Theoretical Approaches

(We thank the BACP for these definitions)

The following is an alphabetical list of commonly used theoretical approaches with brief descriptions of their meanings:

Adlerian Therapy

Adlerian Therapy, originated by Alfred Adler, focuses on creating a therapeutic relationship that is co-operative, encouraging and practical. Adlerian counsellors help clients explore their unique ‘lifestyle’ and ‘private logic’ (their core beliefs about self, others and the world) to increase understanding of and challenge habitual patterns of behaviour and hidden goals. It is an educative process of dialogue, insight, encouragement, re-orientation and enablement towards useful involvement in and contribution to society.

Behavioural Therapy

This therapy is based on the belief that behaviour is learnt in response to past experience and can be unlearnt, or reconditioned, without analysing the past to find the reason for the behaviour. It works well for compulsive and obsessive behaviour, fears, phobias and addictions.

Brief Therapy

This uses the cognitive behavioural approach with a small, planned number of sessions and possibly a single follow-up session after some time has elapsed (see also Solution focused brief therapy)

Cognitive Analytical Therapy

This combines cognitive therapy and psychotherapy and encourages clients to draw on their own resources to develop the skills to change destructive patterns of behaviour. Negative ways of thinking are explored and treatment is structured and directive involving diary-keeping, progress charts, etc.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

This combines cognitive and behavioural techniques. Clients are taught ways to change thoughts and expectations and relaxation techniques are used. It has been effective for stress-related ailments, phobias, obsessions, eating disorders and (at the same time as drug treatment) major depression.

Cognitive Therapy

Uses the power of the mind to influence behaviour. It is based on the theory that previous experiences can adversely affect self-perception and condition attitude, emotions and ability to deal with certain situations. It works by helping the client to identify, question and change self-denigrating thoughts, thus altering habitual responses and behaviour. It can help pessimistic or depressed people to view things from a more optimistic perspective.


Uses action methods, which have their roots in drama, to facilitate creativity, imagination, learning, insight and growth. It provides the opportunity to view difficulties from a new, illuminating angle.

Eclectic Counselling

An eclectic counsellor will select what is applicable to the client from a range of theories, methods and practices. Justification is based on the theory that there is no proof that any one theoretical approach works better than all others for a specific problem.

Existential Counselling

Existentialists believe that life has no essential (given) meaning: any meaning has to be found or created. Existential counselling involves making sense of life through a personal world view and includes a willingness to face one’s life and life problems.

Gestalt Therapy

The name is derived from the German for “organized whole”. Developed by Fritz Perls, it is based on his belief that the human response to experiences is summed up in a person’s thoughts, feelings and actions. The client gains self-awareness by analysing behaviour and body language and giving expression to repressed feelings. Treatment often includes acting out scenarios and dream recall.

Humanistic Psychotherapy

This embraces techniques coming from the “personal growth movement” and encourages people to explore their feelings and take responsibility for their thoughts and actions. Emphasis is on self-development and achieving highest potential rather than dysfunctional behaviour. “Client-centred” or “non-directive” approach is often used and the therapy can be described as “holistic”. The client’s creative instincts may be used to explore and resolve personal issues.


Involves a way of working that induces diminished sensitivity to painful memories or images and can use this to encourage the recall of repressed memories, or to suggest ways to improve coping.

Integrative Counselling

This is when several distinct models of counselling and psychotherapy are used together in a converging way rather than in separate pieces.


Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)

NLP is described as ‘the psychology of excellence’ and sees a world of excellence where people can be facilitated in creating their own choice and flexibility. Presuppositions are used as the basic operating principles, some examples being ‘Human behaviour is purposeful’, ‘we either already have all the resources we need or we can create them’, ‘Modelling successful performance leads to excellence. If one person can do it it is possible to model it and teach it to others’. In NLP, modelling means finding out how someone does something. The core of NLP is the process of replicating excellence.

Person-centred counselling

Devised by Carl Rogers and also called “client-centred” or “Rogerian” counselling, this is based on the assumption that an individual (client), seeking help in the resolution of a problem he /she is experiencing, can enter into a relationship with another individual (counsellor) who is sufficiently accepting and permissive to allow the client to freely express emotions and feelings. This will enable the client to come to terms with negative feelings, which may have caused emotional problems, and develop inner resources. The objective is for the client to become able to perceive him/herself as a person, with the power and freedom to change, rather than as an object.

Primal therapy

This is based on the theory that suppressed birth or infancy traumas can resurface as neuroses. The therapy takes the client back to the “primal scene” where trauma can be re-experienced as an emotional cleansing


This is based on the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed that the unacceptable thoughts of early childhood are banished to the unconscious mind but continue to influence thoughts, emotions and behaviour. “Repressed” feelings can surface later as conflicts, depression, etc or through dreams or creative activities. The analyst seeks to interpret and make acceptable to the client’s conscious mind, troublesome feelings and relationships from the past. “Transference” onto the analyst, of feelings about figures in the client’s life, is encouraged. This type of therapy is often used by clients suffering high levels of distress and can be a lengthy and intensive process.

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy / Counselling

This approach stresses the importance of the unconscious and past experience in determining current behaviour. The client is encouraged to talk about childhood relationships with parents and other significant people and the therapist focuses on the client/therapist relationship (the dynamics) and in particular on the transference. Transference is when the client projects onto the therapist feelings experienced in previous significant relationships. The psychodynamic approach is derived from Psychoanalysis but usually provides a quicker solution to emotional problems.


Sometimes described as “psychology of the soul”, Psychosynthesis aims to integrate or “synthesize” the level of consciousness, at which thoughts and emotions are experienced, with a higher, spiritual level of consciousness. Painting, movement and other techniques can be used to recognize and value different facets of the personality. Psychosynthesis is useful for people seeking a new, more spiritually oriented vision of themselves.

Reality Therapy

Reality therapy is concerned with teaching people more effective ways to deal with the world. Individuals discover more effective ways of meeting needs. It is clients themselves who evaluate their own behaviour and determine what changes, if any, they are prepared to make. The counsellor assists them in designing a plan for change. This can only be achieved by establishing a friendly, trusting atmosphere.



In this approach, emotional or physical traumas during birth are said to create feelings of separation or fear in later life. Breathing techniques are used to release tension whilst the client re-experiences traumatic emotions. A skilled practitioner is essential.

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy

This promotes positive change rather than dwelling on past problems. Clients are encouraged to focus positively on what they do well and to set goals and work out how to achieve them. As little as 3 or 4 sessions may be beneficial.

Systemic Therapies

These are the therapies that have, as their aim, a change in the transactional pattern of family members. It can be used as the generic term for family therapy and marital therapy.

Transactional Analysis (TA)

This is based on the belief that everyone has a child, adult and parent self within them and, within each social interaction, one self predominates. By recognising these roles, a client can choose which one to adopt and so change behaviour. This form of therapy has produced the term “inner child”, used to describe unfulfilled needs from childhood.

Transpersonal Therapy

This describes any form of counselling or therapy which places emphasis on spirituality, human potential or heightened consciousness. It includes psychosynthesis.Of mind and body as a unit: concerned with physical diseases having emotional component.


A term which denotes a range of methods which deal with emotional problems, all of which try to help the client in changing, to better understand her or himself, and help to explore new ways of behaving.


A condition that affects the most basic mental functions that give people the sense of individuality, uniqueness and direction. It can cause people to hallucinate, hear voices, develop feelings of bewilderment or fear and believe that their deepest thoughts, feelings and acts may be known to, or controlled by, others.

Time Line Therapy (TLT)

A method of accessing memories, decisions and experiences which adversely affect our lives and making positive adjustments.

Transpersonal Psychology

Acknowledges human spiritual capacity, our potential for wholeness, and the expansion of consciousness. Jung, Maslow and Assagioli were pioneers in this field. Transpersonal Counselling may include working with dreams, myths, symbols and images.