What are counseling theories?

The processes we experience in a counseling session are not just casual conversations and exercises. These are all founded on a strategic and evidence-based concept. Counseling theories are frameworks that guide therapists and counselors in understanding human behavior, emotions, and mental health issues. These theories provide a foundation for therapeutic approaches and interventions used in counseling practice.

No single counseling theory is a perfect fit for every client or situation. With a deeper understanding of various counseling theories, we can:

  • Match the theory to the client's needs: Different theories emphasize different aspects of human experience. For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) might be a good choice for someone struggling with anxiety, while person-centered therapy might be more suitable for someone seeking self-discovery.
  • Integrate techniques from various approaches: Many therapists find success by drawing on elements from different theories to create a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan.
  • Expand our therapeutic skillset: Exploring various counseling theories broadens our understanding of human psychology and equips us with a wider range of tools to address diverse client concerns.

Printable Counseling Theories Comparison Chart

Download this Counseling Theories Comparison Chart to enhance their understanding and application of different counseling approaches within the counseling process.

Categories of counseling theories

When exploring and diving into the therapeutic process, it's helpful to understand the different categories that our approaches could fall under. Here are some key categories of counseling theories that healthcare practitioners may encounter in our practice:

  • Psychodynamic theories: These theories, rooted in Freudian principles, focus on unconscious processes, childhood experiences, and the impact of early relationships on current behavior and emotions. Psychodynamic therapy aims to bring unconscious conflicts to light for resolution.
  • Behavioral theories: Behavioral theories emphasize observable behaviors and the role of learning in shaping behavior. Therapists using behavioral approaches focus on modifying maladaptive behaviors through techniques like reinforcement and conditioning.
  • Humanistic theories: Humanistic theories emphasize personal growth, self-actualization, and the importance of the therapeutic relationship. These theories prioritize empathy, authenticity, and unconditional positive regard.
  • Cognitive theories: Cognitive theories focus on the role of thoughts and beliefs in shaping emotions and behaviors. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a prominent approach that helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns to improve mental health.
  • Existential and phenomenological theories: These theories explore themes of meaning, freedom, responsibility, and authenticity in human existence. Therapists using existential approaches help clients confront existential concerns and make choices aligned with their values.

Counseling Theories Comparison Chart example (sample)

We have created the Counseling Theories Comparison Chart as a reference guide for planning and conducting sessions with clients. Our resource first introduces you to a comparison chart followed by a planning and documentation tool exploring the client's reason for referral and goals, as well as the counseling approach we intend to use. If this resource is helpful for you, feel free to check out a preview of how to use this template by clicking on the link below. You can also download this locally as a PDF.

Download this free comparison of counseling theories chart example here

Counseling Theories Comparison Chart example (sample)

How to use the chart?

To effectively utilize the counseling theories chart, practitioners can follow these steps to enhance their understanding and application of different counseling approaches within the counseling process:

Step 1: Introducing the comparison chart

The chart acts as a reference, comparing the key principles, goals, and techniques related to the different counseling theories.

Step 2: Client evaluation

Note the client's demographic information (name, age, and gender) and the reason they have been referred or sought therapy. This information will be foundational during the counseling process.

Given your client's specific needs and goals, the comparison chart can help us identify the most fitting counseling approach. Consider aspects such as alignment with client goals and the issue being addressed.

Step 3: Session planning

We can then structure our sessions based on the selected therapeutic approach. Use the chart to select techniques best suited to the client's needs or presenting issues. Plan activities under each selected technique and have an expected outcome for every session. This process aims to ensure that each session is intentional and client-focused.

Step 4: Session implementation and notes

As the counseling process ensues, use the chart to inform the implementation of planned techniques and activities. Keep comprehensive session notes, marking down specific observations, the client's progression, and any necessary amendments to the therapeutic approach.

Step 5: Reflection

Regular reflection is integral to adaptive practice. Reflect on your notes, re-evaluating the efficacy of the selected counseling approach and modifying it if necessary. Through reflection, you can assess your therapeutic process's strengths and areas for improvement.

Different counseling approaches

Each counseling theory offers unique perspectives on human behavior, emotions, and thought processes that can define our approach to healing and growth for clients. The following are several key counseling approaches outlined by Corey (2017):

Psychoanalytic therapy

Rooted in Sigmund Freud's groundbreaking work, this approach is based on the psychoanalytic theory to dive into the unconscious mind, emphasizing how unresolved issues from one's past, particularly childhood, influence present behavior and thoughts. This approach underscores the therapeutic relationship as a vehicle for uncovering and resolving these unconscious conflicts.

Adlerian therapy

Developed by Alfred Adler, Adlerian therapy focuses on the individual's feelings of inferiority and strives for a sense of belonging and social connectedness. It emphasizes the importance of community, viewing individuals holistically, and promoting self-awareness and societal contribution.

Existential therapy

This approach contends with the fundamental concerns of existence, such as freedom, death, isolation, and meaning. Existential therapy encourages clients to confront these issues head-on and live authentically, with therapists providing unconditional positive regard to support clients' navigational efforts through these existential concerns.

Person-centered therapy

Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy posits that individuals are inherently good and capable of self-directed growth. The therapist provides unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuineness, fostering a therapeutic environment conducive to self-exploration and personal growth.

Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy, developed by Fritz Perls, emphasizes present awareness and experiencing feelings in the "here and now." It utilizes experiential techniques to increase self-awareness and responsibility.

Behavioral therapy

Behavioral therapy focuses on changing maladaptive behaviors through conditioning methods. Techniques like reinforcement and punishment are employed to modify behaviors, grounded in the belief that behavior is learned and, therefore, can be unlearned. Motivational interviewing is also used to encourage change. This also includes multimodal therapy and other new-wave approaches, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mindfulness techniques.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)

CBT merges cognitive processes and behavioral strategies to alter negative thought patterns and maladaptive behaviors. It is effective for a range of issues, including depression and anxiety, leveraging techniques such as cognitive restructuring and behavioral experiments.

Reality therapy

Reality therapy is premised on choice theory and focuses on current issues and how to solve them. It emphasizes personal responsibility and the significance of fulfilling fundamental needs such as belonging, power, freedom, and fun.

Feminist therapy

Feminist therapy critiques the societal structures that contribute to a person's problems. It recognizes the influence of social, cultural, and political context on individual experiences, promoting empowerment and social justice.

Postmodern therapy

Postmodern therapies, including approaches like Narrative Therapy, focus on the stories people construct and live by. Narrative Therapy, for instance, helps clients re-author their lives' stories in more empowering ways, valuing client expertise and adopting a collaborative stance.

Family systems therapy

Family Systems Therapy looks at family relations, communication patterns, and behavior as part of a larger system. Strategic family therapy involves techniques like Structural Family Therapy and the Gottman Method Couples Therapy. These focus on altering family structures and improving communication to resolve issues.


Corey, G. (2017). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.

What are the key differences between counseling theories?
What are the key differences between counseling theories?

Commonly asked questions

What are the key differences between counseling theories?

The key differences between counseling theories lie in their foundational principles, techniques, and approaches to therapy. Each theory offers a unique perspective on human behavior, mental health, and the therapeutic process. For example, humanistic counseling theories emphasize personal growth and self-actualization, while cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors.

What is the most widely used counseling model?

The most widely used counseling model may vary depending on the context and clients' specific needs. However, some prominent counseling models frequently utilized in clinical practice include humanistic, cognitive, behavioral, psychoanalytic, constructionist, and systemic approaches. These models offer distinct frameworks for understanding human behavior and guiding therapeutic interventions. While there is no single "best" approach in counseling, practitioners often integrate elements from different models to create a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan for their clients.

Why are theories important in counseling?

Theories play a fundamental role in counseling by providing a conceptual framework for understanding human behavior, mental health issues, and effective therapeutic interventions. They guide practitioners in assessing clients' needs, formulating treatment plans, and implementing evidence-based practices.

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