Personal Theory

My personal counseling theory is grounded in Humanistic, client-centered and directed Play Therapy. The basic tenets of Play Therapy govern how to be in a therapeutic relationship with an individual who is suffering from trauma, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and other mental health concerns in a manner which facilitates healing and restoration of purpose and meaning. This includes individuals regardless of race, orientation, gender, as well as age. Person’s of any age benefit from this type of therapy.

It is informed by Existential theory and Phenomenological considerations, embedded in a Person-centered relationship, colored and shaped by Gestalt theory.  Each of these theories builds on the preceding one.  Existentialism begins the process with the question, “Who am I?”  Phenomenological considerations broaden the question to “Who am I in this world?” Person-centered therapy defines the client-therapist relationship in terms of providing a safe, empathic environment in which to explore one’s world.  And Gestalt adds by providing methods and techniques to bring about healthy change in the client’s experience of the “here and now”.  The “here and now” is the phenomenological experience of the existential question “Who am I in this world?”

My Views, philosophy and basic assumptions:

The foremost bias that I have as a counselor is based in the wellness viewpoint. I’m grateful that counseling has this view of humanity as its cornerstone as I believe each person has their inner truth and the knowledge of what is inherently good for them.My goal in every counseling session is to help each unique individual uncover the answers they already know and need to live more full and rich lives.

My view of human nature is that people are not determined; rather they have teleological concerns that must be addressed.  Existential theory focuses on the nature of the human condition (Corey, 2005).  This is characterized by the anxiety and fear of life that is caused by the reality that we live in a universe that we cannot fully understand.  Secondly the individual exists only in relationship and through relationship an individual can discover one’s own authenticity, or real nature.  This is the only way in which an individual can triumph over meaninglessness and develop specific meaning.  While we exist in the now, we are connected to the past and can imagine the future.  It is in the now that we make decisions.  Nonetheless we must take responsibility for decisions we have made in the past and recognize that our decisions regarding the future may be wrong.  The tension between the necessity to make decisions, the necessity to take responsibility for decisions, and the realization the future may prove our decisions to be wrong, provides the setting for the fundamental existential dilemma and its accompanying anxiety.  The force of anxiety and uncertainty provides the motive to flee authenticity, a solution which ultimately solves nothing.  In so far as there is an overarching meaning to life it is found in the potential which exists within an authentic relationship which requires that we be free to run those risks associated with expressing authenticity, that we be open to the authenticity of others, and finally that we live in a context that allows authenticity.  We do not exist in such repressiveness that we cannot recognize or express authenticity.

Phenomenology contends that the human being is complex  and multi-layered and what is necessary is to peel away psychological layers to reveal the essential core and to eliminate those factors that have blocked the development or expression of the essential central core, e.g. the authentic self.  “For. . .  the question of Who am I?  is inseparable from the question What kind of world do I live in?  To be at home with myself is to be at home with my personal world.. . . The continuous, essential unity of the individual, his body, and his world is the basis for the concept of man as embodied-being-in-the-world.  In this total structure no part can be understood in isolation from the others.” (Valle & King, 1978).

Rogerian therapy builds upon the existential and phenomenology of the individual living in relationship.   In the Rogerian setting the therapeutic relationship can be understood as paradigmatic of all authentic relationships.  The Rogerian therapeutic relationship is the critical nexus between existential and phenomenological theory and gestalt theory.  This relationship is open to risk affirming nurturing, and empathetic listening and its focus is on the client.  Mutuality is the ultimate goal of Rogerian therapy.  Modeling to the client how to live authentically in relationship demonstrates the benefits that come from revealing oneself.  “In such a relationship the individual becomes more integrated, more effective.” (Rogers, 1961).  The client is accepted no matter how unacceptable the client thinks he is.  As Carl Rogers (1961) wrote, “. . . a warm regard for (the client)  as a person of unconditional self-worth – of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings.” is necessary for psychological health.

Carl Rogers (1961) also defined the basic human condition as having the capacity and desire for growth.  The therapist places faith in the client’s capacity for self-direction and the potential for the client to become aware of problems, and allows the means to resolve them to arise spontaneously.  “Whether one calls it a growth tendency, a drive toward self-actualization, or a forward-moving directional tendency, it is the mainspring of life, and is, in the last analysis, the tendency upon which all psychotherapy depends.”

Gestalt therapy is the capstone of my theory.  The gestaltic emphasis on a holistic view links with the existential and phenomenological emphasis on the totality of the human experience.  As Perls (1973) elaborates “work (is) on a phenomenological basis.”  Gestalt therapy adds techniques that are not inherently present in person-centered therapy.  Of note are psychodrama and role-playing.  These are powerful tools given Gestalt therapy’s emphasis upon addressing behaviors that were adaptive once but have now become maladaptive.  Both methods allow the client, through acting out the maladaptive behavior, to understand that once beneficial behaviors have now become counterproductive.  This can be highly effective because it emphasizes show me over tell me.

As a person strives for wholeness and integration of thinking, feeling, and behaving, [Gestalt] begins actualizing potential and moving toward increased awareness, spontaneity, trust in self, and inner-directedness, [Rogerian] the person focuses on self-awareness, freedom of choice, responsibility, the search for meaning, and on being in relation to others [Existential].  (Corey, 2005).

When Existential, Phenomenological, Rogerian, and Gestalt therapy are considered, it is apparent each builds upon and adds to the understandings and techniques of the others.  The existential question “Who am I?” is elaborated by the phenomenological question, “What is the world I live in?”.  The Rogerian atmosphere of unconditional acceptance and empathic regard provides the proper setting for  Gestalt therapy’s focus on the here and now and  holistic concept of the human being, and encompasses all aspects of the emotional, physical, spiritual and cultural milieu.

Key Concepts:

What is our purpose in life?  Most people ask this existential question at some point.  It is a guiding question for the conscious and unconscious decisions made in everyday life.  “Whatever the existential needs are, the fact that he comes for therapy is the (client’s) admission that they are not being met.” (Perls, 1973)

Through an experiential stress on self-awareness with a focus on the present, the client is guided into experiencing the here-and-now through asking “what” and “how”.  This enables clients to accept all aspects of themselves and attain congruence.  This awareness is necessary before action can take place.  “Without awareness, there is no cognition of choice.” (Perls, 1973).

Personal choice leads to personal responsibility for choice.  Acting on personal choices in the here and now incorporates learning strategies conducive to personal empowerment and understanding basic needs of an emotional, physical, spiritual and cultural nature.  “. . . to the extent that a person can accept responsibility for his life, he becomes a free moral agent.” (Ramirez as quoted by May, 1969)  An underlying assumption is individuals have a striving toward actualization and growth.

Viewing the person from a holistic perspective encompassing the emotional, physical,  spiritual and cultural realms involves studying these aspects both separately and conjunctively to find their interrelatedness.  Gestaltic emphasis on holisticism is a linkage with existentialism and phenomenology as both emphasize the totality of the human.  This is characterized in existential thought as both the inner and outer existence, “. . . for the human being is characterized by both inner experience and outer behavior; and the critical point is the relation between the two.” (May, 1969)

Therapeutic Goals:

The role of therapy is to enable a person to be aware of and to act upon the available choices.  The client is empowered to experience the freedom that comes from awareness of choices so as to facilitate recognitions blocks to growth.  In the end the clients personality is integrated into a unified whole.

To be aware of one’s choices involves analyzing the themes and patterns which emerge in a person’s life.  Acting upon choices the client develops responsibility, reduces anxiety, engages in the search for meaning, learns how self-in-relation can manifest, actualizes potential, and moves toward trust in self and inner-directedness.

The integration of the somatic, emotional, and spiritual dimensions is an important goal.  Understanding how emotions manifest in the physical body and vice-a-versa are part of experiential knowledge of the here and now.

Therapeutic Relationship:

The therapist strives to accurately grasp the client’s being-in-the-world and establish a personal and authentic encounter in a here and now.  The therapeutic relationship incorporates Rogerian concepts of genuineness (congruence), unconditional regard, and accurate empathetic listening.   Person-centered therapy challenges the therapist to a total understanding, “a sensitive empathy with each of the client’s feelings and communications as they seem to him at the moment” (Rogers, 1961).  Freedom is an important component of the relationship.  Freedom from moral and diagnostic evaluation means freedom to explore oneself at both conscious and unconscious levels.  This encourages the client to be psychologically independent and to maintain his psychological integrity (Rogers, 1961).

Like Rogerian therapy, gestalt therapy stresses that the therapist’s attitudes and behavior are more important than the techniques used.  Gestalt also emphasizes the I/Thou relationship and the quality of the therapist’s presence.  The relationship between the client and therapist is a person to person modality.  The therapist is responsible for the quality of their presence, knowing themselves and the client, remaining open to the client, establishing and maintaining a therapeutic atmosphere, and allowing themselves to be affected by their clients in the here and now encounter. Emphasis is placed on factors such as presence, authentic dialog, gentleness, more direct self-expression, decreased use of stereotypic exercises, and greater trust in the client (Corey, 2005)

Techniques and Procedures:

Gestalt therapy is lively and promotes direct experiencing rather than abstract talk.  Clients come to grips with what and how they are thinking, feeling, and doing as they interact with the therapist through exercises and experiments.  Therapists devise experiments designed to increase the client’s self-awareness, an awareness which includes insight, self-acceptance, knowledge of the environment, responsibility for choices, and the ability to make contact with others (Corey, 2005).

The two major techniques in Gestalt therapy include role playing/psychodrama and ‘staying with the feeling’.  Role playing/psychodrama in general seeks to resolve conflicts in personality between adaptive behaviors that have turned maladaptive by placing the client in a directed role in either a client-therapist or group setting.  It includes using such procedures such as the internal dialog exercise (the empty chair technique) – addressing the conflict between two opposing poles in the personality, the reversal exercise – asking the client to act in an opposite manner than accustomed to, the rehearsal exercise – rehearsing out loud preparatory means to bolster social roles, the exaggeration exercise – becoming more aware of subtle signals they are sending, and in a particularly group exercise, making the rounds – speaking with other members in a group to risk, confront, disclose, and experiment new behavior.

Staying with the feeling peels away the layers of an emotion through the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual natures to it’s essential core.  This can include techniques borrowed from Cognitive Behavior Therapy such as journaling, homework assignments, Socratic dialog, and relaxation exercises.  Techniques from Feminist therapy can be utilized such as recognizing that the personal is political, understanding cultural biases, assertiveness training, and gender-role and power analysis.  Borrowing from Jungian therapy to explore dreams and archetypes and acting out the dream in the present to uncover the connection between the unconsciousness and consciousness helps the client to unblock feelings and make way for new emotional growth.  Staying with the feeling can be used to explore somatic connections with the emotions.  Spiritual and emotional meanings can be explored through the use of archetypes.

Though the techniques may be varied and borrowed from various disciplines to address each individual client, the atmosphere of unconditional regard and empathy facilitates the focus on integrating the client’s awareness of and integration of his personality as it incorporates in their emotional, physical, and spiritual existence.  The client is encouraged to live fully in the present moment.

Integration of Multiculturalism:

Initiating a discussion on multicultural integration, it is important to begin with the counselor’s own biases.  My personal ability to be aware of and sensitive to socio-cultural backgrounds is particularly keen due to my own experiences both living for extended periods in foreign countries, European and Middle-eastern, 25 years in the inner city, and growing up as a non-Hispanic person in a Hispanic neighborhood. That said, I feel uniquely able to comment on why this method can be effectively used in multicultural setting.  Using a Rogerian person-centered relationship as the basis for connecting with the client, showing unconditional regard, openness, acceptance, and empathic listening encourages the client to expose their true feelings and thoughts.  It encourages open dialog about religious, cultural and familial concerns.  Building on the foundation of total acceptance the therapist can use Gestalt techniques, which are highly aware of nonverbal cues, Feminist theory, which is extremely aware of political and gender biases, CBT, which can be helpful in keeping the client comfortable during therapy by being less emotional and seeming to be on a more superficial level.

Being aware of the thought processes of clients from other cultural orientations, whether it is social, spiritual, sexual, educational, economical, is an ongoing challenge as we live and work in the 21st century.  The challenge is to approach each client in an open way and without preconceptions, tailoring individual therapeutic interventions for each client, to be effective in helping clients integrate the polarities within themselves.  Finally the therapist must be able to recognize her own absolute limitations and be able to cease an attempt at therapy and refer the client to one who may be more competent to treat this culturally diverse client.

Conclusion:

This therapeutic modality is based on Existentialism and Phenomenology, rooted in a Person-centered relationship, and expanded on by Gestalt therapy.  It expresses my personal view of humanity and methods to use to offer healing and integration of personality.

My personal model of therapy is an armature which allows other techniques to be plugged in. It is inherently client centered so that other modalities such as Feminist, CBT, Jungian, Developmental, Narrative, and others can be called upon as indicated by the client’s needs.  It is important to remember that the client is the most important person in this interchange.  How can his/her needs be met, growth facilitated and integration of personality through the mind-body-spiritual connection be accomplished is the fundamental question.

 

References

Corey, G., (2005), Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy.  Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole- Thomson Learning

Kirshenbaum, H. & Henderson, V. L., (1989).  The Carl Rogers Reader.  Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company

May, R., (Ed.) (1969).  Existential Psychology.  United States of America: McGraw Hill, Inc.

Perls, F., (1973).  The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy.  United States of America: Science and Behavior books

Rogers, C., (1961).  On Becoming A Person.  Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company

Schiffman, M., (1971).  Gestalt Self Therapy: further techniques for Personal Growth.  Berkeley, CA: Wingbow Press

Serok, S., (2000).  Innovative Applications of Gestalt Therapy.  Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company

Valle, R. S. & King, M., (Ed.s) (1978).  Existential-Phenomenological Alternatives for Psychology.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press

 

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