Definition of Counseling
There have always been counselors — people who listen to others and help resolve difficulties — but the word does not always mean the same thing. One hears of carpet counselors, color-coordination counselors, pest-control counselors, financial counselors, and so on. These counselors are most often glorified salespersons. They are to counseling what furniture doctors are to medicine. Counseling as a profession is relatively new. It grew out of the guidance movement, in opposition to traditional psychotherapy. To understand what counseling is, you must first understand these two concepts.
Guidance is the process of helping people make important choices that affect their lives, such as choosing a preferred life-style. While the decision-making aspect of guidance has long played an important role in the counseling process, the concept itself, as an often-used word in counseling, "has gone the way of 'consumption' in medicine" (Tyler, 1986, p. 153). It has more historical significance than present-day usage. Nevertheless, it sometimes distinguishes a way of helping that differs from the more encompassing word counseling.
One distinction between guidance and counseling is that while guidance focuses on helping individuals choose what they value most, counseling focuses on helping them make changes. Much of the early work in guidance occurred in schools: an adult would help a student make decisions, such as deciding on a vocation or course of study. That relationship was between unequal — teacher and pupil — and was beneficial in helping the less-experienced person find direction in life. Similarly, children have long received "guidance" from parents, ministers, scout leaders, and coaches. In the process they have gained an understanding of themselves and their world (Shertzer & Stone, 1981). This type of guidance will never become passé; no matter what the age or stage of life, a person often needs help in making choices. Yet such guidance is only one part of the overall service provided by professional counseling.
Psychotherapy (or therapy) traditionally focuses on serious problems associated with intrapsychic, internal, and personal issues and conflicts. Characteristically, it emphasizes the following issues (Pietrofesa, Hoffman, and Splete, 1984; Super, 1993):
•The past more than the present
•Insight more than change
•The detachment of the therapist
•The therapist's role as an expert
Psychotherapists and clinical psychologists generally use the term psychotherapy to describe their work. Whether clients receive counseling or psychotherapy, however, os often determined by the professionals who provide the service (Trotzer & Trotzer, 1986). Some counseling theories are commonly referred to as therapies and can be used in either a counseling or therapy setting. There are other similarities in the counseling and psychotherapy process.
Generally, when making a distinction between psychotherapy and counseling, you should consider two criteria. First, psychotherapy usually involves a long-term relationship (20 to 40 sessions over a period of six months to two years) that focuses on reconstructive change. Counseling, on the other hand, tends to be ashort-term relationship (8 to 12 sessions spread over a period of less than six months) and focuses on the relationship of developmental and situational problems. Second, counseling is usually provided in outpatient settings (nonresidential buildings, such as schools or community agencies), whereas therapy is provided in both outpatient and inpatient settings (residential treatment facilities such as mental hospitals).
Both the American Counseling Association (ACA) and Division 17 (Counseling Psychology) of the American Psychological Association (APA) have defined counseling on numerous occasions. Their definitions contain a number of common points, some of which follow.
Counseling is a profession. Practitioners should complete a prescribed course of study usually leading to a master's degree or a doctorate degree. Counselors are members of organizations that set professional and ethical standards and promote state licensing and certification by national associations (Wittmer & Loesch, 1986). The process of certification and licensing and the adherence to ethical codes assure the public that the counselor meets minimal educational and professional standards. Counselors should possess personal qualities of maturity, empathy, and warmth. Overall, counseling is active and differs considerably from passively listening to problems.
Counseling deals with personal, social, vocational, empowerment, and educational concerns. Counselors work only in areas in which they have expertise. These areas may include intra- and interpersonal concerns related to school or college adjustment, mental health, aging, marriage or family issues, employment, and rehabilitation.
Counseling is conducted with persons who are considered to function within the "normal range". Clients have adjustment, development, or situational concerns; and their problems require short-term intervention. They are not considered "sick" but "stuck". Sometimes they just need information, but usually they are looking for a way to clarify and use the information they already possess.
Counseling is theory-based and takes place in a structured setting. Counselors draw from a number of theories and work in a structured environment, such as an office setting, with various individuals, groups and families.
Counseling is a process in which clients learn how to make decisions and formulate new ways of behaving, feeling, and thinking. Counselors focus on the goals their clients wish to achieve. Clients explore their present levels of functioning and the changes that must be made to achieve personal objectives. Thus, counseling involves both choice and change, evolving through distinct stages such as exploration, goal setting, and action (Brammer, 1993; Egan, 1990).
Counseling encompasses various subspecialties. Subspecialties include school or college counseling, marriage and family counseling, mental health counseling, gerontological counseling, rehabilitation counseling, addiction counseling, and career counseling. Each has specific educational and experimental requirements for the practitioners.
Thus, counseling can be more precisely defined as a relatively short-term, interpersonal, theory-based process of helping persons who are basically psychologically healthy resolve developmental and situational problems. Counseling activities are guided by ethical and legal standards and go through distinct stages from initiation to termination . Personal, social, vocational, and educational matters are all areas of concern; and the profession encompasses a number of subspecialties. A practitioner must complete a required course of study on either the master's or doctoral level to be licensed or certified as a professional.
Reference: Counseling: A Comprehensive Profession, Third Edition, Samuel T. Gladding, 1996.