A psychotherapist’s approach to therapy is as unique as they are. Most professional therapists are educated in a number of approaches. This psychotherapeutic orientation combines with the therapist’s personality and a style eventually develops.
There are a number of recognized approaches to psychotherapy and most therapists use a combination of several approaches in their day-to-day practice. This typically works to the client’s advantage as most approaches have considerable overlap.
It is of some debate as to whether one approach to therapy is superior over another. In fact, research indicates that there are common elements outside of the therapeutic approach that influence the outcome of therapy.
A number of studies have shown that it is the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client that has the strongest effect on the overall result. Regardless of therapeutic orientation, the therapist needs important skills such as empathic listening, reflection, and teaching.
There are four major categories of psychotherapeutic approaches commonly used among therapists: Psychodynamic, Humanistic-Existential, Cognitive-Behavioral, and Transpersonal. The following is a brief overview of each of these approaches.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy is a form of therapy where the primary focus is uncovering the unconscious content of a client’s psyche with the hope of alleviating psychic tension. The therapist’s primary objective is changing problematic behaviors, feelings, and thoughts by finding unconscious meanings and motivations
Psychodynamic psychotherapy relies heavily on the interpersonal relationship between client and therapist. The sessions are characterized by a close therapeutic partnership and the client learns about themselves by exploring their interactions in the context of that relationship.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) emphasizes what the client thinks rather than what they do. Cognitive-behavioral therapists believe dysfunctional thoughts trigger dysfunctional emotions and behaviors. By changing the way the client thinks, they can change how they feel and what they do.
CBT draws from behavioral and cognitive psychology. CBT is solution-focused and action-oriented in that it typically treats specific diagnosed mental disorders. It was originally developed to treat depression, but is now used for a number of psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety disorders and eating disorders. The methods used in CBT are based on the premise that thought distortions and maladaptive behaviors influence the development and continuation of psychological disorders.
Humanistic and existential psychotherapies are characterized by the need to understand human experience and focusing on the client rather than the symptom. Psychological problems are seen as the result of inability to make authentic, meaningful, and self-directed choices with regards to life. The humanistic-existential therapist attempts to increase the client’s self-awareness and self-understanding so they can make more informed choices.
Humanistic and existential psychotherapies emphasize maximizing human potential, self-determination and the search for meaning. Compassionate and service to others are also considered important. The therapist helps the client to change by emphasizing deep concern, care and interest.
Transpersonal psychotherapy focuses on the mind-body connection, spirituality, consciousness, and human transformation. Key features of this type of therapy include interventions based on holism and ego-transcended psychology.
The transpersonal therapist stresses the recognition of the spiritual, social, emotional, intellectual, physical and creative elements of the client. The therapist assists the client in discovering their personal divinity as a part of their ongoing growth and development.
As mentioned earlier, most therapists don’t limit themselves to just one approach. Instead, they blend elements from various approaches and tailor their treatment to meet the need of each client.
Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.
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