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date: 12 December 2019

A View Across the Life Span of Counseling Psychology

Abstract and Keywords

It has been said of psychology, as a discipline, that it has a long past and a short history. This contrast refers to the roots of psychology in philosophy, medicine, and education that date back over several hundred years—and in the case of philosophy and medicine, several thousand. Counseling psychology has deep roots, as well, although its technical birth was in 1952. At that time, the Division of Personnel and Guidance of the American Psychological Association renamed itself the Division of Counseling Psychology. In this chapter, we consider three domains in which our specialty has begun with deep “roots” and has “leafed” out into new ways of thinking about our work with clients and our broader roles in the communities in which we live. These three domains are a focus on building strengths; a holistic, or systems, perspective; and a collaborative, patient-centered model. We trace the development of these domains, noting where, in other parts of this volume, more complete discussion can be found, and we highlight their current explications.

Keywords: values, history, development

Counseling psychology, as a specialty, officially dates to 1952, when the Division of Counseling and Guidance of the American Psychological Association changed its name to the Division of Counseling Psychology, thus formalizing a specialty in psychology that had increasingly differentiated itself from related psychological specialties to form a unique identity. As discussed in many chapters that follow, counseling psychology is one of three original specialties in psychology (the others being clinical psychology and school psychology). Although these specialties differed in their target client population and the activities engaged in by practitioners identified with the specialty, they shared a commitment to client welfare, to the application of scientific knowledge to assessment and intervention, and to training and education. Their differences, however, are significant and continue to this day.

Readers will find this Handbook divided into four parts. The first part pertains to foundational knowledge and methods. These chapters concern themselves with the basic interactions of counseling—the counseling relationship, a counselor’s assessment of a client, the counselor’s choice of interventions—and how theory, research, and professional context influence these interactions over time. Thus, this part covers those critical issues of methodology, ethics and professional issues, and training and supervision that are foundational to all chapters that follow.

From its inception, counseling psychology has emphasized three themes. The first theme is that psychologists work toward a goal larger than that of removing pathology. Rather, counseling psychologists promote positive health through the identification and enhancement of constructive aspects of human functioning, both personal (p. 4) strengths and available resources. The second theme is that clients are best understood in a systems perspective: When conceptualizing persons, counseling psychologists focus on interacting variables, including developmental stage, the person–environment fit, and external systems acting on the person, including family and community. The third theme is that counseling psychologists are collaborative: They are client-centered, using shared relationships, sensitive to the multicultural components of the interaction, to enhance client welfare and outcomes.

In this chapter, each of these themes will be considered in more detail. The purpose is to define a context for the chapters that follow. By considering both the earliest and the most recent iterations of these themes, we hope that the reader will gain a wider view in which to locate the general and specific information contained in the Handbook chapters.

Promotion of Health

As a discipline, psychologists respond to clients—whether individuals, couples, groups, or organizations—who face difficulties with their emotional and physical well-being. Are clients best assisted when the difficulty is accurately diagnosed and an intervention is made to reduce or remove the difficulty? Or, are they best served when the assessment and intervention process assists clients in identifying their own personal strengths and resources, then reinforces these strengths and resources within the intervention, so that they can serve to prevent future distress? The response to this question is part of the historical differentiation between clinical and counseling psychology, in which clinical psychology has emphasized diagnosis and treatment of disorders, and counseling psychology has emphasized normal development. Louttit (1939) defined clinical psychology as concerned with diagnosing the nature and extent of psychopathology, with abnormalities present even in “normal” persons. In contrast, Gustad (1953) noted counseling psychology’s concern with hygiology, with normalities and strengths present even in “abnormal” persons, and with the identification and promotion of adaptive personal tendencies.

However, the specialties are more recently in convergence on the notion of health promotion as well as remediation. Taken from the websites of clinical and counseling psychology are the following definitions (Division of Clinical Psychology, 2010; Division of Counseling Psychology, 2010):

The field of clinical psychology integrates science, theory, and practice to understand, predict, and alleviate maladjustment, disability, and discomfort as well as to promote human adaptation, adjustment, and personal development. Clinical psychology focuses on the intellectual, emotional, biological, psychological, social, and behavioral aspects of human functioning across the lifespan, in varying cultures, and at all socioeconomic levels.

Counseling psychology as a psychological specialty facilitates personal and interpersonal functioning across the lifespan with a focus on emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental, and organizational concerns. Through the integration of theory, research, and practice, and with a sensitivity to multicultural issues, this specialty encompasses a broad range of practices that help people improve their well-being, alleviate distress and maladjustment, resolve crises, and increase their ability to live more highly functioning lives. Counseling psychology is unique in its attention both to normal developmental issues and to problems associated with physical, emotional, and mental disorders.

A focus on the promotion of mental health was a vital characteristic of early counseling psychologists, most of whom were operating as guidance specialists during the time between World War I and World War II. These early guidance professionals were concerned with the problems of children and adolescents, particularly those from poor urban environments, who left school early and needed to work to support families but were unable to navigate the work world. Frank Parsons, in particular, focused his efforts on the Civic Service House of Boston, where he assisted students in planning their work future. This foundation for guidance was well received, and national interest in “vocational guidance” increased dramatically. Counseling psychologists of that time were also busy developing curriculum to educate and train the persons who would be guidance specialists in the future.

A second vital focus on health was present in the work of Carl Rogers. Rogers (1940), in contrast to the prevailing therapeutic model of his time, proposed that clients were capable of their own emotional growth and adjustment in the presence of the deeply supportive relationship environment provided by a counselor who was warm, genuine, and fully present to the client. This view contrasted with the notion of the counselor as a removed “expert,” whose knowledge would result in a diagnosis of the client and/or the provision of the necessary information to the client for his or her adjustment. Rogers’ work was seconded by an early (p. 5) pioneer of counseling psychology, Leona Tyler, who wrote a seminal text in 1953 entitled The Work of the Counselor, in which she set forth the proposition that the person and presence of the counselor was more important than counseling content or techniques.

As is clearly detailed in many chapters that follow, counseling psychology has maintained this emphasis on health promotion and has transformed it into a promotion of positive psychology. Notably, this promotion of health by identifying and fostering strengths has expanded beyond the individual to the point at which counseling psychologists maintain an advocacy role for clients and a commitment to fostering social justice in systems, organizations, and communities. Within this contemporary commitment, counseling psychologists use research and theory to identify persons at risk of difficulties and to intervene before serious adversity is present. They also promote client welfare beyond the individuals whom they serve, acting as an advocate for community betterment. And, finally, they are focused on social justice as a necessary and appropriate goal for all clients.

Systems Perspective

As stated previously, counseling psychology emerged as a specialty from the vocational guidance movement. Yet, counseling psychology would eventually branch into many different areas, one of which was the area of career development/vocational psychology. This area of counseling psychology is mostly concerned with helping individuals plan for a career. More recently, vocational psychologists have been more concerned with how to help individuals find and maintain gainful employment in the midst of economic crises and downsizing.

Some of the earliest theories in career development were driven by historical and contextual influences. During the Industrial Revolution, there was a need to assist individuals to find the correct “match” in terms of their skills and a specific job. This could be seen most prominently in factory work, where efficiency was considered paramount. As mentioned previously, Frank Parsons, considered to be the founder of modern vocational psychology, was particularly interested in immigrant youth. Parsons believed that the best way to help immigrant youth find work was to help them find a job that was “a function of the fit between a person’s capacities and characteristics on one hand and the requirements of routines of the occupation on the other” (Parsons, 1909). Parsons was a frequent lecturer at a Boston settlement home established to assist neighborhood immigrant residents to develop English fluency and complete high school. His favorite topic was the importance of matching one’s abilities to a vocation. Largely, Parson’s work was built upon the premise of creating a more efficient society by assisting youth in becoming and staying employed in occupations that would provide them with life’s necessities and ultimately assist them in transcending poverty.

From Parson’s work emerged the trait factor approaches to career planning and development. For example, Holland’s (1959) theory of vocational choice is centered on the premise that an individual’s personality and occupational environments can be matched, and the greater the match, the more successful the person will be in his or her chosen career. Holland developed a series of personality instruments and theoretical positions that outline this model in great detail. Another theory that was developed around the same time was the theory of work adjustment (TWA; Dawis, Lofquist, & Weiss, 1968), which is the only major theory that took into account both the needs and interests of the worker, as well as the needs and interests of the work environment. Very briefly, TWA outlines important relationships between the needs of the individuals and the requirements of the particular workplace and the constant adjustment between the two.

More recently, vocational psychologists have been interested in the application of developmental psychology perspectives to career development and to vocational psychology to explain the career development process for disenfranchised groups. For example, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1977) has been used to explain the career development of women in poverty and women of color. Ecological systems theory is a developmental theory that takes into account the multiple systemic influences and interactions that occur for a given individual. Bronfenbrenner asserts that each individual operates within a series of nested systems in which development occurs (e.g., family, culture, government), and that the individual is an active participant in many of these systems and therefore, is not simply acted upon by the system but also influences and changes the environment. This perspective has been used within vocational psychology/counseling psychology to understand the complexity of career development from a multicultural standpoint, and it takes into account that human behavior and development (p. 6) varies depending on the context in which it is occurring. Although Bronfenbrenner’s theory has been developed for over 40 years, the application of the model to vocational psychology, career development, and counseling psychology is relatively new.

Collaborative, Client-centered Model

Perhaps the strongest characteristic of counseling psychology, particularly in comparison to the two closely related specialties of clinical and school psychology, is its emphasis on the collaborative nature of the relationship between counselors and clients. A view of the client as working in a collaborative relationship with the counselor carries with it several important components. First, since the client and counselor are working together, the client’s view of the nature of his or her distress and its origins carries as much weight as the counselor’s view. Thus, the counselor is not the source of information as the expert on the client’s condition so much as the counselor facilitates the client’s self-exploration, whereby both client and counselor gain valuable insights into the client. Second, the counselor respects the client in the counseling relationship as a partner in both assessment and intervention processes. Clients are not “cured” by counselors; rather, clients work in relationships with counselors to achieve important outcomes, including, as noted above, the identification and promotion of personal and contextual strengths.

Perhaps the earliest explication of these views was in Tyler’s 1953 book, referred to earlier. In her writing, she emphasized the individuality of each client and each counselor, and the unique nature of their interaction. Therefore, although technique and knowledge are critical, they are not enough. As Tyler noted in a later edition of her book (1969), “at the heart of the counseling process is a meeting of counselor and client. Whether they meet for 15 or 50 minutes, whether they talk about symptoms, explore feelings, or discuss facts and schedules… whatever influence counseling has is related most closely to the nature of the relationship that grows out of this encounter” (p. 33).

A related view of the importance of a collaborative model of counselor and client is the collaborative model of training and education adopted in counseling psychology programs, namely the scientist–practitioner model. This model, established originally at the Boulder Conference, articulated the essential importance of the relationship of science and practice. During graduate education and after, a dual emphasis on the scientist–practitioner model (Altmaier & Claiborn, 1987) allows the integration of both scientific activities and modes of thinking with the art of therapy. Thus, scholarship and practice share reciprocal and essential functions in the advancement of science and clinical work.

This emphasis on collaboration between counselor and client resulted in significant thinking about essential tasks of the counselor, who must be “present” for clients. In particular, how cultural differences between counselor and client influence successful or unsuccessful outcomes were considered. Recently, counseling psychology has been characterized by and differentiated from clinical and school psychology in its emphasis on critical aspects of the multicultural interaction between counselor and client. The second part of this Handbook identifies essential elements of multicultural knowledge, attitudes, and skills. As noted in the definition of counseling psychology presented earlier, counseling psychologists carry a sensitivity to multiculturalism into all their activities, ranging from counseling and therapy to testing to research to supervision and training. Much of the current work in the field of psychology in these areas has been accomplished by counseling psychologists. Although multiculturalism in its earliest meaning was defined primarily as racial differences between counselor and client, counseling psychology now promotes the view of each encounter between two people as a multicultural encounter. As chapters in this part consider, gender, social class, and sexual minority concerns are examples of cultural encounters in which counseling psychologists have contributed to current knowledge.


Counseling psychology is engaged in exhilarating new directions, as well as continuing time-honored domains of contributions. The fourth and fifth parts of the Handbook cover both of these applications. The fourth part considers how counseling psychologists have traditionally assisted clients who are individuals, groups, couples, or families, and who have a variety of identified difficulties. The fifth part identifies “intersections,” new areas of practice that have recently developed as counseling psychologists have embraced previously underserved client populations—clients with medical concerns, school-aged children, persons who have experienced trauma—and used both the specialty’s roots and its leaves to explicate theories and applications that build on the traditional strengths (p. 7) of counseling psychology in new ways. Increasingly, counseling psychologists operate outside of the borders of the United States, and our last chapter opens the boundaries of our specialty even wider, by identifying the increasing internationalism of counseling psychology.

All of the chapter authors share a deep commitment to our specialty, as well as recognized expertise in the areas they encompass in their chapters. We acknowledge with gratitude their work in bringing historical strengths, current directions, and the exciting future agenda of our specialty.


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