April 13, 2007

It’s been two decades since I started graduate school to get my master’s in child psychology. When I was choosing a school, some had a strong affiliation with one set of beliefs and practices, while most favored an “eclectic” approach. The student got to study many different theories and views and then integrate them into his own personal view of what makes people do the things they do, what causes psychological disorders, and what works to resolve them.

That seemed like a complete mess!

At 21, I didn’t have enough experience and broad knowledge to choose one belief system and stick with it, so I chose an eclectic school. But for those same reasons I wasn’t prepared to pick and choose from all the various schools of thought to develop my own approach. Many parts of many theories made sense, but a lot was hard to swallow. There was no clear answer.

I found clarity outside the psychology department. I learned play therapy from one of the leading figures in the field, Dr. Garry Landreth. He taught me child-centered play therapy, a specific theoretical approach to a particular population—young children.

I loved it because it made sense and respected the nature of children during the earlier developmental stages. But mostly I loved it for its clarity. I didn’t have to consider conflicting theories and choose from a variety of options. I learned to approach situations from a complete, integrated view that gave me a few options, not dozens.

But when I worked with older children, or adolescents, or adults, I started picking things from other theoretical models. I started with client-centered, meaning I had to pay close attention, hear the feelings not directly spoken, and paraphrase back to help my clients communicate clearly to me. That process makes a client pay close attention to what he’s saying and helps him figure out his own views and beliefs. It’s a powerful tool by itself. But I found myself slowly adding other things.

I added the cognitive-behavioral model, where you help a client see the connections between thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions. It gives him greater awareness so he can act instead of simply reacting.

I used gestalt techniques like imagining a conversation, or even playing out the conversation, with someone not in the room. Or having a client imagine handling a situation in a completely different way. I learned to add symbolic events, like imagining walking out of a room and turning off the light, closing the door, and walking away, to represent closure.

I learned Jung—his symbols, his archetypes, his homage to the unconscious. I doubt I’ll ever become a Jungian analyst, but there were times when a client mentioned a recurring dream or a meaningful storyline from a book or movie, and thanks to Jung I could see the underlying importance.

So I slowly learned to love the freedom of studying different theories and approaches and integrating them into my practice. And there’s the rub.

Coaching as a field is in the process of creating credibility through standard practices. To accomplish this coaching is being pretty narrowly defined. This means the coach’s responses are much more limited than an eclectic therapist’s skills. It’s like being a jazz musician who wants to play classical music—but being told you can only play the flute and perform pieces by Bach.

Psychology is the study of human behavior—all of it, not just disorders. Counseling is the study of the promotion of healthy human growth and development. Both fields should be at the forefront of helping people improve their lives the way coaching does, but they lag far behind. I believe coaching is rising up so quickly because the focus in counseling and psychology has been on psychotherapy for too long.

There will be a dynamic tension between positive psychology and counseling for personal development on one side, and life coaching on the other, for a long time. I will be straddling these fields and integrating them, because I am a counselor trained in psychology who is becoming a coach. I can set aside the role of therapist when I am coaching someone, because the destination is different. But I won’t be able to set aside the role of counselor or student of human behavior. They’re how I understand people.

Right now, today, I consider coaching to be a specialty area within my counseling practice. It is a specific way of promoting personal growth and development, much as play therapy is a specific way of helping young children resolve emotional challenges. I’m sure my understanding will change in many ways in the coming years as I learn more about integrating these new skills and theories into my practice. For now, I’m trying to become the best Psychoachelor I can be.

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey


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