Wise Mind Chair Work
    This intervention was originally designed for DBT, teaching clients three states of mind: the reasonable mind, the emotional mind, and the wise mind.

In this exercise, clients learn to use their wise mind to manage their behavior better.

  • Using Self-Distanced Language to Gain Perspective on Negative Events
    Negative experiences are an unfortunate yet unavoidable part of life. While it is necessary to reflect on one’s reactions to negative experiences, we must not become entangled in unhelpful rumination cycles that intensify adverse effects.
    Self-talk that facilitates emotion regulation across a range of emotionally intense experiences is an effective way to take a step back and reflect on experiences objectively.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others through CBT, this collection contains 17 validated positive CBT tools for practitioners. Use them to help others overcome unhelpful thoughts and feelings and develop more positive behaviors.

A Take-Home Message

Counseling supports many as they struggle to manage painful emotions, overcome trauma, or build a meaningful and fulfilling life.

While there are many theories and approaches for counseling, the mental health professional’s goal is to find the treatment most suited to the client and the situation they are currently stuck in.

We introduce the reader to many such theories within this article. While they have evolved differently, they share a focus on the client and the need for trust in both the process and the counselor.

Why not work through several approaches and identify those that could benefit your clients? Where appropriate, combine them and find a style and approach that works for who you are and the treatments you offer.

Ultimately, if the client feels safe and secure and is moving towards the goals set collaboratively, the theory is most likely suitable for the client – for now at least. Through ongoing monitoring, counseling can be tailored to the situation, and their needs continue to be met.

We hope you enjoyed this article. Don’t forget to have a look at our popular ebook, “On Becoming A Therapist,” to provide you with valuable information.


  • BACP (n.d.). Types of therapy. An A-Z of therapeutic approaches. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.bacp.co.uk/about-therapy/types-of-therapy/
  • Corey, G. (2013). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Boston, MA: Cengage.
  • Crane, R. (2009). Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy. Hove, E Sussex: Routledge.
  • Davies, M. (2013). The Blackwell companion to social work. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Goltzman, J. (2022). Have you tried these 25 couples therapy techniques? Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/therapy-for-couples#therapy-techniques
  • Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2015). Counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice: Skills, strategies, and techniques. Wiley.
  • Nelson-Jones, R. (2014). Practical counselling and helping skills. London. Sage.
  • Williams, M. (2012). Couples counseling: A step by step guide for therapists.
  • Wright, R. J. (2012). Introduction to school counseling. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.


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