Theoretical Orientation

Psychologists each have special training in different theoretical orientations, although many psychologists follow a more integrative approach, which draws from each of the orientations depending on the client’s needs. The following list covers the major approaches in psychology. This is not an exhaustive list of orientations, however, it presents a general description of the major theoretical approaches. More than one theoretical orientation can be chosen in a search.

Behavior Therapy

Focuses on overt behavior and emphasizes the removal of those overt symptoms. The goal of this form of treatment is the extinction of maladaptive behaviors and the substitution of more adapative and less anxiety provoking behaviors. Behavior therapy is based upon the principles of learning theories, specifically operant and classical conditioning. In its purity, it focuses solely on behaviors with no emphasis on the client’s private experiences, past, or inner conflicts. It is typically brief in the number of sessions and is often used in the treatment of phobias, compulsions, psychophysiological problems, and sexual dysfunctions.


Is based upon the concept that an individual’s affect and behavior is determined by the way in which the individual structures the world through cognitions and schemas developed from previous experiences. Through therapy, the client becomes aware of their cognitive distortions and works towards changing them. Behavioral techniques are used to test and help change these maladaptive cognitions. Cognitive/Behavioral therapy has been shown to be very successful in the treatment of depression and many other disorders.


The core of existentialism states that the individual defines life’s direction through choices which also gives the individual the responsibility of those choices. This may be a source of anguish for the person. In this therapy, the person is viewed as an individual who is unique and reflects individual perceptions and attitudes. Therapy explores the experience of the client and in what manner mental phenomena present themselves to the client’s consciousness. Humanism comes from the same movement as existentialism and focuses strongly on a person’s sense of self (self-identity and self-esteem). Psychotherapy is geared to helping the client find a sense of security, insight, enthusiasm, and self-identity.


Focuses on improvement in current interpersonal skills and is often used as a brief treatment with depressive disorders. Clients are taught to evaluate their interactions with others and produce an awareness of how those reactions may isolate themselves and contribute to feelings of depression and loneliness. Techniques involve reassurance, clarification of feelings, communication and interpersonal skills, and testing of perceptions. The therapist is supportive and aids the client in making decisions and clarifying areas of conflict.


Derives from the traditional Psychoanalytic theories of Freud involving the resolution of childhood neurosis as it presents itself in transference of the neurosis. The goal of treatment is the gradual integration of previously repressed material into the overall structure of the personality. The therapist needs to prepare the client to deal with anxieties produced by uncovered material to allow successful integration. The therapeutic alliance is key to this type of treatment which involves the patient being open and honest with the therapist, free association, abstinence, and interpretation of transference and countertransference. Traditionally, treatment is long term, but is now implemented in many short term treatments.

Social Learning

Relies on role modeling, identification, and human interactions. This theory combines the ideas of operant and classical conditioning and states that behavior is a result of an interplay between cognitions (thoughts) and the environment. People learn from others and a major goal of this therapy is to help the client develop a sense of self-efficacy, the capacity to adapt to everyday life as well as threatening and anxiety provoking situations as they arise, by modeling and integrating more adaptive responses.


The Systems model comes from the idea that the person is part of an entire system, and that if one part of the system is dysfunctional, all other parts are affected by that, as well as produce that dysfunction. Many factors influence the expression and experience of illness including personality, motivation, culture, environment, and family. The general systems model often focuses on the family systems in which it holds that every action in the family produces a reaction in one or more of its members. Each member of the system plays a role which may change over time and as one person improves. Therapy involves the exploration of the system, the external boundaries, and internal rules in order to help the client(s) become more functional within that system and to make change as necessary. The outcome is an individual and a system that function better.