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Toward A Personal Theory of Change

by Caryn M. Coons, M.A., LPC, DAPA

In formal education we are frequently presented with information that is paradoxical in nature.  Individuals intending to make counseling their profession often wade through a sea of  clinical and theoretical data that is diametrically opposed to information ingested and accepted as truth previously.  A residue of questions remain.   Do thoughts create feelings or
is it the other way around?  Are behavioral approaches more effective than those that rely on insight?  Can brief therapy do everything that long-term treatment can?  Do the positive effects of  counseling systemically last longer than those achieved in individual therapy?

Central to our role as helpers, regardless of the setting or specific execution of the tasks of that role, is the individual theory of change to which each of us adheres.  Components of this theory include a definition of change, the way in which it is measured and how it is maintained.  What are the agents of  change in the context of therapy?  Are they dependent on the relationship between client and counselor?  Every counselor would be well-served to have considered these issues prior to delving too far into a professional career as a helper.

A number of criteria are involved in selecting an approach from which to work, one being better than the rest only by virtue of its fit as a tool in the hand of the clinician.  Without question,  the tools we should use are the ones that work best for us. If a developmental/contextual approach brings about the results you want, then use it.  If you prefer cognitive or behavioral approaches, get the training you need to use them. If the family
systems approach seems to fit best with your understanding of human behavior, then by all means make use of it! Wisdom and professional ethics suggest that you be prepared to support your proficiency and understanding of the approaches you use with education, training and experience.

The success one counselor has with a particular approach probably has little to do with the superiority of the approach (or the superiority of the counselor) and more to do with the fit between that approach and the counselor¹s personal theory of change.    A theory of change evolves by integrating personal experience, education and intuition, thereby balancing what the counselor ³knows² with what he knows to be true.  The pool of potentially useful counseling theories is not limited to those taught in a classroom.  Check out the Relationship and Self-Improvement sections of your local bookstore to see what's "selling" these days. 

Talk to another counselor whose work you admire and ask her to define the approach(es) she uses. Finally, be prepared to defend your approach.   Whether by supervisors, insurance panels, licensure boards, clients or colleagues, you can bet that your methods and the theories in which they are grounded are going to come under scrutiny.   Having defined the components of change as they apply to your clinical approach, you will be prepared to defend your work when that is demanded of you.

Comments regarding this article can be directed to Caryn at:


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