Counseling and Action

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Counseling and Action
Richard A. Young • José F. Domene
Ladislav Valach
Counseling and Action
Toward Life-Enhancing Work,
ISBN 978-1-4939-0772-4
ISBN 978-1-4939-0773-1 (eBook)
Springer New York Heidelberg Dordrecht London
© Springer New York 2015
from Springer. Permissions for use may be obtained through RightsLink at the Copyright Clearance
Center. Violations are liable to prosecution under the respective Copyright Law.
We are indebted to the contributing authors of this book. Without their work, there
would be no book. In this case of this volume, we are especially appreciative of the
chapter authors for different reasons. In Part I, leading vocational and counseling
psychologists accepted the challenge to address counseling and action from their
own conceptual perspectives and with their own expertise. Thus, the major current
themes in the field have been discussed in relation to counseling and action. In
Part III, the chapter authors acted on a different challenge for which we are equally
grateful. Here the authors had used contextual action theory in research or applica
tion and are able to address the relation of action and counseling from the perspec
tive of having engaged in research and practice using this perspective. We also ac
knowledge the contribution in the form of an Infrastructure Grant from the Faculty
of Education, University of British Columbia that supported some of the technical
and clerical work involved in the preparation of this volume. We are also indebted
to Danika Overmars who did the initial copyediting of the text. We appreciated the
support and guidance of Jennifer Hadley of Springer Science and Business Media.
Finally, we are ultimately indebted to our students, colleagues, families, and friends
who contributed to the work that inspired this volume in so many different and
Richard A. Young
Jose F. Domene
Ladislav Valach

Counseling and Action

Richard A. Young, José F
. Domene and Ladislav Valach
Action and Counseling Approaches and Issues

Designing Projects for Career

Mark L. Savickas

Career Counseling: Joint Contributions of
Action Theory and the Systems Theory Framework

Wendy Patton

Agentic Action in Context

Mary Sue Richardson

Motivation and Volition in V
An Action Control Perspective


Processes of Identity Construction in Liquid Modernity:


Career and Identity Construction in Action:
A Relational View


Emotion-Focused Psychotherapy: An Alternative
Framework for Career

Jeanne C. Watson
Counseling and Contextual Action Theory

Action in Counselling: A Contextual Action

José F. Domene, Ladislav Valach and Richard
A. Young

Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of
Contextual Action Theory

Ladislav Valach, Richard A.
Young and José F. Domene

Applying Contextual Action Theory in Counseling

Counseling Adolescents from an Action

Sheila K. Marshall, Margo Nelson, Kristen Goessling,

Counseling Intentional Addiction Recovery Grounded in


Adolescent Eating Disorders: A Contextual Action
Approach to Family-Based Counseling

Krista Socholotiuk

Contextual Action Theory Framework in Counseling
Families of Children with


The Action of Mindfulness in Counseling

Brenda Yaari Dyer

A Contextual Action Theory Perspective on Self-Efficacy in


Counseling Women: Feminist Perspectives and Contextual

Natalee E. Popadiuk

Suicide and Counseling for Suicidality

Ladislav Valach and Richard A.

Counseling Processes and Procedures

Richard A. Young, Ladislav
Valach and José F. Domene

Vancouver, BC, Canada
Jean-Paul Br
Centre de Recherche en
School of Social W
ork/Division of Adolescent Health and
Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Department of Educational and
Counselling Psychology and
Special Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Deirdre Curle
Department of Educational and
Counselling Psychology
and Special Education, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, BC, Canada
José F. Domene
Faculty of Education, University
of New Brunswick, Fredericton,
Brenda Yaari Dyer
Department of Educational
and Counselling Psychology,
and Special Education, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Department of Education, Ben
Gurion University of the Negev,
Beer-Sheva, Israel
Department of Educational
and Counselling Psychology and
Special Education, University of
British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
OrionHealth, Surrey, BC, Canada
Institut National d’Etude du
Travail et d’Orientation
Professionnelle, Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris, France
School of Social W
ork/Division of Adolescent Health and
Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Margo Nelson
School of Social W
ork, University of British Columbia, Vancouver,
Wendy Patton
Faculty of Education, Queensland
University of Technology,
Brisbane, QLD, Australia
Carey Grayson Penner
Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, BC, Canada
Department of Educational Psychology
and Leadership
Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada
Research Centre on Psychology
, Health and Quality of Life,
Department of Applied Psychology
, Steinhardt School of
Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University, New York,
Department of Family
and Community Medicine, Northeastern
Ohio Medical University, Rootstown, OH, USA
Krista Socholotiuk
Department of Educational and
Counselling Psychology and
Special Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Ladislav Valach
Jeanne C. Watson
Department of Applied
Psychology and Human Development,
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON,
Richard A. Young
Department of Educational
and Counselling Psychology and
Special Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Department of School
Counseling and Special Education,
Constantiner School of Education, Tel-Aviv University, Tel-Aviv, Israel
Chapter 1
Counseling and Action
Richard A. Young, José F. Domene and Ladislav Valach
Springer New York 2015
University of British Columbia, V
ancouver, BC, Canada
Counseling is an action. It has a goal and develops goals. It occurs in
time and
space. It involves the conscious and unconscious behavior of both clients and coun
selors. It depends on their internal and external resources such as their ability to
communicate with each other, having a place where counseling occurs, and a pro
gram in which it is lodged. Counseling also involves both counselors and clients
or in the definition of the profession
previously developed by the
American Psychological Association (American Psy
chological Association
). Action has been so obvious and taken-for-granted in
the counseling literature that only seldom have authors reflected on it in depth (e.g.,
) and virtually never have they offered an explicit conceptualization
of it. Where the term action is used in this literature, it often refers to something
that counseling serves to prepare clients for. To counsel often meant to help a cli
ent come to a direction or decision relative to an action. For example, in tradition
of social cognitive theory, action is understood as
execution of cognitive processes
. In the counseling literature, for example, Hill and O’Brien (
in their introductory text suggest that action is the final stage of counseling that is
based on prior stages of
exploration and insight. Many authors continue to recog
nize that action is an important component of counseling, most frequently as a result
of counseling or characteristic of some final phase. Egan (
, for example, is
particularly articulate in proposing action as a counseling outcome and has identi
skills to facilitate client action. Yes, the client’s action is an outcome
of counseling. Because of the pervading notion that action follows from counsel
ing, but not part of the counseling
process, one can see how counseling came to be
understood as a kind of preparatory stage for action in which the problems are ar
ticulated, self-insight is gained,
information transmitted and processed, and so forth.
However, that is not the only understanding of action and counseling. Counseling
and action involve much more than considering action as a kind of final stage or
outcome behavior to which counseling contributes. Indeed, to relegate action sim
ply to what may happen following counseling may be to substantially undervalue its
primacy in counseling itself, as we and others argue in this book.
Although practicing counselors may not use the term
often, they may have
a different view of action and counseling than the ones represented in traditional
counseling texts. Counselors, like people generally, attribute their own and others’
behavior as goal-directed (Vallacher
. They organize their own engagement
in counseling as directed toward certain goals. For example, in the client–counselor
encounter, the counselor is aware of or asks herself, “what does the client want to
communicate? What does he want to hear? What feelings does he want me to under
stand?” These examples can be multiplied a hundredfold in every aspect of the coun
selor’s work. In effect, the counselor is using a naïve theory of action (Heider
more recently referred to as a theory of mind (Paal and Bereczkei
; Tomasello
However, it is not only how the counselors make sense of their own their
clients’ behavior that is important. Clients are also constructing their current behavior
as goal-directed and their lives as a series of goal-directed actions. This way of think
ing on the part of clients and counselors is particularly important as a starting point
for the book that follows. While the naïve theory of action to some extent captures
what is going on in the client–counselor encounter, a much fuller and more explicit
understanding of action in counseling is needed if its full potential is to be realized.
Counselors want to understand both the complexity of what is happening between
themselves and their clients and the actions in which clients are engaging in their
phenomena fully.
Counseling and Action
The purpose of this book is to elaborate on the complex and important role that
action has in counseling. It addresses not only the significant issue of the actions
that clients take as a result of counseling, but also, importantly, how counseling
itself is an action
process. Furthermore, it connects the actions prior to, during and
after counseling to important life projects and careers that can be life-enhancing, or
The Challenges of Counseling and Action
The challenge of considering counseling and action is embedded in some funda
mental issues in psychology, society, and how professionals intervene in people’s
lives. The counseling literature has recognized the significant conditions and social
; Yakushko and Mor
. At the same time, developments in counseling
brought about by new research, the global expansion of the field, an increase in the
range of applications for counseling practice, broad societal expectations of its im
portant role in addressing social problems, and increased sophistication of methods
The disciplines of counseling and counseling psychology have been scrutinized
and critiqued on a range of issues. Some critiques have been epistemological, some
concerned the relationship between theory and practice, others complained about
the conceptual antiquity of counseling theories, and still others pointed to the social
change counseling failed to mirror (e.g., Murdock et
Vera and Speight
. There have also been numerous attempts to introduce to
counseling relevant concepts from other disciplines such as feminism, develop
mental psychology, general and social
psychology, and cultural anthropology (e.g.,
Gielen et
; LaFromboise et
It became clear
that a contemporary approach to counseling would have to develop
changes, in the last 30 years there has been a creative ex
plosion in formulating new approaches to counseling (e.g., Gold
. Some of these approaches are characterized by specific inno
vations, for example, narrative, relational, and emotionally focused therapies; oth
ers are considered comprehensive approaches, for example, systems theory. Rather
than being simply another way of doing things, another counseling manual, ap
proaches such as narrative, relational, and emotionally focused represent important
new ways to frame and understand counseling in the context of the complexity of
people’s lives and changing conditions.
Counseling and counseling psychology can be challenged because of their con
ceptual framework. Historically, counseling psychology had differentiated itself
from clinical
psychology by focusing on difficult but typical life concerns and
work is the major part, have been discussed, conceptualized, and analyzed. Despite
the importance of everyday work, it cannot provide a blueprint for the many other
activities in which individuals engage. This challenge has been recognized and ad
These significant social developments in counseling psychology point to the need
for an inclusive conceptual framework that can speak simultaneously to context and
the person within context. The authors of this book invite us to consider action as
such a framework. Action is meaningful in various contexts and among different
In the first section of this book, the authors concentrate on a number of impor
tant issues and ways they have been recently conceptualized, namely,
constructivism, intentionality, systems, values, culture, emotion, and identity. These
issues are central to current counseling theory and practice. They are also issues
that counselors cannot but address on a daily basis. The authors of the chapters in
Part I recognize that new, more sophisticated frameworks are needed to adequately
respond to changing social conditions, new knowledge, and different expectations
for counseling. In addition, each author provides an important and different discus
sion relevant to contextual action theory—the theory we describe and comment on
in the second part of this book. Each chapter in Part I implicitly points to contextual
action theory as a comprehensive conceptual framework for counseling practice.
Further development in counseling suggests their integration in light of action and
action theory. These eight issues are briefly introduced in the following.
planning, seeking, engaging in, and experiencing counseling, be it as a client or
counselor, one is relating to another person. This relating implies communicating
and interacting with the other person and thus implicitly formulating an understand
ing of intentional reciprocal behavior. Current developments in various disciplines
allows us to see such an encounter in relational terms that is, not simply as a meet
ing of two individuals but as a relationship, a relating (e.g., Gergen
important theoretical innovation reaches far beyond the situation of a personal en
counter in its application. The physical and social world is not defined as a universe
of objects but of relationships (ontology); the process of gaining knowledge is not
Counseling and Action
mirroring an external reality that exists outside the mind but as a
process of relating (epistemology). Consequently, contemporary counseling theory
and practice need to consider these views, incorporate them into its conceptual
framework, and implement them in counseling practice, especially in light of the
centrality of the therapeutic relationship.
Constructivism and constructionism are terms that have become increasingly more
common in counseling. Our worlds, our individual and social lives are no longer
considered givens to be uncovered, as if they are preexisting artifacts waiting for
the archeologist’s trowel and pick axe. Constructivism, which has permeated disci
plines ranging from quantum physics to art and architecture, suggests that people
are active in engaging in their worlds and constructing it as they engage in it. The
relating that we described above is about something. New realities are not solely
coincidental sediments of interacting, exchanging, and relating. They are new con
structions, results of the process of constructing. It has been recognized that this
process is more than the instrumental building or assemblage while handling mate
rial objects (Berger and Luckman
ing is the core process of our existence and whatever we do, we engage in a pro
cess of constructing (Gergen
Constructionism is important for
counseling theory and practice. Clients in counseling are engaged in constructing
When the relational and constructivist views are linked, counselors are able to
implement the concept of relational construction instead of “providing informa
tion,” “using counseling skills,” or “finding an occupation suited the personality of
There is no doubt of the importance of identity for the understanding and practice
of counseling, indeed to Western psychology generally. For example, it has been
integrally involved in the
development of
adolescence and the transition to
. It is also seen as important to all phases of
life. It is
a construct that is particularly important in counseling because many life problems
have been conceptualized around issues of identity and the self. For example, there
is an ever-increasing literature on the development of bi-cultural identity (e.g., Ellis
. Even
more to the point is the claim of Hermans
and Dimaggio (
that, irrespective of issues of
migration, in this modern soci
Counseling and Action
Intentionally constructing relational systems in counseling and in work, family, and
social life does not occur in a vacuum. Culture provides the content and context of
cultural embedding and roots of their work for granted, as these were considered un
changeable and definitely ordered. Counseling practitioners always have the chal
lenge of being in and constructing the culture of the present moment, although they
may have been less aware of this process as active cultural construction. However,
for theorists and practitioners, culture, and specifically multi-cultural counseling
have become central to the counseling enterprise (e.g., Comas-Diaz
; Fouad
and Arredondo
. These
and other authors have suggested
that culture should be observed and considered in counseling; that it is more than a
number of language bound behavioral
patterns. Instead, culture has been concep
tualized as an ongoing process that impacts actions, is constructed by actions, and
is realized by and in actions (Boesch
. These actions are individual as well
as joint; they are actions in projects as well as in careers. Thus, the challenge for
counseling and counseling psychology is to be knowledgeable of the traditions that
study culture not only comparatively but also in the process of culture making and
The relational, constructionist,
and intentional system embedded in a larger cultural
context described heretofore might give counselors enough instrumental
achieve specific goals with their clients. However, there is still no guarantee that
this power will be used for the betterment and well being of people, humanity, and
our world. Thus, it has been suggested that, in their practice, counselors adhere to
certain values in regards to their goals and means and assumptions about their im
). Values do not solely guide the counselors’ personal
behavior; they also guide the conceptual and practical decisions in their work. For
example, the notions of the responsible, goal-directed human being, of
among people, and particularly between clients and professionals, are value driven.
They are values to which counselors can adhere even if they are only implicitly
Heesacher and Bradley (
acknowledged the primacy of emotion in counsel
ing. More recent evidence has suggested that emotion has become somewhat of a
, for example, the recognition of emotionally focused therapy as an em
pirically supported treatment, the extensive research of emotion in
Counseling and Action
Bandura, A. (1986).
A social cognitive theory
wood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Barrett, L. F., & Wager, T. (2006). The structure of emotion: Evidence from the neuroimaging of
Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15,
Bedi, R. P., Haverkamp, B. E., Beatch, R., Cave, D., Domene, J. F., Harris, G. E., et
al. (2011).
Counselling psychology
in a Canadian context: Definition and description.
ogy, 52,
Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966).
The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology
Boesch, E. E. (2012). Culture: Result and condition of action. In J. Valsiner (Ed.),
The Oxford
Handbook of Culture and Psychology
Brown, S. D.,
& Lent, R. W. (Eds.). (2008).
York: Wiley.
Comas-Diaz, L. (2012).
Mead, G. H. (1934).
473–495). Washington, DC:
American Psychological Association.
Yoder, J. D., Snell, A. F., & Tobias, A. (2012). Balancing multicultural competence with social
justice: Feminist beliefs and optimal psychological functioning.
Action and Counseling Approaches
Chapter 2
Designing Projects for Career Construction
Springer New York 2015
goal of encouraging clients to take actions to improve their
lives, and these actions occur both within the counseling session and outside it.
The present book, unlike most books on counseling, highlights this action. The edi
tors propose goal-directed action as an integrative conceptualization for counseling
practice. They offer action theory as a comprehensive approach that may be used to
integrate models of practice that concentrate on
narratives, on relationships, or on
emotions. The editors also highlight action theory as a general approach that applies
to various life
domains including career counseling, relationship counseling, crisis
counseling, and so forth. In this book, they have organized colleagues and collabo
rators to discuss how they approach actions from a range of theoretical perspectives.
The goal for the chapters is to systematically relate diverse counseling models to the
The present chapter applies the action theory model to counseling for career
construction (Savickas
). This chapter explains how practitioners view action
while conducting career construction counseling. Thus, this chapter concentrates
on a single life domain, namely, the theater of work. While action has always been
an implicit part of the career construction model, its central role has been underde
veloped both conceptually and practically. So, I welcome the opportunity to closely
study contextual action
theory, relate it to career construction counseling, and then
use it to further elaborate and improve career
construction counseling theory. The
chapter begins by describing seven perspectives shared by action theory and career
construction counseling theory.
Perspectives Shared by Action Theory and Career
Action theory (AT)
and career construction counseling theory (CT) share in com
mon several critical features. They both emphasize the flow from practice to theory
rather than from theory to
practice; the fidelity and fluidity of individuals; the epis
temology of social constructionism; and the prominent role of identity and adapt
ability as meta-competencies.
AT and CT both begin with practice. Rather than developing a theory and then
applying it to practice, AT and CT
theorize practice. Counseling practice is always
ahead of theory because practitioners must respond to the
needs and goals that
clients bring to consultation.
These issues emerge from their current context, which
itself develops faster than theory can account for it. Theory must, in a sense, catch
up with the realties that clients bring to counseling. Accordingly, both AT and CT
concentrate on the actions of individuals, the context in which the actions occur, and
the meaning they give to their actions. Both AT and CT recognize that career
opment theorists have been preoccupied with confirming the veracity of their mod
els of
vocational behavior, without examining how their theories might be applied
to assisting individuals in counseling. For many years professors and practitioners
mistakenly took theories of career development to be theories of counseling, but
they are not (Savickas
). Career development theories portray careers yet say
little about how to intervene in fostering them. Practitioners need counseling theo
ries that provide them with models for and methods of intervention. Also, models
and methods of vocational guidance are just that, they are methods for guiding and
advising not counseling. Taking models of vocational guidance to be career coun
seling models has led to many counselors and professors of counseling eschewing
an interest in what has been called career counseling but usually performed as vo
cational guidance. Both AT and CT concentrate squarely on developing counseling
models that theorize effective practices and integrate theories of career develop
, pp.
tivist perspectives
on human beings. Essentialists concentrate on the
stability of
enduring attributes of the self, including personality traits and vocational
Narrativists concentrate on the flexibility of the self as fluid through experienc
es and changing by narrating life-shaping stories. The premise of essentialism or
narrativism taken to its extreme generates difficult problems in conceptualizing
counseling practice. AT and CT avoid either extreme in staking out a middle ground
that avoids an either/or split position. AT recognizes the long-term persistence of an
individual’s identity while at the same time acknowledging an ongoing process that
, p.
90). CT endorses
both the
fidelity and flexibility of individuals in viewing the steadfastness of self-as-actor in
maintaining a persona and reputation and viewing the flexibility of self-as-author in
Both AT and CT apply a social
constructionist epistemology in asserting that people
construct their own lives and careers through action. Both models attend to the
social nature of construction by viewing it as “joint action” or “co-construction”.
Actions that construct selves
are viewed as performing narratives that are rife with
intentionality, meaning-making, and mattering. Narrative is about who you are, ac
tion is about performing you on a social stage. Through action in the theater of work,
two meta-competen
cies that foster navigating transitions, namely identity and
adaptability. Relying
on self-knowledge and knowing when and how to make career changes fosters the
smoothness of transitions. For AT, the meta-competencies that direct action involve
17). CT also highlights
meta-competencies in terms of the self-as-author’s identity and the self-as-
agent’s adaptability. In career construction theory, identity involves an understand
roles and environmental contexts while adaptability
involves the readiness and
resources needed to cope with developmental tasks, oc
cupational transitions, and work traumas in these social roles and environmental
Both AT and CT view humans as being in action. CT fully accepts George Kelly’s
premise that human beings are a form of motion. To be alive is to move; to
be human is to act. This premise means that neither CT nor AT need to focus on
the issue of
motivation as fueling or energizing behavior because people are al
ways in movement. Instead of concentrating on motivation—or how to make people
move—these two theories concentrate
attention on individuals’ direction and style
of movement. CT sees the direction of movement as toward equilibrium with the
environment. When a current adaptation or
punctuated equilibrium
al. (
defined transitions as goal-directed
actions that are most readily understood as a
project. From this astute perspective, career
their projects of adapting to a work-role transition. The goal of CT is to assist clients
in making transitions. Young et
al. (
project. For CT, the project of counseling is constructing the client’s adaptation
Action/Project/Career or Actor/Agent/Author
Both AT and CT view action as behavior infused with meaning. CT views action
across a panorama of
actor, agent, and author. Initially, it surveys the person engag
ing in the action, that is, the actor. The actor portrays some character in each action
episode. This character may be viewed subjectively as a self-concept and objec
tively as a persona with a reputation. As children develop their characters they slow
ly become agents in their own lives. As agents they direct their action in
goals, which eventually become
hierarchically arranged projects. As emerging
adults, individuals begin to author a life story. This narrative identity conveys what
meaningful to them across projects. The binding power of narrative continuity
and coherence transforms the sequence of projects into a consequential career. So
the panorama of CT views action as involving the behavior of the actor, striving of
explanation of the author.
The CT language of actor, agent, and author relates directly to the AT language
of action, project, and career. The actor is about goal-directed action in the short-
term; the agent is about projects that link actions across a mid-term; and the author
is about career and the long-term meanings of action projects. AT focuses attention
squarely on agency and clients as agents in their own lives. CT views agency as
“adaptability,” one of the two meta-competencies for constructing a career. Because
AT shares more with CT’s view of the agent than with its views of the actor or
author, the remainder of this chapter will examine the relationships between AT’s
innovative conception of career counseling as a transition project and CT’s concep
tion of counseling to increase agency and adaptation.
This topic merits attention because, in sum, AT and CT both emphasize that
practice precedes and informs theory, individuals are both steadfast and flexible,
vided to them, the meta-competencies of identity and adaptability can play a promi
steering and informing goal-directed action to bridge transitions, human
beings move so motivation is about steering behavior, and career counseling is a
transitive project. The next section describes how AT can inform CT, in particular
elaborating CT’s views on career counseling as a project that seeks to increase
clients’ agency and adaptation as they transit from school-to-work, occupation-to-
occupation, and job-to-job. This inquiry begins with examining how AT and CT,
despite sharing many perspectives, rest on different premises about counseling as
Premises of Career Construction Counseling
AT and CT differ in how they conceptualize the transition project and how to
approach it in counseling.
al. (
prefer to view transition projects
as not predetermined. They recommend approaching transition projects as the cli
ent sees them and then jointly constructing the projects with the appropriate goal-
action. While it is difficult to disagree with this view, CT prefers viewing
transition projects through the lens of socially constructed expectations or develop
mental tasks. The tasks that compose the transition project, and conceptualized by
the individual are in a broader sense predetermined by society’s grand narrative of
, p.
16) accurately see the
developmentalist view of CT
as proposing what is necessary for a successful transition. They prefer instead to
look at what is actually happening in the actions of the transition and how a person
conceptualizes and organizes these actions.
As an example of the difference in AT and CT premises, let us consider a case
that involves a mother helping her daughter apply to college (Young et
14). Taking a
psychosocial view, CT conceptualizes this action as implementing
a choice, hopefully based on crystallized preferences and a specific decision. Young
colleagues prefer not to view this as a developmental task but rather focus on
the intentions of the person involved. They encourage counselors to appreciate how
about. It seems that AT focuses on the current actions and the intentionality that in
forms it, while CT includes the antecedents and consequences that shape the present
behavior. Of course, there is overlap, yet the differences lead CT to a different view
Transition Tasks as Habitus
) state that there may be substantial overlap in how a person
conceptualizes actions and what
is expected culturally and chronologically. Pos
sibly, AT would accept the construct of
to explain the overlap. The French
internalization of social
structures that
inhabit the mind as acquired mental schema
ta and expectations. Developmental tasks seem to
function as a habitus in
individuals with meanings they
can use to interpret their transitions and
Developmental tasks represent an
interpenetration of objective divisions of the
social world and an
individual’s subjective vision of them, causing a correspon
dence and interplay between an individual’s mental structures and a community’s
social structures (Guichard and Cassar
. They offer an account that people use
to understand themselves and others. On the one hand, developmental tasks enable
individuals to think about and take stock of their transitions and adaptation by us
ing social schemata provided by society. On the other hand, developmental tasks
enable other people including counselors to comprehend an individual’s personal
experience and private meaning by embedding it in and systematically organizing
it according to a dominant social structure. In addition to providing a commonsense
framework, developmental tasks synchronize individuals to their culture by tell
ing them in advance how their transitions should proceed. Individuals enact their
unique version of these transition scripts in a particular historical era, given loca
tion, and specific opportunity structure that discriminates by race, age, sex, religion,
and class. As a social script for progressing through an orderly sequence of predict
able tasks in a cycle of adaptation, developmental tasks give hope and security to
many people. Nevertheless, there are other people whose experience does not fit the
story. Instead of progressing in transit to new adaptation, some people encounter
barriers that force them to regress, drift, flounder, stagnate, or stop.
Adaptation Tasks
The CT views the project of transition from the perspective of a pre-determined
script of effective responses for making an adaptation. Simply stated, the outline of
adaptive actions
exploration, stabilization, maintenance, and
disengagement. The script can be applied to the example of applying to a college.
The CT examines the adaptive process beginning with the need to orient oneself
to the project of attending college. It quickly moves to the exploration of
colleges to attend
based on self and circumstances. This exploration eventually
leads to a
commitment to a particular college or small group of colleges and the task
of applying to them. Having secured a position at a college, the individual stabilizes
that choice by enrolling in the college, then mastering its requirements and maintain
progress through the curriculum, and eventually disengaging from that punctuated
adaptation by graduating. However before graduation, the individual must initiate
a new project involving the school-to work-transition. Similarly to AT, CT would
attend to how the individual views the task of college application, but would view
the client’s meaning-making and actions through a social lens of expectations about
its place in a sequence of adaptation.
counselor would use the adaptation script as a habitus to understand the
individual’s narrative about the college application and the transition project. This
is where the counselor’s expertise enters the picture. Counselors bring their own
expert knowledge and professional skill to the collaboration. Counselors are experts
in how to help individuals grow in self-knowledge and develop as a person dur
ing transitions. While clients know themselves and are experts on their own lives,
25). In the language of CT, the goals of career counseling
, narratability, and
245). Counselors use these superordinate
goals to steer or guide what happens
during counseling. But first, the counselor has to form a working
alliance in which to
establish these goals and have a client commit to engage in the processes that move
toward these goals. According to AT, the counselor steers toward the goal of what is
useful to the client, controls the session by identifying steps needed to reach goals,
and regulates the session by responding to affect and meaning-making processes.
CT has a highly developed structure for steering joint action, identifying steps in the
counseling project, and regulating the session. The processes of
steering, remaining
on task, and
regulating sessions have been explained thoroughly elsewhere (Sav
). Less attention has been paid to inducting clients in career counseling by
co-constructing what is to ensue as a project for joint action. Until now, CT has not
tion. Taking AT’s perspective, this induction may be viewed as project management.
the Transition Project
188). After establishing
a working alliance, the first phase involves identi
fying pertinent ongoing projects and then orienting client to the goals and processes
of counseling through exploration of their presenting concerns. The second phase
involves working on projects and monitoring client progress. The third and final
phase involves reviewing changes that have been made and discussing how to stabi
lize these accomplishments. As noted earlier, CT has well-articulated procedures for
what AT calls phases two and three. CT could advance by attending more thorough
ly to what AT calls phase one, identifying projects. To do so in this chapter, I apply
to CT the
metaphor of
project management
from the business world. In industry
and in CT, a project denotes a temporary endeavor with a clear beginning and end
undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives (Nokes
. Project management
begins with carefully planning and methodically organizing what will occur during
counseling to achieve those specific goals. CT practitioners do this careful planning
and methodical organizing by following a routine with eight elements to be de
scribed in turn: goals, projects, trajectory, context, emotions, readiness,
Working Alliance and Counseling Goals
The initiation of the client–counselor relationship is, of course, a critical step be
cause as counseling begins, so it goes. The counselor must consciously and consci
entiously establish a working alliance. The two words of
each important. Alliance means a relationship based on trust, empathy, and
agement. Working means moving toward some goal or outcome. Without a clear
vision of a joint goal, it is difficult to firmly establish a working alliance, much less
take coordinated action that works. CT tries to make this clear to clients from its
opening inquiry. After greeting a client, and maybe some small talk, the counselor
Counselors begin the professional relationship by asking a client how counseling
may be useful to her or him. This question about goals is asked in more than one
way to ensure that the working alliance begins with a joint goal. A second way that
counselors ask about clients’ goals is to inquire what they would like to accomplish
in two or more ways, counselors signal to clients that the ensuing interaction is a
collaboration, one consisting of joint goal-directed actions that address the project
under construction. The inquiry is intended to suggest to clients that they take the
lead in doing the work on the project. This suggestion is important because a main
predictor of successful counseling outcomes is that the client works harder than the
counselor. If counselors do most of the work, as they sometimes do in performing
vocational guidance and test
interpretation, then their clients advance only mini
that goal may already be implicitly achieved in the way she or he speaks about the
goal. For many clients, what they seek from CT is already present in the shadows
of their imagination. For example, I recently counseled with a 45-year-old female
social worker. She sought counseling just to learn about her herself. I told her that
we could do that yet she would be better served by a more specific goal. In reply, she
wanted to consider a job change because she wanted to be more of an advocate than
a cog in the machine. Of course what developed through counseling was clarifying
her story and gathering momentum to do just that. She was frustrated by how clients
were treated by a bureaucratic system and wanted to sit outside the bureaucracy as
an advocate for those who were ignored or mistreated by the system. Implicitly, she
knew the transition that she wanted to pursue and her project for counseling. Coun
seling only helped her acknowledge what she already knew.
As a second example, consider the client who said “I want to find out why I get
depressed when I enter the science building.” The answer is obvious to the reader;
the client did not want to be in the science building. The implicit goal of counsel
ing for the client was to find a way to stay out of the science building. However as
Einstein was reported to once observe, the thinking that gets us into a problem is the
not type of thinking that will get us out of the problem. In CT, counselors believe
that the story that got this student into the science building will not allow him to stay
out of the building.
Depression is just a temporary way of avoiding the building.
He needs a new story and that became the counseling project. Also reverberating in
the shadows is a story of life outside the science building. According to Abraham
Lincoln’s maxim, “A goal properly set is halfway achieved” (Ziglar
, p.
Thus, practitioners begin
counseling by learning what a client wishes to accomplish
Client’s Project
M. L. Savickas
to refer to the group of tasks, transitions, traumas, and transformations. In
short, after first understanding clients’ goals for counseling then practitioners iden
tify the type of project to be undertaken, whether it is coping with a developmental
task, occupational change, work trauma, or personal transformation.
Adaptation projects have been characterized with predictable trajectories called a
, learning cycle (Hall), and adaptation mini-cycle
) proposed a transition cycle as a framework for
analyzing work-role changes. A transition cycle begins with preparation to enter a
new work role. During the period called encounter, the individual enters the role
and tries to make sense of it. This sense-making and
socialization leads to a period
of adjustment during which the individual embeds self in the organizational culture
and role. During a long stabilization period, the individual concentrates on perform
ing the role and maintaining coworker relationships. Sooner or later, whether in
duced by the organization or the individual, preparation for a new role begins. This
almost inevitable new preparation occurs because 70
% of jobs started
by workers
in their 30s end in 5 or less years. One in four workers has been with their current
) has explained that because of the dejobbing occasioned by the digi
tal revolution, work environments now longer can be characterized with Super’s
description of a single life-long career cycle with a series of stages. The
traditional “career” has been replaced with a sequence of shorter learning cycles.
Each career learning cycle has periods of
exploration, trial, establishment, and mas
tery. Eventually, the individual will need to begin a new learning cycle starting with
exploration because the current position has been reshaped by n technology, the
economy, or personal factors.
The CT also proposes that career adaptation as a project follows a predictable
cycle of activities each named for their principal function: orientation, exploration,
management, and disengagement. The sequence portrays the adapta
tion min-cycle, with each period calling for a different type of goal-directed
After becoming oriented toward and familiar with the adaptive demand, individuals
may explore its requirements, risks, and rewards as they search for social opportu
nities and consider possible selves. Ideally, exploration progresses from broad to
narrow to advanced. Broad exploration finds information that allows crystallization
of tentative preferences. Narrow exploration gathers relevant information for mak
decision from among the preferred alternatives. Eventually, implementation
of that decision by trying on the choice in the form of an apprenticeship or job al
lows advanced exploration of person–position fit. After a period of trial or trials,
individuals stabilize in a position by making a commitment projected forward for
a certain period of
time. As they perform the position requirements, they consoli
equilibrium and maybe refine it. This may or may not be followed
by a prolonged period of stasis during which they manage the role and preserve a
self-concept. At some point, they envision on the horizon changing positions and
new challenges. With growing disorientation and
disequilibrium, they begin the
process of disengagement from the current role and transit into what comes next.
For example, an unemployed worker is oriented toward the need to find a new
so he/she explores opportunities. He/she crystallizes preferences, then specifies a
choice, and eventually tries on a new position in which he/she stabilizes. Having
established himself/herself in the role, he/she manages the position for a long period
before he/she begins to disengage as he/she needs or chooses to change jobs or even
switch occupational fields. As he/she moves through a series of projects—each with
their cycle of adaptation—he/she constructs his/her career. For CT, career is actu
ally the narrative that a person tells that links the sequence of their work projects
In CT counseling, the practitioner determines where a client is in the adaptation
demands that the client is facing or will soon face.
Career counseling differs for individuals in different phases of the adaptation cycle.
Individuals in the orientation phase must become familiar with new challenge and
ways to negotiate them. Individuals in the exploration phase benefit from explo
ration-in-breadth to crystallize a group of
vocational preferences, then in explora
tion-in-depth to specify an occupational choice from among the preferences, and
eventually advanced exploration
by trying on a position in the chosen occupation.
During the period of
stabilization, the new
employee may need assistance in fitting
into the organization culture, learning the job duties, interacting with co-workers,
and eventually consolidating a position in the organization. Having established
self, the worker then enjoys a long period of managing the role by preserving self-
concept, maintaining what they have achieved, and keeping up with new develop
ments. In career counseling, issues of concern during the period of management of
ten include handling conflict with supervisors or coworkers, harassment,
boredom, failure, and plateauing. Eventually either by choice or circumstance, the
worker slowly decelerates and disengages from the position and orients to the need
to enter a new one. Hopefully,
disengagement from a current position overlaps with
In addition to assessing client progress along the trajectory of adaptation, practitio
ners seek to understand how the adaptation project relates to other life roles. The
transition. The second client had just received a divorce settlement that included 2
years of college tuition. She did not want to seek
employment yet needed to work
at a job in which she could support herself. The third client had been offered an at
If practitioners want to clarify a client’s feelings about the career problem, poetry
provides a way to talk about feelings that quickly goes to the heart of the matter. For
some clients, it may be useful to have them write a simple poem to increase self-
awareness and voice their feelings. Mazza (
39) designed a practical writing
in which clients complete sentence stems. The practitioner choses the first
word, say “indecision” or “barriers,” and then has the client complete the sentences.
Consider the following example from one client who initially found it difficult to
It sounds like (
a strong wind blowing through trees
In response to clients’
emotional responses, CT counselors offer comfort. Com
forting is a form of social support that provides emotional relief. Comforting means
encouraging the client, normalizing the problem, and reformulating a metaphor
. Practitioners
offer comfort by expressing confidence in clients’
coping potential and reassurance about their ability to resolve the problem. Usu
ally, practitioners help clients view the adaption project as a normal life experience
and one that is transitory. This must be done in a way that does not minimize the
problem yet does communicate that the client can manage it. If the client seems
overwhelmed by the problem, then the counselor offers comfort by reformulating
it with a less dramatic or intense metaphor that reduces the magnitude of the prob
lem. Emotions must be validated and managed to prepare clients for engaging and
As part of exploring client emotions, counselors try to discern a client’s readiness
to begin an adaptation project. The CT denotes the readiness to engage in these
projects as adaptivity (Savickas and Porfeli
. The Minnesota theory of work
adjustment (Dawis and Lofquist
refers to this readiness as celerity or speed
of response to change. The initial recognition of a need to adapt feels troubling
because individuals cannot readily assimilate the dissonant disequilibrium with
their customary experience and anticipations. Nevertheless, at first individuals try
repeatedly to assimilate the disorienting dislocation into their existing actions and
identity. At some point, the need to adapt to the transition raises to a critical thresh
old at which time the individual realizes they need to accommodate the change
Because individuals differ in their readiness to cope with transitions, counselors
listen to hear why clients came to counseling now. Counselors want to hear whether
the client is foreword thinking and planning how to deal with an impending project
which they anticipate, or the client has been pushed by a parent or teacher who
needed to engage
in goal-directed action. The four
of concern, control, curiosity, and
Career Concern
Concern essentially means a
sense that it is important to plan and
prepare for tomorrow. Concern about adapting to an impending change is the piv
otal dimension of career
adaptability. It directs attention to the future and increases
awareness of imminent and intermediate challenges and choices. In addition to this
future perspective, concern prompts a sense of continuity that connects past experi
ences, present circumstances, and future anticipations.
Attitudes favoring prepared
ness and belief in continuity dispose individuals to develop competence in planning,
which includes skill at sequencing one’s activities along a time line that spans from
the present situation to a desired future. This means actions that make them aware
of what is required, relate themselves to what they must do, and become involved
in preparing for the change. This orienting behavior will help them to meet the
challenges with growing interest and confidence. It also reduces anxiety by giving
language and structure to the initial ambiguity and disorder.
A lack of career concern is called career
ness and pessimism about the future. Without concern for the future, individuals of
ten feel demoralized about their careers and occupations. They do not usually seek
counseling on their own; rather a family member or faculty refers them. Their sense
of hope has to be ignited. Their apathy can be addressed by career interventions
that induce a future orientation, foster optimism, make the future feel real, reinforce
positive attitudes toward planning, link present activities to future
outcomes, prac
tice planning skills, and heighten career awareness. These coping attitudes, beliefs,
and competencies strengthen career concern, and prompt consideration about exert
ing control over one’s career projects.
Career Control
Career control is an aspect
of intrapersonal processes that foster
regulation, not interpersonal processes that impact self-regulation (Fitzsimons
and Finkel
. Control involves self-discipline and being conscientious, deliber
ate, organized, and decisive in negotiating adaptive
demands. Its opposite is confu
sion, not dependence. A sense of control disposes individuals to proactivity rather
than denial and avoidance of adaptation tasks. Conscientious attitudes and belief
in personal responsibility incline individuals to intentionally direct and steer their
A lack of career control is often called career
and enacted as confusion,
impulsivity. The inability to choose can be addressed by career in
attitudes and decisional competencies. Career
indecision is addressed by interventions that enhance the ability to decide by clarifying
sional training, self-management strategies, and attribution retraining that attributes
success to effort rather than luck or other people. These coping attitudes, beliefs, and
Career Curiosity
With a sense
of effortful control comes the
initiative for learning
about the adaptation being faced and the range of opportunities and barriers that
it presents. This initiative leads to inquisitiveness about both self and the context,
which should lead to
exploration and information seeking about self, situations, and
The fourth and final
dimension of career adaptability is con
fidence. Self-confidence denotes the anticipation of success in encountering chal
lenges and overcoming obstacles (Rosenberg
action. People must believe that they can successfully execute the
actions needed to complete the adaptation project. Self-esteem usually brings with
an increased competence in solving problems, especially important in dealing with
the often complex and ill-defined predicaments encountered during adaptation
A lack of career confidence can result in career doubt and
that thwarts
actualizing roles and achieving goals. Career counseling interventions, in general,
build self-confidence through the relationship dimension of counseling. A work
ing alliance with a counselor enhances the client’s self-acceptance and self-regard.
Career inhibition is addressed, in particular, by interventions designed to increase
feelings of confidence through role modeling, success acknowledgment,
agement, and problem-solving training. It is also addressed be systematically de
constructing mistaken beliefs about social
gender, and race that inhibit action.
Profiles of Career Adaptability
In theory, individuals should approach adaptation projects with a sense concern that
that brings conscientious and effortful involvement, the curiosity to explore social
opportunities and experiment with possible selves that fit together realistically, and
the confidence to engage in goal-directed action aimed at constructing an adapta
tion. In reality, individuals vary in how they approach transitions, and this varia
tion can be conceptualized along these four dimensions of
adaptability. Individual
variation in readiness, resources, and responses leads to different rates of progress,
with possible fixations and regressions. Delays within or disequilibrium among the
developmental lines produce problems in adapting because of demoralization
rather than concern, denial rather than control, detachment rather than curiosity,
and doubt rather than confidence. Accordingly, comparing development among the
four dimensions is a useful way to assess career adaptability resources and deficits.
In career counseling for choices, CT counselors diagnose these problems as indif
ference (demoralization), indecision (denial), unrealism (detachment), and
tion (doubt). More importantly, the assessment of adaptability resources provides
a counseling plan with specific goals and associated strategies. For example, if a
client shows indifference and lacks career concern, she or he may benefit from
interventions that prompt anxiety about the future and then address this anxiety
by exercises and interactions that foster planful attitudes, planning competencies,
and control yet seems unrealistic or unknowledgeable, she or he may benefit more
from interventions that foster career curiosity in the form of inquisitive attitudes,
exploration competencies, and information-seeking behaviors. In addition to inter
nal resources for adaptability, clients bring with them potential external sources of
Finally, in initiating the working alliance counselors listen to clients’ goals and proj
ects to hear about the audience for this work. In addition to internal adaptability
resources, many clients have external resources such as social support to help them
negotiate their projects. However, some clients have an audience that tries to shape
the project, and in some cases even impede or prevent the project from succeeding.
Counselors need to learn who is on the client’s side and who is not as they collabo
Project Design
The chapter has enumerated a list of eight elements to which counselors attend in
appraising a client’s description of how counseling may be useful to them: goals,
projects, trajectory, context, emotions, readiness,
the elements enumerated. The CT counselors perform this
project appraisal
quickly, often almost intuitively. I use the term project appraisal to distinguish it
from the more traditional
that uses ability tests, per
sonality inventories, and interest surveys to draw a psychological picture of the
client. In comparison, project appraisal attends to identifying the client’s adaptation
projects and counseling goals.
When performed systematically, project appraisal follows a routine in analyz
ing and understanding the client’s reasons for seeking counseling and goals for the
consultation. First, counselors listen closely to how a client describes their goals for
counseling because that goal may already be implicitly achieved in the way she or
he speaks about the goal. Second, counselors identify the type of adaptation
ect that clients have undertaken: coping with a developmental task, occupational
change, work
trauma, or personal transformation. Third, counselors determine how
far a client has progressed in the adaptation cycle to identify the adaptive
that the client is facing or will soon face. Fourth, counselors contextualize the adap
tation project by considering the other life roles and responsibilities that engage the
client. Fifth, all along counselors recognize and respond to the feelings evoked by
the adaptation project. Sixth, counselors try to discern a client’s readiness to engage
the next steps in the adaptation project and the process of counseling. And finally,
counselors explore clients’ adaptability
resources and their audience for the project.
After formulating this project appraisal, CT practitioners complete the induction
into counseling by proposing a goal-directed project on which client and counselor
may agree. Counselors also explain the process and tasks that they will use to col
laboratively pursue the project goals. This statement of the adaptation project and
management may be negotiated and revised until the client
agrees to pursue it and feels comfortable working with the counselor on it. Then
counseling proper begins as client and counselor co-construct the project and moni
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Great quotes
Chapter 3
Career Counseling: Joint Contributions
Contextual Action Theory and the Systems
Wendy Patton
Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology, Kelvin Grove Campus,
Brisbane, QLD, Australia
e-mail: [email protected]
contextualism, and the development of
constructivism in cognitive psychology, have been important influences in changes
in career theorizing and career practice. In their view to the “future of career,” Col
lin and Young (
emphasized the importance of two crucial issues—the con
struction of individual identity and the need to understand the individual in his or
her context, spatial and temporal. Collin and Young were calling for theories of
career that would provide a new framework for a postindustrial world and relate to
the epistemological root metaphor of contextualism (Collin
; Collin and Young
; Lyddon
Both contextual action theory and systems theory are derived from the root meta
phor of contextualism, which has been proffered as a
worldview to assist scien
tists and practitioners in organizing day to day experiential data.
has been an influence in a number of fields in the social sciences, for example,
Collin and Young (
), Young and Valach (
al. (
career psychology, and Steenbarger (
in counseling psychology. A contex
tual worldview emphasizes that how events are viewed is linked to the perspective
of each individual. Furthermore, it conceives development as an ongoing process
explicates social perspectives that have the effect of moving it beyond traditional
career approaches and linking it directly to constructionism” (p.
501). Young and
discussed the notion of constructivisms, highlighting the connection
. Constructivism
, therefore, views the person as an open system, con
stantly interacting with the environment, seeking stability through ongoing change.
The emphasis is on the process, not on an outcome; there is no completion of a stage
The influence of
constructivism and the ongoing drive for convergence, both
17). A full
discussion on the development of
theories, and the philosophical underpinnings of career theory are beyond the
scope of this chapter and have been discussed elsewhere (Patton
; Patton and
al. (
the connections between the Patton and McMahon systems theory approach
and the contextual action theory approach and these will be highlighted in terms of
the application of these theoretical developments to practice in career counseling,
with a particular focus on the commonalities between the two approaches and what
counselors can learn from each of them. In particular, this chapter will discuss com
Contextual Action Theory
) proposed a framework for understanding key aspects of many
contextual approaches to career
, emphasizing the applicability of contextual action
theory as a means of integrating aspects of contextualism. These authors defined
the basis of contextualism as “the recognition of a complex whole constituted of
many interrelated and interwoven parts, which may be largely submerged in the
everyday understanding of events and phenomena” (p.
479). Context consists of
complex connections and interrelationships, the significance of which is
al. identified several
aspects of the contextualist metaphor crucial to their contextual explanation of
reer, including the goal-directed and context-embedded nature of acts. Change is
integral within this perspective, and “because events take shape as people engage
480). Young and
Valach (
emphasized that the contextual
action theory of career serves as an integrative approach to career theory in that it
not only integrates social–contextual and psychological perspectives, but also “ex
plicates social perspectives that have the effect of moving (the theory) beyond tra
ditional career approaches and linking it directly to constructionism” (
Young and V
alach (
647). In further explaining
the approach, Valach and
Young (
) emphasize the relational underpinning of contextual action theory,
“an important feature of action is its contextual character. That is, the action pro
cesses, the methods, and the constructs are related to each other. It is only in relation
to each other that they make sense…” (p.
72). Valach and
Young (
six aspects of contextualism relevant in the Contextual Action Theory of career.
These include the focus on goals of actions rather than their causes; acknowledge
ment that actions are embedded in context and the subsequent implications for the
client–counselor relationship; the prominence of change in career; recognition that
goal, end, and purpose define the practicality of action and our understanding of
it” (p.
73); acknowledgement that contextualism
works from the present which is,
therefore, the beginning place for counselor’s work with clients; and “Finally, …
adhering to a contextual stance is a specific way of looking at human processes and
The Systems Theory Framework
The emergence of systems theory has essentially been a reaction to the traditional
classical, analytic, or positivist worldview and a reflection of the growing status of
the contextual worldview (Patton and McMahon
. The systems worldview
values the whole, where a system is viewed as more than the sum of individual
parts. Patterns of interrelationship between parts are more relevant in understanding
for further discussion). However, a number of elements and
principles of systems theory can be proffered. The individual is conceived both as a
whole and as a sum of component parts. The human system is viewed as purposive,
ever-changing, and evolving toward
equilibrium; change in the individual occurs
to maintain stability. An individual’s behavior is conceptualized as “a product of
a dynamic and holistic psychological system in which person and context interact
in complex and reciprocal ways” (Chartrand et
al. 1995, p.
46). Human behavior is
function of the interaction of the person and context: the human system, itself a
complexity of interrelated subsystems, interacts with other systems and subsystems,
living and nonliving. Systems can be open and closed—with human systems being
open—“An open system can be understood only in relation to its necessary and
actual environments. Trying to understand people’s functioning separate from their
context would be the same as treating them as closed systems” (Ford
Human life
consists of ongoing recursive processes involving disorganization, ad
aptation, and reorganization.
Systems theory is the core underpinning of the STF (Patton and McMahon
and largely formu
lated by 1997 (Patton and McMahon
. The STF is presented as a metatheory
of career (see Fig.
constructivist in
nature because of its emphasis upon
the individual. It presents as social constructionist because of its location of the
individual within myriad social and contextual influences. Its focus on process in
, emphasize the centrality
of the individual actively construing the meaning of his or her life within multiple
As a metatheoretical framework, the STF is applicable to theory analysis at a
macro-level and a micro-level. For example, theoretical accounts of influences such
personality and family are variously explained in the extant literature. Patton and
McMahon emphasize that the application of the STF in integrating theory and prac
tice is located within the crucible of the individual. Through individual analysis at
this micro-level, the meaning of such influences is elaborated by the individual. Es
sentially, the STF provides an opportunity for individuals to construct their personal
theories of career development through the narration of their career stories and the
elaboration of meaning in career counseling. Thus, in terms of career practice, sys
Space limitation allows only a brief description of the STF here. Readers are re
ferred to Patton and McMahon (
STF represents the complex interplay
of influences through which individuals construct their careers. The term influence
was deliberately chosen as it does not assume positive or negative connotations
but rather affords individuals the opportunity to ascribe their own meaning to each
influence. The STF places emphasis on both content and process influences. In
addition, it takes into account the unpredictability of career development through
the inclusion of chance. As systems perspectives conceive of person and environ
ment as entities that dynamically interact, the STF is reflective of the
worldview with its emphasis on holism, personal meaning,
subjectivity, and
The content and process influences are represented in the STF as many complex
and interconnected systems within and between which career development occurs.
Content influences include intrapersonal variables such as personality and age, and
contextual variables which comprise social influences namely family and
environmental–societal influences such as geographic location or socioeconomic
status. The intrapersonal influences such as
interests, age, abilities, per
sonality, and sexual orientation are depicted at the heart of the STF as part of the
system. In terms of systems theory, the individual is a system in its own
Fig. 3.1
The systems theory framework of career development. (Patton and McMahon
However, individuals do not live in isolation, but rather live as part of a much
larger contextual system of relationships. Thus, in the STF the individual is both a
complex system in its own right and a subsystem of layers of a broader contextual
system represented by the social system and the environmental–societal system.
The social system refers to the other people systems with which the individual inter
acts, for example, family, educational institutions, the workplace, and peers. While
each of these is a system in its own right that interacts with the individual system, it
The individual and the social system occur within the broader system of society
or the environment, the environmental–societal system. Although the subsystems of
the environmental–societal system may seem less directly related to the individual,
the influence of elements such as geographic location, globalization,
A feature of the STF is its capacity to represent the dynamic nature of career
development within and between systems through its inclusion of the process influ
ences of
recursiveness, change over time, and chance. Recursiveness describes the
recurring interaction within and between systems. Recursiveness does not imply
reciprocal interaction; rather the nature of the influence and the degree of influence
change over time. For example, while family as a relational context is an influence
on individuals throughout life, the nature of its influence is likely to differ during
adolescence and during
adulthood. Time is represented in the STF as a circular de
piction that emphasizes the nonlinear nature of an individual’s career development
In its relatively brief history, the STF has been applied to a range of cultural
, career counseling (McMahon
), and multicultural career counseling (Arthur
. In addition, its application across cultures has been docu
mented (Patton et
; United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Or
At a practical level, the STF provides a map to guide career counselors as they
encourage clients to relate the details and reality of their own maps through the
telling of their career stories (McMahon and Patton
ogether, counselor and client gain insight into the interconnectedness of systemic
influences on the client’s situation. The STF has been conceptualized to serve as
a map of the possible elements of clients’ career stories as well as a map of the
counseling relationship (McMahon and Patton
). Career counselors also exist
within their own system of influences, and career counseling, therefore, constitutes
the connection of two systems of influence, those of the client and of the counselor,
and consequently the formation of a new dynamic system, the therapeutic system
STF and Contextual Action Theory Approaches:
Both contextual action theory and the STF have strong connections with the con
textualist root metaphor. Each has emphasized particular aspects of this metaphor in
Fig. 3.2
The therapeutic system. (Patton and McMahon
been identified (McMahon
; McMahon and Patton
; Patton and McMa
Conceptual understandings
, which are interrelated, relate to the in
systemic thinking, the notion of story, and recursiveness. A number of
theoretical developments have enhanced our understanding of
being an active agent in his/her own construction of reality through subjective and
intersubjective meanings (Collin and Young
, p.
, and decision
; and to being interconnected in a unique manner with all lay
ers of context (Vondracek et
. Following
the work of Ford (
asserts that “each individual is in and of him or herself a complex adaptive
Valach and
Young (
extend this concept of the individual as a multifac
eted system and emphasize that action theory views “all goal-directed processes as
processes, thus clearly marking a position that distinguishes contextual theory
from theories that identify agency and actions with individualism (p.
94). In con
connecting action, project and career in action theory, “we have already
moved beyond the idea of the individual—whether considered from the perspec
tive of personality traits or individual decisional processes—to ideas of joint action
and the embedding of actions in socially constructed projects and careers” (Young
and Valach (
, p.
646). Young and
Valach affirm that “joint action captures in
tentionality that is not fully accounted for by the individual intentions of the par
ticipants” (p.
646). Valach and
Young distinguish this concept in Contextual Action
Theory from other suggestions of shared goals and group action “because the most
popular application of this thinking often considers the group as an acting unit or
the family as a system—the concept of joint goal-directed
actions, projects and
careers, based on joint
goals, is a paradigm that is different from the individualistic
approach” (p.
94). In considering
parents and adolescents engaging in career discus
al. (
note that this is an example of
a joint action, not that of an individual—“A particular contribution of action theory
is its emphasis on the social. Thus, the unit of analysis in the work … is not the in
dividual, but the joint action of parent and adolescent” (p.
278). Valach and
) further extended this understanding of the individual in context and draw
on relational ontology and the work of Slife (
who commented that “each
thing including each person is first and always a nexus of relations” (p.
159). This
notion emphasizes
that it is the relationship between elements of a system which
is the focus of inquiry. Consequently, action or goal-directed behavior can only be
interpreted and understood when viewed within context, and contextual or envi
ronmental issues are only salient when viewed within the framework of individual
volition (Valach
The complexity of
is best described by Ford and Ford (
their description of the Living Systems Framework. These authors emphasize that
all aspects of the person interconnect in “goal directed activity” (p.
1). These “ex
“add up” to produce a unique, self-constructed history and personality”
1). Change, which occurs
variously, serves to assist in maintaining both
and flexibility. “Thus the LSF cannot be easily characterized in terms of traditional
complexly organized humanness.” (p.
2). This definition reflec
ts the holistic em
phasis of systems theory, where all aspects of the person are seen as integrated into
system, and the notion
that both flexibility and stability are incorporated within change. Contextual action
theory also emphasizes systemic underpinnings, where action is seen as organized
in a system of interrelated levels, with the meaning or goal of an action the highest
a broader level, career counseling takes place within the environmental–soci
etal system and represents a recursive interaction between the counselor and a range
of systems (see Patton and McMahon
for a more extended discussion)
tems theory encourages interventions at all levels of the system other than that of
the individual, and raises the potential for career counselors to be more proactive at
this broader systems level. For example, career counselors may work with a family
or an organization in the belief that interventions anywhere in the system will inter
act with other elements of the system to bring about change. This notion embodies
the systems theory construct of feedback loops. A systems theory perspective may
also assist clients to construct new meanings of their circumstances. For example,
it may be helpful for individuals to view their employment circumstances in the
context of changes in the social and economic climate of the nation (Patton and
, the third conceptual understanding, are key to
ist counseling approaches (McMahon and Patton
. The concept of story in
systems theory was originally derived from Bateson (1979) who defined it as the
individual’s explanation of the relevance of a particular sequence of connectedness
in his or her life. Through stories, individuals make meaning of their lives—indi
viduals are experts in their own lives who seek to make sense of them through the
telling of stories. Indeed, their lives are multistoried. Through story, the patterns
and themes of an individual’s life can be uncovered, and interconnections forged
between previously unconnected events. On the surface, stories may appear dis
crete and unrelated; however, systemic thinking encourages counselors and clients
holistic view by locating the individual within the context of their whole
system of influences. In so doing, the recursiveness and connection between the
influences of the system may be examined, and patterns and themes in and between
Contextual Action Theory emphasizes the notion of project, a construct which
could be understood as similar to story. The project here refers to the process of the
. One
of the outcomes of this project is the joint
construction of the client’s narrative (Young and Valach
, p.
654). Valach and
) emphasize that that these narratives are linked to the notion of
terpretation, whereby people make sense of their lives through events, actions and
contexts (p.
64). The narrative notion
is very similar to the systems understanding of
A range of qualitative or narrative assessment processes have been developed to
encourage individuals to create their narratives (Young and Valach
) or career
and both Contextual Action
Theory and the
STF have each developed processes. The four most popular methods of assess
ment are autobiographies, early
recollections, structured interviews, and card
While these methods are not new to counselors, many of them are new to career
) offers insights into
interviews and
al. (
these conversations as action and use the project method to describe them.
Valach and Young (
describe the subsequent self-confrontation interview in
which the participants are shown the video recording and asked about their thoughts,
and other aspects of the conversation. They also describe the importance of
observation, and the focus in this method on asking members of certain com
munication communities to systematically describe behaviors of interest in video
recordings. More importantly, Valach and Young assert that a third procedure is nec
essary that “Neither naive observation nor the self-confrontation interview provides
information for a comprehensive analysis of the target processes. Thus,
systematic observation complements these methods” (p.
92). Within this
actions, viewed as being based on “socially shared everyday thinking” (p.
92) are
used as the unit of analysis. While this description
is relevant to the action research
method, it is also applicable to understanding Contextual Action Theory’s under
standings in relation to the counseling process. In addition to the monitoring of
projects as they occur in counseling sessions, Contextual Action Theory informed
counseling includes the monitoring of target projects over time that contributes to
The My System of Career Influences (MSCI) (McMahon et
application of the STF which provides clients with the opportunity to meaning
fully create their own career stories through reflection. It is a written process which
facilitates the client’s drawing their own constellation of influences via a step-by-
step approach of visually representing aspects of their career stories. In this way, the
uniqueness and wholeness of clients’ career
narratives or stories is emphasized and
counselors may gain insight into the interconnectedness of systemic influ
ences in each individual client’s career story. It is a standardized reflection process
another exam
ple of a narrative career assessment directly derived from the content and process
influences of the
STF (Patton and McMahon
. The CSI encourages
clients to view their career from the position of different influences as identified
through the STF, through the process of a free-flowing semi-structured interview.
To increase a focus on particular influences, the client is encouraged to speak about
similarities or contradictions within aspects of the career story. A key outcome of
al. (
feedback and feedforward
processes, and that it extends “the bidirectional model as joint actions and joint
projects raise the possibility of a joint intentionality, a new third thing that is not
STF and Contextual Action Theory Approaches:
The STF not only provides a map to guide career counselors in terms of the pos
sible content of client stories, it also provides a lens through which to view the
practice dimensions
of the career
counseling process. These interrelated dimensions
include connectedness, meaning-making, the nature of
learning, agency, and the
nature of the counseling relationship. This section will explore these dimensions
and understandings brought to them by both the STF and Contextual Action Theory
is a multileveled concept illustrated through the STF as essential
for effective career counseling. As discussed, individuals do not exist in isolation
and they and their
careers are constructed in social and cultural contexts. Individu
als connect with career counselors in a recursive system described by the STF as
the therapeutic system (Patton and McMahon
; McMahon and Patton
Connectedness is intricate and multidimensional. Career counselors need to em
brace their own “connectedness work”, that is they need to connect with their own
stories in order to understand their own history, values, biases, beliefs and
prejudices, and the sociopolitical system in which they live and work. In addition,
and where the career counselor encourages them to interpret and create their stories
Connecting clients with their own system of influences is critical to the career
counseling process within the STF approach. It is through this process that stories
are remembered and told, and it is through the telling of stories that connectedness
between the systemic influences is recognized. In terms of connecting with client
stories, it is important that career counselors “start where the client is”. With the
STF as a map that may guide the possible content of career counseling, clients may
be encouraged to tell stories from their past, from their leisure activities, or from
their community service. It is not uncommon for clients to compartmentalize their
In summary, the task in career counseling within the STF is not so much to un
derstand the parts of the system in detail, but rather to co-construct story and mean
ing around the system as a whole through elaboration of the
. Similarly
, “the action theory explanation of
must also be understood as relational, a concept explicated extensively in contextu
alist approaches” (Valach and Young
72). It is only in
relation to each other
that the action processes, the methods, and the constructs make sense. Connected
ness as notion is embedded in the joint nature of the project—the identifying of con
textual elements in all aspects of the participants in the projects, and the recognition
that the project is a joint construct in process and outcome. Action is not an indi
vidualistic construct which can be separated from relational and contextual notions.
In order that the telling of stories and the development of projects may be facili
tated, the significance of
the counseling relationship
action and STF approaches. It is important for career counselors to facilitate coun
seling relationships where a mattering climate is created (Schlossberg et
Within the
STF approach, career counseling constitutes the meeting of two sepa
rate systems and the formation of a new system, the therapeutic system (Patton
. Following the systems
systems, the
boundaries of each system must be permeable enough to allow a relationship to
develop and dialogue and resulting meaning to occur, yet impermeable enough for
both parties to maintain their individuality. Thus, the boundary between the coun
selor system and the client system needs to be maintained. As previously discussed,
the career counselor needs a clear understanding of his or her own story formed
through interaction with his or her own system of influences, past, present, and
exploration of the client’s life
narratives including
Young and Valach (
concur with the general perspectives of the nature of
the counseling relationship discussed in previous paragraphs. Similar to the STF ap
proach, Contextual Action Theory acknowledges that when the counselor and client
work together they create a dyad—“a third thing that is neither individual
nor an external event” (Valach and Young
, p.
66). As such there
is a greater
emphasis on the joint nature of the counseling process than that espoused under the
STF approach, it is the action of the dyad that is the focus rather than the interaction
89). Within this
perspective, however, they note that counselors
. Contextual
Action Theory emphasizes that career futures, and indeed
outcomes of counseling, are constructed through past and present actions and
projects. Recognition and action toward the possible is embedded in joint actions of
The application of systems
theory to learning changes our traditional view. The
concept of knowledge acquisition, that is we add to our existing body of knowl
edge with new knowledge, is inappropriate. Rather than assume a quantitative view
knowledge, that is we know more, it is viewed in a qualitative way. Within this
perspective, new knowledge is incorporated into existing frameworks in a relational
and associative way. Within the Contextual Action Theory perspective, this rela
tional epistemology is also embedded in the discussion about learning and knowl
edge. It is not the object which is the starting point of inquiry; it is the relationship
between elements which is constructed in the process of gaining knowledge that is
ontologically meaningful (Valach and Young
approach to coun
seling, and central within both the STF and action theory approaches. Valach and
Young (
) emphasize the connection between the construction and under
standing of actions and retrospective and prospective meaning-making. The STF
counseling approach has drawn heavily from Peavy (
who emphasizes joint
meaning-making—“both speaker and listener to enter an open communication in
terchange. What comes to be understood (shared meaning) is the result of negotia
tion. The two interpreters arrive at a fusion of understanding that takes the form of
an agreement, understanding or shared knowledge” (Peavy
8). Thus, career
counselors facilitate
a process where stories are elaborated, new meaning is invited
The shift from positivism to constructivism has also created the notion of indi
viduals as
and self-actualizing. Within the counseling process this requires
that the counselors acknowledge that the individual is able to speak for themselves,
that they are the expert in their own lives. The counselor’s role is to support the
individual’s agency, assist in their construction of their own knowledge, and affirm
their work to construct their preferred career futures. As discussed previously, this
position is relevant to both the Contextual Action Theory and STF approaches to ca
reer counseling. The Contextual Action Theory approach however extends the no
tion of agency in affirming the notion of intentionality and in focusing on the joint
Both the STF approach and the Contextual Action Theory approach are derived
from the contextualist root metaphor. It is clear that they are closely related in
ceptual understandings
although there are distinctive differences and these are not
language. The STF focuses on interrelated levels of systems, Contextual Ac
tion Theory focuses on “joint actions and processes”. The STF focuses on the thera
system and emphasizes the connectedness and separateness of the counselor
and counselee systems; Contextual Action Theory emphasizes the joint action of the
dyad as crucial in the process, emphasizing the dyad a little more in its conceptual
ization of the relationship. Indeed Contextual Action Theory explains this approach
. Contextual Action Theory has similarly developed detailed
descriptions of counseling approaches and research approaches to demonstrate its
application (see Valach and Young
STF is
an overarching framework focusing on all the parts as well as the
whole, providing a metatheoretical framework for integrating existing theories, and
theory and practice. It offers a framework for the blending of what different dis
and Contextual Action Theory approaches have more that is common
than different. In developing a closer knowledge and understanding of each of them,
and their shared understandings and practices, we can develop a new informed con
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Chapter 4
Agentic Action in Context
Springer New York 2015
Department of Applied Psychology, Steinhardt School of Culture,
Education, and Human Development, New Y
ork University, New York, NY, USA
The notion that engaging in action is a central experience in human life and in con
temporary counseling theory and practice is indebted to the work of Richard Young
oung and Valach
). In this chapter, I
elaborate on this notion to propose that agentic action is the basic process through
meaning. The main task of counselors from this
perspective is to facilitate the emergence of agentic action in people’s lives. The
understanding of agentic action to be elaborated in this chapter is informed by the
counseling for work and relationship perspective that posits that there are four ma
jor contexts through which most people co-construct lives; that is, market work,
unpaid care work, personal
relationships, and market work relationships (Richard
. In other words, these are the major social contexts for agentic
action directed toward the co-construction of
lives. This more holistic emphasis
on helping people co-construct lives, not just careers, is an important character
istic of contemporary vocational psychology (Fouad
; Richardson
; Savickas
; Young
and Valach
. The designation of the four major social contexts through which
people co-construct their lives is a more radical reshaping of the work of vocational
counselors, especially in specifying two separate contexts of work (Richardson and
Action itself is behavior that is suffused with subjectivity, with subjectivity refer
ring to the dense texture of
conscious and
unconscious intentional states that frame
; Kitayama and Uchida
. Intentional states include beliefs, attitudes, hopes, fears, and desires.
It is from some compilation of this set of intentional states that actions emerge. The
notion of action encompasses behaviors that “may be reflexive, automatic, volun
tary, social, communicative, or reflect that hidden resource called ‘will power’”
. Baumeister et
al. (
suggest that there are two different styles
of action that are central, those having to do with autonomic
processes that are more conscious and controlled. I situate agentic action in this
second category. Agentic action is action that has a particular quality (Cochran and
. It is action characterized by some level of conscious purpose by which
people pursue their aims in response to the circumstances of their lives (Richardson
. Agentic action is action directed toward some level of personal or
collective goal. Thus, agentic actions are relevant across individualistic and collec
A basic premise of this position about the centrality of agentic action is that the
pursuit of personally desired ends or aims is the basis for a life of meaning (Martin
and Sugarman
. Whereas all actions are suffused with subjective meanings,
agentic actions have a particular kind of meaning in which they comprise actions
that people want to take. In relation to the project of co-constructing a life, agentic
Clearly, agentic actions pertain to all aspects of living from actions related to
practices to actions that are fraught with potential impact on how
a life might evolve. For example, the process of making dinner, a commonplace
Agentic Action in Context
Most would agree that the stability of the social world within which people con
struct lives has radically altered in recent decades (Adam et
; Beck and
. Although this is, perhaps, most evident in
what I refer to as the world of market work, that is, the work that people do for
pay (Collin and Young
; DeBell
; Fouad
; Jacobs and Gerson
; Wharton
, radical change is evident
across personal and familial domains as well. With respect to market work, the most
Similar radical changes are occurring in personal and familial domains (Gonza
; Taylor
. For example, marriage itself appears
to be becoming a privilege of the more affluent, increasing numbers of children
are being born to single mothers, and more adults than ever before are living by
themselves as well as living in intergenerational households. The designation of
a new stage of life, at least in the Western world, of emerging
adulthood in which
the central task is to achieve a sense of being an adult, suggests that the social
world is becoming more difficult to negotiate (Arnett
. Although those who
describe the phenomenon of emerging adulthood emphasize the opportunities asso
ciated with an extended period of exploration, the flip side of this picture may well
be difficulties in constructing viable and stable life structures. An extended period
of exploration may be necessary because it is difficult to find viable market work
pathways in an ever-changing economy and enduring relationships in the midst of
economic insecurity. Such exploration is possible when supported by some level of
affluence. Emerging adulthood is not found among the less fortunate who, in the
absence of economic buffers, get locked into low-level and dead-end jobs and early
In response to an uncertain social world in flux, scholars describe an increasing
individualization of the life course (Giddens
). That is, rather
than a set of normative scripts that help to guide how a life is to be co-constructed,
individuals have to figure it out for themselves from the increasing options that are
available. It is in this context that the significance and meaning of agentic action as
The significance and meaning of agentic action can, perhaps, best be clarified
by contrasting it with the more traditional notion of decision making that has been
considered the central process in vocational psychology, a field that has specialized
in helping people make decisions about the kind of market work they want to do and
with facilitating their career development (Phillips
; Phillips and Jome
Making decisions about what work or career to pursue makes sense in a world in
which there is some kind of stable set of alternatives to choose from. As has been not
ed, this stable set of alternatives no longer exists. The notion of agentic action enables
us to recast this process of making decisions about the kind of work to do to a process
of finding some directionality in market work contexts, a process of engaging in the
The notion of agentic action helps to shift the emphasis from “what suits me”, a
question that reflects the prevailing matching paradigm that has dominated the field
), to “what do I want to do now” or “what can I do in this situation
given the possibilities”. Rather than making decisions or choices about the kind of
market work to do with an underlying rationale that there is a best fit to be found,
this process, driven by agentic action, is about taking next steps. In addition to the
work of Young and Valach (
), other contemporary
vocational theorists also
emphasize the importance of taking action in the face of uncertainty (Gelatt
; Weick
action is also the underlying process that describes how people take steps toward the
unpaid care work they will do at different stages in their life and the relationships in
Although choice can also be used to describe agentic action, choice in the con
text of agentic action is simply that a person could have done otherwise in a given
situation (Hays
. It is not about a choice from a stable set of alternatives.
Agentic action takes place in the shifting sands of possibilities and constraints in
a world in flux. It is about finding a direction and then modifying that direction as
needed. Agentic action implies a continued and lifelong dialogue with the social
world in which multiple feedback loops enable a reflexive conversation between
Agentic Action in Context
reflexivity of agentic action is most important. These feedback loops having to do
with the reflexive processing of experience make possible a constant correction or
redirection of emerging and evolving life pathways. The co-
conceived in this way is the mirror image of the reflexive project of the self de
in relation to conditions of late modernity.
awareness of the life-long demands placed on people to engage in the process
of charting and recharting their lives in the absence of normative scripts makes the
issue of helping people co-construct their lives relevant to all counselors across a
range of different kinds of counseling practices. Whatever else they may be dealing
with in counseling, concerns about finding directions across life contexts will be
germane to increasing numbers of people across the life span. From this perspec
tive, helping people take agentic action in their major life contexts is a task relevant
The understanding of agentic action elaborated in this chapter is situated in a con
textualist perspective regarding the nature of change, a perspective that is radically
different from the organismic models that underlie much of the developmental
theory with which we are most familiar (Lerner
; Lewis
; Pepper
Rather than postulating some kind of underlying and unfolding developmental
contextualism posits that change is a function of the interactions, and transac
tions between persons and their social contexts. The change that results from these
interactions and transactions can evolve in any direction, depending upon the nature
of the interactions and transactions. Most critical for our understanding of agentic
action is that contextualism decenters the individual as the primary locus of change.
Agentic action can go only so far. What is critical are the interactions and transac
; Sarbin
. Without narratives to help to structure our ex
perience, we would be overwhelmed with sensory data. It is through narrative that
we explain ourselves to ourselves and to others. It is through the recounting of the
stories of what has happened in our lives that we develop a sense of self and identity.
In fact, according to Bruner, our selves are our stories. According to Polkinghorne,
What is especially interesting about narrative is the way that it ties us to
The impetus to tell a story about what has happened arises when something out of
the ordinary has happened and a person needs to explain it to herself or himself
and to others. In trying to make sense of an experience that is out of the ordinary,
a person makes use of the story lines of the culture or cultures in which he or she
lives, adapting these story lines to individual circumstances. However, the mean
ings ascribed to an experience are essentially provided by the culture or cultures in
Although there is a tendency to think about narrative as having to do with the
past or with experience that has already happened, the essence of narrative theory, at
Narrative theory posits that time is the central dimension of human experience. Peo
ple live in the present, saturated by past experience, as this past experience is encap
sulated in their narrative, and informed by a future that unfolds by way of emerging
oung and Valach
). Their contextual action theory pro
vides a framework for examining the translation of agentic actions into the goals
and projects through which people construct lives and especially about the ways
that people engage in joint actions and joint projects in constructing lives. The
Agentic Action in Context
theoretical perspective of narrative theory emphasizes the initial emergence of ac
. With the exception of the literature that has emerged in
relation to feminism, multiculturalism, and social
siderations of socially located empowerment and disempowerment, little attention
is paid to issues of agentic action or empowerment in contrast to the focus on
symptom relief. The assumption appears to be that the alleviation of symptoms is
tantamount to the restoration of mental health. Despite this bias, William and Levitt
. Another way
Agentic Action in Context
of saying this is that we tend to look on social structure as the more powerful con
straining influence that effectively disempowers the possibility of agentic action.
constructionism has contributed to this perception in its emphasis on the
power of the social world to construct experience, especially in its analysis of the
ways that power operates insidiously through discourse and language to construct
and reconstruct hegemonic power structures. In this section of the chapter I would
like to utilize the insights of a sociologist, Hays (
), and a feminist theorist, Mc
On the basis
of these defining characteristics of social structure and agentic ac
63). What is most
important for our purposes
For example, a person might eschew a course of action that could be empowering
structures in order not to risk disconnection from
also disputes the ways in which the social constructionist lens
has been used to describe human subjectivity as a passive construction of the social
structure. In her analysis she uses the work of Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Wacquant
to articulate the possibilities for a more active construction of human subjec
tivity and for the possibilities of transformative agentic action. A central construct
in Bourdieu’s theory is
habitus that refers to the construction of the human body and
the human mind by social structural norms. He evocatively refers to the sedimenta
tion of the social structure in human minds. However, Bourdieu also postulates that
social structures are constantly in flux, subject to competing and conflicting pres
sures. Human beings are embodied beings who live in time, are motivated to seek
improvement in their lot in life, and can both anticipate and reflexively examine the
consequences of their actions. They are not compelled to simply replicate the social
structures they have internalized. They have the capacity to question and examine
this internalization and the capacity to act otherwise, while at the same time their ac
tions necessarily are constrained and limited by the social forces they both confront
effectively uses Bourdieu to open up a space within the social
structionist lens for structurally transformative agency in pursuit of social justice-ori
ented social change. This space is critical for the position espoused in this chapter that
argues for the centrality of agentic action and also situates this agentic action fully in a
social constructionist lens. What is especially useful in the work of both Hays (
They both seek to avoid the trap of pitting agentic action against social structure. It is
Finally, Polkinghorne (
suggests that Foucault’s contributions to an under
standing of
power and powerlessness have been misunderstood. Most cite his early
works in which he developed his analysis of the invidious power of discourse to fos
ter servitude to hegemonic power. In his later work, Foucault (Foucault et
Foucault and Sennet
was more sanguine about the possibilities for people to
be self-constituting and self-constructing subjects. According to Polkinghorne, Fou
cault moved beyond his early position on human powerlessness in the face of social
power to a position closer to Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Wacquant
human capacity for reflexivity enables human beings to, at least potentially, cre
Although social constructionists posit that agentic actions always emerge or oc
cur in relation to the social world with which a person interacts, the counseling
and psychotherapy fields have elaborated this position more fully in their focus on
Agentic Action in Context
the significance of the relationship in counseling and
psychotherapy. Within these
fields, the
intersubjective theorists most fully embrace the social
position (Orange
; Stolorow and Atwood
stance is that all experience and actions, including agentic actions, can only be
2), a definition close
to the
definition of agentic action in this paper, and an empathic relational context.
Empathy can generally be defined as the capacity of the counselor or therapist to
both apprehend and understand the experience of the client and to convey this un
Although empathy is broadly acknowledged to be a crucial ingredient in any suc
cessful or effective counseling or psychotherapy relationship (Bohart and Greenberg
; Carkhuff
; Watson
), the relational-cultural theorists have translated
the significance of empathy into a powerful theory of human development (Jordan
Miller and Stiver
; Surrey
. Their theory chal
lenges the traditional view of development that understands the development of
human autonomy and independence as a function of separation from the mother.
Rather than postulating the capacity to act agentically as a result of a successful pro
cess of separation from a primary relationship, the relational theorists propose that
the capacity to act agentically is a function of increasingly differentiated empathic
relationships with significant others. Referring to the capacity to act agentically
as empowerment, the relational theorists argue that empathic relatedness between
partners in a relationship, or mutual empathy, leads to mutual empowerment of both
partners. Thus, rather than a line of development conceptualized in relation to sepa
ration from others, their version of development posits that development occurs as
a function of increasingly differentiated mutually empathic and mutually empower
ing relationships. According to these theorists, empowerment is a function of the
empathic quality of the relationships within which a person is embedded. Although
developmental progression is offered as a general theory of human
development, the relational cultural theorists are most interested in translating it
into a useful clinical theory where the empowerment of clients, or the capacity of
clients to act agentically, is conceived of as the outcome of mutually empathic rela
be characterized as a complex mosaic of connections and/or disconnections. This
powerful clinical theory is corroborated by the empirical work on the impact of
relational connections and disconnections in silencing the self and
depression (Jack
Recent advances in relational–cultural theory have more deeply contextualized
this work to take account of the social and cultural context of both counselor or
therapist and client and the ways in which this context may contribute to relational
disconnections (Jordan
; Jordan and Hartling
ity to empathize with another who lives in a radically different social and cultural
context is necessarily compromised. By insistently drawing attention to these dis
connections and making them the focus of therapeutic inquiry, the presence and
scope of empathic connection between counselor or therapist and client is constant
ly being challenged and hopefully enlarged. Identification of disconnection enables
the struggle for recognition of the other and raises the possibilities for repair of the
empathic tie. Most importantly, these recent advances in relational–cultural
challenge the critique of the practice of counseling and psychotherapy as espousing
humanistic, and individualized notion of human beings that splits them
from the social worlds in which they are, in fact, embedded (Cushman
; Rich
A similar position is espoused by Sinclair and Monk (
who describe a
empathy. Echoing the critique of counseling and
psychotherapy referred to above, they note that empathy, as typically described,
is central to a liberal, humanistic, and individualized practice of counseling and
psychotherapy. Using the language of discourse analysis,
poststructuralism, de
construction, and positioning, they suggest another way to use empathy to bring
relationship. Although their language is different, the results of
discursive empathy are very much in accord with the efforts of the relational–cul
tural theorists to use empathy as a powerful tool to both empower clients and to
help them to challenge the ways in which the social and cultural surround may be
disempowering. These reformulations of empathy suggest that the counseling and
psychotherapeutic relationship may be particularly useful in promoting the more
active and socially conscious construction of subjectivity and personhood espoused
I do not mean to imply that the practice of counseling and psychotherapy is
sufficient to promote social
change. Clearly, social justice requires counselors and
psychologists who are committed to social justice to engage in social change ef
psychotherapy. I do mean to suggest, however, that
counseling and psychotherapy have an important role to play in the continuum of
transformed psychotherapeutic practices described by Smith (
). The counsel
ing and psychotherapy relationship is a powerful vehicle for helping to empower
clients, that is, to help them engage in the agentic actions that will hopefully lead to
the co-construction of meaningful lives in the face of both psychological and social
Agentic Action in Context
Agentic Action and Identity in a World in Flux
To conclude, I turn to some thoughts about the significance of agentic action in
relation to the
achievement of identity in a world in flux. So far, the discussion of
agentic action has focused on how important it is to be self-directed in a world with
few scripts and signposts and that agentic action is essential to the evolution of the
pathways in social contexts that constitute a meaningful life. Here I turn to the sig
nificance of being self-directed or capable of agentic action as a crucial component
of identity formation. The notion of identity that informs this discussion is that
“identity is the process of trying to make sense of ourselves in the world” (Suyemo
, p.
76) and that
processes of conflict (or the need to make choices among
alternative courses of action) and commitment to these courses of action are critical
formation (Marcia
. This discussion of
identity is also informed by a focus on the relationship between social
practices and
The problematic nature of identity formation in a world in flux is explored by
who carefully locate the phenomenon of an achieved identi
ty in relation to historical conditions. In pre-modern times, people were most likely
to inherit their social statuses and, thus, were mostly likely to develop ascribed or
foreclosed identities. There was no conflict regarding alternate courses of action
because there were no alternatives. People did what they had to do to live a life.
Commitment in such conditions was not particularly relevant. In modern times, as
options about how to live one’s life began to open up, most particularly in the arena
of vocational choice, the possibilities for an achieved, or constructed identity were
in place. People could make choices about how to support themselves, about the
likely to commit to the life pathways you are co-constructing, even though you may
need to modify or change these life pathways and life commitments as your life
course evolves. It is about the ability to be committed in the presence of instability
or uncertainty.
Finally, I would like to suggest that the notion of action and especially agentic
action enables us to situate processes of identity formation, or how we see our
selves in relation to the world, in relation to social practices. Rather than seeing
psychological functions as somehow generated inside the mind, cultural psychol
ogy, influenced by the social constructionist lens, has led the way in proposing that
psychological functions arise out of social practices (Bourdieu
; Dewey
; Ratner
; Van der Veer and Valsiner
. How we do things in
the world are social practices shaped by culture. Actions, in turn, feed into and
constitute social practices. We can argue that our sense of identity in the world is
an ongoing product of the actions, especially the agentic actions, that we take in
relation to the social contexts and the social practices in which we participate and
through which we seek to co-construct the kind of lives we want to live.
ment to the life pathways co-constructed by agentic actions constitutes our social
identities. Conceiving
identity as an ever-emerging product of social interactions
and transactions that have to do with how we see ourselves in relation to the social
world leads to what might be called transactional identities, or identities based on
and derived from action. Such a transactional identity has more to do with what we
do than who we are, especially when what we do can be characterized as agentic
action aimed at co-constructing lives we want to live. A focus on identity based
more fully on what we do or the agentic actions we take in the world rather than on
identity as indicative of some kind of individualized or essentialized self may be
another way that the notion of agentic action enables some new understandings of
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Chapter 5
Motivation and Volition in Vocational
Psychology: An Action Control Perspective
Jean-Paul Broonen
Springer New York 2015
Centre de Recherche en Psychologie du Travail et de la Consommation (CR PsyTC) Faculté des
It is a well-known phenomenon that many clients have pervasive decision making
difficulties when facing the challenge of career choice or transition (Chen
When asked what they want to do, they face a difficult task to answer clearly because
of their cognitive or emotional obstacles such as uncertainty, ambivalence, perplex
ity, or inconsistency. These difficulties are particularly well documented for ado
lescent populations (Busacca and Wester
and university students (Amir and
. Moreover, for many young
people, structural barriers to career develop
ment such as societal or organizational factors that limit access to educational and/
or occupational opportunity (Betz and Fitzgerald
, do not produce a favorable
context for developing connections to future educational and vocational plans (Ogbu
. Now, the current rapidly changing occupational structure and the detrimental
context of the economic crises of our globalized late modern society, especially the
end of 2008 which marked the start of a global recession, dramatically add a factor of
braking motivation. In a period of unemployment and poverty when “most working
people do not have choices” (Blustein
, p.
, how, and why, could they care
fully prioritize and plan their actions to engage in a career
decision making? How
can more gifted students solve the paradox of being expected to construct their lives
job is so difficult, even if making their first career decision represents
for many young adults an intense task (Gati et
? Since substantial
effort to
, this new phase of
Among the variables that compose motivation, goal-setting and goal
clearly are important in the career decision making process (Bargh et
But does motivation
guarantee the initiation and pursuit of actions toward the goal
J.-P. Broonen
of managing a career and its subgoals such as career exploration, self-exploration,
and environmental exploration? The response to this question is clearly no. Motiva
of these activities. By contrast, volition determines which
motivational tendencies are actually implemented and how the individual struggles
to reach his or her goals. This chapter examines how the conceptual distinctions
between both constructs applied to career decision making in the context of goal-
action could bring a fresh view on decision and action in vocational theory
Motivation in Career Theories
The term “motivation” is used by social
psychologists “to describe why a person in
a given situation selects one response over another or makes a given response with
energetization or frequency” (Bargh et
, p.
268). Each response can
a cognitive, affective, and behavioral manifestation. Answers to the question
of what drives motivation in career decision making have historically been import
ed from the psychology of motivation and are dispersed in the body of vocational
research. One of the most important frameworks in developmental and vocational
counseling models for explaining motivational tenets of decision making consists
in goal directedness and intentionality, as an essential component of agency (Ban
. Goals or intentions are central constructs, although understood in
al. (
designing paradigm (Savickas et
. Goals
are also, with emotions and
personal agency beliefs, a cardinal concept of Motivational Systems Theory (Ford
; see Gati and Tal
that Vondracek and Porfeli (
) consider deserving
of application to the field of career development. In this chapter, I adopt the action
perspective, where action is broadly defined as all activities directed toward an in
tended goal (see Achtziger and Gollwitzer
; Festinger
weight the degree of incentive value of a desired outcome (the desirability aspect
of the motivation) by the expectancy (the feasibility aspect of the motivation) that
the outcome would actually be realized. This expectancy-value model of motivation
was enriched with constructs coming from the cognitive revolution such as self-
efficacy and outcome expectations (Bandura
. Applications to occupational decision making were derived from these vari
ables (Battle and Wigfield
As underlined by Bar
two other important steps in the psychol
ogy of motivation were Ajzen and Fishbein’s (
suggestion that readiness to
produce a certain behavior could be conceptualized in terms of an individual’s
tention and Mischel’s proposal (
to view such intentions as goals that imply
meeting some standards (Locke and Latham
. Goal-directed behavior became
a leading paradigm in motivational and developmental psychology (Bandura
and in vocational theory and research in particu
lar (Dumora
; Husman and Lens
. In particular, work-
related goals are recognized as important in the transition from school to work life
(Nurmi et
. In
this context, in order to establish a theoretical convergence
of the vocational models in the 1990s (Savickas and Lent
) drew on Bandura’s general social cognitive theory (Bandura
develop an integrative social cognitive career theory where goals are a cognitive
mediator and motivational self-regulator between antecedent factors (such as inter
ests, self-efficacy, and outcomes expectations) and actions designed to implement
goals. In this model, personal goals are viewed as “a critical mechanism through
which people exercise personal agency or self-empowerment” (Lent et
263). Willingness
and effort to transform career interests into goal choices and
goals into action choices are explicitly invoked (Lent et
). When individuals
do not
transform goals into subgoals or actions and shring from contextual barri
encouragement is recommended during counseling, for instance, by reinforcing
self-efficacy beliefs, helping to plan the steps of choice realization or investigating
environmental resources. Until now, due to reasons of simplification, this unwill
ingness in the “efforts to implement goals” (Lent et
, p.
275) or the format
plans to be developed were not questioned in terms of an action control
that is, in terms of the mechanisms of action self-regulation by which the individual
effectively copes with problems of initiating actions, persevering in the face of ob
stacles, shielding reaching the goal from distractions, and withdrawing from inap
Project is another construct referred to in career literature in various meanings
; Riverin-Simard
; Young and Valach
always carrying notions such as intentionality, direction, and action. The latter
is considered fundamental in so far as the notion of project contains “the idea of an
essential link between some basic intention…and an action plan…to which the in
dividual commits”
345). However, the
plans remains unexplained. Motivational sources of career behavior are also central
in Savickas’s career
construction theory, the contextual action theory of Young et
contextual action theory
, and Richardson’s metaperspective of contextualism for
counseling practice. Additionally, in their dynamic model for career development,
insist on the decision activities of moving to action, for
instance, in making plans for implementing preferences. In general, the importance
of determining the feasibility of goals, making action plans, and selecting appropri
ate behavior for implementation is emphasized in main career developmental or
counseling models. But why are plans conducive to goal attainment and what kinds
J.-P. Broonen
Coming Back to Volition
In the 1980s, several papers were published in the
American Psychologist
volition as a possible object of an empirical science (e.g.,
. Remarkably, at the end
of the seventeenth century, Locke (
) had anticipated the issue of translation
from goals to action with his definition of volition, that is, beginning or forbearing,
“We find in ourselves a power to begin or forbear, continue or end several actions of our
minds, and motions of our bodies, barely by a thought or preference of the mind ordering,
or as it were commanding, the doing or not doing such or such a particular action. …The
actual exercise of that power, by directing any particular action, or its forbearance, is that
More than two centuries later, German psychologists (Ach
proposed new analyses
of will after James’s (
mentalist position (see Goll
witzer and Oettingen
al. (
suggested adoption of a distinc
) was put
forward to designate the latter form of motivation involved
regulating of how people try to arrive at their goals. Moreover, Lewin and col
leagues pointed out that only an action perspective could illuminate this conceptual
In a very different way, Ach (
was interested in the formation of an
tention. He posited that the degree of intensity of this process, identified as will,
determined the degree of commitment and hypothesized that this process was in
dependent of the motivational basis of intention. Preoccupied by the issue of goal
striving, he also assumed that when a link is made between an anticipated situation
and an intended behavior a “determination” is created, automatically triggering the
may have positive attitudes and intentions directed toward a
goal, but still lacks the
A function of
a term presented as equivalent to
action control
(see below), is to increase the motivational basis of an inten
tion, referred to an action plan held in an active state (by contrast with the construct
of goal referred to intended
), if its low level prevents the person from
winning in his or her fight against a dominant concurrent intention more attrac
tive in the present. This
meaning is thus larger than the usual one, which refers
exclusively to engaging in aversive activities, though the term includes the latter.
According to Kuhl’s (Kuhl and Beckmann
original action control
processes facilitating the
enactment of intended actions are assumed to be activated
in order to shield “difficult” intentions in memory from other competing tendencies.
Difficult intentions are intentions that the person cannot (e.g., because several steps
are necessary for execution) or should not implement without delay and, there
fore, require an important amount of motivational energy or effort. Several strate
gies are described such as attention control, motivation control, emotion control,
and environment control. Interestingly, these control mechanisms are assumed to
be modulated by a state
orientation versus action orientation variable (Kuhl
; Kuhl and Beckmann
. This individual differential variable of volitional
self-regulation mode of action may explain why two individuals sharing similar
abilities, and desire to achieve a good
performance nevertheless do not at
tain the same level of performance. Individuals with a strong state
orientation are
characterized by a volitional self-regulation mode which prevents from change and
is marked by an inability to exit from an unwanted state of affect with a tendency to
ruminative thoughts about a past aversive experience or alternative goals or affec
tive states, thus reducing the cognitive resources available for goal striving; at the
opposite end of the spectrum, more action-oriented individuals are characterized
by a change-enhancing volitional self-regulation mode which promotes change and
is prone to dedicate through flexible regulation of their emotions and motivation
their cognitive resources to task
execution and goal attainment. Two
main distinct
dimensions of this general construct were isolated: a
form of action
versus state orientation and a
decision related
form. The first dimension concerns
the volitional mode of self-regulation (
conditions such as
an important change in life or failure, which affects process
information about some past, present or imagined future state, and contrasts
: state-oriented individuals have a
A third dimension, called volatility or capacity to leave the action-oriented mode when it is nec
essary and contrasting the
poles, has been proposed by Kuhl: more
state-oriented individuals are distracted even when they are focused on a necessary or interesting
task, while more action-oriented ones are able to maintain an intention in memory during the time
necessary to complete the task at hand. However, scale measuring this dimension lacks reliability
and convergent validity with other measures of self-regulatory variables and the dimension itself
seems less central than the two others (see Diefendorff
I adopt among several designations labeling for the state and action poles of Diefendorff et
J.-P. Broonen
tendency to perseverate in thoughts associated with irrelevant concerns (often nega
tive experiences), while action-oriented ones are more able to disengage from cog
nitions about undesirable events. The second dimension refers to the difficulty of
initiating goal-directed action in the face of demanding conditions such as the com
plexity of the situation or the pressure of time, and contrasts the
poles: state-oriented individuals have a problem of initiating an already
chosen task, remaining in a state of procrastination or lacking of energy that inhibits
the implementation of their intention, while action-oriented ones easily initiate ac
goal. Using a revised form of the Action Control
Diefendorff et
al. (
demonstrated that the two scales measured a con
personality and cognitive ability.
Kuhl’s Personality Systems Interactions Theory
orientation multidimensional construct was subsequently in
tegrated in a new theoretical development called Personality Systems Interactions
, which addresses two fundamental questions of
motivation psychology. The first one concerns the degree to which explicit goal ori
entations and actions correspond with implicit motive dispositions; the second one
through which functional mechanisms goals (or intentions) are, or not, implemented
in behavior (Kuhl
). As far as the second question is concerned, PSI theory con
tends that motivations require a conceptualization of interactive systems where affect
plays a central role. In this expanded theory, from the most abstract perspective, voli
tion is conceived as a “central executive” (Kuhl and Fuhrmann
nates two tasks devoted to self-government: goal maintenance and self-maintenance.
This coordination operates through processes spreading in an architecture of four
cognitive interactive macrosystems. Goal maintenance is sustained by (1) the in
tuitive behavior control system (IBC), a completely implicit system which provides
” (Kuhl
670); the EM includes goals (i.e., representation of a desired outcome), values, and
motive dispositions defined
“as implicit cognitive–emotional networks of possible
actions (derived from autobiographical memory) that can be performed to satisfy ba
sic social needs” (Baumann et
; these lar
gely implicit contents can become
At an intermediate hierarchical level of functioning, PSI theory assumes that
affective states, defined as “biopsychological processes facilitating certain motiva
tions and thus providing
energy to perform related actions” (Kuhl and Quirin
76), modulate (a)
the energy flow between the four macrosystems implied in
motivational functioning and (b) volitional processes such that goal enactment and
As far as volitional action is concerned (i.e., when intention and explicit plans
control behavior), the change of the valence of affect is the functional key of the
interaction of the IM and IBC systems on the one hand, and the EM and OR systems
on the other hand, which are both connected on a basis of mutual antagonisms. The
so-called first modulation assumption posits that the interplay between IM and IBC
is coordinated by positive
affect: after formation of an explicit and in a symbolic
format specified difficult intention related to achievement motive (but not to anoth
er motive such as the affiliation one) (Kazén and Kuhl
, the inhibition of posi
tive affect, i.e., tolerance to frustration (e.g., under heavy demand of difficult tasks
challenging the achievement motive), activates IM, which inhibits IBC and conse
quently maintains the conscious intention unexecuted. In a reverse form, when this
inhibition is released by upregulation of positive affect (e.g., following the solution
of a problem or in the presence of social support or by volitional self-motivation),
connection between both systems is restored for facilitating implementation of the
difficult intention over an easy response (volitional facilitation). Conversely, if IM
is activated, positive affect tends to be reduced. State-oriented individuals are likely
to be impaired in upregulation of positive affect (hesitation pole). The second mod
ulation assumption posits that the interplay between EM and OR depends on nega
tive affect: an excess on negative affect (e.g., after a distressing experience) inhibits
the activity of
EM, which activates the OR system, maintaining the isolation of new
objects that cannot be integrated in the self. In a reverse form, downregulation of
negative affect (e.g., by volitional self-relaxation) activates EM, which inhibits OR
and consequently suppresses the unwanted or unexpected experiences. Conversely,
if EM is activated, negative affect tends to be reduced. State-oriented individuals
are likely to be impaired in downregulation of negative affect (preoccupation pole).
Thus, capacities of affect
regulation are important for goal enactment and self-
development. Action-oriented individuals as opposed to state-oriented individuals
In the terminology of PSI, “positive affect” is used to refer to approach-related emotions such
that high positive emotions consist of states like joy or pride and low (inhibited) positive emotions
consist of states like frustration or apathy, while “negative affect” is used to refer to avoidance-
related emotions such that high negative emotions consist of states like anxiety and low (inhibited)
negative emotions consist of states like relaxation (e.g., Kuhl and Koole
). That is why the
inhibition of positive affect, but not the induction of negative affect, is likely to activate the IM
J.-P. Broonen
seem to differ not in their sensitivity to negative or positive emotions, but in their
Finally, exchange of information between IM and EM is a condition of gen
erating self-congruent goals from representation of implicit motives with action-
oriented individuals having developed greater abilities of emotional self-
At the highest level of functioning, goal
maintenance and self-development are
controlled by self-regulation
stricto sensu
stricted meaning, self-regulation is a largely unconscious mode of
volition, though
accessible to verbal consciousness and thus to control, “which processes and coor
dinates information from the internal systems (e.g., feelings, beliefs, values, needs)
and from the (social) environment largely simultaneously (in parallel)” (Kuhl
306); Kuhl used the
expression “inner democracy” to emphasize that this voli
tional mode leading to a decision is tended to autonomy and operates in a balanc
ing way of taking into account sometimes contradictory “voices” coming from the
individual’s own self and others’ demands. The short-form scale measuring self-
regulation abilities for clinical or educational settings (Forstmeier and Rüddel
specified attentional focusing, self-motivation, emotion regulation, self-activation,
self-relaxation, decision
regulation, and coping with failure. Individuals striving to
achieve a desired goal matching their self operate in this self-regulatory mode of
volition in a fluid manner even when the goal presents difficult aspects. Self-control
, corresponding to the classical form of volition (cf. “will power”), is a
conscious form of action control (“inner dictatorship”) necessary when hard tasks
that are challenged by dominant incentives or habits are requested. This volition
al mode of regulation is comprised of goal
, no
similar research can be found in the
domains of vocational self-exploration and environment exploration, adjustment
between explicit and implicit vocational goals, or vocational counseling. The differ
ential cognitive self-regulation variable (action versus state orientation) should be
considered in career counseling near personality variables such as conscientiousness,
openness, and extroversion that presumably compose the construct of adaptivity (or
The domain could also benefit from an adaptation of the hypothetical cycle of
conative (i.e., motivational and volitional) steps (causally reversible) that Kuhl
) modeled to ensure academic success in learning situations. For example, as
a first step, problem recognition such as the end of secondary school and transition
to work or college (instead of passively remaining at home with parents) requires
some sensitivity to negative affect (A−) which facilitates perception of the discrep
ancy between the EM and the OR systems. This negative affect must not persist as
it is likely the case in state-oriented individuals. A change from A− to A(−) opens
a second step which involves setting a realistic goal and checking the compatibil
ity between this goal and self-standards: access to EM (which “contains” personal
standards and where implicit autobiographic episodes associated with emotional
experiences are registered with the positive and negative consequences of various
past actions) is facilitated by downregulation of negative affect [A(−)] (2nd modu
lation assumption); matching a possible career goal (e.g., becoming a counselor)
with self-aspects (own needs or values,
norms, and others’ expectations) may result
in self-compatibility, which launches an implicit self-motivation motion toward the
goal (e.g., choosing psychology studies). However, anticipation of a precise succes
J.-P. Broonen
In a general perspective on action as related to “meaning,” explained in Max We
ber’s (
” as characterizing all activities aiming to the attainment of an
intended goal, Heckhausen and
Gollwitzer proposed the Rubicon model of action
phases (Gollwitzer
; Heckhausen and Gollwitzer
Achtziger and Gollwitzer
. This model attempts to both distinguish structural
and functional episodes in the course of goal-directed action and unify
and volition in the same framework. It is composed of four structural consecutive
phases—predecisional, preactional, actional, and postactional – dedicated to spe
cific tasks to attainment of a goal that came out of desires, each of them separated by
transition points which function as “qualitative leaps” (Heckhausen and Gollwitzer
, p.
103). The predecisional and
the postactional phases are motivational ones.
The preactional and the actional ones are volitional. Each function is associated
with a specific mindset describing “a certain kind of cognitive orientation that fa
performance of the task to be addressed in each action phase” (Achtziger
and Gollwitzer
, p.
. The predecisional phase
is the first one during which
the individual, generally keeping alive several competitive desires or wishes, has to
decide which one he or she wants to accomplish. During this phase, a deliberative
mindset characterized by an open-mindedness to information and a rather realistic
processing of information (Fujita et
is conducive
to deliberation on desir
ability and feasibility of each nonbinding emerging wish. The transition from the
predecisional phase to the preactional phase occurs when the individual turns one
of his or her wishes into a binding goal phenomenologically accompanied by a
feeling of determination to fulfill the victorious wish. The Rubicon is crossed. This
metaphor means that the transformation of a desire, even fuelled by a high moti
vational tendency, into a concrete goal only arises in case of “a shift from a fluid
state of deliberating the value of a potential goal to a firm sense of commitment to
its enactment” (Achtziger and Gollwitzer
274). The individual enters the
volitional phase. The term “volitional” indicates that the task is now to
commit to achieving a certain goal. However, in many cases, immediate enactment
of newly set goals or intentions is not possible. Other activities must be completed
or goal states specified by goal intentions, for example, becoming a physician, can
not be achieved instantaneously. The task is now to overcome the problems of goal
striving: protecting from distractions, bypassing barriers, increasing effort in the
face of obstacles (for a synthesis see Gollwitzer and Sheeran
functioning changes from a deliberative mindset to an implemental mindset charac
terized by an open-mindedness to information conducive to the goal and a positive
biased perception of future performance, failing to get started is not scarce. More
specifically, getting started may be blocked by the unusual aspect of the situation,
for example, deciding about the transition from secondary school to higher educa
tion, or other attractive preoccupations, for example, having a relaxing summer in
stead of thinking on one’s future, or detrimental self-states, for example, defensive
Sheeran’s meta-
analysis (
) showed that goal intentions accounted for 28
of the variance of
the corresponding behavior across 422 correlational or experi
mental studies. However, the gap between goal intentions and action proportion
remains important in terms of unexplained variance. This was confirmed in a meta-
analysis of 47 experimental tests of the intention/goal-behavior relationship (Webb
, which established that only a small-to-medium change in be
havior (
0.36) was consecutive to
a change of the strength of the goal intention
0.66). In other words,
the idea that the act of will is included in forming a goal
intention is sufficient to explain the occurrence of an ordered behavioral sequence
designed to attain the goal is clearly erroneous. In order to “bridge” the gap between
Gollwitzer (
) suggested that forming a certain type of intention,
namely an implementation intention (IMI), is a powerful self-regulatory strategy
that alleviates obstacles. Whereas a goal intention, or goal in usual sense, is defined
as a desired outcome or behavior (e.g.,“I intend to achieve outcome X” or “I intend
to perform behavior X”), an IMI has the format “If (when) I encounter situation
then I will initiate goal-directed behavior Z,” additionally specifying when, where,
and how a person intends to pursue the goal. For instance, an IMI serving the goal
intention “I intend to think of a job as a physician” would adopt the form “If the
doctor visits our home, I’ll ask her questions about her job when she will have fin
A host of experimental and field studies in various settings (antiracist, prosocial,
environmental, academic, consumer,
power of IMIs, with a meta-analysis of 94 independent studies demonstrating the
additional contribution of IMIs to goal achievement over and above the contribution
by goal intentions alone (Gollwitzer and Sheeran
). The results also provided
strong support for the component processes of the theory, and for the different self-
regulatory tasks in goal striving.
The psychological processes by which an IMI produces its effects on behavior
relate to both basic components of the plan. First, the mental representation of a
-component is supposed to become highly
depending on whether performing a task is guided by goal in
tentions (lateral area 10), for which greater attention is required toward internal
J.-P. Broonen
representations, or by IMIs (medial area 10), involved in environmentally triggered
The actual initiation of the goal-directed behaviors marks the transition from
related behaviors are executed. These two processes are controlled by the fiat
tendency of the intention, that is, “the product of its volitional strength (i.e., the
commitment to pursuing the goal state) and the suitability of the situation for its
initiation” (Achtziger and Gollwitzer
. Actional
mindset associated
with this phase is hypothesized to be similar to “flow experience” (Csikszentmih
alyi and Csikszentmihalyi
, a state of absorption in action that prevents the
individual to re-evaluate the goal or the self-regulation strategies chosen. Finally,
in the motivational
, the task is to evaluate goal achievement,
which is done by comparing what has been achieved and obtained with what was
Moderators of deliberative and implemental mindsets have been found. For in
stance, failure-oriented individuals do not show the characteristics outlined, but
those success-oriented do (Puca and Schmalt
. Individuals high in social anxi
ety do not show the effects, but individuals low in social anxiety do (Hiemisch et
of the effects of IMIs have also been documented. Some of them
are important for the potential application of IMIs in career counseling. Difficult
goals benefit more from IMIs than easy ones, which do not require IMIs (Gollwitzer
and Brandstätter
. IMIs have more positive effects on goals boosted by intrin
sic motivation (high autonomy) than on goals reinforced by extrinsic motivation
(low autonomy) (Koestner et
. The
strength and activation status of the
goal commitments impact on the strength of IMIs (Sheeran et
. However,
reverse effect has never received any empirical support: the strength of IMIs
has no impact on the strength of goal commitment. This result is consistent with the
Importantly, it is possible to teach individuals about forming IMIs. Since IMIs
are a self-regulation strategy for goal striving and since the latter is necessarily
linked to an effective goal setting, only a self-regulatory strategy that encompasses
goal setting and goal striving is conceivable. Technique of mental contrasting with
IMIs is such a coping strategy. Desire and a positive self-efficacy to attain a goal
may not be sufficient to commit oneself to realizing this desire if obstacles stand in
the way of goal realization. First, imagining benefits of attaining the goal and next
reflecting on the present obstacles to this goal create an association that induces a
necessity to move from the present to the desired future and to produce an instru
mental goal-directed behavior (Oettingen et
. A
condition for this effect to
appear is that the individual’s self-efficacy strength for attaining the goal is high
(Oettingen et
. Mental
contrasting that provides firm commitment to the
goal can then be combined to IMIs that require such a commitment to be effective.
Second, the obstacles identified in mental contrasting can be introduced as cues in
Implications of the Rubicon Model for Vocational Psychology
Two main kinds of effects of IMIs have been documented in various domains: pro
moting wanted behavior and controlling unwanted behavior. The first kind of effect
concerns (a) stimulating the initiation and execution of goal-directed
actions such
as increasing the likelihood of participating in cancer screening and (b) stimulating
maintenance of goal-directed actions such as engaging in physical exercise after
cardiac surgery. The second one concerns (a) eliminating unwanted thoughts,
ings, and actions such as shielding intentions against distraction when confronted
with complex tasks; (b) inhibiting an unwanted behavior such as blocking the ac
tivation of prejudice; and (c) shielding wanted behavior from unwanted internal
influences, for instance, self-states such as low self-efficacy, or unfavorable ex
ternal influences, for example, competing goals (for a synthesis see Achtziger and
Gollwitzer and Sheeran (
encouraged testing applications in new domains.
, East Ger
man participants were invited to indicate whether they had decided to continue their
education and whether they were forming an IMI to achieve that educational goal
, adolescents who had to build up an
goal (composing a CV) with relevant IMIs were more successful in
achieving their goal than students who only formed a goal. Support was also found
for the mediating role of IMIs in the relation between job search intention and job
. However, until now, the vocational domain
is under-explored in this respect.
J.-P. Broonen
appointments for psychotherapy, increases attendance (Sheeran et
. Know
ing that most students do not seek help when facing decisional difficulties – hardly
more than 6
% of college students
seek advice from career services (Fouad et
Interestingly, a
promising way to form strong IMIs could be a collaborative
one which involves two individuals in the planning, for instance a mother and her
daughter (e.g., “If it is Saturday afternoon, we will attend the career service of the
university to discuss my/your future”). This type of intervention has proved to be
successful in some health behaviors (Prestwich et
. Though
the underly
ing mechanisms associated with positive effects remain unclear (Prestwich et
), it can
be recommended by front line educational staff in order to promote
attending vocational counseling. It may be beneficial to envisage a link between
the intervention of collaborative IMIs and the joint actions engaged by several par
ticipants in counseling to explore possible futures seen as bringing one of them
closer to their goals (Young and Valach
). Research criteria inspired by Young
al. (Young and
and the action-project method
would be well suited to the analysis of how collaborative IMIs could be formed in
vocational counseling. A flexible research methodology, which integrates the IMIs
model, is implied by an ecological approach which welcomes disciplines other than
vocational psychology (Valach and Young
); the introduction of the action
model, especially the IMIs, which originates from social
be a promising response to this call. Of course, there is a need to empirically test the
effectiveness of IMIs in the vocational domain.
More generally, the architecture of other leading vocational theories is open to
the introduction of action
control. Social cognitive career theory could benefit from
inserting IMIs in the action component of action choice processes, which is de
signed to implement the choice. The importance devoted to turning intention into
construction theory – cf. “Through action, not verbal expressions of
decidedness, clients engage the world” (Savickas
, p.
168) – could
also incor
porate volitional tools. Finally, for the life-designing paradigm, an important role of
In this chapter, attempts to show that action control seems promising for vocational
theory and counseling practice and research have been made. In vocational counsel
ing, considering turning intentions into actions is a crucial point in a period when
altering prior career projects is a consequence of the economic recession, which,
in turn, activates many resistances. Indeed, the present economic context does not
facilitate construction of vocational options. There is little doubt that uncertainty
unemployment will hang more and more over vocational
prospects. Difficulties of commitment to concrete action choice for undertaking
educational training or choosing a job will not decrease in the near future with a
correlative lowering of motivation and raising of emotional barriers. Consequently,
research that tests the impact of specific approaches of volition, namely the state
versus action orientation variable and its integration in PSI theory, and IMIs into
the Rubicon
model, on vocational behaviors should retain the attention of scholars
in the field. In the case of difficult intentions in counseling practice, concerned
participants could benefit from an approach that considers differential emotional
responsiveness as an important parameter of individual functioning of self-control
regulation, for instance in terms of intention, memory activation, or
bition, activation or inhibition of positive affect, activation of extended memory,
switching from awareness of difficulty (inhibited positive affect) to self-motivation
Another potent volitional tool for clients consists in consciously forming IMIs,
while receiving support through empathetic listening, bringing forth self-supportive
statements, and responding to resistance, for instance, as illustrated by facilitating
motivational interviewing
. The latter has
been proved to be a fruitful technique leading to more detailed and pertinent IMIs
than in a standard self-administered planning sheet condition in health behavior
change (Ziegelmann et
control models
presented in this chapter
are rooted in social, clinical, and experimental psychology, and in neuropsychology.
Adopting volitional tools in career counseling and research would be an additional
way to meet the Valach and Young’s (
) call for interdisciplinarity in vocational
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Chapter 6
Processes of Identity Construction in Liquid
Modernity: Actions, Emotions, Identifications,
Springer New York 2015
Institut National d’Etude du Travail et d’Orientation Professionnelle,
Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris, France
Research Centre on Psychology, Health and Quality of Life,
The last three decades have witnessed major economic and
cultural globalization
brought about by the development of information technologies and transportation.
This process has had major repercussions, not only on many aspects of individual
daily lives in the Western societies, but also—more fundamentally—both on their
“assumptive form world” (to use the concept created by Cantril in (
way individuals can picture their further life-course. Bauman (
forged the con
cept of “liquid modernity” to summarize these deep transformations. During these
last 30 years, we moved from a solid modernity to a liquid one: modernity where
organizations, and systems of beliefs do not have time to solidify.
In the first part of this chapter, we intend to discuss one consequence of liquid
modernity, that is, that individuals must now cope more frequently with career and
personal issues that differ from those they faced within the solid modernity context.
What used to be career development issues are now transformed into questions
about the job pathways individuals need to construct and integrate in lives that are
meaningful to them. These questions about occupational pathways arise in a context
where life courses appear to be more uncertain, featuring many more breaks than
previously, and where life meaning must be built on multiple changes, including
psychological ones, body ones, material ones, shifts in the interactions with others,
in emotional states, in health and life conditions, in habits, in values, and in life
In such a liquid context, career counsellors can less and less confine themselves
to deal only with their clients’ career management issues. More and more frequent
ly, they have to tackle the “why” question (Arthur and Rousseau
); that is, to
investigate the contribution of any
commitment or change in work or in other life
domains to the meaning their clients give their lives. In addition to these issues of
“knowing what, who, and why” (Arthur & Rousseau)
, career counsellors need to
consider with their clients the function of their doing—of their action—in these
change or commitment processes. Thus, career counsellors become life
): the topic
of the life designing factors and pro
cesses—notably via language and action as meaning makers—is now at the very
During recent years, plenty of research has dealt with this issue. Most of it is dis
tinct from previous works as it considered human subjects from a new perspective:
they were described as less “monolithic” than previously. Rather they were depicted
as being able to be and act in quite different ways according to the contexts of inter
action; they were also described as better able to reinterpret their previous experi
ences and narrate them to define future prospects that allowed them to give their
current lives direction. The model “making oneself self” (
se faire soi
) (Guichard
), which is summarized in the second part of this chapter, outlines
a synthesis of these contemporary analyses that can be used as a theoretical basis for
This model emphasizes two kinds of reflexivity, the tensions and modes of com
binations of which are at the very heart of these self
construction processes. One
of them refers to identification
process, which is a stabilizing factor. The other is
al. this volume;
al. this volume; Y
oung and Domene
career life” (Young and Domene
, p.
30). Considering action
as a multilevel
system directed by co-constructed (joint) goals, this theory allows the processes
of making a sense of
self as an individual construes through action, projects, and
career, to be approached in a way complementary to the cognitive reflexivity pro
Third part of this chapter aims to establish a link between these two perspec
tives, in showing how the two reflexivity processes can be understood through the
different levels of action. Such connection aims eventually to support new kinds of
counselling interventions. If, indeed, the core issue of contemporary career
selling is to help “individuals best design their own lives in the human society, in
which they live” (Savickas et
help them to do it in an active way,
then career counselling interventions need to rely on the two means of construction
as they tend to entrust small teams, formed for the duration of a spe
cific assignment, with the responsibility for production. These teams must organize
themselves to achieve assigned goals. The organizations offer less predefined career
perspectives. They call on peripheral workers employed for a limited period of time
when required by short-term economical interests. In relation to these new forms
of work organization, the
of the employment contract has
. Companies are no longer expected to
secure their employees’ future within the organization. Reciprocally, employees are
not expected to plan their future within the company. Careers are now described as
(Arthur and Rousseau
; Hall
. This means
that careers are mainly based on individual decisions, particularly, on the capacities
of individuals to invest their capital of skills judiciously, according to the opportu
nities they can identify. To summarize, both the current work organization and the
more general context of our societies offer individuals less predefined frameworks
that could provide them with established life bearings. This is precisely what Bau
man (
describes when he defines “liquid modernity” as a major feature
Bauman sees liquid modernity not so much as a world of egocentric individuals who shape
their lives as personal projects made through their own imaginings about the possibilities
that the world out there has to offer, but one in which men and women are reflective moral
agents who leave in an uncertain world which means that they are forced in the quotidian of
their day-to-day lives to contemplate their existential insecurities. (Blackshaw
These societal and organizational changes have had two major consequences with
A Transformation of the Vocational Development Issues Faced by
The first consequence is that the vocational development issues people face have
become more complex, vaster, and deeper than previously. They are more complex
because what was a vocational choice at the beginning of the 20th century, and had
become a career development issue in the 1950s, now is described as individuals’
capacity to invest their competencies in work assignments that they consider ben
; Arthur and Rousseau
Vocational issues are also vaster as, on one hand, such work investments require
people to be able to examine all aspects of their lives and assess the career capital
(in terms of knowing how and knowing who) that they have constructed. On the
other hand, to make up their minds, people also need to answer the question of
(DeFillippi and Arthur
: this means they have to think about
what makes their lives meaningful, determine their life priorities (priorities that will
need to be redefined during the life-course) and the style of life that they yearn for.
Finally, these issues have become deeper. As already mentioned, today’s flex
A New Look at Human Development
The second consequence of the societal and organizational changes mentioned ear
lier is that social and human sciences have changed the way they conceptualize
human development. There are indeed strong and converging indications that these
new possibilities for action that are socially given to individuals have led social and
human scientists to redefine the perspectives from which they study the develop
ment of human subjectivity. As Gergen (
) wrote: “Postmodernism does not
bring with it a new vocabulary for understanding ourselves, new traits or charac
teristics to be discovered or explored. Its impact is more apocalyptic than that: the
very concept of personal essences is thrown into doubt” (p.
7). Previous psychology
literature indeed
emphasized the stability and the uniqueness of the human subject.
Gergen stressed it was based on a “rhetoric of autonomous and enduring disposi
tions” (
45). Individuals were seen as people endowed with steady features
(such as personality traits, a certain IQ, some fundamental life values, etc.) and
behaving in a similar manner—such as being an introvert—in different contexts.
This research insisted on the role of past conditioning, interactions, and personal
issues in current behaviors and representations. The explanations they offered were
In contrast, contemporary research underlines the plurality of individuals, their
relative malleability, and their capacity to take a reflexive stance on their experienc
es, a capacity that endows them with self-determination ability. In addition, these
approaches stress the major importance of ongoing interactions and dialogues in the
construction of individual
subjectivity. These models, which may be categorized
under the generic terms of
constructivist and constructionist (Hartung and Subich
; McMahon and Watson
; Young and Collin
, also put the emphasis
on the future. Thus, they emphasize the symbolization or narrative power of indi
viduals, a power that allows them to determine by themselves future perspectives
A Self Construction Model
More and more frequently, career counsellors refer to this new perspective on hu
man construction as they design interventions to match the
needs of the uncertain
individuals living in liquid modernity. As Sugarman (
underlines (quoting
a more descriptive work, including a more systematic use of
autobiography, storytelling
and conversation, diaries, literature, clinical case histories, historical fiction, and the like,
with a new emphasis upon the person’s construction and reconstruction of the ‘life story’,
model (Collin and Guichard
; Guichard
; Guichard and Dumora
is a synthesis of different approaches (sociologi
cal, cognitive, dynamic, semiotic, and so forth) to these phenomena of putting into
perspective and narrating one’s life; a synthesis that aims to provide a conceptual
This synthesis describes individuals in postmodern societies as plural beings
who unify themselves by linking up their various life experiences from the perspec
tive of some major future prospects that give their lives significance and meaning.
To depict this plurality, the
making oneself self
model describes an individual identi
ty as a dynamic system of subjective identity forms. The central concept is then that
of subjective identity form (SIF) (Guichard
). This concept aims to describe a
that an individual constructs and performs, has constructed and performed, or
A subjective identity form may be defined as a set of ways to be, act and interact
Nevertheless, this young man’s present life is not confined to such a student
experience. One may imagine, for example, he works during weekends for a home
computer assistance small enterprise. On the occasion of this activity, he performs
and constructs a SIF different from the one related to his current school experience.
In this setting, he indeed sees himself as able to diagnose a problem quickly and ex
plain it easily to customers, and as knowing how to fix it. He has good relationships
with almost all of the customers, and has the impression that a few of them would
be happy to help him on some occasions, for example, find a practicum, a summer
job, or get information on a course. During these activities, this young man acts and
perceives himself in the following way: he constructs self-efficacy beliefs that differ
from the ones he developed at school, he becomes aware of other social
—in which
the person wants then to excel or to
achieve a certain ideal. In adolescents and emerging adults, it is usually related to
a certain expected SIF. For example, Piriou and Gadéa (
showed that French
sociology students who succeeded in their studies pictured themselves in the SIF
of a sociologist. They built a clear image of this figure, an image that matches the
portrait depicted in the media and intellectual circles of the sociologist Pierre Bour
dieu, that is, a great researcher leading rigorous studies based on a very well define
conceptual apparatus and a person committed to protest actions in order to construct
a fairer society. This ideal to be attained often refers back to some past experiences
that played an important role in individuals’ lives: experiences that brought them
to construct some fundamental values (Schwartz
themes (Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie
. These values or
life themes, integrated and reinterpreted within the frameworks of their current and
expected experiences and activities, contribute to providing the individuals with a
meaning. In the model proposed here, these past experiences leaving their marks on
the present are named “past SIF.”
In the preceding example of a vocational student who is more interested in
abstract knowledge than in know-how, his high school student SIF appears to be
central as it is related to major expectations. Indeed in connecting Jellab’s (
observations and Zéroulou’s (
research about school success in immigrant
children, one may suppose that this young man constructed, during his childhood, a
set of representations, scripts of actions, mindsets, and expectations that correspond
to a past SIF which could be named “son of immigrants who were expecting social
inclusion and a rise in social status for their children.” Indeed, Zéroulou showed
that migrant families whose children succeed at school tend to share some common
features: parents have urban origins and were schooled when they were children,
they expect social success via school work (and, more generally, they value well-
conducted work), they show a strong interest in their children’s school work and
organize the best possible conditions to help them complete their home work, to
which they pay careful attention. These are the expectations, views, and mindsets
this young man adopted. They still play an important role in his current life and help
him to design it. They notably make him consider vocational high-school as “a new
The subjective identity
forms system is not static. It changes according to the events
that impinge on individuals’ lives, in connection with the activities, interactions,
and interlocutions in which they become involved. For example, a particular SIF—
central at one time—may become peripheral at a later time, as it is observed, for
example, in people who have devoted themselves to educating their children be
gin new activities—sometimes very different from the previous ones—when these
children become adults. For example, Levinson and Levinson (
that “as family became less central, the homemakers [in Levinson and Levinson
research: women] turned mainly to
occupation for new interests, activities, and
sources of satisfaction” (p.
191). Levinson and Levinson
observed three main pat
terns of changes: some women made occupation central, some others gave occupa
tion a moderate but significant place in their lives, and a small group (about 20
expanded their leisure activities
without pursuing an occupation. Some psychoso
induce major modifications to
an individual’s SIF system. As is explained later, other transitions have a weaker
A review of the psychology literature from the end of the 19th century to the
present leads to postulate that the dynamism of the SIF system—therefore of self-
construction—originates in the tensions and the diverse modes of combining two
types of reflexivity that constitute the self. This literature shows two major currents
which date back to James (
) (and previously to René Descartes) for the first
major current, and the other major current dates back to Peirce (as cited in Atkin
(and likely farther back to Giambattista Vico).
The first current emphasizes the dual process of relating from oneself to oneself,
that is, the self being then conceived as a reflexivity I—me, to use James’ terminol
ogy (
. “I” synthesizes all his/her past and current experiences (“me”) from the
perspective of expectations about him/herself in the future linked to identifications
with pictures of others, for example, role models, or to big ideals (Erikson
In contrast, the second current stresses a ternary relation to oneself on the oc
casion of intra or inter-personal dialogues. In these dialogues, the other is not an
idealized mental image which fascinates the individual and according to which he/
she dreams to become. Rather, it is another “I”: a “you” who grants to the person
a capacity (1) to distance him/herself from his/her past and current experiences,
as well as from his/her crystallized future expectations, that are then considered
as those of “he/she” and (2) to enter in a continuing process of self-interpretation,
Wiley (
tried to unify these two currents. He achieved it only in reducing
the first one to the second. He asserted that a fundamental process emerges: a ter
nary reflexivity that individuals articulate in their minds where their own points of
view of “I” with the system of the other “I” that form a human society. This ternary
reflexivity—the one described notably by Mead (
in his model of generalized
other—would lay the foundation of an infinite process of self-interpretation and
self-development. Such a reducing is possible only if the other “I” is considered
merely as one of the possible figure in a narration (one of these multiple “I” of the
“dialogic self” described by Hermans and Kempen in
. But “I” may also apply
to a certain figure which plays a specific role in the individual’s mind: “I” refers
then to a certain other that fascinates him/her and according to whose picture he/she
dreams to design his/her life. It is very precisely this specificity of the identifica
processes—with the risks of alienation they encompass—that Malrieu (
showed in his analysis of the Waffen S.S. General Ohlendorf’s biography narra
tives. Ohlendorf’s identity, that is, his SIF system, was structured by the irremov
able ideal to achieve being Hitler’s most perfect follower, as he revealed it during
the Nuremberg trial, where he was sentenced to death.
Dumora (
as a “desire to be like,” led Thomas to commit himself to intense
At the beginning of his sequence of counselling which comprised six interviews
lasting about 1
h each and spread
throughout the course of a year, Thomas realized
that, in spite of his considerable efforts, for example, that prevent him from going
out with his buddies, he will never achieve his dream of wearing the yellow Tour de
France jersey. At best, he will run in a professional team pack, which is a prospect
he cannot accept. The first interview deals mainly with the issue of how to announce
this conclusion to his trainer, who—Thomas said—considered him a little bit as
his own son. Indeed, it seems that the trainer identified Thomas as the marvelous
son—the Tour de France winner—he never had.
Over the course of counselling, Thomas produced a large series of interpretants—
in this case of possible prospects—allowing him to order in various ways some events
that characterized his past experiences: events he selected, weighted, and articulated
in a specific way on each occasion. This resulted in the emergence and the consider
ation of possible expected subjective identity forms: professional soccer player? In
the army? Sports coach? Sports physiotherapist? Dietitian? Eventually, 2 years after
the first interview, Thomas underwent the tests for admission to the state police: a
job that matches—according to Thomas’s private view (Guichard
) of
this job—his desire of order, his interest in sports activities, and his caring of
The dialogic ternary reflexivity is the very principle of an indefinite construction pro
(but not only in them), this ideal generally corresponds to an expected SIF related
to a certain character’s image with whom they identify. This expected SIF may then
organization of their subjective identity forms system.
This dual type of reflexivity seems to originate in the preverbal unification phe
nomenon of the human “I,” that Jacques Lacan (
of “mirror stage.” This unification of oneself is based on an
expectation of being as
(which may be seen in a mirror). That is to say, to be
come as this eminently desirable image of him/herself that fascinates the individual
who is then emerging as such. This mode of relating to oneself and to one’s present
and potential experiences involves identification with a certain internalized image
To illustrate this dual type of
reflexivity, Dumora’s (
observation may be
mentioned: a junior high-school boy told her he “wanted to be like Zidane,” the fa
mous soccer player. This expectation allowed the teenager to see all his current ac
tivities from a certain perspective and give his various behaviors a certain direction
and meaning. In the vocabulary used above, one can write that the image of Zidane
this adolescent formed was an expected SIF that determined the organization of his
SIF system: it was then structured from this major prospect perspective. Pouyaud
described an analogous case: Igor, a vocational high-school student, orga
nized his SIF system around a double central character: the amateur firefighter he
was then, and the professional one he dreamt of becoming. All his experiences ap
peared to be “read” from this unique character’s point of view that gave his past,
Recall Thomas’s case described above, in all probability, Thomas’s mindset was
the same before he realized the utmost sacrifices he would have to make in all his
other life domains to fulfill his dream, for an unlikely result. Thomas’s case also
shows that it is not an easy thing to abandon such an identification. It is the reason
why his first counselling interview—which was about an explicit question: how to
tell my coach who sees me as his son that I want to give up cycling?—dealt implicit
ly with another issue, more fundamental to him: “what is it that I am telling myself?”
Expectations that play such a central role in individuals’ lives generally do not die
The Function of Action in the Construction of Self
As a constructivist approach, the model
making oneself self
from a “creative” perspective. As shown by previous examples, the two kinds of
reflexivity are described as two dynamic sources of identity
are partially involved in
conflicts, discrepancies, experienced and felt incompat
ibilities in the life-course, in daily interactions, or when individuals face others and
This model’s creative perspective refers to the individual’s ability to find a bal
ance between the stabilizing kind of reflexivity (dual) and the interpretative one
(ternary). This balance aims to resolve the experienced conflicts, via a continuous
process of forming these sets of self-presentations, representations, and ways of
acting and interacting that comprises the SIF. SIFs are thus the emerging aspects
of the construction of self that are contemplated during counselling. In this sense
the SIFs—organized as a system—are the outcomes, the structured supports for the
As we have seen, this construction relies mainly on language as a medium of
reflexivity. Nevertheless, any SIF also encompasses certain forms of action (as
scripts, for example), or some ways to act in a specific setting. Therefore interac
tion also needs to be comprehended from the perspective of the behaviors,
emotions, and physical repercussions it calls for. If it is quite easy to discern the
dynamic role of the two reflexivity processes, and the structural side of the SIF’s
concept, it is less obvious to identify the more precise role of these last elements.
al. (
stated that the concept of action refers to different embedded
levels spreading from internally directed behaviours to more socially constructed
levels, such as projects and careers. Following this distinction, we’ll approach the
issue of the role of action in the construction of self while differentiating the ways
SIFs can be seen as contextualized implementations of self that, via their chang
es, make a person’s identity story. This story, the life-course with its life or career
themes, might be compared to an ongoing movie; that is, a projection of continuous
ly revitalized SIFs directed by the reflexivity processes, with the help of the record
ing materials that are action and language. Capitalizing on the
work of Vygotsky
, who saw language as the primary psychological instrument of thought
development, we can consider here action and language as the main instruments to
A development of this movie metaphor permits the clarification of this point.
Each of the elements detailed in the model
having a specific function in the production of such an “identity movie” (as con
“Direction” is the creative process. As mentioned above, two types of reflexivity,
involving identifications and interlocutory dialogues, produce a continuous recy
cling of the SIFs. As in sustainable development, this reflexivity process aims at
conflicts. People recycle their SIFs that have undergone the test of experi
SIFs are the outcomes of this direction. They are the developed pictures, the
succession of which displays what is shown about self. They are continuously put
through the trials of experience, of which they are also the outcomes. They are
eventually what remain of the confrontation between self and experience, as they
are sifted by the reflexivity processes. They are the results of “trials,” in this term’s
alternative meaning, that is, (1) a process of testing by use of experience in view of
establishing a certain proof, (2) an examination of evidence and a process of delib
eration in order to issue a judgment, realize an effort or attempt, and (3) a state of
pain or anguish. The SIF system is thus the “best” possible combination of self as
it stems from an actual confrontation of self with experience, directed (set up, cre
ated) by
reflexivity. Identity, as it appears through the SIF system, is therefore only
No “direction” of self would occur if there was no instrument for recording the
experience and editing it. The continuous process of self projection relies on psy
chological tools for marking experience and categorizing it in order to give it a
meaning. Action can be seen as the main recording device and language the main
Action and Language as Instruments of Self’s Direction
From a counselling intervention perspective, it is important to grasp how actions
language, as instruments, permit identity outcomes to be connected with iden
tity processes.
Constructivist counsellors rely on these two instruments when they
support clients direct their life-designing processes. Therefore it is appropriate to
’s construction.
The example of Thomas (reported above) permits an understanding of the role of
action as an experience “recorder” (as does a movie camera). Involved in dual re
flexivity processes that stabilized his system of subjective identity forms via a ma
identification with the figure of the Tour de France winner, he enacted daily a
subjective identity form anchored in such identification, as many high-level athletes
do. This means that he did not only consider his actions from this perspective, but
also that he performed them as such. This allowed him to put up with the require
ments and sufferings induced by training and helped him experience his body as the
athlete one he expected to become. Thus he tried to strengthen this core SIF via ac
tion, and the
sensations and emotions that stemmed from it, and keep alive this view
of self. So, it is via sensations and emotions originating in action, that is, when the
body braves the actual circumstances, that action plays its role of “video-recording”
Emotions are experience markers, in the sense that they cause an assessment
of self: they put it through trials. In Thomas’ case, actions allowed this core SIF
to be put through trials according to the dual reflexivity’s logic of achievement of
the self. But, in Thomas’ story, this core SIF progressively decayed. Again, action
played a major role in this process. On the occasion of an injury or an illness or on
the occasion of poor performances, the feeling to enact the “Tour de France” winner
crumbled. The core SIF lost its efficacy when action no longer brought about the
physical abilities required for a steady identification. Subsequently, emotions and
sensations experienced in action did not strengthen the SIF, but put it into doubt
and even challenged it. Once again emotions and sensations are markers of self
that need to be edited, but this time according to the ternary reflexivity’s logic of
al. (
enrich the
understanding of this identity dynamic. These levels of action (individual
action, project,
career, described by the internal processes, the social meaning
and manifest action, and guided by action elements,
may be
understood as fostering either a reinforcement or a re-interpretation of self, accord
As already suggested, individuals are not committed to a process of self-con
struction by any experienced action. In our metaphor, only the marked actions (the
recorded ones), which are then edited by language when it directs the production of
Actions in which individuals become involved are the motive and goals that are
related to some characteristics of the self that makes sense in a given context. Thus,
Brunstein (
asserted that individuals seemed to commit themselves more to
If the
nature of the goal can play a role in an individual’s involvement in his
construction of self, the fact that SIF are organized into a system suggests that pon
dering the different personal goals could also imply the two types of reflexivity. For
example, Boudrenghien et
al. (
have investigated the involvement of college
, they differentiate
the capacity to become involved in a goal according to its levels of abstraction and
integration. According to the goal’s level of abstraction, the authors differentiate
identity goals (“be goals”) that aim at self-achievement as a person, from action and
action goals (“do goals”) that aim simply to achieve a certain type of action. The
“be” and “do” goals are integrated and form a hierarchical system of goals. “Do
goals” are at the lowest level of this hierarchy. They are sub-goals that are involved
in the implementation of “be goals,” which are at this hierarchy’s highest level.
The links between goals and sub-goals permit the description of each goal’s level
of integration. The more the attainment of a
goal is perceived to be dependant on
the joint attainment of many other goals, the higher is its level of integration. The
higher a goal is integrated, the more individuals tend to perceive it as important and
become involved in its achievement. “Do goals,” which may be compared to the
action level in Young’s model (Young et
), serve as
the achievement of “be goals,” which may be compared to the levels of joint
tions, project, and career, as soon as they are integrated; that is, in Young’s model,
as soon as individual and joint actions become components of projects and careers.
The processes involved in the integration of the different levels of action into
this hierarchical system also need to be understood. If, as we asserted, the levels of
action are the media of the self’s construction, then the two previously described
reflexivity processes may be seen as aiming to organize the goals of action into a
hierarchy. As language permits to take back again action in a creative way, it al
lows certain hierarchical links between sub-goals and goals are construed. For ex
ample, during a counselling interview, or a discussion with
parents, one adolescent
will explain his/her daily actions, associated emotions and goals. Interacting with
the counsellor or parents leads him/her to create a hierarchy between those actions
(goals and emotions). For example he/she can consider that “playing soccer with
friends” is fundamental for his/her self-construction, but not “playing piano”. One
action can thus support be-goals, joint-action and project, while the other just still
Individual behaviours, interactions with others, and conversation are actions which
are combined in individuals’ minds with emotional and sensory states, and with
cognitions. From our perspective, these are the action markers from which stem
goals, both do-goals and be-goals, that are integrated in SIF via the reflexivity pro
cesses. Emotion and feelings are very close. They are the primary markers of sen
sory affects: these may be considered to be individuals’ basic ways of relating to
their personal experiences. Following Damasio (
, we may consider emotions
and feelings as differentiating themselves only with regard to the “level of abstrac
tion” of the mode of relating to self they imply. Emotions and feelings are suggested
to be two different translations of a same state, the first one being a body translation
feeling, and consciousness (reason) are then different translations of
what could be named “affects,” seen as results of agency, as results of one’s own
actions grasped either in an unaware body mode, in an immediate mental way, or
again in a rational consciousness. Following Damasio (
, we therefore distin
guish proto-self (internal body maps), core consciousness (immediate non-verbal
neuronal maps), and extended consciousness (memorized neuronal maps) as being
Conceiving consciousness within
the action system leads to specifying the role
played by each of these levels of consciousness in the formation of specific action
goals. Indeed, if the states of consciousness are expressions of affect, then they can
be markers: “do goals” or “be goals” needing to be integrated.
Anger, joy, sadness,
but also self-efficacy beliefs, self-esteem, interests or values, and so forth are such
markers. They correspond to a certain translation or
al. (
stressed this point when
they assigned the three following functions to emotions in action regulation: ac
tions’ self-regulations, strategies to lead joint actions, and influence in the process
From a dynamic standpoint, this translation or interpretation of emotion with
in the language of feeling is the first step towards consciousness, first to the core
Fig. 6.1
Self-construction model
consciousness and then to the extended one. It gives access to behaviors and their
meanings, to objects, to others, to time, and to the construction of personal goals.
awareness “of something” must also be put to test; that is,
it must be translated into the language of emotions via a return to concrete action.
Then, it makes a return journey so as to be re-transformed into affects that can par
ticipate in an increased agency. Thus, in such a circular system, emotion, as body
state, comes always first but is continuously recycled within the language of feeling
Therefore it is by language that the markers of action are constructed, and edited
in order to produce some forms about self that integrate goals which are organized
A certain level of
language, conceived as instrument of thought, may be associated
with each level of consciousness that was previously described. The translation of
affects from one level to another—as the return activity to put to test the markers of
action—require tools or instruments of translation and of implementation by action.
Language appears to be the main instrument at work in the two types of reflexivity
which contributes to editing the identity movie. The distinction made by Vygotsky
244) because “thought is
not merely
expressed in words; it comes into existence through them” (p.
218). Social and in
ner languages may then be considered as tools to “direct” self: the latter playing
its part at the level of core consciousness and the former at the level of extended
consciousness. Social language (the one among the two languages that individuals
are the more aware of) is a tool used to translate—to edit—feelings into SIF via an
integration of action goals into personal goals. This corresponds to the transition
from the core-self to autobiographic one, in Damasio’s (
Respectively, inner speech is the main tool of emotion editing. On the one hand,
it translates emotions into feelings by forming action goals. On the other hand, it
puts the SIFs through trials of action, which prompt emotions. Thus inner speech
appears more specifically to be a mediator between body and consciousness. It is
indeed through inner speech that the body makes sense whilst a sense of
enacted bodily.
Thus, language seems to be at the very heart of the processes of self’s construc
tion, as it appears as a media either of reflexivity or of action (according to its level
of interiority). Therefore, it seems now important to construct interventions—for
“life designing” counsellors—that activate this double reflexivity which combines
Reflexivity and Action in Career and Life Designing
During counselling interviews, the dual and ternary forms of reflexivity appear as
the major development factors of clients’ views of their situations and their prob
lems. In fact, according to the features of their situation, to their reflection pro
gresses, and to the counselling interview phases, clients tend to favor either one
form of reflexivity or the other. This finding emerged, notably, from the descriptions
of career counselling interviews by Bangali (
Bangali (
) reported the client-counsellor interactions during interviews with
two newly graduated doctors. Both of them were looking for a job and were in quite
a difficult situation. Indeed, when they wrote their thesis, as most French doctoral
students do, they pictured their future career within the expected SIF of a researcher
in their specialty, working at university or at a state research body. However, job op
portunities in these domains are extremely scarce and both of them had to remodel
their anticipations and think about a career in a private company. During counsel
ling, these two doctors completed the same exercise: they were asked to give all
requested instructions to a double who would represent them the following day in a
career interview, in such a way the recruiter wouldn’t notice the substitution. Their
statements uttered on that exercise occasion were analyzed. This analysis showed
that each of them favored different enunciation modes which can be referred to
either form of reflexivity.
Mr. G was 29 years old, held a neuroscience doctorate and had completed two post-
States. During the ‘instruction to a double’ exercise, giving
more importance to the dual reflexivity, he relied on the vocational
identification he
forged when he was working on his thesis: the expected SIF of becoming a “research
er in neurosciences.” In doing the exercise, Mr. G. favored speech acts that displayed
al. (
one can say that Mr. G
Ms. L was 33 years old, held a doctorate in political sciences, a postgraduate
certificate in
communication, and a master degree in philosophy. During the exer
cise, she gave more importance to the ternary reflexivity. Her goal was to sketch
out and possibly specify, a vocational SIF with which she could identify. This ap
peared in her speech acts via a frequent use of linguistics markers—as questions
and notices—that expressed an influence process on herself. Fundamentally, Ms. L
wondered about herself and her different past experiences in order to outline a cer
tain future prospect that would make them meaningful. She used the dual reflection
processes only as auxiliaries of the ternary ones. This became evident in her search
for keys elements in her life she could organize in view of certain future prospects
(mainly, but not only, a career one) she could narrate to make a coherent life story.
She achieved it eventually when she elicited a new vocational expected SIF—head
of communications in the field of bioethics—that allowed her to aggregate her life
from this future prospect. But to do so, she had to wonder about what was more im
portant to her in her life. Using the language of
Ginzberg et
al. (
her speech and thought acts showed an
exploration process of her life in order
Thus, the two forms of reflexivity appeared to have been activated during these
, http://www offers a career intervention that may connect these two levels. The
goal is to help school dropouts, very distant from the job market, either to begin
some vocational training or in their transition to employment. Sport training is used
to achieve that purpose. Through this intervention, it is expected that these young
people construct certain new SIFs that would allow them to reach either goal. The
intervention alternates sport training and debriefing sessions. The training sessions
permit to put through trials the conclusions and advices formulated during the de
briefing ones. The training sessions are also used by the “sport coach and counsel
lor” to observe
attitudes, and interactions. These observations are dis
major expectations (expected subjective identity forms) that give their lives mean
ings. The goal is then to help clients define their own norms. It is to assist each of
them in finding the life bearings that will play the holding role the relatively steady
social and ideological frameworks and routines used to provide individuals with in
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Young, R. A., & Domene, J. (2011). The construction of agency in career counselling. In M. Mc
Mahon & M. Watson (Eds.),
Career counselling and constructivism: Elaboration of constructs
25–38). New York: Nova Science.
oung, R. A., Paseluikho, M. A., & Valach, L. (1997). The role of emotion in construction of ca
Young, R. A., Valach, L., & Collin, A. (2002). A Contextualist explanation of career. In D. Brown,
Career choice
ed., pp.
206–252). San Francisco: Jossey-
oung, R. A., Valach, L., & Domene, J. F. (2005). The action project method in counseling psy
Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52,
Young, R. A., Marshall, S. K., Valach, L., Domene, J. F., Graham, M. D., & Zaidman-Zait, A.
Transition to adulthood: Action, projects, and counseling
. New York: Springer-Science.
Zéroulou, Z. (1988). La réussite scolaire des enfants d’immigrés. L’apport d’une approche en
termes de mobilisation [School sucess in immigrants’ children. A contribution of an approach
Chapter 7
Career and Identity Construction in Action:
A Relational View
Department of Education, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel
Psychology has been criticized for the prevailing construction, and often-exclusive
focus, on human development in terms of self-contained, separate, and bounded,
individuals. To be sure, to this day contemporary psychology relies “on construals
of human beings as isolated, self-sufficient individuals who develop essentially in
a vacuum” (Stetsenko
181). Through this
conceptualization a divide is
created between the self and the social/cultural. Assumptions about the self, when
viewed through the lens of an individualistic ontology, “presuppose that the bound
aries of the person are roughly at the surface of the skin” (Christopher and Bickhard
, p.
262). A
split between the internal and the external is a reflection of
istic and individualistic bias of Western culture and much of mainstream psychol
ogy (e.g., Christopher and Bickhard
). This is still largely the case in much
of vocational psychology and career development conceptualizations, although the
sound of drums of change echo the growing awareness of a more interactive role
of context and culture, of social construction processes, of the role of language and
social discourse, interpersonal interaction and relational experiences that are at the
The apparent tension between what is often regarded as two fundamental modal
ities (for instance, agency and communion Bakan
, and their developmental
roles are at the heart of the discussion in this chapter. Indeed, the drums sounding
change are engendered and intensified, at least in part, following cultural-historical
flow from earlier modernity to later modernity in Western societies. Conceptual
tension and confusion, along with the recognition of the need for more complex
and dynamic construction of reality, accompany the change in the social
two conceptual propositions will be followed, propositions that will serve to frame
the discussion in socio-historical context. These propositions will also serve as a
springboard for highlighting principles of the conceptual ground. Interestingly, and
somewhat paradoxically, the first reference is proposed by a prominent psycholo
gist, Jerome Bruner, who is responsible for more than one revolution in psychology
and whose emphasis is on human psychology as a product of communal context.
His claim precedes an analysis of cultural transformation made by the distinguished
social scientists, Beck,
Bauman, and Giddens, who highlight processes of
concept in human psychology and implies that the “processes and transactions in
volved in the construction of meanings” (p.
33) are central to
human life and mind.
Human experiences and actions are shaped by the person’s intentional states, which
in turn are formed in the context of participation in symbolic systems of culture.
Culture provides the means to overcome biological limits and affords “meaning
to action by situating its underlying intentional states in an interpretive system”
34). Inherent in Bruner
’s proposition is the understanding of the fundamental
role of communal context in human life and development, with its patterns of mu
tual dependency, as they are developed through “language and
discourse modes,
logical and narrative explication” (p.
34). As indicated, Bruner
’s contention serves
as a foundation to the main argument in the following discussion and the basic con
ception embedded in it is explicated from different perspectives as the discussion
Cultures are varied with specific nuances and dynamics. In North America,
dividualism is traditionally defined as a cultural emphasis and a fundamental ethos
. European
social scientists underscore the process of
al. (
indicate that work is the domain of “utilitarian indi
vidualism” (p.
83). Beck (
) refers to the sphere of work as an exemplary arena
where the process of structural change leads to individualization, and later (Beck
and Beck-Gernsheim
claims that the labor market is the ‘motor’ of individu
alization (p.
31). Changes in structural processes in both
A marke
r of late-modern life is growing uncertainty and the threat to personal
meaningfulness (cf. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim
; Giddens
Career and Identity Construction in Action: A Relational
is a powerful individualizing force, according to Bauman’s (
individualization is an ongoing active process. Bauman further warns
that contemporary social forms melt faster than new ones can solidify, and efforts
to develop long-term strategy and “life-projects” are bound to fail in this context.
Weakening social structures do not provide a frame stable enough to hold long-term
planning, and individual lives are more and more likely to consist of a series of
short-term projects and episodes rather than “consistent and cohesive sequences”
304). This kind of observation
puts the notion of career in a new
context and challenges the conceptualization of career development along with the
goals of career counseling and intervention.
However, the same socio-cultural processes that engender individualization, also
awareness of the power of social construction and enhance the need for
relationships. With de-traditionalization and the apparent gradual loss of clearly
defined and institutionalized social bases that used to be taken for granted, individu
alization leaves the person with questions about the self in relation to (more or less)
subtle social
structures. Changes in life routines that are held by norms and institu
tionalization carry the potential to raise questions in reference to the experience of
the self as well as the meaning of social processes. When people experience “loss of
traditional security with respect to practical knowledge,
faith, and guiding norms”
, p.
128) as byproducts of
change in prescribed social forms and tradi
tional contexts, they experience the duality of a sense of being “liberated” along
with the fundamental motivation to belong (Baumeister and Leary
and look
for sources of security and reaffirmation. As Berger and Luckmann (
“The reality of everyday life maintains itself by being embodied in routines, which
is the essence of institutionalization. Beyond this, however, the reality of everyday
life is ongoingly reaffirmed in the individual’s interaction with others” (p.
Indeed, when routines fold and uncertainty creeps in, it is not only
that is
enhanced; uncertainty also carries the potential to augment the need for af
filiation and sensitivity to relatedness. In line with this observation is the conclusion
that, as a reaction to strong emphasis on individualism in American culture, there
are indications of “a popular desire for more connection, more intimacy, more com
The human need
to affiliate is a basic one. Humans cannot develop in total isola
tion. The cornerstone and primary experience of their development is bonding and
relating with others (Josselson
. Selfhood is developed in the intersection of
the individual in relation to others, and as George Herbert Mead (
is essentially a
social structure
which arises and is constituted within so
cial experience. Hence, the human disposition leads to “a socially ‘co-constructed’
nature of self-knowledge” (Rochat
. From
very early in life the tension
between the need to maintain proximity and explore, between being with and auton
omous action, resonates, as has been clearly theorized by Erikson (
, Winnicott
. In Erikson’s (
“Career” emerged as a product of the modern era following the industrial revolution
), and is associated with bureaucratic organizations and capitalist
and mirrors the process of
Career, as a concept, represents an emphasis on the self-contained individual with
limited attention to a more complicated view of the individual in context (Blustein
; Flum
; Schultheiss
. Although career can be applied to different
domains, it usually refers to an emphasis on work positions occupied by a person,
a sequence of occupations, along the person’s work life (cf. Savickas
common meaning is shared by both academic literature and lay
discourse (Young
. Career also represents an educational and work-related progres
sion trajectory, or a succession of educational qualifications and work roles. No
wonder that career development and counseling had been found to be too narrow
in their approach, being disconnected from other domains of life, largely ignoring
major life experiences and informative personal-developmental knowledge (see, for
; Young and Domene
However, career (along with its derivatives, notably ‘career development’ and
‘career counseling’) and the variety of meanings it conveys has been challenged
from an array of perspectives (see, for instance, Blustein
; Collin and Young
The care
er conceptual lens leads to an artificial separation of career development
and personal development, and to a
practice that is likely to overlook relational and
emotional aspects of the individual’s life (Richardson
; Young and Domene
. Throughout the years, there have been scholars who advocated a broader
view, and an expansion of career’s definition (e.g. Cochran
; Smelser
In Super’s (
‘life span, life space’ model, attention is paid to the various life
roles played by the individual, and the model raises questions about the relation
ships among them. However, the conceptual landscape of career development and
counseling implications has only recently started to reflect the change. Inevitably,
the reality of interconnectedness of life
domains (e.g. Richardson
need to assume multiple work-related transitions throughout life and translate them
to a lifelong learning process (e.g. Flum and Blustein
are more widely recognized (Savickas et
. Attempts
to conceptualize
career in broader terms and expand the conceptual landscape of our understanding
; Dyer
; Richardson
; Young and
. A most elaborated showcase of the study of career development and
counseling at the transition from adolescence to
adulthood follows Young
and colleagues’ contextual action theory (e.g.
). Findings of a series
Career and Identity Construction in Action: A Relational
of studies that follow the principles of the theory and fitting modes of inquiry (for a
review of methods see Young et
) are instrumental
in advancing conceptual
Contextualized Action: Intertwined Projects
Contextual Action Theory and the research it engendered postulate a view of career
as being grounded in a moderate social constructionist approach (e.g. Dyer et
) and hence
as being relationally-based. In their contextualist explanation of
careers, Young and his colleagues (e.g.
, 2011,
construct of ‘goal-directed human action’ as a reflection of the way people perceive
their own and others’ behavior. Being a nucleus construct, it is extended to include
broader social meaning and longer time connotations through (a) joint
project, and (c) career. Each one of these constructs is defined as a super-ordinate
construct in ascending manner. Hence, Young et
al. maintain that career
is socially
constructed through goal-directed joint actions and projects. An early focus was on
; however
, more recently they stud
family, notably through the parent-adolescent
relationship. Their research has been carried out systematically and enriches our
understanding of the intricate and complex processes by which these constructions
occur. Young and his colleagues studied vocational joint
projects in varied family
related contexts including in the context of parents and young adolescents (Young
families who face a variety of challenges (Young et
families with
parents and older adolescents (Y
They also exam
ined these types of projects in the context of romantic partners (Domene and Young
, and in counseling (Dyer et
. In
summing up the implications for
practice, Dyer et
al. (
conclude that the relationship project in career
In additional conclusions drawn from their studies, Young and colleagues point
out that “vocation is not only constructed in relationships, but that the vocational
project and the relational project are intertwined” (Young and Domene
Following an
analysis of counseling sessions focusing on the transition to
with 19–21
year old volunteers, Y
oung et
al. (2011) ask
about the goal-directed
tions and projects that are jointly constructed by counselors and clients. Three broad
projects are identified: education/
occupation, identity, and relationships. These are
three main projects that young clients are engaged in, in their life outside coun
seling. A primary finding indicates that the relationship and identity goal-directed
projects are intertwined within and outside counseling. Indeed, earlier in a more
general review of the meaning of career, Young and Collin (
tension that “is encapsulated in career is being at the heart of the modern dilemma
These conclusions are important for the understanding of the interconnection
among projects, and indeed the complex dynamics that are revealed in these studies.
Indeed, both the relational experience in its micro meaning of interaction and
communication, and as a link with the larger system, the communal discourse and
culture, are likely to contribute to the person’s identity construction.
based, and
this definition is not without theoretical and empirical merit, it is still a
diversion from the
cultural, colloquial, and professional discourse (cf. Collin
In our socially constructed discourse, “career” is loaded with
individualization and
the relational aspect remains largely obscured. Both career and identity are over-
burdened constructs. However, identity became a key and indispensable concept in
their seminal work on
. Similarly, identity formation is the key “process ‘located’
in the core of the individual
s view,
identity encompasses individual and social meaning and is considered in terms of
Career and Identity Construction in Action: A Relational
ence of identity, identity as being experienced by the individual, reflects a sense of
being part of with an individuated face. Identity is constantly being co-constructed
and serves as a pivot between the social and the individual. Its major function is
an integrative one, because it concurrently allows some distinction between the
internal and the external, between the individual and the communal, while avoiding
dichotomy and split. There is no inherent conflict or divergence between the indi
meanings of identity (cf. Wenger
Identity is an ongoing process; it is “always changing and developing” (Erikson
, “never….
static or unchangeable” (p.
24), and yet also
marked by “the
two simultaneous observations: the perception of the selfsameness and continuity of
one’s existence in time and space and the perception of the fact that others recognize
one’s sameness and continuity.” (p.
50). At the same
time it also includes, on a dif
style of one’s individuality
sameness and continuity of one’s
in the immediate
community” (Erikson
, p.
50, emphasis in the
original). Erikson exemplifies
In psychological terms, the process of identity formation employs a process of simultane
ous reflection and observation, a process taking place on all levels of mental functioning, by
which the individual judges himself in the light of what he perceives to be the way in which
others judge him in comparison to themselves and to a typology significant to them; while
he judges their way of judging him in the light of how he perceives himself in comparison
to them and to types that have become relevant to him. This process is… for the most part
unconscious except where inner conditions and outer circumstances combine to aggravate
a painful, or elated, ‘identity–consciousness.’ (pp.
Giddens (
explains his concept of
It “is not something that is just
given…but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive
The aforementioned
relative void of institutionalized traditions, that served to
underwrite identity, is partially filled by discourses, which are mediated by direct
interaction with others as well as through other means (e.g. education, media, and
variety of systems of communication). Discursive processes are moving further to
the foreground; with the ascending need for recognition through discourse and
logue as people become more and more aware of them (Gee
. People’s sense
of purpose, their tasks,
functions, and understandings emerge in the context of sys
tems of relations or social communities where they have meaning. Hence, identity,
knowing, and social membership are linked and entail each other (Lave and Wenger
In a study of indicators of internal processes following a group discussion with
al. (
made a distinction between
internal processes that reflect intentional states regarding future lives in relation
to contexts of work and relationships, and expressions of new or revised thoughts
and feelings of the students about themselves; that is, identity process. Following
their findings they raise a question about the ways in which intentional processes
and identity processes are mutually constitutive and lead to the construction and
Intentional states shape the person’s action (Bruner
ed in a relational and cultural context. Similarly, Erikson (
regards the devel
opment of a sense of ambition and purpose as they are related to biologically based
locomotion, to language and relationships, and to imagination. Intentional states,
purpose, and goals embody motivation, future orientation, and direction. They are
all manifestations of identity and underscore its processual facet, its construction
and reconstruction. Intentions, sense of purpose, and goals are experienced as ex
pressions of identity which link the person with doing; they direct action and hence
are likely to promote a sense of agency (Richardson
). They signify the transla
tion of identity into
practice, a trans-action since practice becomes a lived experi
ence of negotiated meaning and reifies identity (Wenger
Radical social constructionists would refer to the subjective intentional states,
sense of purpose, and personal agency as an illusion (for more detailed discussion
see Richardson
). However, both Bruner’s and Erikson’s perspectives engen
der a more complicated position, as do other scholars from different perspectives,
and offer a complementary approach to human nature.
Identity: Perspectives on Communal Culture and Agency
refers to the social-personal interplay in the construction of iden
tity as being “hard to grasp” (p.
22). Indeed, the question
of relationship between
the individual and culture has been an evasive one in psychology, because of the
dualism that permeated psychology and the social sciences in general
. Ann Swidler (
, building to an extent on
Geertz (
, confronts the issue of “culture in action” from a sociological-anthro
pological perspective. Swidler defines culture as “the publicly available symbolic
forms through which people experience and express meaning” (p.
273). Modes of
through symbolic forms includ
language, stories, beliefs, formal and informal ritual practices, ceremonies, and
art forms. Culture does not determine the end action or a single action directly, but
exerts influence through ‘strategies of action’. Strategy is not a conscious plan for
mulated to attain a goal; it is a “general way of organizing action” (Swidler
277). Hence, ‘strategies of
action’ rely on, in Swidler’s examples, the relational
Culture is not a unified system and consists of varied action guides. Actors select
differing pieces from a repertoire offered by culture’s tool kit, and construct chains
of action. Hence, people do not start from scratch but from pre-fabricated material.
And culture impacts the shape and the organization of the links of action, although
not determining the end action. As indicated, culture provides a tool kit of resources
or materials from which actors (individuals or groups) construct strategies of action,
and these selected cultural elements are invested in meanings in certain concrete
life circumstances. This distinctive cultural explanation is appropriate, according
Career and Identity Construction in Action: A Relational
time of established and settled cultures. However, Swidler
While at a settled period an emphasis is on the creation of continuities in strate
gies of action with the refinement of skills, habits, and modes of experience, an
unsettled model underscores the contest of cultures based on competing
gies rather than on tradition or shared common sense. In this latter model, argues
Swidler (
), explicit ideologies are linked with action and new modes of action
develop within structural constraints and historical circumstances. Hence, concrete
Swidler’s (
) perspective depicts culture as ‘symbolic vehicles of meaning’;
vehicles of meanings that are communally shared. However, by using the cultural
‘\tool kit resources, strategies of action are constructed and can be viewed as be
ing translated to intentional states and definition of purpose by the person. In this
process particular meanings are invested in concrete life circumstances. It can be
extrapolated that identity is constructed through combined cultural and agentic pro
cesses, i.e. applying cultural resources configured by the
style of one’s individuality
(as Erikson articulated) in a form meaningful to one’s community.
points out the need to develop a framework in psychology with
a focus on the relationship between “intentional persons” (“reality-constituting
psyches”) and “intentional worlds” (“culturally constituted realities”) (p.
27). Chris
address Shweder’s call in their interactivist
for cultural psychology. Interactivism is a process model, consistent with social
practice and interpretive perspective—hermeneutic,
dialogical, and
insights, but situates them within a developmental ontology. This comprehensive
metatheory tackles dualism and the prevalent tendency to reify culture and person
and refer to them as two separate things in psychology. It explores, among other
questions, the central question: “What is the ontology of culture and how does it
that “the self is (a) constituted in interaction with others; (b) collectively construct
ed through sociocultural participation; and (c) a product of history” (Christopher
, p.
264). Using a developmental
lens, Christopher and
Bickhard (
) introduce the concept of ‘knowing levels,’ which refer to knowl
edge and representation, to agency and the self, to goals, values, and culture.
According to interactivism, culture cannot be reified. Cultural assumptions,
values, and meanings are implicit in engagement in social practices, in forms of
agency. Through interactive experiences and memories of patterns of functioning,
representations become another aspect of a culturally situated, engaged, and em
bodied agency. Culture and agency are inherently intertwined and distributed across
A certain type of knowledge, which is implicit at one level of knowing, can
become (at least partially) explicit in higher level. At the first level of knowing, the
self is implicit. The child is non-reflective, and cannot differentiate between her or
his being and a sense of self. In the second knowing level a sense of self is develop
ing, along with an implicit sense of self-representation. At the third knowing level,
this implicit self-representation emerges explicitly and can become consciously
known; thus self-reflexiveness is engendered. Christopher and Bickhard (
pict self-reflexiveness as a process “…from which to compare his or her self to a
system of alternatives, judge it against values, and construct it in accordance with
those judgments” (p.
278), and note the
resemblance to Erikson’s identity formation
process as outlined previously.
Reflexivity and Exploratory Action
Individualization—Bauman (
observes—transforms identity from being a
given to a task. Giddens (
, claims that “in the context of post-traditional order,
the self becomes a
reflexive project
” (p.
32, italic in original).
While psychic reor
ganization has always been an aspect of transitions in the life of individuals, it was
often shaped by rituals. “In the setting of modernity, by contrast, the altered self has
to be explored and constructed as part of a reflexive process of connecting personal
and social change” (Giddens
, p.
33). In the same
vein, Erikson (
developmental advantage of a process of identity
“reflection and observation” and describes in detail the social and personal meaning
of such a process. All of them imply engagement in action.
Evidence shows that turning inward and engagement solely in introspection is
often not productive as far as self-knowledge is concerned. Apparently, introspec
tion is not likely to reach the
unconscious and make the implicit explicit. How
ever, when introspection is not so much about seeking to unearth hidden feelings
motives, and more of a constructive process inferring what these states might
be through self narrative, the process could be more beneficial (Wilson and Dunn
. Indeed, engagement in self-reflection and exploration is constructive when
When tradition does not offer identity grounding, people sense the need for rela
tional frames not so much in established social structures but more through variety
of personal
relationships and individualized relational experiences which provide
the secure base and cues for identity construction. A relational example of a con
structive avenue for the development of self-knowledge at a micro level is referred
to by Wilson and Dunn (
) based on empirical findings, which they refer to as
“seeing ourselves through the eyes of others” (p.
507), and thus describe
a mirroring
process in which the self is reflected by others. This is clearly the process indicated
by Erikson in the above ‘reflection observation’ quotation. When a person identi
fies an aspect of the self as being known to the other it becomes real. Empathic and
adequate mirroring promotes one’s sense of who one is, and can provide affirma
tion to the self and confirmation of identity. This relational quality of ‘eye–to-eye
validation’ is depicted by Josselson (
Career and Identity Construction in Action: A Relational
result in a better processing of the self, as well as in the promotion of understanding
of the social context. Exploration is carried out within a social system of meaning.
Questioning, examining interpretations, and becoming aware of self-culture inter
action, facilitates the construction and likely transformation of strategies of action
Being-in-the-world does not carry only relational and contextual connotations;
it entails a retrospective as well as a prospective view of the self. Developmen
tally, the potential of growing social- and self-complexity in an increasingly de-
traditionalized, late-modern era of globalization and an information age, requires
the recognition of the individual as an agentive person psychologically who also
performs relational agency (Sugerman and Martin
. From a developmental
perspective, the self is relationally constituted (e.g. Gergen’s (
) Relational Be-
ing; also Erikson
and meaning-making is communally-based (Bruner
simultaneously, the complementary processes of individuation and individualiza
tion feed the emerging sense of personal identity and agency, and the construction
style of one’s individuality
cannot be denied. As indicated earlier, when identity
is transformed from being a given to being a task and individuals are expected to be
capable of and responsible for self-authoring their life, a sense of agency transcends
the relational web, as well as being part of it. Reflexivity becomes more and more
an essential and repeated link of identity construction, facilitating intention states
Identity as a
holistic notion emphasizes the need for an integrative process that
ties together experiences through action, aims to interconnect roles and life do
mains, in an effort to promote coherence. Hence, experiences are reflected upon and
assessed in a retrospective as well as a prospective manner; their meanings are con
structed in context, while implicit knowledge becomes explicit. A reflexive process
involves self-interpretation of action which can relate to manifest
behavior, internal
processes, and relational interaction as a vehicle to social meaning and mediation of
the larger social system (cf. Young and Domene
Work remains a core life domain. However, the prevailing social discourse im
plies that the experience of work is increasingly regarded in temporary, often less
bounded, terms and a language of risk. Just as the de-traditionalization trend affects
identity, the diminishing holding role of the workplace impacts the experience of
stability and continuity, and increases uncertainty while boundaries among spheres
of life often tend to fade. A fast-changing work environment is characterized as
being hypercompetitive and as emphasizing collaboration simultaneously, and the
worker “must be ‘eager to stay’, but also ‘ready to leave’ if the business is failing
or even if it must innovate new projects that no longer require the core competen
cies of the current workers” (Gee et
19). This future outlook
charged with
conflicts and uncertainty, underscores the prevailing demanding task
of the transition to adulthood.
By and large, young people face the transition to adulthood unprepared or un
equipped for the task of self-authoring their identity in general and for the new
world of work in particular. It is no wonder that young people take longer to explore
Career and Identity Construction in Action: A Relational
and thus the facilitation of development” (Flum and Kaplan
100). Hence,
a key
to our approach is self-reflexivity in the exploratory action; information-
seeking and processing is tied up reflectively with the developing self, and the
identity and knowledge are mutually enhanced. This kind of action
promotes meaning-making, facilitates motivation and engagement in
learning, and
augments a sense of being-in-the-world with a clarification of intentional states
In our implementation of the exploratory action model in education, it is as
sumed that educational settings provide a social context of
peers and teachers as
facilitators who play a role in the
enactment of exploratory process. Exploratory
action is promoted collectively, but experienced by individuals and affects them
differentially. The first principle to be applied when an exploratory activity is intro
duced is
. Hence, within a relational context, such as a class or a group of
students, a situated action
episode is relevant to both the learning material and pos
sibly of interest on some personal level to (at least some of) the students. Three ad
ditional principles combine in our conceptual framework to turn the relevant action
into a subjectively meaningful experience and promote engagement in construc
tive identity exploration: An exploration
of discrepancy (e.g., from current identification or commitment) that in turn elicits
motivation to seek information and look for a way (i.e., action) to accommodate
new information in a self-relevant manner. The triggered experience may involve
an exciting or intriguing sense, but often it feels unsettling or evokes anxiety. In
order to be experienced as a challenge rather than a threat, a subjective sense of
the mode of facilitation is open and feels secure enough to allow stu
dents to initiate a question, raise an issue, make an observation or simply reflect in
the group about situated action in a self-relevant manner. When a safe
is created, a trigger is likely to be effective as a motivational vehicle to engage
in the construction of adaptive identity through a personally (or collectively) framed
exploratory action and its scaffolding. It should be underscored that an action,
linked with where the individual is (even unconsciously) in identity-related terms,
has the potential to affect the process, to make it explicit and add an integrative
power. It is also likely to affect positively learning motivation (Kaplan and Flum
). The role played by peers, whose experiences are likely to be relatively
close or relevant, in producing scaffolds—and hence in the co-
construction of the
Implication: A Counseling Example of an Action Narrative in
This is applicable in high school as well as in higher education (Flum and Kaplan
Once exploratory action becomes an educational
goal (Flum and Kaplan
, an infusion of exploratory activities
and reflexive experiences become part of the curriculum and the learning process.
Similarly, the same perspective, framework and principles can also be relevant in
group counseling, in or out of the educational system. A peers’ joint project with
a counselor-facilitator may follow an action narrative approach.
emerging adults may focus on storytelling to enact exploration. Stories about the
self or situated stories can serve as a primary device in the promotion of identity
Situated stories encapsulate an identity theme that is likely to be linked with
as a “narrative account of
personal memory that is created within a specific situation, by particular individu
als, for particular audiences, and to fulfill particular goals” (p.
263). McLean et
) propose
a process model of self-development based on their study of situat
ed stories which they entitled: “selves creating stories creating selves”. The concept
autobiographical reasoning
(Habermas and Bluck
represents the dynamic
process of thinking about the past and linking it with the self. This process, McLean
) suggest, is relevant to situated
stories as well as to life stories. In
rytelling, past experiences are processed in light of the present and with a potential
anticipation of the future (Erikson
The degree or
reasoning is related to the framing of the
to the goal, to the situation and the audience behavior (i.e., engagement, response).
In the counseling context, processing is related, for instance, to the framing by the
counselor, to others’ expression of emotions, to questioning, to the subjective
pretation or experience of whether peers mirror or validate, show interest and care,
express a sense of holding and support, identify, or idealize (Josselson
generally, others may ignore or relate in otherness terms, or share or join, but once
the interactive experience touches an
identity nucleus
of identity at the time which would have growth or developmental potential) the
quality of the relational experience may resonate and scaffold identity construction.
An experience that is talked about with the goal of self-understanding (i.e. ex
, would be associated with more insight and meaning-making as this ex
perience or identity issue is processed in subsequent narratives. When self-under
storytelling, and more connections between the past and
the current self are made, autobiographical
reasoning is enhanced, and so is the
construction of narrative identity.
Stories about the self are also means of construction of narrative identity in con
text. By reconstructing past experiences in relation to the self, individuals also con
nect to the social
order and organize culture (as claimed by the anthropologist Eisen
. Similarly, Bruner (
asserts that the self cannot be “independent of
Career and Identity Construction in Action: A Relational
one’s social-historical existence” (p.
67), and hence this
is reflected in stories that
provide “a map of possible roles and possible worlds in which action, thought, and
self-definition are permissible (or desirable)” (p.
66). Indeed, Bruner further
cates: “In time the young entrant into the culture comes to define his own intentions
and even his own history in terms of the characteristic cultural dramas in which he
plays a part” (p.
67). By making the
intertwined connection of self and society/cul
ture more explicit, the individual is more likely to exercise agency (both individu
ally and relationally) and enact change on these different levels (Eisenhart
Hence, layers of identity work interact with the social discourse and the style
of individuality and become more explicit, real and confirmed. And in the process
they turn into action and promote the crystallization of purpose. A future-oriented
projection of the self is enabled in an adaptive manner, with relative flexibility and
openness to experience, integrated with a sense of growing personal and relational
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Chapter 8
Emotion-Focused Psychotherapy: An
Alternative Framework for Career Counseling
Jeanne C. Watson
Springer New York 2015
Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Emotion-focused psychotherapy (EFT) is a humanistic-experiential approach to hu
man functioning that grew out of both client-centered and
gestalt psychotherapy.
Its emphasis on growth and development makes it an ideal companion to action
theory approaches to career counseling. One of the goals of counseling is to free cli
ents from “immobility” so that they can move forward in their lives. Polkinghorne
quoting Zunker suggests that the role of career counselors is to increase
awareness in order to enable clients to choose among different courses of action. In
this chapter, we present some of the assumptions underlying EFT along with spe
Valach and Young
Primary among these is a phenom
enological perspective that emphasizes the importance of subjective experiencing
to provide an understanding of human beings and their functioning. Second is the
belief that the actualizing or growth tendency is an important developmental force
that propels organisms towards adaptation and growth. Third is the view that people
are capable of self-awareness and self-reflection and that this enables them to be
self-determining agents enabling them to choose among different courses of action.
Fourth, there is a strong belief, with growing empirical support, that these funda
mental human capacities are optimized in relationships characterized by
acceptance, and empathic understanding (Watson et
emphasis on phenomenological experience is important in two respects, first
in terms of the quality of the therapeutic relationship, and second in terms of the
primacy of affective and subjective experience to understand human beings. It is
through their senses and the resulting subjective experience that individuals come to
know the world and determine their needs. A phenomenological, discovery-oriented
approach in which clients are the experts on their inner experience is emphasized
J. C. Watson
and practiced.
Humanistic therapists are encouraged to bracket their assumptions
and refrain from imposing solutions and meaning on their clients’ experiences. In
stead the core task in therapy is to be fully present with clients as they connect the
events in their lives into meaningful narratives that will provide the self-knowledge
and understanding they require to make choices and move forward. The process of
acquiring self-knowledge and self-
determination is assisted, as clients are encour
aged to determine the validity of their
narratives and choices by referring to their
experience and organismic valuing process. Clients are encouraged
to understand their experiences from the inside out. In turn EFT therapists provide
clients with a responsive, safe, and empathic therapeutic
relationship to facilitate
self-exploration, growth, and healing (Watson et
second major assumption of humanistic and experiential
in the organism’s actualizing
tendency. Carl Rogers (
izing tendency as a biological imperative that propelled all systems towards greater
differentiation and growth. Others have suggested that the actualizing tendency is
directional and places the self at the center in a more or less intentional search for
meaning (Tageson
. According to these theorists human beings like all living
creatures grow and develop throughout the lifespan. While people work to maintain
stability and
predictability they are also curious and require stimulation such that
they are capable of dreaming and aspiring to different ways of being and acting.
This view sees people as influenced by their past and present experiences, as well
as their goals and expectations for the future (Rice and Greenberg
; Watson
third assumption shared by experiential therapists is that human beings are
self-reflective agents with the capacity to symbolize and use language so that they
can reflect on experience and choose between different courses of action (Polking
; Rice and Greenberg
. It is this capacity to be
self-reflective that enables human beings to grow and change. People are beings
who symbolize their experiences and for whom things matter and have significance
Philosophers, neuroscientists, and experiential psychotherapists recognize that
people are alerted to the significance and importance of situations, events, and
people by their feelings and desires (Damasio
; Gendlin
; Watson
and Greenberg
. Through their feelings, people come to
understand the impact of their experiences, and gain an understanding of how they
need to respond and communicate with others (Greenberg et
; Watson and Greenberg
. This view sees people as agents who
have the capacity to choose among competing wishes, desires,
needs and
Taylor (
) referred to the capacity to choose among alternative courses of action
as second-order valuing: a type of reflection that is more than understanding and
includes the capacity to evaluate and make choices that are consistent with a per
son’s deepest values and desires. He suggested that there are two ways of evaluating
experience: first in accord with one’s immediate needs and desires, and the second
in accord with specific value frameworks that have the capacity to override more
immediate concerns in terms of higher order values (Taylor
Emotion-Focused Psychotherapy: An Alternative Framework …
Experiential theorists see people as agents capable of self-determination and
choice, the capacity for which is facilitated by the ability to represent experience
symbolically and to reflect on it (May and Yalom
; Fagan
; Tiryakian
. It is recognized that there is a dynamic interaction
between language and other forms of symbolic expression and feelings such that
as each are formed they influence the other in an ongoing dialectic (Gendlin
; Taylor
; Watson and Greenberg
Humanistic philosophers recog
nize that experience becomes known as it is symbolized and put into words (Gen
; Taylor
. As experience is symbolized, human beings are able to
reflect on and evaluate it to determine its validity as well as determine different
The capacity for self-reflection is fostered in psychotherapy as clients come to
know their feelings, desires,
values, and assumptions so that they can choose among
different courses of action to live in ways that are more personally meaningful and
fulfilling (Watson and Greenberg
. An important goal of experiential psycho
therapy is to facilitate clients’
awareness of their organismic experience as they
engage in self-reflection to exercise choice and become the agents of their own
The fourth assumption concerns the centrality and quality of human relation
ships. Humanistic psychotherapists believe in the uniqueness and value of every
human being and emphasize respect and
caring for each person’s subjective
ence. The goal of
humanistic psychotherapists is to cultivate “I-Thou” exchanges in
J. C. Watson
experience (Greenberg, Rice & Elliott
; Watson
& Greenberg
an action theory approach once clients are aware of their emotional responses, they
can discriminate which responses are healthy and useful to guide them, and which
are maladaptive and need to be changed (Elliott et
; Greenberg
Greenberg and Paivio
Emotion Response Types
Individuals learn to regulate their emotions and develop a range of emotional re
sponses including
primary, maladaptive, secondary
tion with their environments.
adaptive emotions, from an EFT perspective,
are those authentic, core, and immediately experienced and congruent reactions to
specific environmental stimuli.
emotions are those problematic reac
tions that are linked to benign or neutral stimuli as a result of negative or difficult
life experiences. For example, when loving responses provoke anger in people who
have been abused – so that they see an outstretched hand as threatening as opposed
to loving or supportive.
emotions are those emotions that are developed
to distort or camouflage primary emotions; for example anger to cover vulnerability
emotions refer to those behavioural reactions that are
inauthentic and manufactured in order to elicit a specific response in another or to
Emotion-Focused Psychotherapy: An Alternative Framework …
A primary objective in EFT is to facilitate and assist clients to process their emo
tions and learn new ways of
regulating them. Emotional
dividuals to become aware of their inner experience, symbolize and differentiate
it to label it and come to understand and know it better. Both action theorists and
emotion-focused therapists recognize that once subjective experience is understood
and known then people are in a better position to determine their needs and identify
ways of behaving that are self-enhancing. As individuals become clearer about their
feelings and needs, they learn to modulate and regulate their emotions and the ex
pression of their emotional experience. Instead of merely reacting to their environ
ments, which can be problematic, they can respond as responsible self-determining
J. C. Watson
affective information and create meaning produces different psychological states.
Different affective states lead to different needs and options. With changes in their
affective states and the corresponding self-reorganization people are able to gener
ate alternative ways of being and seeing the world thereby increasing their degrees
of freedom. These types of changes are especially pertinent for working with people
who are concerned with developing and modifying their career
trajectories and can
A number of developmental processes that are important to becoming a fully func
emotional processing, differentiation
of self, treatment of self
development of somatic markers
Emotional processing
is the capacity to know and effectively modulate emotional
processing and expression.
Differentiation of
refers to the process of differen
experience in order to accurately symbolize it in words as well as the
process of differentiating self from other. This latter aspect occurs as people move
gradually from dependence to greater independence on the path to becoming self-
governing individuals. The process of becoming independent requires that individu
als learn to differentiate their experience from that of others. Parallel to the process
of differentiation and in interaction with their environments, people learn ways of
regulating their organismic experience. Negative and positive ways of
Treating the
develop in interaction with the environment and specifically significant others
from whom ways of treating inner subjective experience and modes of expression
are learned. The fourth process, the
sult of interactions with the environment when primary emotions become linked to
specific triggers and environmental stimuli to guide behaviour and enhance survival.
These four processes are important to consider in the formation and development
of life projects especially those having to do with career. For example, if differentia
tion of
self is halted or impaired then individuals may have difficulty identifying
aspirations or be at a loss as to how to realize them. We will address how
difficulties with
emotional processing
differentiation of self
and other
treatment of self
can impact the development of career
choices and life projects and
Self-other differentiation is a process that occurs naturally as people move from
a state of greater dependence at birth to greater independence as they grow and
referred to this as the process of becoming self-governing
and viewed it as related to the organism’s actualizing
tendency. As they grow people
develop their cognitive, affective and physical capacities. In the process of devel
oping and learning to process and modulate their emotional experience, including
acquiring the skills to be aware of, attend to, label, process, and regulate their inner
experience, they learn to differentiate their experience from that of others
as they become more independent. This process of differentiation relies on people
Emotion-Focused Psychotherapy: An Alternative Framework …
being able to distinguish their subjective
experience from that of others (Decety and
. Recent research has highlighted that the capacity to
differentiate the subjective
experience of self and other is facilitated by the structure
and function of mirror neurons (Iacoboni
). In addition, one’s awareness of
the distinctiveness of the experiences of the self from that of others is informed by
higher order cognitive capacities as people begin to see and understand that others
have unique vantages in the world so that their experience is likely to be different
from one’s own. The inability to take this view is often experienced by others as
The process of differentiation can be interrupted or distorted. For example, ne
glectful environments can hinder people from realizing their potential as they may
fail to provide adequate structure and guidance so that people can develop their
abilities and talents. In contrast while some people may receive too little guidance,
some may receive too much and, together with a need to please and be cooperative,
they may disregard their own organismic experience in order to try to follow career
and life paths dictated by others, for example, a child who becomes an accountant
in a family business to please a parent, in spite of an innate preference to work with
her hands. People who suppress or subvert aspects of their organismic experience
might benefit from differentiating themselves more from significant others so as to
give voice to their own needs while still acknowledging and respecting the needs of
others. This requires that they become more aware of their inner experiencing and
differentiate their needs and see them as distinct from those of others to become
Another example is provided by cases of role-reversal where children have care
takers who are physically or psychologically incapacitated so that the child may
subvert their own immediate needs in order to care for their parent. When people
are required to silence or ignore their own experience, they lose touch with their
own inner organismic sensing and valuing process as they orient to the needs and
wishes of others and their environment instead of attending to their own. As a result
of ignoring their own inner experience, people may have difficulty making person
ally satisfying life choices including those related to career (Valach
; Young
and Valach
Parallel to the process of differentiating self from other is that of learning how
to treat oneself and one’s experience. People learn to treat themselves more or less
positively depending on how others receive their emotional experience and its
expression. They learn whether their experience is acceptable, cherished, valued,
and how it can be regulated and expressed or whether it should be controlled, sup
pressed, denied, managed, or ignored (Benjamin
; Sullivan
. Rogers
referred to the development of conditions of worth, or the ways in
which people come to view and evaluate themselves and their experience, as a re
) referred to values introjected from
significant others and the environment that guide behaviour.
In EFT some of these negative patterns of treating experience have been identi
fied as self-interruption or the basis for conflict splits (Greenberg et
) .
Recently Greenber
g and Watson (
identified how critical ways of treating the
J. C. Watson
self can contribute to depression. However, there are multiple ways that people can
treat themselves negatively, including interrupting, silencing, neglecting, and other
wise suppressing experience that can be addressed in therapy using two chair
). For example, children who are told that it is unacceptable to cry or
that they must be brave, may learn to suppress their experience and ignore it as they
attempt to meet the expectations of significant others. This type of behaviour may
generalize to other aspects of their organismic experience such that it is ignored or
silenced as they try to cope with painful or difficult life experiences.
Therapeutic Tasks
A number of therapeutic tasks in EFT can be useful to work with people who are ex
periencing difficulties and challenges with their careers and life projects as a result
of impaired
negative treatment of self
. These tasks include em
pathic attunement, empty-chair, and two-chair work. Empathic attunement is one of
the primary ways that EFT therapists help clients address difficulties with emotional
processing and the development of narratives about self by helping them
their own inner and outer experience. EFT therapists facilitate differ
entiation of self and other with the use of
work. As they
engage in these tasks in psychotherapy, clients become aware of their organismic
experience, label, accept, and validate it as an important source of information that
The primary objective of many of the tasks in EFT is to provide clients with
ways to become aware of and access their organismic experience in the session.
Once they are aware of their inner experience they can begin to symbolize it and
understand the impact of events on them and become aware of their own needs and
goals to effect changes in their behaviour. By exploring and becoming aware of their
emotional experience, clients come to explicate and reveal the emotion schemes
that they have developed in interaction with the world. Once they are aware of the
emotion schemes clients can explore their relevance to current situations and pro
cess the painful experiences underlying them to develop alternative ones that are
Empathic Attunement and Responding
An important task in
helping people develop
their life projects is to have them attend to and become aware of their inner experi
ence to understand the impact of current situations and serve as a compass to guide
them in the future. Clients learn to attend to and value their own experience when
their therapists and counselors listen and attend to it and try to empathically under
stand and accept their clients’ experiences (Barrett-Lennard
. Rogers clearly articulated what this type of listening requires when he postu
lated the necessary and sufficient conditions of empathy, congruence, and positive
regard. While these have generated much debate and research, it is clear that for a
therapist to be experienced as empathic in a healing relationship then it is essential
that understanding be coupled with sincerity and transparency, otherwise known as
Emotion-Focused Psychotherapy: An Alternative Framework …
congruence, and non-judgmental acceptance. Bozarth (
) has highlighted that it
empathy alone that is healing in relationship but
acceptance of the other. And
when experienced together they are extremely powerful. Empathic understanding
helps clients become aware of their inner experience and come to accept and honor
it in ways that might not have been possible before. As clients give voice to and
label their inner experience it becomes more clearly differentiated and known and
defines the self vis-à-vis the other such that it contributes to the further differentia
tion of self and other.
Empty-Chair Tasks
Further differentiation of
experience as well as self and other
can be facilitated by empty chair work. One of the primary goals of this task is
to facilitate clients’ access to their own usually painful experience in relation to a
significant other. To help clients access their feelings, it is suggested that they try
to imagine or visualize the other. It can be especially helpful to have clients char
acterize the demeanor of the other to distill the essence of their experience. For
example, whether the other is imagined as smiling and engaged or as distant and
looking away and consequently experienced as cold and withdrawn. Once clients
Another therapeutic task that
has been developed and modeled
conflicts or to become more aware of the negative ways in
which they regulate their organismic experience is two-chair work. The two-chair
task was introduced by Perls to make people more aware of how they interrupted
their experience and inhibited the expression of their
sional conflicts (Greenberg et
. Subsequently this task was
modeled and more clearly articulated by Greenberg and colleagues (Greenberg
J. C. Watson
Two-chair work to resolve decisional conflicts can be useful to help people try
ing to make career
choices. It can help clients articulate the opposing sides of a
Emotion-Focused Psychotherapy: An Alternative Framework …
The impact of a neglectful environment on a client’s career
trajectory was clear in
the case of Bruce, who presented with depression. Bruce was in his forties when
he came to therapy. He was despondent about what he had done with his life and
felt trapped and unable to change it. He was highly intelligent and had done well at
school where he excelled at mathematics so much so that he was asked to tutor his
peers. However, his home environment was somewhat laissez-faire and he felt that
he and his siblings had received little guidance or direction. He described his home
environment as having very fluid boundaries with people coming and going. It was
apparent that the family unit lacked cohesion and that its members were discon
nected from each other. He realized that he had felt lost as a child; however, this
went unnoticed as he did well in school and was popular with his peers because of
J. C. Watson
was that it was so painful. It took a number of months before he was able to focus
on his inner experience and symbolize it in words. Once he did, he recognized that
he dismissed his experience and did not attend to it. After engaging in two-chair
work he was able to see the emotional cost to himself of ignoring his experience and
resolved to become more attentive and supportive of himself. He gradually learned
to take better care of himself and became more self-protective and nurturing. As a
result of our work together, he decided to develop a small business with a friend
where he was able to use some of his aptitudes and skills and begin to build a career
Deciding on a career path is a very personal and important
decision that can affect
the quality of one’s life for years to come. Satisfying work brings joy and pleasure
as it is being pursued and contributes to a sense of fulfilment towards the end of
the life-journey, providing a sense of a life well lived (Valach and Young
However, making satisfying choices that enrich and expand one’s life project can
be difficult and impeded for those who have experienced adverse life conditions
and environments such that they are unable to realize their full potential. Emotion
therapy can be useful in working with people who present with difficulties
in terms of their career choices and life projects. Working with emotional processes
and helping people access their emotional experience is vital to assist them in mak
ing good and satisfying decisions. Action theorists recognize that most if not all our
decisions are informed by emotion (Damasio
; Greenberg et
Young and Friesen
. To achieve the goal of developing satisfy
ing life projects people need to be aware, self-reflective agents who attend to their
phenomenological experience. Emotion is the compass and guide to the many and
varied choices we make in a day and throughout our lives. Helping clients become
aware of and attend to this compass can guide them in their career choices whether
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Polkinghorne, D. (1990). Action theory approaches to career research. In R. A. Young & W. A.
Borgen (Eds.),
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Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships, as devel
Psychology: A Study of a Science, 3,
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Tageson, W. C. (1982).
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Taylor, C. (1985).
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107–126). New York:
Valach, L., & Young, R. A. (2002). Contextual action theory in career counselling: Some misun
Valach, L., & Young, R. A. (2004). Some cornerstones in the development of a contextual action
International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guid
Watson, J. C. (2011). The process of growth and transformation: Extending the process model.
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Watson, J., & Greenberg, L. (1996). Emotion and cognition in experiential therapy: A dialecti
cal constructivist perspective. In H. Rosen & K. T. Kuehlwein (Eds.),
Constructing realities:
253–274). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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141–172). Washington, DC:
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method to emotion focused therapy: Trapped in the tunnel—an examination of poor outcome.
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Young, R. A., & Friesen, J. D. (1990). Parental influences on career development: A research
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Young, R. A., & Valach, L. (2004). The construction of career through goal directed action.
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Counseling and Contextual Action Theory
Chapter 9
Action in Counselling: A Contextual Action
José F. Domene, Ladislav Valach and Richard A. Young
Springer New York 2015
British Columbia, Vancouver
Action is increasingly being recognized as an important dimension of counselling
in the twenty-first century, and a growing number of theories and approaches are
explicitly addressing the role of action in practice. In addition to incorporating ac
tion into existing theories of counselling, the field may also benefit from developing
principles for practice that are derived directly from frameworks for concepualizing
action as it occurs in the daily life contexts of individuals. Young and colleagues’
contextual action theory (CAT) provides this kind of integrated framework for un
derstanding human action and, in this chapter, we articulate what a CAT-informed
approach to counselling practice might involve. In order to do so, however, it is
first necessary to describe CAT and how action is conceptualized within the theory.
Development of Contextual Action Theory
CAT is rooted in von Cranach’s (von Cranach and Valach
understanding of
human action in everyday life. It applies to the concept of “career”
of occupational psychology (Valach
) and adopts a ‘person-in-context’ frame
of understanding that is related to the
ecological and contextual perspectives of
John Dewey, George
also makes use
of the notion of ‘project,’ a concept that has appeared in the writ
ings of Richardson (
), Riverin-Simard (
and most notably, Little (
J. F. Domene et al.
Conceptualizing Action in Daily Life and in Counselling
Within CAT, actions are defined as intentional, individual or joint processes that
are oriented towards achieving a desired end state or goal (Young and Valach
. It must be noted, however, that although action is under
stood to be goal-directed, it does not always appear rational to the observer or even
to the agent. That is, action is sometimes organized and motivated by
processes that may only be apparent to others or when that action is reflected upon
after the fact (Young and Domene
, such as when a client attempts to con
). Action is also viewed as constructed through language and social
representation. That
is, human action is embedded within a social context, a context
that cannot be ignored when formulating an understanding of that action. As such,
action is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon that must be understood from
multiple perspectives, and from multiple levels of organization.
Perspectives of Action
CAT theorists propose that any particular action can be viewed from three distinct
perspectives, each of which provides distinct information about a phenomenon
Action can be understood from the perspective of
—the readily observable sequence of behavior involved in carrying out
activity. The behaviours of talking, listening, arguing and yelling in which an
adolescent engages in a conversation with her psychiatrist about the possibility of
A second perspective on action is
internal processes
—the subjective cognitive
and emotional processes that a person experiences during an activity.
This pespec
tive on action encompasses, for example, both the adolescent’s anger at having been
placed on medication against her will and the thought that the psychiatrist does not
recognise the improvements in her symptoms underlie her manifest
behavior of
talking. These internal cognitive and emotional processes are understood to steer,
should react in terms of manifest behavior in a situation, that is, in response to their
internal experience, and by contributing to the construction of the final dimension
Action can be understood from the perspective of
social meaning
, that is, the
explanations that people construct about their action both for themselves and when
describing their situation to other people, such as their counselors. Social mean
ing, such as norms,
rules and conventions, is operational in how others describe
ongoing actions, as well as in how actors generate goals. Obviously, any discourses
narratives about actions are based on, constitute, and construct social meaning.
Action in Counselling: A Contextual Action
Fruthermore, social meaning includes not only their description of the manifest be
havior aspects of action and what may be going on for them at the internal process
level, but also the intentions and purposes they provide about what is occuring. To
continue the previous example, when the adolescent later describes to her mother
her unsuccessful attempt to convince the psychiatrist to reduce her medication, the
pair may construct an understanding of the incident based on the doctor being a pro
fessional and knowing what is best; or, alternatively, based on the construction that
Organization of Action
In addition to these perspectives of action, the theory proposes a three-tier hierarchi
). At the
lowest level of organisation are
of an action: the verbal phrases, physical movements, and environmen
tal features involved in the
performance of a task. For example, the action of hav
ing a conversation may involve elements such as statements of opinion, questions,
smiles, shrugging of shoulders, and sitting in an interview room. An element of an
A sequence of contiguous elements that are directed towards a common goal or a
functional step
, the medial level of action organisation. Functional steps
are the intentional means by which each participant moves towards their goals, and
consist of sub-stages that are present in an action. For example, functional steps in
a conversation may include introducing a topic for discussion, presenting an opin
ion, finding out
information, and closing the conversation to engage in some other
At the highest level of action organisation are the
intentional frameworks
tions, which include conscious goals. These are the overall intentions and purposes
of the people who are engaged in that action. For example, the goal for engaging in a
conversation may be to discuss a person’s recreational activities, to share important
news with another person, or to obtain advice about a problem he is experiencing.
Normally, the goals of an action are reflected in the functional steps and elements
that comprise the action. For example, the functional steps taken by a mother whose
goal is to find out whether her daughter is enjoying competitive weight-lifting are
going to be different from those involved in convincing her son to take up the sport.
Furthermore, the levels within this organization of action relate to other levels in
a specific manner. Higher levels of action organization relate to lower levels by sup
plying reasons or motivations behind those lower levels of action. For example, the
reason why a client engages in the element of “asking a question” of her therapist
is to achieve the function of seeking information, and the reason why she is finding
out information is to achieve her goal of evaluating the therapist’s trustworthiness.
Conversly, the lower levels of action are the mechanisms by which a higher level
of action is accomplished, or at least attempted. To continue with the previous ex
ample, how the client achieves her intentional framework of deciding whether to
engage in therapy may involve pursuing goals such as evaluating the therapist’s
J. F. Domene et al.
trustworthiness, identifying the emotional, temporal, or material costs of pursuing
therapy, and estimating the likelihood of success. In turn, the goal of evaluating the
honesty of one’s therapist might be accomplished through functional
information, evaluating the therapist’s reactions, and setting a test/trap for
the therapist. Finally, elements such as askings questions with a certain physical
quality of voice, listening intently, and nodding for the therpist to continue may all
Systems of Action
Individual and joint actions occur in an immediate or short-term temporal period;
a specific action occurs in the moment. However, the goals and intentional frame
works of action may not be achievable in the immediate term. In a sequence of
counselling, an individual session may be conceptualized as action taken toward the
longer-term goal that brought the client to therapy, but even in the briefest therapy
models, those goals are not likely to be achieved in a single session. The entire se
quence of counselling sessions that a client experiences represents a more complex
Individual and joint
actions that occur over a somewhat longer temporal pe
riod and coalesce around a specific purpose are described within CAT as
In this context, a project is defined as a goal-directed mid-term
process comprising individual and group
actions. It is goal-directed in the sense that
a project is something that an individual or group intentionally works towards; there
is an identifiable end state that is being sought. A project is ‘mid-term’ with respect
to its temporal frame: projects encompass more than what can be accomplished in
the immediate term, and yet have some identifiable ending point, that is, when the
project goals are accomplished. Young and colleagues’ notion of project is similar
to the concept of ‘personal projects’ espoused by Little (
) with a numbert
of exceptions (e.g., projects are occuring and not reflected processes; different par
ticipants in a project may not understand or be equally informed about the organiza
tion of a joint project). Further, projects are typically thought of as jointly, rather
than individually constructed and pursued by pairs or groups of persons working
together to achieve mutual goals. Projects are completely intertwined with specific
actions in that people intentionally engage in a variety of actions over time to achive
the joint projects they have constructed with significant individuals in their lives.
Conversely, they may choose to avoid actions that interfere or are incongruent with
Furthermore, the notion of project may be a useful way to conceptualize the
counselling endeavor. By its very nature, counselling is driven by goals. Depending
on the therapist’s theoretical orientation, these goals may be determined primarily
by the client, primarily by the therapist, or more or less equally by both. Regardless
of who takes the lead in formulating therapeutic goals, they must agree upon by
both parties and pursued together over time. As such, counselling itself becomes
a joint project, that is, one that is goal-directed, mid-term in temporal length, and
Action in Counselling: A Contextual Action
comprising individual and joint actions. This kind of project motivates much, if
not all, the actions of the therapist and the clients during the therapeutic hour and
beyond, for example, the therapist’s action of keeping records, the client’s action of
The final and most complex system of action is that of
. Within CAT, a
career is conceptualized as a framework by which an individual constructs under
standing about how their individual and joint
actions are connected over long-term
periods of time, and linked to goals and plans (Young et
). In
parison to projects, careers typically involve a greater range of actions and goals,
and may not have a specific end point. Indeed, specific projects may be a part of a
career. As in other contemporary theories of vocational psychology such as career
construction theory (Savickas, this volume) and the system theory framework of
career (Patton, this volume), the notion of career is not limited to occupation in
CAT. Clients may construct and pursue careers in domains of life other than work,
for example, an unpaid but, nonetheless, life-long career as a singer in a church
choir; a “friendship career” that two individuals act to maintain over the course of
Neither do careers necessarily have a positive valence. A client who holds a
grudge against an ex-spouse may, for decades after their divorce, maintain a conflic
tual relationship and act in ways to antagonize and seek revenge against his former
partner. This conflict may eventually become a career for him, one that he does not
know how to end, and for which he seeks counselling. Psychological problems such
disorder or suicidality can also, over time, be conceptualized as careers
(Socholotiuk, this volume; Valach et
). In an
‘eating disorder career’ or
‘suicide career,’ individuals organize their lives and actions over long periods of
time to maintain or attain their desired state, for example, continued restriction of
caloric intake; repeated attempts to end one’s life.
Counselling from a CAT Perspective
Rather than providing a specific system of procedures for conducting psychotherapy,
the process of counselling from a CAT framework involves five key tasks that the
client and therapist engage in together: (a) creating and maintaining an effective
working alliance, (b) identifying the
organization and systems of action that are
salient in the client’s life, (c) addressing problematic actions, projects, and careers,
(d) addressing to emotion and emotional memory, and (e) connecting what occurs
in counselling with the client’s daily life. These therapeutic tasks occur simultane
ously rather than in a particular order and are ongoing rather than being taken for
granted after initially achieving them. For example, attending to the working
ance is important throughout counselling, even after an effective working alliance is
created at the beginning of the process. They are also by no means unique to CAT-
informed counselling and, in fact, different practitioners may choose to accomplish
J. F. Domene et al.
them using different specific approaches or strategies. Furthermore, the ways that
these tasks are addressed are likely to vary based on individual characteristics of the
client and therapists, as well as the specific context in which counselling occurs.
Nonetheless, counselling from a CAT perspective involves the achievement of these
Working Alliance
A wide range of theoretical perspectives identifies the importance of the working
(or therapeutic, or counselling) alliance in therapy, and a large body of empirical
literature provides evidence for the central and direct role that this relationship has
in determining the outcomes of counselling and psychotherapy (Constantino et
; Flückiger et
Horvath and Greenberg
. It is not surprising then, that creating an effective alliance at the beginning of
counselling, and working to maintain that alliance throughout the process of coun
selling are considered to be a central task in CAT-informed counselling. Action is
central to the formation and ongoing maintenance of an effective working
Such a relationship does not simply occur, but rather is a goal that must be achieved
through intentional and specific actions on the part of both counselor and client
(Horvath and Greenberg
, although the counselor may be more cognizant
of certain aspects of this goal than the client. Similarly, actions such as the client
choosing to not disclose information to the counselor or the counselor being overly
directive and unresponsive to the client’s preferred direction have been found to in
. Indeed, its inherent
goal-directed, action-
oriented stance is one reason that CAT frames the therapeutic relationship in terms
of the work alliance rather than in
psychodynamic or humanistic-existential terms,
a CAT framework allows counselors to examine the nature of their alli
ance with the client, and to identify potential directions if there is a rupture or stall
in the process. To do so, it necessary to frame the working alliance itself a project
that is jointly constructed and pursued by the client and the therapist. This alliance
project is intertwined with, but distinct from, the client and counselor’s counselling
outcome projects, that is, what they are attempting to achieve through counsel
ling. In the alliance project, establishing and maintaining an effective counselling
relationship becomes a key goal, with both parties engaged in actions to achieve
it. Research has begun to emerge that confirms that the relationship between client
and counselor can become a project in itself during counselling, as well a means
to achieve other, outcome-oriented projects, such as identity formation or career
found that all of the 12 counselor–client
pairings in their study of counselling for the transition to adulthood constructed
counselling relationship
projects and intentionally engaged in actions to maintain
that relationship throughout the entire sequence of counselling, rather than focusing
Action in Counselling: A Contextual Action
on the relationship only in the initial phases of therapy. These actions included the
joint action of explicitly discussing the relationship and the individual
A CAT perspective on the working alliance suggests several specific tasks that
may be beneficial for counselors to engage in during counselling. If the alliance is
a project, then it may be beneficial to explicitly name and discuss this project with
the client early on in the process, identifying it as an important part of counselling,
clarifying what kind of relationship each person is expecting, and negotiating what
will be necessary to maintain an working alliance. This discussion might include
the counselor’s expectations around completing between-session tasks she assigns
and the client’s expectation of how the counselor will respond to the information
that he reveals. Explicitly identifying the working alliance as a project also provides
convenient language for periodically assessing the quality of the alliance and coun
selor–client relationship, by talking about checking in on the alliance project itself,
and inviting the client to raise the issue if he or she notices a problem with it. This
can, in turn, suggest one of the CAT-informed ways to encourage an effective work
ing alliance described by Valach and Young (
) in their case study of conducting
CAT-informed therapy with a Swiss woman, which include (a) culturally appropri
ate demonstrations of empathy and basic counselling
skills, (b) jointly construct
ing counselling goals that are in line with the client’s own on-going goal-directed
systems, and (c) attending to all levels of the systems of action (actions, projects,
Furthermore, if there is a rupture in the working alliance, CAT concepts can be
used to reflect on what occurred and identify specific issues that are contributing to
the problem. For example, in terms of the organization of action, were there aspects
the counselor’s action
elements that contributed to the problem (e.g., too much, or
too little, use of questions)? Similarly, did the counselor and client have goals for
the session that were incongruent, leading to substantial amounts of effort and en
ergy being expended on attempting, on some subliminal level, to convince the other
party to go in the direction that each person desired? In terms of the perspectives
on action, was some kind of incongruence between the manifest
behavior, internal
steering processes and social meaning of actions that occurred during the session?
In these ways, CAT can help counselors to systematically reflect on what may be
Organization and Systems of Action
When counselling from a CAT perspective, it is important for the counselor to con
ceptualize the client and his or her life in terms of the organization and systems of
action proposed by the theory and to identify which of these action systems are
salient in the context of counselling (Valach and Young
This task
of conceptualizing the client’s situation in terms of elements, functional
steps, and goals (action organization) and in terms of actions, projects and careers
J. F. Domene et al.
and how these are interconnected (action systems) requires counselors to be famil
iar with CAT and comfortable with applying the theory to understanding people in
context. Typically, the organization and systems of action in a client’s life are as
sessed in a narrative way by asking clients to tell their story, rather than through the
use of formal assessment instruments. Additionally, clients reveal their actions and
projects as they interact with counsellors. For example, that personality is some
times described as the way a person relates to others (Andersen and Chen
selling session. As with all five tasks, understanding the organization and systems
of action does not occur in a single phase of the therapy but emerges throughout the
course of counselling. For example, several sessions into a sequence of counselling,
a client may provide new information about her circumstances that leads to greater
). Furthermore, understanding action in these ways
permits counselors to distinguish between different types of problems, such as when
the elements in a client’s life reveal that the problem is primarily one of
as opposed to a situation in which there is a problem with
steering processes (goals)
processes (functional steps). Finally, developing this understanding of
action should increase the client’s awareness of how their actions, projects, and ca
reers are connected to each other, and to other projects and careers in their life. For
example, framing “hanging out with people (who happen to still use drugs)” as an
action that is connected not only to the desired project of maintaining friendship but
also to an undesired drug use project will suggest a potential strategy for change for
Furthermore, the way that career is framed within CAT leads to several addition
al implications for counselling. In the context of career
working from this perspective will benefit from adopting a broad understanding of
career that involves much more than occupation alone. Framing career as a longer-
term, meaningful way of organizing action in relation to specific goals opens up
space for an integrative, holistic
approach to career counselling, encompassing the
where the client’s life rather than occupational fit is the focus to be one of the key
The possibility raised by CAT that presenting problems and psychological disor
ders may take on the status of a project or career in a client’s life also provides sug
gestions for practice. To understand a client’s ‘depression career’ or ‘family conflict
project’ requires some assessment of the actions that are contributing to the main
tenance of their problematic project or career, from the perspectives of manifest
behavior, internal steering, controlling and regulating processes, and the meanings
they have constructed about that project/career. Furthermore, if clients have been
Action in Counselling: A Contextual Action
engaged in such a project or career with other important members of their social
context over time, knowing the purpose or goals of that problem career or project is
also likely to be important. Understanding these goals may lead to ideas about how
the same goal may be achieved in different, more functional ways, or to a renegotia
tion of goals that may lead to the construction of a new project or career to replace
the problematic one. Finally, framing a client’s presenting problem as a career or
project carries with it an inherent suggestion that change is possible because in daily
life, projects are understood as having an end-point and careers are understood as
something that can be changed, albeit with difficulty and sometimes suffering.
It is important to note that, in developing an understanding of the salient organiza
tions and systems of action in a client’s life, the counselor is not attempting to iden
tify a “root cause” of the client’s presenting problems. Indeed, seeking to isolate
specific, direct causes contradicts CAT’s
ontological assumptions and emphasis on
process and relationships rather than instrumental causality. Instead, it is assumed
that assessing and conceptualizing the client’s life in terms of the organization and
systems of action leads to the identification of problems without having to isolate
These problem actions, projects and careers
can then be addressed using specific interventions drawn from a range of different
counselling approaches that fit the CAT conceptualization of the problem and the
al. have suggested several specific
ventions, at present the CAT approach to counselling integrates various techniques
and contexts. As illus
trated by the case presented by Valach and Young (
), the counselor can attempt
to implement techniques from a range of sources, as long as the chosen technique is
grounded in and consistent with understanding of the client’s situation and context
in terms of the organization and systems of action.
However, prior to selecting any intervention, it is necessary to develop goals that
these interventions are designed to achieve. These goals should be consistent with
the understanding of the problem developed through the task of identifying the or
ganization and systems of action that are salient in the client’s life. They should also
be jointly negotiated by both the client and counselor. Goals are central to action
within CAT, just as they are to many approaches to counselling. The theory further
suggests that client and counselor should both be active participants in constructing
these goals; that is, the goals of the counselling project should truly be joint
rather than be purely client driven, or fully counselor directed. Indeed, previous
research conducted on life projects in which parents and adolescents engage sug
gests that, when the goals primarily reflect the desires of one member of the dyad,
the project is at greater risk for making little or no progress, or dissolving entirely.
Specifically, when the goals for these projects primarily reflected the parent’s de
sires and when adolescents acquiesced rather than contributed equally to their con
J. F. Domene et al.
struction, the adolescent’s interest and engagement in the projects often diminished
over time (Domene et
; Y
. Although these studies were not
about counselling per se, a clear implication of their fidings is that it is important to
have both members of a counselling dyad actively contribute to the development of
Several specific interventions have been described by contextual action theorists
as having potential to address identified problems with client actions, projects or
careers. Note that these interventions are not proscriptive in a CAT-informed ap
proach to counselling, but are possible options that the counselor can use to address
specific problems and pursue mutually negotiated goals. One such intervention,
14 of their book on the transition to
hood, is a multi-session intervention for youth in transition. Directly paralleling
method of conducting research, this intervention involves (a)
; Valach
. Not only
can the procedure assist
the counselor and client to understand the video-recorded action more fully, but
the process of participating in the procedure can also benefit to the client in several
). Specifically, it can help clients to perceive themselves as
the authors of their life narratives and, consequently, increase their sense of agency.
The intervention also provides clients with an opportunity to step outside them
selves as a help-seeker, in order to actively reflect upon their actions. This, in turn,
can lead to greater awareness of the processes they are engaged in, as well as greater
self-realization. Being asked to describe their internal cognitive and emotional pro
cesses may also lead clients to realize that their internal experience is not readily
apparent to people around them, which may be a new experience for them. Finally,
Young and colleagues suggest that the self-confrontation
procedure may also be one
way to address emotions and emotional memories that arise in counselling, which is
another central task in CAT-informed counselling.
Action in Counselling: A Contextual Action
In CAT, it is proposed that one of the
functions of emotion is to energize action
; a
person’s emotional experience is an important motivating
force in his or her life. For example, anger can drive a client to distance himself
from his romantic partner, or to engage in persistent efforts to dominate and con
vince that partner of the correctenss of his own position in a conversation. Similarly,
the feelings of hope and anticipated joy may sustain a client’s efforts to continue ap
plying to a particular post-secondary education program, despite previous failures.
energizing people to take and maintain an action, emotion can either facilitate or
action that an individual is driven to take. This conceptualization of emotion sug
gests that there is a need to attend to the client’s emotions in counselling, not only
as an end in itself, but because emotions can influence other aspects of their actions.
As previously explained, along with its energizing function, emotion is one of
the key internal processes that serve a steering, controlling and regulating function
within action. As such, emotion can be harnessed as part of the therapeutic task of
addressing specific presenting problems, but it can also interfere with clients’ prog
ress towards goals, if their emotional experience or emotional memories emerge in
an overwhelming way within the session or steers them to act in their daily lives in
a way that contributes to their difficulties. For this reason, it is important to directly
work with emotions in counselling, even in counselling contexts where it is typical
ly ignored, such as
vocational/occupational counselling (Young et
that the
therapeutic task of addressing emotion in CAT-informed counselling goes
beyond eliminating disturbing emotion to encompass using the client’s emotional
experience to steer the client towards more life-enhancing action. Valach and Young
) further define this therapeutic task as including two aspects. The first aspect
is facilitating
competency in emotional processing, that is, for the client to be able
to differentiate his or her own emotions and regulate their influence on the other
dimensions of action. The second aspect is to identify and work with any negative
emotional memories that are intruding on a client’s functioning in daily life.
Consistent with its integrative approach to technique, a CAT-informed counselor
is free to select from a wide range specific strategies, as long as the chosen set of
J. F. Domene et al.
disengagement from the goals that were previously negotiated? For example,
if after several sessions a client develops the belief that she is incapable of change,
or a client’s emotional distress levels are reduced to the point that he is no longer
bothered by the same circumstances that brought him into counselling, that client
may no longer be interested in pursuing the counselling project. If the need oc
curs to reflect on these steering processes, the counselor could take the
to explore the client’s internal processes in a subsequent session, and can seek as
sistance from a supervisor or colleague to explore what is occurring emotionally
and cognitively for the counselor. These explorations would be focused on how the
client’s (or counselor’s) emotional and cognitive reactions may be contributing to a
energizing their actions in sessions.
A final task that must be accomplished is for the counselor and client to make con
Ultimately, without a connection between what happens in the therapeutic
encounter and the client’s past and future actions, projects, and careers, counselling
As with the other four key tasks of a CAT-informed approach to counselling,
this therapeutic task is important throughout the counselling process and fully in
tertwined with the other tasks. In the task of conceptualizing the client’s situation
in terms of the organization and systems of action, it is important to consider the
client’s actions not only during the therapeutic encounter but also the actions that
they described as experiencing prior to entering counselling. This is achieved by
engaging in the task of connecting counselling with daily life at the same time as
engaging in the task of conceptualizing what is occurring for the client. In a similar
way, the tasks of addressing problems and addressing emotions/emotional memory
will be of limited benefit if what is occurring in counselling is not connected to the
the primary way to achieve the task of connecting counselling to clients’ lives is to
provide space for clients to construct narratives of their experience in a way that
preserves their own frame of reference. Narratives have sequence, consequence,
and movement (Reissman and Quinney
and narratives about the client’s life
Action in Counselling: A Contextual Action
usually cast the client as a protagonist or agent, even in cases where the client may
not feel that they have much power or control over their circumstance. In this way,
narratives tend to be descriptions of the client’s actions in their life and, as such,
clients need little prompting to share their construction of what brought
them to counselling or how their presenting problem came about. In this case, the
counselor’s primary role is to refrain from interfering with the client’s presentation
narrative. In some cases in which clients are reluctant to share their nar
ratives, two techniques may be considered: (a) Use more active questioning during
the session in a way that continues to invite the client to provide their own structure
and identify for themselves what is an important part of the narrative. (b) Assign a
homework exercise where the client is explicitly invited to construct a life history in
a written format (e.g., Cochran
. In a similar way, toward the conclusion of counselling, links can
be made between what has occurred in session and the client’s future life by directly
asking the client to describe how they will maintain the changes they have achieved
or continue to pursue positive projects in their life in the future or, again by inviting
clients to write the next chapter in their life story.
) have also noted that it is often counterproductive for the
counselor to direct the sequence of information sharing or to impose a structure
on the narrative that is not the client’s own, for example, by using a structured
interview format to obtain the details that the counselor believes to be important.
Furthermore, although the counselor is engaged in conceptualizing the client’s ex
periences in terms of action, this task is achieved by the counselor entering into
the joint goal-directed processes described by the client, not by forcing the client
to adopt the counselor’s framework. For example, in selecting an intervention, it
is important to select ones that fit what the client understands to be the problem,
rather than to engage in psychoeducation to convince the client of what is “really”
going on as a precursor to introducing an intervention that addresses something that
the client does not see as an issue. Ultimately, CAT-informed counselors recognize
that narrative is by no means the only way to connect what occurs in counselling to
clients’ daily lives. It is, however, a convenient and consistent way to accomplish
In this chapter, we have presented a framework for counselling that is explicitly
informed by CAT. There are many areas of overlap with the frameworks presented
in other chapters in this volume. However, what is distinct about our approach is
not only the way in which action is defined, that is in goal-directed terms, but also
the identification of a framework for counselling, that is, the five central therapeu
tic tasks described in the previous section. These distinctives are derived directly
J. F. Domene et al.
from a contextual action understanding of action in human lives. However, some
caution needs to be taken in adopting this framework as one’s primary therapeutic
approach: Systematic examination of the use of CAT to guide counselling is only
beginning to emerge. Interventions that are unique to CAT have, thus far, received
little empirical examination, though there are studies such as Michel and Valach
) and Maillart and Michel (
work on suicidal adults and Valach and
Young’s (
Instead, the strength of the CAT approach to counselling is that it is grounded
in a systematic way of understanding human action in daily life and in counselling
sessions. As such it provides a way to conceptually integrate a wide range of spe
cific interventions, many of which have received substantial empirical support, into
counselling practice. Using specific interventions within this particular overarching
framework does not negate the existing body of research on the effectiveness of an
81–131). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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Horvath, A. O. (2001). The alliance.
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Horvath, A. O., & Greenberg, L. S. (1994).
The working alliance: Theory, research, and practice
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Little, B. R. (1983). Personal projects: A rationale and method for investigation.
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Behavior, 15
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Action & self-development: Theory and research through the life span
Maillart, A., & Michel, K. (March 2009).
The Bern short intervention project
the 5th Aeschi conference, Aeschi, Switzerland.
Michel, K., & Valach, L. (2001). Suicide as goal-directed action. In K. van Heeringen (Ed.),
derstanding suicidal behaviour: The suicidal process approach to research and treatment
230–254). Chichester: Wiley
Niles, S. G., & Harris-Bowlsbey, J. (2009).
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Norcross, J. C.
(2001). Purpose, processes, products of the task force on empirically supported
therapy relationships.
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of the self-confrontation procedure with suicidal clients.
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Reissman, C. K., & Quinney, L. (2005). Narrative in social work: A critical review.
Social Work, 4,
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future of career
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Riverin-Simard, D. (2000). Career development in a changing context of the second part of work
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Savickas, M. L. (2011).
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Borgen (Eds.),
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Valach, L., & Young, R. A. (2012). The case study of therapy with a Swiss woman. In S. Poyrazli
& C. E. Thompson (Eds.),
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13–32). Thousand
Valach, L.,
Michel, K., Dey, P., & Young, R. A. (2002a). Self-confrontation interview with suicide
Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 15,
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career, suicide project, and suicide action. In L. Valach, R. A. Young, & M. J. Lynam (Eds.),
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153–171). Westport:
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& L. Brooks (Ed.),
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15–30. doi:10.1080/03069
Chapter 10
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective
of Contextual Action Theory
Ladislav Valach, Richard A. Young and José F. Domene
e-mail: [email protected]
University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Counseling is first and foremost a
practice in which counselors and clients address,
respond to, and construct a host of life circumstances, behaviors, narratives, emo
tions, cognitions, goals, intentions, identities, and many other phenomena. Coun
selors use pre-existing theories and explanations to address these phenomena. They
also construct their own ad hoc
explanations of them. For some, more elaborate
articulated explanations emerge, for others the explanations they rely on are more
implicit. Of particular influence in current counseling discourse are the issues ad
dressed in Chaps.
2–8 of this book,
that is, relation, construction, narrative, identity,
intentionality, and emotion. We maintain that how counselors think about
these issues is important for practice. Each of the authors of the aforementioned
chapters suggested a way to conceptualize these issues within counseling. In addi
tion, in Chap.
9, we proposed contextual
action theory as an integrative and compre
hensive approach to how counselors can conceptualize both their own work and the
actions clients take in their lives. In this chapter, we address how contextual action
theory addresses the major issues raised in Chaps.
2–8 by identifying
the links and
differences with what each author proposed and contextual action theory and dis
7 and represented
relationships are central to human functioning, and thus important in counseling as
both process and content. These authors point to and in places explicitly describe
a relational ontology,
epistemology, and ethics. Flum identified important links to
contextual action theory in how intertwined projects and career are socially and
culturally constructed jointly and communally.
The place of relationship in counseling is well represented in contextual action
theory. In some ways, relation is core to understanding action and distinguishes con
textual action theory from other conceptual frameworks. The place of relationship
is more than claiming it is important. It is a way of defining action. We identify the
sources of the relational view in contextual action theory and address its
von Cranach and Harré
. Action was not considered as the behavioral externalization of
and other structures, such as for example, physiological structures. Rather, a rela
tional understanding of the processes between person and environment suggests
constructing oneself and the environment through action. This proposition was later
confirmed in the neurological research describing the brain as a relational organ
; Northoff
A third source of the relational perspective of contextual action theory is found
, which postulated the
notion of joint action and the primacy of group action over group structure. This
theory suggested that joint tasks lead to structure, and not vice-versa. Group ac
tion—the relational process—molds and impacts the group structure. The notion
of relation in contextual action theory has also been influenced by research on the
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
working alliance (Horvath and Greenberg
. The working alliance represents
on-going joint action of client and counselor, that is, relational joint action. It also
parallels other joint actions and projects in clients’ lives.
, from six European countries, outlined a conception of
counseling incorporating the principles of constructionism (Young and Collin
not only for counseling but also for development in the world of work. Although
constructionism figures largely in their approach, it is not the epistemological con
structivism that suggests “anything goes” in research based on the assumptions that
any empirical method is a construction and any “reality” it uncovers is itself a con
Instead, Savickas et
al. lean toward the
“author’s” narrative construction and the
social construction of reality rooted in the views of Berger and Luckman (
Wittgenstein (
), and Vygotsky (
. Contextual action theory shares
this view. We describe the constructionist propositions adopted by action theory by
construct the world, including counselors helping clients to construct their lives
and design their vocational participation (Young and Valach
). In addition, the
action-project method tackles epistemological constructionism by including all pos
sible methodological means, that is, systematic observation (professional construc
tions in terms of manifest processes), naïve observation (everyday construction in
terms of social meaning), and subjective experience (the self-confrontation
; Y
Savickas (
provided an orderly and systematic narrative about the develop
ment of counseling as a profession in order to explain the constructionist approach.
He stipulated the characteristics of vocational guidance, career education, and ca
reer counseling as follows: vocational guidance is characterized by object, self-
matching, actor, trait, and resemblance, career education is characterized by subject,
self-implementing, agent, tasks, and reactiveness, and, finally, career counseling is
characterized by project, self-making, author, themes, and reflexivity. Thus, he in
dicated that these three approaches employ different philosophies by distinguishing
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
among object, subject, and project or among resemblance, reactiveness, and reflex
ivity. Contextual action theory works with a systemic order of the action/project/
career organization distinguishing among the top action or goal level of
and socially meaningful categorizing, the level of the action steps where the control
processes are described by functional categories, and the level of action
where the action regulation is addressed in physical terms. This applies to the sys
tem of action, project, and career alike. Consequently, in addressing these three dif
ferent types of observational units, contextual action theory accounts for the three
, they, nevertheless,
indispensible for representing actions in counseling and also as steering cognitions
for clients future actions and projects (Gollwitzer
; Gollwitzer and
; Michel and V
. But it is important to
ensure that counselors and clients create and maintain an action-oriented
in their narratives in and about the counseling encounter (Schafer
. The nar
rative is the fabric of the client’s actions and projects and also the path to their
emotions. However, the narrative is not the exclusive and direct gate to the ongoing
projects and actions. The counselor cannot work with the text of the narrative alone,
but has to rely on the observation of how the person’s narrates, that is, the action
of narration. Thus, to narrate something is an action process and the content of the
narratives are also actions. However, the content of the narratives and the actions
on which the narrative focuses are not identical. The self-confrontation
teaches us that the narratives are not even identical with the subjective experiential
form of the target actions.
Counseling informed by contextual action theory employs the elements of the
action-project research method to access client projects by focusing on the ac
tions clients engage in, that is, their performed actions (Gysin-Maillard and Michel
. Counselors can record the client’s life relevant narratives in conversations
with relevant others, such as the conversations of adolescents with their parents or
peers, and of counselors and their clients. Counselors can use these recorded actions
to understand more fully what is going on in the client’s narrative driven conver
sations in terms of manifest
processes, and social meaning.
Systematic observation of manifest processes either in vivo or of the video recorded
individual and joint
actions provides information on manifest processes. The self-
interview, which can be used in counseling, adds
information to the
systematic observation on the client’s internal cognitive–emotional
addition, the narrative of naïve observers, in this case the client, provides valuable
information on the social meaning of the ongoing processes. It is the entry into the
understanding of the client’s specific culture and protects practitioners from being
culturally blind and making universal assumptions. These procedures are an ideal
means of accessing the client’s relevant actions and projects in counseling, which is
Some of the aforesaid data identified can be assumed as known and the cor
responding method omitted. For example, when counselors are rooted in the same
communication community as the clients, they might omit the naïve observation
procedure. If the counselor can request the client’s thoughts and emotion at the
moment of their reporting on a relevant issue without interrupting their stream of
thoughts and narrative, the counselor might omit the self-confrontation
If the counselor is experienced enough to make key observations of the important
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
actions at all relevant levels, counselor might omit the systematic observation pro
cedure. However, the counselor is well advised to keep this ideal set of methods
of accessing the relevant projects in mind. In addition, the regular monitoring of
the client’s relevant project, which is a part of the action–project research method
as well, is an important part of counseling contributes to facilitating this project.
Finally, by basing counseling and research on comparable information gathering
procedures contextual action theory bridges the research and counseling practice
gap (Young and Domene
Contextual action theory adds to recent work on narrative by pointing to and un
packing its complexity. Narrative is not simply an end product, it itself is a process.
It needs to be attended to in counseling, but its dynamic and intricate characteristics
can be accounted for through the aforediscussed procedures, such as facilitating the
telling of the narrative, keeping its focus on internal and manifest action, and ac
cessing the action of narrating through the use of the self-confrontation interview.
McAdams (
suggested that constructing a narrative identity provides a
sense of purpose and meaning as well as a sense of unity across time and situations.
Thus, narratives, goal-directed actions and projects, and identity construction are
closely related. Counseling informed by contextual action theory underlines the im
. These identity
are mostly interwoven with other projects, such as occupational and career projects
. As
we have seen earlier in this book, Guichard’s research and
theorizing also deals with this important segment of vocational life: self-construc
tion (Collin and Guichard
; Guichard this volume,
). He maintains
that self is constructed in context and through relationships; that it is produced dis
cursively. In
dialogue and other forms of joint action, the self is constructed through
narrative. Self-construction is a continuous, dynamic, and reflexive process from
which the self emerges but is never complete (Collin and Guichard
construction implies, but is not limited to, the involvement of occupational activi
The self-construction Guichard envisions seems similar to what is presented in
contextual action theory, and in many ways it is. For example, both take a construc
tivist perspective. Where they differ is that Guichard’s self-constructionism may
have arisen from identity theories formulated around notions of external activity
and internal adaptation, a kind of dualism between the inner and outer. In contrast,
contextual action theory considers self-construction as an action (and as a project
Dualism is abandoned in favor of the action, which constructs the self.
Counseling informed by contextual action theory attends to the process of self-
construction in a number of ways. First, in the very first encounter with their clients,
as well as through the entire counseling process, counselors attend to and respect
195) can play a
major role in self-construction. Contextual action theory
agrees. It is essential that clients relate individual identity to group identity. In the
process of self-construction, it is equally important for clients to link their actions to
their projects. This
identification can be facilitated in counseling by dealing with the
issue of “which actions belong to which projects” and vice versa. In this process, the
client’s self-construction becomes informed, differentiated and coherent.
Fifth, Guichard (
; Guichard and Lenz
as a complementary process to career
construction in the process of life designing.
That is, self-construction and career construction are concurrent processes in the
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
life designing conceptualization. This view partly reflects the dualistic conception
of human behavior in which the distinction is made between external behavior and
internal adaptation. Dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) also postulates a dialectic
. That
relationship can be
experienced as pressure to show the required behavior, on the one hand, and expe
riencing identity “soothing” interventions, on the other. DBT offers another way to
deal with this issue that emphasizes the conflict between the internal and external.
In contrast, contextual action theory emphasizes processes of self- and career con
struction, rather than the external and internal adaptation process. It sees identity
and self-construction projects not in a complementary relationship to career con
struction but as an integral part of other projects and career. It also does not see
self-construction in conflict with other projects, as DBT might suggest. Rather, con
textual action theory assumes a possible synergic system organization.
Finally, contextual action theory suggests that self-construction occurs in actions
and projects. Self-construction is not just self-consideration or abstract thinking
about self. It is also “doing”, enacting (Stewart
) and experiencing, enclosing a
mindfulness school (Hayes
actions and projects are systemically organized, as discussed in the previous chap
ter. This
organization of action allows their systematic study, detailed monitoring,
and focused intervention in the “here and now.”
Contextual action theory takes a decidedly “action” perspective on the process
recognizing their possible life detrimental as well as life enhancing aspects, and by
affirming their relation to group belongingness, counselors can use contextual ac
The recognition of the complexity of career development and counseling within the
multiple contexts that surround an individual’s life led to the application of systems
theory in these domains (Collin
. Patton et
al. extensively applied systems
Patton (this volume) identified her view of both the com
mon ground and the differences between her Systems Theory Framework (STF)
and contextual action theory. One important difference between them is that in STF,
the system is identified as a person, a social system, or any other personal or so
cial unit. Contextual action theory takes a more restricted view, maintaining that
a system is identified as an individual or joint action, project, or career. Thus, we
see the systemic process, rather than the systemic “structure,” as a unit of interest
in both research and
practice. Our focus is not a person who is doing something
within a particular environment. Rather it is an action by which the person and
the environment are constructed, that is, changed. Action is a relational concept of
; Valach
. This
understanding of ac
tion as a twofold system is captured in counseling when counselors ask themselves
the questions: “what am I doing?”, “what are we doing?”, and “how do they fit or
relate?” Furthermore, most actions of importance to clients are embedded in proj
The systemic nature of action can have a strong influence on the empirical study
cess and strategies. Briefly, we have posited that (1) action, project, and career are
conceived of as a systemic order, (2) action, project, and career are described as
being related to each other in a systemic order, and (3) in analyzing and engag
ing in them we have to follow the principles of this systemic organization. These
propositions have real consequences for counseling. First, counselors have to act
The Human Values Issue
One response to the lively theoretical and methodological developments in counsel
Young and Domene
the increase in more integrative approaches (Lent et
; Patton
; Patton
. These approaches are in contrast to the
“single proposition” schools (see reviews in Brown
for career counseling; Prochaska and Norcross
represents this integrative approach in developing a counsel
ing procedure and conceptualization for the new millennium. He incorporated a
number of innovations agreed to by counselors from various countries and cultures,
thereby creating a common denominator for counseling. Patton et
al. (Patton
tual systemic frame of reference that accommodates many of the recent innovations
in counseling theory, research, and
practice. Another attempt to enrich and integrate
developments in counseling of the last 20 years can be found in Richardson’s work
). While Savickas’s approach is based on the
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
desire for an integrated counseling practice and Patton and McMahon’s integration
is conceptually driven, Richardson’s work is very much rooted in the desire for the
integration of value systems based on her understanding of, and response to, current
Concerned about the state of counseling psychology in the 1980s, Richardson
highlighted not only how its conceptual development lagged but also how it
was embedded in White, middle class, and male standards of vocational life. Richard
son’s discussion was a call for updating these antiquated views. Her call can also be
humanistic values
of equality,
proposed replacing the study of career with the study of work
in people’s lives, using a constructionist
epistemology and the stance of applied
psychology. She defined one of the goals of applied psychology as a
commitment to
“facilitating the development and enhancing the well
being of individuals who are
clients as well as subjects or objects of inquiry” (p.
430). This call for
a conceptu
alization of counseling psychology informed by humanistic values is well reflected
in contextual action theory. The latter is thoroughly rooted in thinking that provides
an alternative to the logical
positivism and naïve realism Richardson deplored. In
addition, the constructionist stance is an important pillar of contextual action theory.
Furthermore, in understanding professional activity in terms of actions and projects,
the constant aim is that the intervention has to be life enhancing for the clients and
other participants. Thus, contextual action theory is neither value-free nor does it
promote White, middle class, and male standards.
Contextual action theory takes up both an understanding of the term
plied by Richardson’s work, and a value-based orientation. To briefly characterize
the core of the meaning of the term
we see it as attached to the generating of
hope as a conviction that our everyday actions make sense because they are part of
a more comprehensive continuity, to paraphrase Havel’s (
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something
will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns
In contextual action theory,
is not understood simply in an occupational
sense, but rather as it is lived in everyday life. We distinguish among various ways
the term is used, for example, in narratives (be it professional narratives, naïve ob
server narratives, or subjective narratives), or in the unfolding of action processes
that reach beyond the dimensions of a project. Thus, we are able to conclude that in
contextual action theory, career is understood based on the conventions,
norms of the given communication community.
). The naïve action theory explicated in different occupational
groups might differ in some aspects, but its roots are always experienced action,
disregarding the reflective power of each occupational group. And this experienced
they participate in and with whom, what their function is, and whether these actions
and projects are compatible with their life enhancing priorities. There is no doubt
that clients are engaged in a series of actions and projects, though they might differ
in their reflection on them. Thus, the counseling process should be independent of
value judgments about the client’s social class and other group memberships but it
of our value judgments about the groups from which clients originate or in which
they are embedded. Often these values are so endemic in the context that we, as
addressed the issue of agency and
empowerment. In order
to bypass the problem of the
dualistic roots of considering individuals as having
agency or not having it and thus in need of empowerment, she proposed the concept
of embodied empowerment. Richardson suspected that previous concepts of agency
might be too loaded with the Cartesian split between mind and body—a worry she
solved later by addressing agency in processes of intentionality (Richardson
Similarly, contextual action theory does not have the problem of the mind/body
split and its impact on understanding agency. In contextual action theory, the self is
not conceptualized
. Rather the self is constructed through identity
indicated by identity relevant actions and being a part of an identity development
career—and is thus an empirical concept. The self is a process.
also addressed another key argument in the emergence of new
experience. Accepting that agentic behavior is important for
psychological functioning and integrity, she proposed a relational and
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
understanding of human action in its social as well as personal form. Contextual ac
tion theory is compatible with this proposition. The frequently discussed dilemma
constructionism is bypassed in the conception of joint ac
tion in which individual and social construction through action is seen as a two-level
systemic process. Equally, the problem of agency is conceptualized from a different
perspective as we see the action and not the person as the primary focus and unit of
) pointed out
440).” Richardson (
equally addresses
and supports this proposition in a number of publications and particularly clarified
the topic of new intentions as encountered in counseling. Most recently, Broonen
reviewed the more than 30 years of research and writing on the issue of
intention and action in psychology and particularly the processes involved in the
problem of how intentions become actions. Broonen pointed out that the European
are very specific and designed to monitor the
enfolding actions and projects. Questionnaires designed to collect information on
goals are less feasible in contextual action theory, but common in other approaches,
such as in Gollwitzer’s research (
). To understand this difference
is to understand that the goal in action in contextual action theory is not what we
say we want to do tomorrow or next week but what we are doing now. What people
report they are involved in this month or year, what they want to do this month or
year, is one thing, but understanding their ongoing action and the projects of which
this action is a part, is another. To understand ongoing action needs systematic,
professional observation of the manifest
processes, the naïve observation by the
members of the specific communication community, and the self-confrontation
terview providing information on the thoughts, feelings,
actions. These three sets of information or data serve as a source for the description
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
develop a joint or common understanding of the client’s intention. In turn, clients
may learn to perform actions appropriate for the projects and career they desire
and intend to pursue. Alternatively, counselors may learn that their hypotheses are
incorrect, at which point they would formulate alternative ideas concerning the in
tention behind a client’s action.
The concepts of intentions and goal-directed actions apply, first of all for short-
term action, in everyone except in persons with severe brain damage (Serino et
; Vallacher and W
. However, how much these concepts are used
to organize one’s work and life is another issue. Here cultural
conventions, rules,
and norms apply; where individual and social differentiation can be found. These
concepts are also safeguarded by mental
health and illness definitions. The negative
symptoms in schizophrenia and the compulsive thinking and behavior in Obsessive
Compulsive Disorder are only a few examples of how much the “projection” of
goal-directed action intentionality into projects and career are use to delineate the
border between healthy, life-enhancing and ill, life-detrimental actions.
Some people misunderstand the distinction between goal-directed action as ex
perienced and lived and as used in an interpretative frame. They maintain that as
some clients or members of certain social groups do not organize their mid-term
and long-term time spaces into units specified by the principles of an individual
action, that is, they do not construct these as projects and career. Thus,
they suggest that the model of goal-directed action is obsolete (Smith
). This
postulate is mistaken for two reasons. First, as Serino et
al. (
explain, every
one engages in short-term goal-directed actions. Second, the lack of reflection on
projects and career does not mean that the persons are not participating in projects
and careers run by others; that is, joint processes about which these persons are not
In summary, contextual action theory uses current conceptualizations and re
search on intentionality and volition in a way that highlights the intentionality of
current actions as well as linking intentions to mid-term projects and long-term
career, involving past, present, and future.
The Culture Issue
) pointed out that the cultures of racial
. In this theoretical development, the
played an important role (Chen
. It helps in understanding that the way life is
organized is primarily a cultural phenomenon rather than a phenomenon of nature.
Thus, counseling is primarily a cultural practice. Further, it is now often recognized
that counseling theories and practices are not based on acultural, natural laws but
Consistent with the work of the preceding authors, contextual action theory
tors, individuals, and groups are seen as engaging in cultural actions, projects and
careers rather than being impacted by external cultural variables or factors. Long-
term cultural processes are mostly trans-generational. This view is heuristically
helpful in studying or working with people in migration processes, as these are
mostly trans-generational. Although they are not exclusively individual, they are
very specific for the involved individuals and groups. These active processes are
only partly covered by the term of
acculturation (Berry
changes occurring in the course of a learning process. Considering culture and ac
culturation in terms of goal-directed processes does not require the assumption of
fully conscious purposefulness of cultural actions, projects, and careers. Substan
tial parts of actions, projects, and careers are not consciously represented. Further,
as cultural processes are defined, again, as any other action processes, from three
perspectives (systematic, naive, subjective), they do not rely exclusively on any
one of these sources. Thus, cultural processes can include substantial discrepan
cies between self-experience and attributions by others, particularly attribution by
different social groups. Consequently, to understand a client involved in a trans-
generational cultural project of constructing for herself a cultural identity in a new
country is not enough to know how “an immigrant from that country would think
and behave” but also how this person or persons with similar attributes are seen by
others, that is, by members of other communication communities in the new coun
try. That is, what are the relations and relationships, the joint actions and projects
Emotional processes in counseling have a long and substantial history (Lewis et
; Nykliček et
Greenberg et
al. (Greenberg
Greenberg et
an important step in this development. Watson (also see Chap.
provided a substantial conceptual
and empirical contribution to this approach (Coo
. Her research articles
to represent a rich source of insights and information on emotion-focused
in press
; Watson
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
Watson (Chap.
8) outlined a highly
differentiated and well-reasoned approach to
conceptualizing emotion and emotion focused intervention based on the monitoring
function of emotion. She explained that problems in experiencing, processing, re
flecting and understanding emotion can hinder action, self-growth, and particularly,
relating to others. While Watson, conceptually and in psychotherapy, focuses direct
ly on emotional processes, contextual action theory deals with emotion as it occurs
in action. Watson also supports a close connection between emotion and action, par
ticularly in the concept of emotion schema, which represents, among other things,
the action tendency inherent in emotion. Emotion-focused theory strongly supports
the relevance of reflecting on emotion, but it also relies on the enacting of emotion,
on experiencing emotion within an action. With regard to the latter, the emotion-
focused therapist engages in empty chair and two chair techniques (Greenberg and
. Contextual action theory extends this proposition to recognize the
role of emotional memory within specific actions, be it in a relational context, as a
part of problem solving, or in an object-related action: although emotional memory
or emotional schema is a relevant root of many maladaptive actions, resolving and
reprocessing the key emotion will not automatically improve all the actions cor
roborated by this destructive emotion. Thus, working with the specific actions and
the target emotion at the same time is necessary.
Emotion is not the sugar coating on the cake of action in contextual action the
ory. It is the fabric of action. It is there for action. Emotions are mostly active and
required for the immediate holistic monitoring of current situations. However, they
are equally related to mid-term projects and long-term career as these are material
embodied in ongoing actions. In addition, emotions can generate long-
term emotional anticipation and carry past emotional experience to the present. For
example, the expectation of positive outcomes and positive emotion at the end of
a project or career is mirrored in the positive emotions of looking forward to the
outcome during the ongoing action. Expectations of negative outcomes or emotions
related to a project may be experienced as
anxiety in the current action.
Expectations of conflicts are often answered in an emotional
cul de sac
or de-energizing. Occasionally, the expectation of conflict results in the emotional
energizing of a compulsive action detached from the goals of the project or career.
Thus, a person may take action steps that are primarily related to minimizing anxi
ety, although less related to the project from which the anxiety stems.
Although contextual action theory sees actions as a systemic process in which
both top-down and bottom-up steering co-occur, emotions are often described in
current research and conceptual literature as bottom-up steering processes. This
particularly is the case in the fight–flight response or what is understood as affec
tive, impulsive behavior (Ochsner et
. W
also described emotions as regulation processes. Contextual action
theory shares this view when emotion is seen within an action that is steered from
the top-down. It locates regulation processes at the lowest level of action organiza
tion and describes the regulation of action as proceeding by the quick processes of
emotional monitoring of the elements of action. For example, movement mishaps
accompanied by a negative feeling may lead to an attempt to correct the movement.
described the role that emotions play in individuals’ internal
processes and in the formulation of plans and goals. In contextual action theory, we
argue that emotion also energizes action. We describe emotions as relational action
tendencies. As such, they serve to establish, maintain, or disrupt relationships with
the environment in the form of readiness for goal-directed action. Emotion has been
conceptualized to play an important role in goal-directed action for a variety of
functional processes, behavioral regulation, and the construction of social meaning
. Specifically, emotion energizes, monitors, and steers the goal-
directed processes of actions and projects. Wanting to be happy, contented, satisfied,
or proud within an action, project, and career and striving toward these emotions are
common, expected, and gratified in our culture. Integrating emotion-related action
steps into goal-directed processes to address or generate desired emotions is also a
general practice. These could be positive or even negative; for example, some peo
ple believe that “one has to suffer before enjoying the satisfaction of achievement.”
Regulating emotion within an action is often addressed in psychological research
. In some cases, there is an underlying assumption that emotion is gen
erated in an automatic way and that individuals can only regulate emotions. How
ever, regulation of emotion can be found as both occurring automatically as well as
being socially generated. Thus, emotion is as much a physiological process as it is
a social construction. Both are neurologically anchored or mirrored. Consequently,
emotion can be controlled and steered, not only regulated. Emotion monitors, can
be monitored, and also energizes action.
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
Being aware of one’s own emotions is an important task for the client in counsel
ing. Some clients complaining about back pain, for example, frequently show a lack of
emotional monitoring over a long time span. Being aware of one’s own emotions also
helps in differentiating the basic fight–flight responses or the black or white emotional
repertory more finely. The result of such differentiation is a culturally enriched reper
toire of a great number of emotions and feelings. In turn, the enriched repertoire assists
people to shift more easily from negative or unpleasant to positive and action facilitat
ing emotions. Additionally, and speaking in neurologically simplified terms, it assists
in engaging neocortex processes in amygdala-driven responses from which a differ
Being able to nourish positive emotion is also a skill that can be promoted in
counseling. The previously described process is an important precondition for en
couraging positive emotions. Generating memories of emotionally positive actions
requires flexibility, which is not available during the stress of an induced fight–
flight reaction. Emotion is an ever-present process within action: it is part of gen
erating, maintaining, pursuing, changing, and realizing goals. In contrast to many
motivation theories which assume that understanding the occurring emotion pro
vides enough understanding of the subsequent behavior, contextual action theory
proposes that it is the action that has to be understood in order to understand the
ongoing behavior. Contextual action theory does not separate cognition, emotion,
physiological processes, social meaning, conscious and unconscious processes, and
intentional stance. These are integral aspects of action.
Despite reports about universal recognition of basic emotions (Ekman and Fries
, there is a wide range of social conventions,
rules, and norms in defining,
supporting, and sanctioning them. Similarly, the construction of emotion is rooted
in shared beliefs,
culture, and social representations. Contextual action theory rec
ognizes the social nature of emotional processes in action as it considers the social
perspective in describing action as equal to the other two ways of describing action:
The processing of certain goals and actions might be facilitated by some emo
tions, while inhibited by others. Thus, as individuals sometimes steer their action
to achieve certain emotions, emotions also can be facilitative in steering of people’s
action. Emotional control and emotional feedback and feed forward processes are
also important to consider. ”I’ve got a good feeling about it” is an accepted excla
mation about the emotional control of an action. Emotion as instrumental in action
regulation is also a widely experienced phenomenon. Actions in which we are not
emotionally invested might take less time to complete (rushing through) or more
time to begin (procrastination) or to finish (lingering); we might be less persistent
in carrying them out (easily discouraged); we might invest less energy in them (in
difference); and we might omit certain movements and not generate the behavioral
features that are associated with a good execution of the action (lacking precision,
Emotions also directly energize and de-energize action. As the
energy of
and/or in action takes different forms, energy is more than a physical term. The
function of
energizing can be followed at different levels of the aforesaid action
organization described. In counseling, clients express a lack of energy or vigor in
a variety of ways. For example, clients may complain about indifference and about
not being able to evaluate action and action step alternatives. They may grumble
about having to decide about which way to go in an action or what would be the
better action to take. These client responses may indicate emotional disengage
ment at the medium level of action organization, the level of action steps, control
processes, and plans. “I don’t know what to do”, “I’m not interested in anything”,
“my life does not make sense” are everyday language formulations of emotional
withdrawal at a higher level of the action organization (goal level), of project and
The role of emotion in goal-directed action extends to interactive processes. To
phrase it colloquially, “my action is impacting the others’ emotion and action, and
others’ emotions are impacting my action and emotion.” The interactive equiva
lent of individual emotion is an important process to consider. The concepts of
, collective (Smith and Crandell
and group emotion (Druskat and
, share the notion of a supra individual process of a similar quality as
individual emotion, but distributed or shared by several individuals contributing
to a social unit. The social unit can range from a simple, one-time encounter to a
socially organized group. Contextual action theory also addresses the role of joint
emotion in its concepts of joint action and joint project (von Cranach et
readily recognize the need to construct joint emotion with their cli
ents and also are aware of its challenges. The joint mirroring of emotion in counsel
ing can range from sharing emotions in a friendly encounter to the secondary trau
matization of the counselor (Figley
. Indeed, the degree to which counselors
allow the client to generate the client’s emotion in them and the degree to which
counselors participate in the joint emotion initiated by the client are mirrored in
both the quality of counselor–client relationship and the therapeutic alliance. The
challenge for counselors is not to adopt this joint emotion as their individual or
personal emotion beyond their immediate response to it in counseling. Thus, joint
emotion requires good supervision and counselor self-management to walk the
tightrope between its effective use and the counselor being subsumed by client
The emotional climate of a therapist–client encounter can be observed. In coun
seling informed by contextual action theory, the counselor and/or client often ad
dress emotion and the emotional climate in the encounter itself, and can be ad
interview. Understanding the impact
of emotions on behavior has implications for more adequately achieving complex
Current Counseling Issues from the Perspective of Contextual Action Theory
This chapter highlighted the commonalities and distinctions between some relevant,
innovative twenty first century counseling approaches and issues and contextual
action theory. Relational perspectives,
constructionism, narrative, systems, inten
tionality and volition,
culture, and emotion are issues counselors cannot ignore. It
should be evident from this chapter that contextual action theory and these other in
novative approaches to counseling converge in numerous ways. Nonetheless, there
are important differences that must be acknowledged, many of which arise from
the way that action itself is conceptualized, and the central or peripheral place of
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Applying Contextual Action Theory
Chapter 11
Counseling Adolescents from an Action Theory
Springer New York 2015
School of Social Work/Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine, University of British
Vancouver, BC, Canada
School of Social Work, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, BC, Canada
British Columbia, Vancouver
The second decade of life involves becoming an
adult. Adolescents and other par
ticipants in their lives pursue becoming an adult through individual and joint goal-
actions. The process of becoming adult is socially meaningful in most soci
eties. It involves manifest, observable processes and actions and includes many sub
processes experienced by the participants. Thus, attaining adulthood is, from
the perspective of contextual action theory, a project. Although they may not use the
term “project,” laypeople see becoming an
adult as a project and professionals study
it as such. These projects may involve counselors. This chapter describes what may
bring individuals to counseling during adolescence and elaborates on some princi
ples outlining how a contextual action approach to counseling adolescents proceeds.
Why does this chapter consider adolescence separately from adulthood? Why did
we not subsume adolescence and
adulthood under topics for counseling such as
efficacy? The reason is that adolescence is considered,
industrial societies, a unique developmental period because
physiological, cognitive, emotional, and social systems undergo simultaneous, rapid,
and marked changes (Feldman and Elliott
; Holmbeck et
. Some aspects
of these changes generate vulnerabilities for mental illness (e.g., Dorn et
McGlashan and Hof
and negative life events (Larson and Ham
. At
the same time, adolescence also heralds possibilities for positive development such
as remission from prior childhood behavior difficulties (Barker et
; Moffitt
and selection and pursuit of longer-term life goals (Nurmi
). As such,
adolescent clients can differ from work with children and adults.
. Human
development is not only the result of actions,
such as construction of symbols or activity with others. Human development is also
a target of human action; people act on their development through self-reflective
and self-regulatory processes (Brandtstädter
). This latter process underlies the
use of action theory in this chapter. However, we extend the idea to understand how
individuals act with others (joint action) on developmental goals such as personal
growth and maturity projects. We turn now to describe how some aspects of this
Working with Adolescents from a Contextual Action
. Although
searching for causes often feels like
a valuable starting point for counseling, doing so may result in thinking about ado
lescent clients as passive at the mercy of their developmental phase, genetic inheri
tance, or environment. The “why” question with the “because of” answer in mind as
a starting point for counseling adolescents does not recognize how adolescents are
making sense of their lives. Shifting to using contextual action theory as a guiding
framework changes the “why” question. It seeks the “in order to” rather than the
“because of” answer. Even better is the question, “What is this adolescent doing?”
By changing the question, an image emerges of adolescents as goal-directed rather
Asking “What is this adolescent doing?” can reveal a lot about goal-directed
actions. A research example is illustrative. A longitudinal study with a sample of
young adolescents revealed their engagement in problem behaviors was predicted
engagement in problem behaviors predicted, one year later, increased peer ac
ceptance. This study reveals how behaviors that might be viewed as problematic for
adolescents’ well-
being contribute to something positive—social acceptance. From
a contextual action theory perspective, these adolescents perceived themselves to be
engaged in
meaningful, life-enhancing projects that served a ‘positive’ purpose for
Counseling Adolescents from an Action Theory Perspective
For example, adolescents’ actions intended to gain or maintain social acceptance can
be interpreted by adults as yielding to peer pressure. Engaging in problem behaviors
may be viewed as age-related problematic risk-taking from which adolescents need
protection. Therefore, while asking “What are they doing (and doing together)?” it
is important to consider the assumptions counselors bring to the counseling process
when working with adolescents. Indeed, assumptions about adolescence can create
Counselors’ beliefs about adolescence can significantly influence the counseling
Stereotypes of adolescence as a period of rebellion, risky behavior, and
moody interactions abound even among professionals who work with adolescents
(Offer et
; Seginer and
. These stereotypes have been shown
to influence social judgment (Gross and Hardin
adolescents who attend counseling are part of the culture in which stereotypes about
adolescence are formed and sustained. Therefore, beliefs and actions influenced and
informed by these stereotypes may enter into counselor–
adolescent sessions caus
Answering the question “What is this person doing?” is a central task in coun
seling adolescents, particularly because they may not be clear about their goals or
). In dealing with
this question, counselors inherently en
counter the social aspects of adolescents’ projects. As such, it is also important to ask
“Who is involved?” Returning to our example of adolescents having fun and feeling
socially accepted through engaging in problem behaviors (Maggs et
), we
can see these projects connect to other people. They obviously involve peers. If ado
lescents are engaging in problem behaviors with peers, for example, learning how
29). This field of
action encompasses the past, pres
ent, and future (see Valsiner
. Actions and action patterns, over time, become
the “world that appears to be ordered, ‘transparent’, providing the space and the
roles for action” (Boesch
, p.
362). Culture/context is also
a process because it
is continuously transformed by actions (Boesch
this understanding of context, we return to the question of “Who is involved?” in the
adolescents’ peer relationship
In our research example, a range of people act in the context of the adolescents’
joint peer relationship projects. Older adolescents or young adults may obtain
alcohol for the adolescents to drink. Some people work at preventing adolescent
problem behaviors by instituting laws or guidelines or implement them. Here, we
can imagine the people constructing or applying rules for social behavior as en
gaged in projects or, with the energy and longevity of joint
actions, careers. These
rules for action are constructed over time and are guided by goals for the future,
). Some
of the risk lies in navigating the ‘rules’ of the context, or laws,
and not being caught or punished. In a sense, engaging in problem behaviors may be
seen as participation in a “don’t get caught” project with the larger context. The risk
inherent in “don’t get caught” creates excitement for some adolescents. Navigating
risk is an important aspect of working with adolescents and risk-
as a normative adolescent phenomenon (Lightfoot
maturity project is learning how to manage their context(s) and understanding how
their actions join the actions of their (larger) context.
There are many ways in which others are involved in the adolescents’ joint peer
relationship projects, including social steering, control, and regulation. We can dis-
tinguish among social conventions,
norms, and legal norms or laws. They
differ in a number of aspects, the most important being how they are sanctioned.
Breaking a social convention is a minor matter and leads to being exposed to a
disagreement with the community. However, breaking a norm, particularly a legal
one, leads to a specific, institutionally controlled punishment. One could argue that,
while adolescents develop their own capacity for socially responsible actions and
projects, they engage in tackling the dimensions of social steering, control, and reg
ulation in constructing and impacting social conventions, rules, and norms. In doing
so, they sometimes overlook the fine border between challenging a convention and
Counseling Adolescents from an Action Theory Perspective
The numerous reasons why adolescents might attend counseling include growth-
oriented purposes and to remedy problematic circumstances. We do not intend to
cover these reasons comprehensively. Rather, we briefly outline three broad catego
ries of experiences that may bring adolescents to counseling. We then use these de
scriptions as a springboard for describing how counseling adolescent clients might
unfold using contextual action theory.
Adolescence is the period of the lifespan during which individuals are most likely
to experience the onset of serious mental health problems (Kessler et
Nearly one in five adolescents experience considerable difficulty,
and one in ten have a diagnosable disorder that causes significant impairment in
social and/or academic functioning (McGee et
. Aside
from psychiatric
schizophrenia that may first emerge in late adolescence, three
broad domains of serious mental health problems affect adolescents: internalizing
problems (for example, anxiety, depression, and suicide), externalizing problems
(for example, antisocial, delinquent, or aggressive behaviors), and substance
. These problems tend to overlap and/or co-occur with one
Current approaches for understanding adolescent psychopathology do not attribute
in mental health to a single cause, for example, inheritance or maltreat
ment. Instead, they emphasize the role of developmental changes that occur during
adolescence, the importance of present and historical environmental and social con
texts, the interactions between these factors (Mash and Dozois
viduals as active contributors to their own development (Cicchetti and Rogosh
Among the majority of adolescents who do not experience serious mental health
problems, distress can occur. Since adolescents’ lives become more complex with
age, distress can arise from the accumulation of negative events (Larson and Ham
or novel challenges across domains such as vocational choices and increas
ingly complex social and romantic relationships. Most individuals are able to suc
cessfully cope with the developmental demands of adolescence (Cicchetti and
; however
, the increasing complexity and oc
currence of stressors that adolescents experience also makes effective coping more
Additionally, previously effective means of coping
may become ineffective or contribute to problem behaviors or potential psychopa
, or
the management of negative interactions such as
or work-related (Frone
Although most adolescents mange to successfully resolve problems or distress,
some may seek counseling for assistance in managing negative interactions or help
Distress may also emanate from stigma-related interactions. Adolescents from
ethnic (Huynh and Fuligni
and sexual (Saewyc
minority groups are
more likely to report distress in their lives than adolescents from more widely ac
cepted social groups. A difficulty for adolescents on the receiving end of stigma-
related actions is that these stressors tend to be on-going and accumulate over time
resulting in diminished capacities to cope effectively (Hatzenbuehler
. Stigma-
related actions can also interfere with adolescents’ consolidation of a coherent iden
tity and generate other intrapersonal difficulties such as identity concerns or distress.
Adolescents’ capacity for insight can give rise to identity concerns and existential
anxiety (Berman et
. Identity concerns or distress may
emerge as individuals experience difficulties in defining a sense of self that is co
herent with their past and anticipated future and is congruent with their current so
cial contexts. Some youth may encounter difficulties defining long-term vocational
goals, sexual orientation and behavior, or values about life and relationships, and
Although not an indicator of a psychological
disorder, difficulty in defining a rela
tively coherent and satisfying or acceptable sense of
self can give rise to emotional
of the mental
clients experience is an important step in their treatment. However, most adoles
cents will be concerned less with problem identification and more about what their
problem(s) means in relation to their lives. The meaning making process is well-
supported by counseling guided by contextual action theory. We present two fic
Most adolescent clients fall into one of two broad referral categories; the first would
be adult-initiated and the second would be self-initiated or voluntary. Adolescents’
motivation may be masked and thus the distinction between the two is not always
Counseling Adolescents from an Action Theory Perspective
clear. However, for the sake of illustration we use these two positions as starting
points, and we present two fictional clients and develop respective case conceptu
Pat is 14-year-old female currently attending a public high school. She lives at home
with her mother and younger sister. Pat has always been an above average student,
well-liked by her peers, respectful to teachers and adults, and active in extracur
ricular activities. For the past month, Pat’s grades have slipped, she has grown with
drawn, and no longer seems to take interest in things she usually found enjoyable.
Her mother also noticed that she had been avoiding her friends and spending most
of her time at home alone in her room. Pat’s mother went to the school to meet with
a teacher to discuss Pat’s grades and behavior. The teacher encouraged Pat’s mother
Counseling Adolescents from an Action Theory Perspective
pleting college and taking over the family business. Over the past six months Sam
has been questioning his sexual identity. Sam feels very distressed when he thinks
about how his family and friends will react when/if they find out he thinks he is gay.
Sam has consistently been a responsible student and a peacemaker in the family. He
feels pressure to fulfill his parents’ expectations and is terrified to disappoint them.
Sam has been spending a lot of time at a community-based Lesbian, Gay, Bisex
ual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) youth center and participating in some group
activities with other youth. Sam decides to seek out a counselor at the LGBTQ
center. Sam, unlike Pat in Case Scenario #1, engages in counseling on his own. By
Counseling Adolescents from an Action Theory Perspective
in order to determine how to protect adolescent clients. These searches can result in
viewing adolescents as passive recipients of causal forces instead of goal-directed
actors participating in their own development. In this chapter, we have highlighted
some of the ways contextual action theory helps counselors look at behaviors of
adolescents and merge the social, subjective, and observable processes. It allows
counselors to understand how adolescents make meaning of their lives, alone and
jointly with others, and what brings them to counseling. In particular, we dealt with
the issue of managing incongruent adolescent projects, one of the foci contextual
initiation of counseling: “What is this adolescent doing?” and “Who is involved
and what are they doing together?” Engagement in these questions with adolescent
clients is a departure point for optimizing counseling processes or joint growing to
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Chapter 12
Counseling Intentional Addiction Recovery
Grounded in Relationships and Social Meaning
Springer New York 2015
OrionHealth, Surrey, BC, Canada
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Addiction and
recovery are complex social processes. They are complex in that
problematic misuse of only one substance is rare. They are further complicated by
the fact that various psychiatric diagnoses (e.g.,
PTSD, depression, anxiety and pain
disorder, personality disorders) are often co-morbid with substance misuse (Rush
Use of addictive substances and engagement in addictive behaviors
are sometimes conceptualized as attempts to regulate powerful and negative emo
. Researc
h has clarified that
persons with addictions issues make substantial efforts to address and recover from
these problems, whether or not they use professional assistance (Rumpf et
These recovery ef
forts inevitably involve significant others in their lives, suggesting
the need to view the process of recovery through a relational lens (Sellman
inform the understanding and treatment of clients
recovery from problematic substance use. CAT provides a frame
work to help counselors build their therapeutic interventions and it is a theory that
acknowledges the complexity of addiction recovery by emphasizing joint inten
tional processes over time (Hser and Anglin
What follows is a discussion of multiple aspects of CAT and the application to
the practice of addiction treatment, beginning with a review of human behavior as
action. The systemic nature of action will be discussed, distinguish
ing among its hierarchical levels that steer, control, and contain subconscious and
unconscious regulation processes and the application to the conceptualization of
addiction treatment practice. The systemic order of actions, projects and career is
described. The relational nature of joint actions and projects and the postulate of
equal value of social meaning, subjective processes and manifest behavior are il
lustrated. Recommendations are made with the goal of developing CAT-informed
counseling practices such as: the therapeutic alliance, conceptualizing the life-en
hancing recovery project, and working with emotion and emotional memory. The
chapter ends with a preliminary examination of how the action project method
could be incorporated into the CAT-informed therapist’s toolbox.
Action Theory as a Guide
CAT focuses the counselor on the intentional, goal-directed nature of recovery and
the concurrent life projects that clients are consciously and unconsciously con
structing with meaningful others. For example, a client recounted that he politely
excused himself to take a soothing hot shower in the middle of a fight with his wife.
Counseling Intentional Addiction Recovery Grounded …
Attention to how treatment approaches lack sensitivity to relationship dynamics
has become a key theme in the addictions literature (McCrady
; Orford et
. CA
T guides the counselor to consider the impact of both life-enhancing and
life-limiting actions across various levels of relationship such as close relationships,
family systems, work systems and recovery-oriented groups. A counselor may ask,
“What are the ways that your family and friends have responded to you struggling
with addiction?” or “What are you and “X” doing together toward recovery?” A
focus on the jointly-held nature of goals, actions and projects can structure initial
assessments and interventions. Understanding the relational dimensions provides a
realistic portrayal of how addiction recovery is constructed and experienced in daily
life. CAT extends a bi-directional view of relationship by guiding the counselor to
focus on joint construction of goals, meaning and actions within recovery relation
ships. Without a complex relational-process frame to guide her interventions the
counselor may inadvertently slip into attending to the emotionally salient or “risk-
laden” elements of addiction or recovery behaviors that her training discipline has
The concepts of joint-action and projects permit counselors, no matter their
adherence to a particular clinical intervention approach, to support a number of
life-enhancing recovery pathways (see Biernacki
. Although the goal of absti
nence is often primary (Sellman
, this may mean purposefully foregrounding
the vocational career or the marriage relationship because meaningful movement
in these areas, even if imperfectly undertaken, can energize the abstinence project.
The Counseling Project
Addiction counseling is a joint project. Running along the backbone of CAT is the
idea that most human behaviors take the form of joint goal-directed actions (short-
term), projects (mid-term), and career (long-term) (Young et
. The counsel
ing project is guided and regulated through
communication. Done well, it accounts
for the power of structure and relationships, harnessing emotions effectively to en
liven therapeutic interventions and behavioral homework. The counseling relation
ship is ordered through three levels or subsystems: internal steering, control, and
regulation processes (Valach and Young
. The following example serves to
A client, after several unsuccessful attempts to achieve abstinence from cocaine
while maintaining her friendships with drug users, develops with the counselor a
set of detailed plans to turn down invitations from these friends (and role-plays the
plans); these plans are made with the recognition that there is often a limbo state
which exists during the period of developing a recovery-oriented social group. The
counselor helps her to anticipate anxious and sad emotions, teaches self-soothing
techniques and introduces the skill of affect tolerance (in other words, that not all
processes refer to the cognitions and emotions that provide a
function for actions. Emotions (see Greenberg
) drive or energize action (see
. Cognitions constitute
the rationale or justification for continued
engagement in new, healthier actions. As well, a strong and clear rationale might
serve to motivate these actions. Plans for change will be further propelled as the
community that promotes these
The CAT-informed counselor brings the dynamic impact of thoughts and feel
ings into client awareness. In the example above, the counselor helped the client
to explore reasons in favor of and against continuing friendships with drug users.
The shared goal of abstinence informs the counselor’s choice to teach self-
lation, which is needed as the client takes steps (which have been developed with
the counselor) toward joining a recovery group. Doing this offers the client a way
of understanding her current behavior patterns that, in turn, provides her with new
and supra-goal perspectives. Finally, through
planning, the client is engaged and
The lowest level process is defined as regulation and concerns the elements of ac
tion, project and career; these include behaviors observed in physical terms that em
body the above-described processes of steering and control. It includes the micro-
components of the counselor’s specific observational skills, communication skills,
and interventions. Regulatory processes can inhibit or facilitate an action; these
processes could include what happens as the client or counselor adapts to environ
In the previous example in which the client is attempting to reconcile the goals of
stopping cocaine usage while maintaining friendships with active users, the coun
empathic tone of voice and close attention to the client’s shifting facial and
body messages are valuable tools for regulating the pace and context of the sessions
and being alert to resistance. Another example of a regulatory process is the coun
selor’s use of subtle verbal and non-verbal cues to slow the pace of an extremely
talkative client in order to allow space for emotions to be acknowledged and reflec
tion on content to occur. Similarly, when a counselor leaves the last 10
min of a
session for
written recapitulation and affirmation of the short-term and long-term
goals, noting the skills needed and progress made, she consolidates the joint actions
CAT theorizes that
communication process and emotional regulation processes si
multaneously occur at the level of the individual and at multiple levels within a
group (ranging from dyadic relationship to community involvement). Therefore,
it is suggested that the CAT-informed addiction counselor keep in mind that com
munication in the process of goal-setting, steering, controlling and monitoring both
the counseling and addiction recovery projects must be explicitly planned for and
At the goal-setting level, the addiction–recovery project is structured through the
communicative organization of a hierarchy and sequence of goals. This hierarchi
cal sequence likely is dynamic and very much context-dependent. A CAT view on
culture here promotes careful consideration of the multiple “fields” within which
recovery action must take place (Graham et
. W
ith a meticulous consid
eration of emotional regulation, cognitive reactance and behavior, communication
is the template and action for structuring the goals, strategies, and elements of the
recovery project (Valach and Young
Counseling Intentional Addiction Recovery Grounded …
CAT-Informed Assessment
The CAT-informed addictions counselor begins the counseling relationship with a
discussion of the initial actions that began both the addiction project as well as those
actions that characterize the budding (or perhaps stalled) recovery project. Assess
ment is conceptualized as joint action and can be framed simultaneously as infor
mation gathering and intervention. CAT guides the counselor toward the
tion of persons who are important to the client and to past and current individual
and joint projects relating to identity,
vocation and family. Naming both process and
outcome goals connected to a client-defined preferred future helps to consolidate
client meanings for addiction recovery. The counselor seeks to understand patterns
of addiction and recovery within the client’s relational and societal context and
following example illustrates how a broad narrative assessment helps to
uncover motivated projects and, in turn, open a focus for the counseling. Consider
a client attending a return-to-work program with the goal of prescription opioid
elimination and presenting with secondary addiction concerns, that is, cocaine and
marijuana. An addiction treatment center would traditionally recommend that ad
diction behavior be addressed before the client begins their program (30 days of
abstinence). However, CAT-informed practice would suggest it is viable for the
counselor to approach the problems in another order. For example, imagine the cli
ent is not in denial about her use, asks about her potential for relapse to be assisted
through random urine drug testing and is offered a graduated return to work plan to
a job that she clearly enjoys and is established as a “safe, non-drug using” environ
ment. The counselor at the program is aware that the pain-management curriculum
includes teaching on coping
skills, relapse prevention planning and emotional pro
cessing, all of which can substitute for an in-house treatment setting. As counseling
work begins, important life projects are identified and considerable effort is taken to
foster supportive relationships, both professional and collegial. The common thread
among these relationships is an acknowledgement that recovery is a longer-term
process that, with appropriate management, need not preclude vocational training
and engagement with multiple life projects simultaneously.
CAT-informed addiction counselors guide clients to connect with the meaningful
beginning of patterns of substance
misuse. For example, in the depths of agonizing
over a life-limiting marijuana usage pattern, a client stops and recounts the story
of how smoking marijuana began as a strategy for managing anxiety and deep
ening social connections. The counselor helps him identify the valid social needs
buried within this strategy and empathizes with the impact of his family of origin:
attachment relationships were impaired by parents who drank alcohol on a daily
basis. Over the course of counseling, goal-directed language helps clients under
and acknowledgement that is rarely experienced by clients with addictions. Too
often, they have been given advice without the gifts of inquiry and validation.
The Therapeutic Alliance
Goal consensus and a deep collaboration between counselor and client play a sig
nificant role in addiction treatment outcome (Tryon and Winograd
. The thera
peutic alliance is an intentional endeavor: a byproduct of clear goals and functional
Counseling Intentional Addiction Recovery Grounded …
stuck patterns of suppression or masking of emotional memories (stalled emotions)
The counselor can clarify the problems and resources found at each level of
functioning within the action system. A cognitive frame to guide or steer functional
behaviors is different from the need to identify and facilitate a response to the prob
lem of emotional regulation. It is important, for example, to differentiate between a
historical moment where a traumatic experience needs reprocessing versus under
standing and effectively managing the impact of this past experience across current
CAT and the “Addict” Identity
Established theories of addiction tend to be divided on whether the “addict” iden
tity is considered freeing, helpful or constrictive. Allowing multiple perspectives to
come to bear on addiction and the addiction career (e.g., Levy and Anderson
is of conceptual relevance to both the issue of identity
formation of the ‘addict’ as
working with identity, the CAT-informed counselor explores the client-assigned
meaning of identity and how the client simultaneously receives identity from his
or her current contexts. A person in recovery may be loath to identify as an “alco
holic” or “addict” and instead may maintain that she participates in an “alternative
lifestyle” (Rødner
. Identity can be fluid and rapidly evolving and warrants
respect and
attention. CAT allows for multiple constructions and explanations (see
of identity which apply to persons who are attempting life-enhancing
projects and career within their unique life narratives. Attending to the breadth of
the client’s narrative validates underappreciated, and sometimes forgotten, dimen
sions of the self-schema that, when reintroduced, can provide an internal resource
and source of strength for difficult recovery actions.
Clients struggling with substance
misuse may not receive effective career/employ
ment counseling and may face a variety of barriers, including the counselor’s belief
that she does not possess the necessary skills to counsel a persons vocational career
needs and addiction recovery tasks simultaneously. Savickas (
maintained that
“careers involve the psychosocial integration of self-concepts and social
roles. They
659). The CAT
-informed addictions counselor includes assessment of
goals and preferences relating to the development of work actions and projects.
The client-in-recovery may lack relational support, courage and/or skill to move
towards meaningful work. It is imperative to obtain a clear picture of client work
goals and this may precipitate joining with the client in foregrounding work actions
and projects. From a CAT perspective, counselors may need to help facilitate mul
tiple projects (i.e., vocational and recovery) and help to case-manage by contacting
other helping professionals to allow both projects to be facilitated simultaneously.
For example, it is feasible for a vocational counselor to integrate a client’s relapse
Several studies have
demonstrated the high degree of co-occurring mental
health di
agnoses with substance misuse (Rush et
. The
historically grounded nature
and complexity of addiction treatment requires both focus on specific, historical
emotionally laden events and joining with the client to construct the daily process
) have distinguished between emotions as embodied in ac
tion and emotional memories that may be triggered or evoked during ongoing ac
tions and projects. Emotional memory interferes with action processes. Emotional
memory is not emphasized as the primary clinical symptom, instead emotional
memory is examined to identify its specific impact on action, internal
social meaning and observable behaviors. More specifically, the counselor helps
. The specific details of this method have been described
in detail elsewhere in this volume. The following paragraphs illustrate how various
facets of the method, including the “self-confrontation” interview, contain potential
Counseling Intentional Addiction Recovery Grounded …
A previous study utilized this method with persons who were in close relation
ships and jointly engaged in addiction
recovery (Graham
. Participants in this
study welcomed having their ongoing addiction recovery projects identified and
accepted as having value. Regular phone calls inquiring about developments and
internal processes related to their ongoing recovery project seemed to act, in some
accountability mechanism and as a precipitant for positive change.
In the Graham (
study, the self-confrontation interview acted as an inter
vention in service of either the participant’s close relationship project and/or the
recovery project. At the beginning and end of the study, approximately 6 months
apart, participants came to the research setting and engaged in a video-taped con
versation about how they were “recovering together.” Following this, each partner
separately watched the conversation played back with one of the researchers. The
conversation was broken into segments and the participant was asked, “What were
you thinking?”, “What were you feeling?”, or “What was your goal?” for each
segment. As a result, the participants reported a deepened connection with how
conversational actions were influenced by the specific goals of their joint recov
ery project. They noted being surprised that specific goals functioned outside of
their awareness. For example, one partner realized that a goal she was unaware she
acted upon in “recovery” conversations was to steer the talk away from any topics
that could be perceived as “risky” or emotionally charged. Doing this, she realized,
A barrier to developing the entire CAT method into an intervention for persons
dealing with addiction is the degree to which it becomes labor-intensive. A potential
solution is to focus on the self-confrontation interview, as discussed above, which
has consistently demonstrated therapeutic value by simultaneously promoting cli
ent intra- and interpersonal awareness. The self-confrontation interview could be
adopted into the counseling repertoire of a CAT-informed therapist as an assessment
tool or intervention to focus knowledge translation from therapy session to daily
practice. The method would specifically fit where addiction-oriented couples coun
seling was taking place. A more systematic study of this method as an intervention
could lead to its integration into addiction treatment program delivery, as either an
adjunct treatment or an embedded method through which to develop more compre
When considering the addiction recovery project, CAT-informed counselors attend
to multiple viewpoints including: goals, strategies, elements, joint and individual
action, project and career, manifest behaviors, social meaning, and internal
es. These projects and careers are complex, continuing constructions. The recovery
project is constructed within the client narrative, validated and shaped by observed
actions and projects, and through a dynamic process understanding of context and
The CAT-informed counselor attends to individual and joint goals from an under
standing of process-defining and outcome-focused goals. She holds to a teleological
understanding of action wherein multiple levels of intentionality act on the counsel
process. Evaluation takes place at the level of functional step, joint action, or the
interventions. CAT-informed addiction counseling goes
beyond the view that addiction is located within the individual and instead locates
The CAT framework for addiction counseling accomplishes a number of pur
poses. First, the lens of action keeps the counselor simultaneously focused on in
dividual and social goals and processes that previously led to life-limiting patterns
and can now lead to the restoration of life-enhancing relational processes. It also
can only truly be understood within the above-described context. Second, the lens
of project and career addresses several problems in the literature, including theo
ries and methods that are not sufficiently sophisticated to manage the interpersonal
dynamics operating in addiction recovery (Simmons
. Addiction counseling
as a joint project places in the foreground the dynamic and intentional work of
building or reclaiming multiple life projects, including addiction recovery, that are
meaningful to the client and those they hold dear. Addiction recovery is a career that
must be nested within relationships and guided by the overarching goal of making
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Aldao, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2009). Emotion regulation strategies across
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Recovery from addiction as a joint and gendered project: An action theo
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York: Springer.
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Theory, 13,
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social forces: An exploratory study of drug-using couples in Hartford, CT.
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Chapter 13
Adolescent Eating Disorders: A Contextual
Action Theory Approach to Family-Based
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
The purpose of this chapter is to offer contextual action theory as a framework for
counseling families with an adolescent who has an eating disorder. Eating disorders
are serious, complex, and potentially chronic mental health conditions accompanied
physiological sequelae (Keel 2010; Pinzon and Beimers
). As such,
the treatment of an adolescent eating disorder requires a team of professionals and
caregivers, including the family (American Psychiatric Association [APA] 2006;
National Institute for Clinical Excellence [NICE]
2004). Adolescence is the peak
age of onset for an eating disorder (American Psychiatric Association 2000; Lu
, and because most adolescents live with their families,
siblings represent an important social context. The presence of an eating disorder
in a family also places incredible stress on the family system (Hillage et
. Many normal family activities and commitments must be put
on hold or subordinated to the immediate care needs of the
). Y
et, families can be an invaluable source of support for the adolescent as he
or she fights the tyranny of the eating disorder (Honey and Halse
. Families
will be better equipped to support the adolescent and bear the stress that treatment
evokes if they have a shared understanding of the illness and how to best support
Counselors working with adolescent eating disorders will find the action theory
framework nonprescriptive, and appreciate that its application does not require the
abandonment of one’s professional counseling theory (Young et
selors will find the action framework is systematic and pragmatic, and naturally
directs clinical attention to the adolescents’ and family members’ personal and joint
realities at the level of meaning, cognition and emotion, and behavior. In this way,
counselors can think of action theory as a meta-framework capable of integrating
different treatments and counseling theories, including informal theories held by
the clients. Counselors who adopt an action theory framework will also find it to be
a valuable way to identify and work with key eating disorder processes within the
family, as well as counseling processes more generally.
Overview of Recommended Treatments for Adolescent
Much of the treatment research in eating disorders has focused on adults (Mitch
. However
, out-patient treatment that features parent involvement
and family counseling are indicated in the treatment for bulimia nervosa, anorexia
nervosa, and eating disorder not otherwise specified (APA 2006; NICE 2004). It is
important to note that the nature and degree of involvement by the family is always
a clinical judgment made on a case-by-case basis, and there may be circumstances
Generally speaking,
the recommended treatment for bulimia nervosa is a family-
based approach featuring cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
developmentally ad
justed the adolescent (Lock 2010; NICE 2004). The cognitive-behavioral approach
attends primarily to the individual cognitive processes within the adolescent that
have served to create and maintain the eating disorder. The initial focus of this ap
proach is psycho-
education on weight and nutrition, and correcting misconceptions
about food and dieting. The psycho-educational aspect of treatment can be done
conjointly with the adolescent and the family. The aim is to re-establish regular
a recommended treatment
for adolescents with anorexia nervosa (APA 2006; NICE 2004), although it has
been shown useful in the treatment of bulimia nervosa as well (Doyle et
Grange et
. The
evidence for the use of FBT for adolescent anorexia nervo
sa comes from a small but growing collection of randomized clinical trials that have
found it to be more effective in the short term than treatment as usual (Fisher et
. In
FBT the refusal to eat is viewed as a behavioral problem treated by the
application of behavioral principles of change, like creating a clear, consistent, and
reasonable program for weight
locating incentives for eating. Although FBT is highly structured, it is designed to
provide counselors experienced in the treatment of eating disorders with techniques
and strategies to treat the eating disorder while still using their own treatment styles
FBT has three phases, and parents play an important role throughout. The chief
goal of the initial phase is for the parents to help their adolescent re-gain weight.
restoration is the process by which parents employ empathic but unyielding
model, face a challenge in practice. Neither CBT nor FBT offers a conceptual
ization of the problems and processes families experience in implementing these
programs, or of the counseling processes associated with them. For example, coun
selors practicing FBT use behavioral and learning theory to support the parents in
their weight restoration activities, and behavioral theory is an influential concep
tual lens through which the adolescent, the family, and the helping processes are
viewed. Consider the following three examples. First, counselors are encouraged
to have no stance on what processes occurred, or are occurring, to bring about the
). Disinterest in the cause
of the eating disorder
is consistent with behaviorism and is intended to keep the parents focused on the
). Second, the adolescent is
conceptualized as ill
and out of control in regard to eating. This stance is likewise
consistent with behavioral theory, meant to help the parents depersonalize the ado
lescent’s defiance and protests at weight restoration. Finally, the counselor’s role in
FBT is more of advisor or consultant whose main job is to remind parents of their
inherent skills, and if needed, provide problem-solving support as the parents work
out their own mutually agreeable solutions to weight restoration problems (Lock
). The challenge
for the counselor is that behavioral theory insufficiently
attends to the problems and processes families and counselors face in actual imple
mentation. The same problem emerges with a CBT approach. Cognitive and behav
ioral theory provide ample guidance for working with the thoughts and behaviors
of the individual adolescent or parent, but leaves the intricate system of interrelated
. Most of the ways
which the action theory framework will shape family counseling branch from
this core assumption. When the assumption is extended to the work of counseling
families, the adolescent’s eating disorder and the family processes around the eating
In addition to a distinct collection of interventions and techniques, CBT therapy
and FBT both subscribe to a theory of human behavior, and some of these assump
tions will need to bend to an action theory understanding of human behavior. The
counselor wishing to apply action theory as a meta-framework will need to attend
carefully to how the respective assumptions play out in his or her conceptualiza
tions and interventions. Consider the following examples of how action theory will
When the eating disorder and family eating disorder behaviors are seen as joint,
goal-directed actions, the function or meaning of the eating disorder, as well as the
meaning of the family’s actions around the eating disorder becomes quite important.
This perspective requires a counselor to begin to think in terms of ‘in order to’ rather
than ‘because of’ explanations (Michel and Valach
). The use of in-order-to
explanations represents a corollary assumption of action theory, and in-order-to
explanations will receive greater emphasis in clinical conceptualizing than causal
explanations. In doing so, the counselor can be certain his or her conceptualizations
resonate closely with the experience of the adolescent, and the family, who also
understand their own and others’ behaviors as being about something meaning
ful, rather than being caused by some antecedent thing (Young et
familiar with
FBT will appreciate that in-order-to explanations also work to avoid
inadvertently conferring blame on the adolescent or the family, a major concern in
Another corollary
assumption to action theory’s explanation of human behavior
as meaningful and goal-directed is that people are agentic (Valach et
theories recognize people
have the ability to make the choice to engage
in action. However, behavioral theory is an exception. As such, whereas FBT would
encourage the counselor to develop the idea amongst family members that the
lescent has temporarily lost control of his or her thinking and feelings regarding
food, a perspective consistent with behavioral theory, it is discordant with action
theory. The purpose of seeing the adolescent as out of control of his or her thinking
in FBT is to depersonalize the adolescent’s resentment and opposition at weight res
toration. Yet, this conceptualization is unlikely to fit with most counselors’, family
members’, or adolescents’ understandings of the behavior. Therefore, the strategy
would be worked with differently in order to maintain the agency and independence
of the adolescent by viewing him or her as a self-motivated and responsible person.
Instead, the adolescent’s eating disorder actions would be seen as organized and
guided by processes occurring simultaneously and interdependently at the three lev
els of experience outlined in action theory: social meaning, internal psychological
The first level of action organization is social meaning, or the adolescent’s rea
son for his or her eating disorder actions. Action theory understands meaning by
looking to the goal of the eating disorder action, and by doing so, the agency and
autonomy of the adolescent is maintained. For example, 17-year-old Jody
school senior who might explain her last binge-purge as something she did in order
to stop an unrelenting and overwhelming sense of bad feelings. Jody may feel out
of control once the binge begins, but the action will always be about something for
her. Working with her counselor, the social meaning of the binge-purge comes to
light. Not only was she consumed with anxiety about a very important final exam,
but earlier in the day she experienced a terrible argument with her boyfriend that
left her feeling uncared for, lonely, and misunderstood. By the time Jody got home
from working with a critical and belittling co-worker at her part-time job, she felt
something had to be done to stop the emotional pain. For a brief moment in time,
The second level of organization that guides eating disorder actions is internal
psychological processes, which include the cognitive and emotional schemata that
steer eating disorder behaviors. For example, part of Jody’s emotional distress about
the final exam may have been related to the potential for a poor grade to threaten
her identity as a high-achiever. These kinds of thoughts and their implications for
her self-concept bring about negative feelings judged to be unbearable to Jody, and
she becomes motivated to engage in practical or functional
steps directed toward
The final level of organization guiding the eating disorder action is that of mani
behaviors, which includes automatic psychological and physiological processes
supports, skills, or biology. Using the example above, Jody’s
binge may have been about finding relief or distraction from emotional distress
(i.e., meaning), steered in part by her beliefs about herself and how tolerable the
emotions felt (i.e., internal processes), and guided by having a limited repertoire
regulating negative emotion, the physiological effects of having
restricted her food intake all day, as well as a family history positive for eating
disorders. At the level of manifest behavior, all of these
physiological and uncon
scious psychological processes are understood to coalesce into the action of Jody
making sure her parents were not around and then going to the kitchen to search the
Please note, the names and scenarios used for illustration are made-up. If the stories bear similar
fridge and pantry for binge food. Once spotting a desired food and consuming the
first bites, the eating process becomes somehow unstoppable for Jody for a while.
Understanding of eating disorder actions is informed by processes occurring at all
three levels, but far greater attention is given to the steering processes at the level of
meaning which hold the greatest resonance with the adolescent’s actual world and
Another important aspect of contextual action theory is the social embeddedness
of actions. Attending to the goals of actions for understanding will not only point
to personally meaningful outcomes importance to the adolescent, but will almost
always include important others. Thus, eating disorder actions are viewed as joint
actions involving people and circumstances in the adolescent’s social system. For
example, by making Jody’s permission to attend the senior weekend camp-out con
tingent upon her exam grade, her parents may have been hoping to motivate and
reward their daughter for achieving her best, not realizing Jody was already felt a
Contextual action theory maintains people are always goal-directed in their be
haviors. However, it recognizes that they often participate in projects or careers in
which they may not have full awareness of the goals. In the example above, Jody
may not yet understand the larger meaning of her
binging and purging in her life and
her parents may not realize pretending not to notice their daughter’s unusually large
When taken independently, skipping meals, taking laxatives, eating in private,
measuring and weighing food, compulsive weighing and calorie counting, or al
ways being ‘out’ during family meal times can all be understood as goal-directed
Contextual Action Theory as a Tool in Counseling
Care Across Eating Disorders
Regardless of the type of eating disorder the adolescent has, treatment will always
begin with a comprehensive assessment of physical, psychological, and social
needs, including the risk self-harm (Katzman et
risks associated with eating disorders, family physicians or pediatricians
must be involved in the initial assessment. The treatment team should consist of a
dietician, psychiatrist, counselor, family, and physician, and all should be in clear
agreement regarding who is responsible for monitoring the adolescent’s progress in
all domains of functioning (Katzman et
). Treatment
in an outpatient setting
is preferable (APA 2006; NICE 2004). However, if there is significant deterioration
in the adolescent’s physical or psychological well-
being, a more intensive form of
treatment should be sought, such as day-treatment or inpatient programs.
At the outset of the counseling work, the family and the adolescent should be
given information and psycho-education on the nature, course, and treatment op
tions for the eating disorder. The action theory framework is a convenient schema
for counselors to use when helping families arrive at a practical and meaningful
understanding of the eating disorder. Research is clear that eating disorders are
complex conditions with a multifactorial nature and many explanatory models exist
(Striegel-Moore and Bulik
. The levels of action organization in the action
theory framework can make sure one explanatory model is not inappropriately em
Once again, the levels of organization include (1) the goal or action level at
which steering processes occur and social meaning is constructed, (2) the action
step level at which most control processes occur and which is described in func
tional terms addressing internal and external psychological processes, and (3) the
level of action elements at which regulation processes occur and which is described
in physical terms. Table
shows how the levels of organization
The action framework directs a counselor’s attention to the three levels of action
organization, and in doing so integrates explanatory models concerned with context
Levels of action organization
Intrapersonal models, including
cognitive and emotional theory
Table 13.1
Levels of action
organization and correspond-
and social processes (e.g., family environment, social resources, culture, and the
media), the intrapersonal processes (e.g., emotions or cognitive biases and errors),
and finally functional processes related the role of action
elements mostly defined
in physical terms such as behaviors, biological processes, or even genetics (e.g.,
medical, behavioral or neurobiological models). The levels help the counselor see
the commonalities of these models and how to work them together into one truly
multifactorial model that is neither oversimplified nor overwhelming (Young et
Clinical assessment
for the purpose of treatment planning is an on-going activ
ity in counseling, and when action theory is the meta-framework, the counselor is
primed to gather information and asses the eating disorder and the family’s con
cerns from multiple perspectives that correspond with the levels of action orga
nization. The levels of action organization serve as an outline of sorts for asking
questions and assessing functioning related to medications, developmental stage,
family history of eating disorders, eating
When eating disorder behavior is understood as a joint systemic process in its short-
term, medium-term, and long-term form by looking for the intended or assumed
goal, a functional, temporal, and meaningful perspective for the conceptualization
of treatment processes emerges. The functional, temporal, and meaningful perspec
tive emerges because the action framework directs clinical attention to the motiva
tions or goals of the family’s eating disorder actions, whether it is actual eating
disorder actions like the adolescent avoiding meals, or responses by family mem
bers to the eating disorder, such as a sibling feeling neglected and acting out or the
parents arguing over appropriate consequences if the adolescent with anorexia fails
Attending to short, medium, and long-term goals of family members also en
sures the eating disorder actions are understood in the context of the family’s ev
eryday experiences. In the illustration above, we entered Jody’s actual world at the
levels of meaning, emotions, cognitions, behavior and relationships, looking to the
goals of her actions for understanding. Here again, a real strength of contextual
action framework is how naturally it leads to a nonpathologizing and nonblaming
conceptualization that emphasizes hope for change. Interwoven within this concep
tualization is the assumption that people have the capacity for self-direction and are
Weight Restoration as a Parent Project
Helping the adolescent return to a normal pattern of eating that is free from binges
and/ or purges, restricting, and other compensatory actions to off-set caloric in
take is a priority for any therapeutic approach. However, each approach varies in
restoration and normalization of eating is emphasized.
FBT focuses on weight restoration to the exclusion of other issues in the beginning,
while most CBT approaches elect to work on eating and weight goals concurrent
When a contextual action theory framework is used, some of the core features
of weight restoration in FBT can be maintained, such as dealing with the family in
a sincere but grave manner, taking a history of how the eating disorder has been
affecting each family member, educating the family about the seriousness of the
disorder and the difficulty of recovering, and charging the parents with the task of
restoration. However, the use of behavioral principles of change in FBT to
normalize eating habits and restore weight must be broadened to incorporate a view
of human behavior that more closely fits with action theory, and perhaps how most
counselors and clients typically understand human behavior.
The action construct of project, that is, the series of actions sharing a common
goal over a mid-length amount of time, can be used to conceptualize the adoles
cent’s weight restoration and normalization of eating habits. For a time, the weight
restoration project replaces the eating disorder project that had been practiced in
the family before the treatment. The parents’ planning of the weekly meal schedule,
the preparation of meals, the action of eating meals with the adolescent, and the
corresponding post-meal support activities may be considered weight restoration
actions, and several meals and post-meal support activities over time constitute the
soon comes to light that some inconsistency has developed in how Colin’s parents
are following through on the completion of each meal where his mother has been
permitting him to stop eating before finishing all the food. Informed by the action
framework, the counselor is prepared to address the problem at all three levels of
action organization. At the lower levels of action organization, where the action
control and action regulation occur, the counselor reminds the parents about the
principles of behavioral change, and the consequences of variant patterns of rein
forcement. However, the counselor is also interested in processes occurring at the
levels of goal and steering processes, and most importantly, in the meaning behind
the mother’s action. When asked, Colin’s mother shares that she believes her own
struggles with weight, dieting, and poor body image have brought about her son’s
eating disorder. Whenever she demands Colin eat food she herself refuses to eat, she
feels like a hypocrite, and allows Colin to leave the table without finishing the meal
Addressing food refusal
When actions is
understood as goal-directed and mean
ingful, while guided by unconscious behavioral or biological processes, the idea in
FBT of depicting the adolescent as out of control in regards to thinking and feel
ings about food has to be dealt with differently. The counselor would still want to
motivate the parents to remain steadfast in the weight restoration project despite
resistance from the adolescent, but would go about it by helping them understand
their adolescent’s opposition.
In Colin’s situation, the counselor could use the levels of action organization to
explain that when asked to consume a food or food-group he has labeled ‘bad’, Co
lin is going to be feel panicky, frightened, and battle hard against it. These intense
bad feelings about the food are guided on one level by the belief these foods will
make him fat, a state he associates with social exclusion and loss of identity. In the
context of Colin’s eating disorder project, these emotional and cognitive responses
to food are purposeful processes meant to ensure he stays in control and on course
for the goal of weight loss. At the level of meaning, these cognitive, emotional,
and behavioral processes represent how he has made sure he does not become the
target of teasing and fat jokes, experiences he endured on a daily basis in elemen
tary school. Being thin means being accepted by his peer group and feeling sure
of himself. Thus, his weight loss project is closely linked to his identity project
as well as to his project of not being hurt emotionally by his peers. The action of
food restriction has become not only reassuring, but also rewarding for its role in
the service of his ultimate goal. In Colin’s mind, the personal and social cost of
being fat is so undesirable and aversive that he has developed not just an intense
emotional response to the food, but possibly even an automatic negative physiologi
cal aversion to the food itself. These negative cognitions, emotions, and behaviors
constitute some of the processes that have been
steering, controlling, and regulating
Understanding the goal-directed nature of their son’s refusal to eat not only gives
meaning to his opposition, but cultivates empathy and understanding that the parents
may use to guide their own actions in the weight-restoration project. Understanding
their son’s opposition to eating does not change the potency of the behavioral tactics
Colin’s parents are using to re-feed him. Consequences for failing to gain weight,
rewards for gaining, an attitude of nonnegotiation and zero-tolerance for debate
about food, or planning post-meal activities to distract from the discomfort of the
process are all behavioral strategies that can co-exist with the idea of Colin’s eating
Addressing other treatment process issues
Finally, it
is important to discuss how
the action framework holds value for the counselor wishing to address weight res
toration or disorganized eating patterns concurrent to other issues, as might be the
case when a cognitive-behavioral approach is employed. An action theory response
always assumes there are alternative means to achieving the goals valued by the
adolescent other than the eating disorder. An adolescent might belong to a family
where fitness and physical achievement is highly valued, and where thinness has
become equated with parental recognition, approval, and
acceptance. Because eat
ing disorder actions are embedded in a social context, the actions are socially influ
enced and steered. This means others (e.g., parents, siblings, counselors, etc.) have
opportunity to interrupt the development of the eating disorder by influencing long
and short term goals. The adolescent’s goal of making her parents proud and to feel
their support is normal and good, but eating disorder goals working in the service of
these higher-order goals are not. In this situation, the counselor may work with the
family to help them see the problems created for their daughter when fitness is the
only currency she sees for connection and affirmation. Together the family can learn
about and experiment with new ways of affirming one another’s value in the family.
From the perspective of action theory, eating disorders develop over time through
and weight when inferring personal value (Fairburn
; Vitousek and Hollon
. The counselor may work with her to identify the sequence of the key ac
tion steps in the relevant actions and projects. Finally, at the level of the physical
definition of the manifest behavior and the regulation processes, the counselor
may work with Rebecca and her parents on several tasks. For example, they may
plan practical ways the family can help distract Rebecca from urges to binge and
purge, such as being available to talk, to go out for coffee or take walks with
her, or helping to create an easy, relaxed state during food shopping, intake, and
Addressing counseling process issues
Attending to the goal of the eating disor
der actio
n for understanding also carries implications for understanding and work
process issues in addition to some of the specific treatment
processes outlined above. Treatment engagement and the development of a strong
working relationship are particularly important in counseling families for eating
disorders. The action framework can be especially useful in responding to both of
As mentioned above, the action framework leads the counselor to expect and
search for a plurality of motivations (e.g., the reasons for rather than causes of be
havior). This not only situates the counselor to ensure his or her approach engages
adolescents and their families within their socially constructed realities, and in a
way that is contextually meaningful, but naturally steers counseling work away
from unhelpful speculation about causal processes. In this way, the action frame
work can acknowledge and respond to parents’ search for understanding the eating
disorder, but in a way that does not confer blame, which can delay or even derail
Finally, the action theory perspective helps the counselor understand the impor
tance of subsuming the counseling process under the joint project of the client’s
healthy eating. Understanding the counseling process in this way does not elimi
focusing on one of these levels to the exclusion of the others, a very useful tool in
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Chapter 14
Contextual Action Theory Framework
in Counseling Families of Children
Anat Zaidman-Zait and Deirdre Curle
Constantiner School of Education, Tel-A
viv University, Tel-Aviv, Israel
Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
diagnosis of childhood disability can trigger a wide range of emotional and
behavioral responses in parents and across the family system. Following initial
responses to the diagnosis, while concurrently facing the emotional reality of the
diagnosis, parents must undergo a process of adaptation to the various challeng
es uniquely associated with raising a child who has a disability and develop what
we call an appropriate family project. Some of the challenges include increased
caregiving demands, finding and obtaining early intervention services, modifying
communication strategies, medical and educational decision making, working with
professionals across a range of disciplines, learning about technological supports,
working with the child to enhance developmental outcomes, and dealing with addi
tional financial pressures. Beyond the caregiving, teaching, and search for services,
there are also personal ramifications of having a child with a significant disability.
A wealth of research suggests that having a child with disability can have significant
consequences for the family well-being (Rosenbaum and Gorter
). Overall, the
daily challenges and pressures of raising a child with a disability can negatively
affect families’ quality of life. In addition, parents of children with disabilities face
increased stress (Gerstein et
elevated levels of depressive symptoms
(e.g., Montes and Halterman
. At the same time, childhood disability can also
lead to positive outcomes. For example, the experience of having a child with a
disability can provide new insights into family priorities, and may provide a sense
Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to Anat Zaidman-Zait.
of purpose, evoke personal growth, and heighten family functioning and cohesion.
The importance of a family’s well-being in the lives and development of young chil
dren is widely acknowledged. The well-being of parents influences their ability to
provide appropriate care and helps prevent negative outcomes for children (Good
The recognition
of the centrality of the family in the lives and development of
young children (Dunst
; Turnbull and Turnbull
urges professionals to
support family strengths and
needs in order to enhance the well-being of the child
Over the past decades, early intervention programs and community-based ser
vice organizations have increasingly adopted the principles of a family centered
orientation for service delivery (Rosenbaum et
. Family
centered orienta
tion is both a method and
philosophy of service delivery that highlights the role of
the family in the child’s life, and the importance of parents’ accounts of their child’s
. In
addition, it emphasizes the partnership
The family
centered approach highlights the importance of parental involvement
as a fundamental component of early intervention (Turnbull et
cally, it
is desired that parents collaborate with professionals to acquire knowledge
and competencies that allow them to incorporate interventions with their children
outside the therapy session, learn strategies to assist their children in attaining de
velopmental milestones and competences, and help children manage their behavior
. T
al. (
recommended that
family members in family centered programs: (a) share responsibility and work
collaboratively with professionals, (b) join professionals in developing appropriate
outcomes, (c) share information routinely and collaboratively with professionals,
and (d) access relevant information so they can make informed choices and deci
While this philosophy and model for services has established the important role
of families in their child’s intervention services and of the parent–professional
partnership, we suggest Contextual Action Theory (Valach et
framework for
understanding and enhancing the parent–professional joint work and
collaboration. From a Contextual Action Theory perspective, parental involvement
in early intervention is understood as intentional, goal-directed behaviors embed
ded in a social and relational context. This understanding transcends the narrow
lens of parental involvement as a stable trait and individualistic action. It shifts the
focus to a joint dynamic process between the professional, parent, and child that
is intentional and ongoing. Parents’ goals are both prefigured and co-constructed
through their joint interaction process with their children and professionals (Young
and Valach
). Overall, it integrates the components of relations defining
Contextual Action Theory allows professionals to access the complex parents’
emotional cognitive, and communication processes. Often when the main elements
of family centered services are summarized or discussed the necessity and the cen
trality of parents’ emotions and cognitions that are embodied within ongoing indi
vidual and joint intentional actions are neglected. By simply following an interven
tion plan and goals, without inviting and considering parents’ internal processes and
meaning, it is usually insufficient to make progress and achieve the goals. With use
of the action-theory framework, professionals acknowledge the parents’ emotions
and thoughts surrounding their child’s
disabilities, and seek to explore how the par
ents interpret their role in their child’s intervention. Contextual Action theory as a
framework for working with families provides a way for professionals to increase
their understanding of parents’ action from multiple perspectives (i.e., manifest be
havior, internal cognitive-emotive processes, and social meaning). In addition it
can contribute to professionals’ practices of service delivery, and in particular, their
interaction and collaboration with families while implementing a family centered
Contextual Action Theory is viewed as an epistemology for understanding hu
man activity in context (Young et
. Contextual
Action theory contains a
system of knowing that underlines the notion that knowledge and meaning are pro
), and as such, it is an
alternative approach
to observing parents’ and children’s behaviors in the context
of their daily life, looking at the processes through which parents construct mean
ing. It contributes to the understanding of how people organize themselves, both
individually and jointly, around the task of parenting a child with a disability. It
also extends the notion of the parent–professional relationship to one that focuses
on construction of meaningful processes and outcomes through joint actions and
projects (Zaidman-Zait and Young
Contextual Action Theory can be considered an integrative framework—a spe
cific way of understanding human emotional, cognitive, behavioral and relational
processes. It is based on the premise that human behavior is intentional and goal
directed, and that is the way people understand their own and other’s behavior (Va
. When
actions coalesce into a common goal over a length of time,
). Contextual
Theory integrates two fundamental features of effective early intervention
services. The first feature is based on supportive relationships between the fam
ily’s members and the professionals, as well as the professionals and the organiza
tion they work for. The second feature is the adaptation of goal orientation that
encompasses both joint goal setting and the pursuit of meaningful, client-selected
. In summary, Contextual Action Theory provides a new way to
understand the complexity and intentionality of
parents’ and children’s joint action
in the context of the rehabilitation and intervention process in collaboration with
professionals (Zaidman-Zait and Young
In the current chapter, we explore the ways in which Contextual Action Theory
can make a novel contribution to intervention with families of children with disabil
ities. First, we present a hypothetical narrative of a family of a child with a
who is taking part in an intervention service delivery program. Next, we discuss the
case as an example for embedding a Contextual Action Theory framework in early
intervention services for families of children with disabilities. Specifically, we ask
the following questions:
What is early intervention with families of children with
disabilities about? What meaning does it have for parents and professionals, and
towards what end does it lead?
Last, we present possible steps and suggestions for
implementing Contextual Action Theory in practice.
Family Narrative from an Action Theory Framework
The narrative of a mother, presented next, is hypothetical case. However, it is based
on many narratives we have collected from parents of children with multiple dis
Karen and Steve have two children, a daughter, age 4 and a son, age 6. Their
daughter, Adrienne, was born prematurely at 25 weeks gestation. She sustains a
bilateral profound hearing loss, and was also diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 12
months. She was not able to eat orally, and was fed through a gastronomy feeding
tube. Adrienne received hearing aids at 3 months, shortly after her hearing loss was
confirmed through auditory brainstem response testing (ABR). She underwent sur
gery to received bilateral cochlear
implants at 13 months. Karen and Steve consid
ered the decision to implant carefully. They met with the members of the cochlear
implant team at their local children’s hospital, which included an audiologist, sur
geon, psychologist, and speech-language pathologist. They searched and read many
h/week. Karen followed
similar approach to each therapy, taking notes during the therapy sessions to
help her recall the techniques used by the therapists, and keeping a journal at
home to track Adrienne’s progress in physical skills, language
skills, and feeding
Adrienne’s multiple needs and frequent therapies affected the relationships
within the family. Karen felt guilty that she was not spending enough time with
Jacob, her son. In addition, the financial costs affected the family’s well-being. The
upgrade to a new cochlear implant processor was not covered by their insurance,
and the family had to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket. Karen quit her job
to stay home and care for Adrienne in order to meet her medical needs and attend
her frequent appointments. This required the family to live on one income. Karen
explained that her marriage sometimes felt more like a “business relationship than
a romantic relationship”, and although they tried to spend time alone together, she
and Steve were reluctant to leave the children in the care of others, partly out of
concern for Adrienne’s medical needs, and partly because they feel guilty about
spending money on themselves when it could go toward paying bills. The couple
received little support from other family members. Although Steve’s parents were
sympathetic to their needs, they were unable to help, as they lived in a different
region of the country. Karen’s parents lived within an hour’s drive. However, Karen
did not feel that she could rely on her parents for help with the children. She indi
cated that she and Steve had different values than her parents, and described her
mother as being “harsh”. Her parents, she said, are uncomfortable with Adrienne’s
disabilities, and Karen did not trust her mother to provide adequate care and super
Although these challenges existed, Karen and Steve were buoyed by their spiri
tual faith and by their church
community. Karen and Steve attended services reg
ularly, and found solace in scripture reading and prayer. Members of the church
invited Karen and the children for play dates, made meals for the family during
Adrienne’s surgeries, and were a source of sympathy and emotional support for the
The above narrative portrays some of the flavor of parenting a child with a
ability and the ways in which parents are involved in the daily intervention and
promotion of their child’s development. It is also indicates of a number of impor
tant dimensions of parenting children with disabilities that can be analyzed from a
Contextual Action Theory. First, parents are actively involved in the rehabilitation
process of their children. Second, parents engage in day-to-day planned behaviors
over time, envisioning an end-result for their child. Third, these behaviors have
meaning for parents and are embedded within parents’ internal
emotions and cognitions. Fourth, parents’ actions do not occur in a vacuum. Rather,
project was to promote their daughter’s communication and physical abilities,
in order for the daughter eventually to be mainstreamed in society as much as
possible. The father saw his role as provider for the family, and left much of the
child care and therapies to his spouse. The mother participated in focused and
planned activities with her daughter, and drew others into this project, for ex
ample, professionals and the child’s father. The mother’s dedication to the project
was steered by hopes and expectations for the child. In addition, this project was
values, which was about making a full com
mitment to her children. At the level of functional steps, the mother engaged in
time-consuming tasks to make informed decisions, such as seeking information
about the best intervention approaches, finding and scheduling therapies, and
working with her child on communication, motor skills, and feeding skills. With
regards to promoting her child’s outcome, she also had a joint project with the
professionals who were involved in her child’s rehabilitation. For example, the
mother intentionally chose the auditory verbal therapy approach, which focuses
on developing listening and spoken language skills for children with hearing
loss. At the level of meaning, this contributed to the establishment of a coopera
project of the mother and the professional. They met weekly for 1
In each session they discussed Adrienne’s progress, Karen’
s observations in the
home environment, and worked on two to three specific auditory or language
skills per session. This ongoing communication enhanced the jointly constructed
In Karen’s case, an example of a joint project between the parent and profes
sional was to bring Adrienne’s language skills to the level of her same-age hearing
peers. The language goals were written into the Individualized Family Service Plan
(IFSP), a document that is used by early intervention agencies to establish goals for
the child and family, and to track progress toward those goals. As part of Adrienne’s
therapy, Karen was asked to
videotape herself playing with Adrienne at home, and
incorporate some of the therapist’s suggestions to increase Adrienne’s vocabulary.
However, the play session did not go as Karen had hoped. Adrienne was highly dis
tracted and unengaged in the play activity. Karen brought the videotape to the thera
pist and expressed her frustration with the activity. The auditory–verbal therapist
viewed the tape with her, and used the “self-confrontation procedure”
that is, stopping the videotape at regular intervals and asking Karen to comment
feelings, and actions at the time of the interaction. In this process,
attention to the actions between the two of them. Through this process Karen real
ized how Adrienne was disengaging from play when the language tasks became
The relationship between Karen and the auditory–verbal therapist was open,
honest and emotionally sensitive, and supported Karen’s ongoing
coping with for
the care of a child with multiple disabilities. The therapist’s goal was to educate
and guide Karen on ways to expand Adrienne’s language skills. This project re
lated to the therapist’s own project as her identity as a family centered therapist.
Karen’s goal was to learn these therapy methods to use them in the home during
their daily family activities and routine, that is, family meals, play time, bath time,
and so forth. The parent–professional joint project enhanced Karen’s skills in
stimulating her daughter’s language and auditory development, making her more
confident in her parenting, and giving her hope, as she observed her daughter
Intervention Steps from Contextual Action Theory
al. (
) identified primary therapeutic tasks from an action theory per
spective including, creating and maintaining a working alliance, helping the client
link therapy and life processes, helping the client identify systems and levels of
projects and actions, helping the client to deal with emotion, and helping the client
search for optimal goals, strategies, and regulation processes in his or her relevant
on-going processes. These tasks are used as the basis for the following discussion
Creating and Maintaining a Working Alliance
In many early intervention programs, there is an emphasis on family centeredness.
However, early intervention therapists and teachers typically receive little training
in their preparation programs on the family centered approach versus the client-
centered approach (Campbell et
. In order to work ef
fectively with parents,
it is important for professionals to identify and consider the goal-directed processes
parents, and establish a joint project with them that on one end focuses on
their relationships and on the other end focuses on the desired outcomes for the
child and other on-going family’s projects. Viewing this working
alliance through
the lens of action theory as a goal-directed process and joint project can help guide
the professional’s role and decision-making while supporting the family. A success
ners, invites opportunities from both parties for narratives and
feedback. Partners
can then engage in the goal regulation process, to alter steps toward the goals, or
Embedded in the identification of the parent’s goals, it is important to invite the
parent’s internal process, that is,
cognition, emotion, and meaning, to the dialogue.
Parents of children with disabilities typically experience grief, anger, and fear for
their child’s safety and future. These internal processes may inhibit or spur the par
ent’s involvement in the intervention and therapies and care for the child. Acknowl
edgement of internal processes will help guide the professional in finding resources
for the parent. For example, in Karen’s case, each therapy session began with a time
for “check in”, when the auditory-verbal therapist asked Karen how the week went,
what therapy activities she and the child practiced, and how life was for the family,
in general. In light of their on-going parent–professional relationship
project, Karen
felt comfortable to ask questions and report on the success or difficulties of the
various therapy tasks she and Adrienne had engaged in. She also expressed specific
on-going emotions such as her fear about the transition from early intervention to
kindergarten. As a result of the on-going communication and the elicitation of inter
nal processes, the therapist referred Karen to a workshop on navigating the public
school system, which gave Karen the opportunity to learn ways to advocate for her
daughter, and provided her with contacts to other parents. The workshop experience
helped allay Karen’s fears, and gave her more confidence. By engaging Karen in the
steering process of her on-going projects by inviting her thoughts about the therapy,
as well as inviting her internal processes, the parent/professional working alliance
Inviting parents’ extensive personal and familial narratives bridge early interven
tion services to ongoing meaningful life processes. This practice also recognizes
the importance of embedding steps toward goals and projects within the context of
the family’s daily life. It also aligns closely with early intervention programs that
focus on delivering services in the child’s natural environment, such as the home
or daycare, rather than the clinical environment (Childress
; Dunst and Bruder
and recognizes the importance of therapy to daily life and family on-going
routines for the purpose of generalization and maintenance of treatment outcomes,
Narrative and
from the parent guides the professional by suggesting
outcomes for the child
can be incorporated into the family’s other on-going projects. In the current case
example, the auditory–verbal therapist learned about Karen’s on-going projects and
embedded them in the intervention processes. In addition, the therapist, who saw
Adrienne and Karen at a clinic, frequently asked questions about Karen’s daily rou
tine, identifying functional steps she employed to reach her goals, and brainstorm
ing with Karen language-based activities that she could engage with Adrienne. For
example, as part of Karen’s project to maintain a “typical” family life routine and
not to be overwhelmed by intervention demands, it was Karen’s goal to leave time
to relax and play with both of her kids as a “typical” family, rather than performing
the role of teacher throughout the whole day. The auditory-verbal therapist worked
with Karen on planning ways to highlight vocabulary during play, so that the joint
project of increasing Adrienne’s language skills could be addressed in a less struc
tured way that did not conflict with Karen’s other goal of having fun “normal”
In addition, by recognizing her relationship project with her other son, the thera
pist could plan different activities at the home setting that invite the brother’s par
ticipation. Recognizing the range of on-going projects in Karen’s life helped to
make the therapy process meaningful, optimized her engagement and involvement
in her child’s therapy, and enhanced her cooperative on-going joint project with the
therapist. From the therapist’s perspective, it allowed her to support the mother’s
project and to tailor a flexible therapy plan that potentially could be changed as new
projects emerge in the family context. The importance of linking therapy to life
processes also aligns with ecocultural theory perspective (Weisner
posits that families actively construct activity settings that are compatible with their
children’s characteristics, consistent with family goals and values, and sustainable
over time. Linking therapy to life processes privileges parents’ epistemological po
sitions by enabling them to reflect on their personal and social meaning and their
thoughts and feelings through their intentional engagement in projects. Parents im
plicitly or explicitly can answer the question, “What is this (action) about?” (Young
. Parents understand and engage with their
children in joint activities that
they consider goal directed and meaningful, and they interpret their own and their
child’s behavior as intentional and goal directed (Zaidman-Zait and Young
theory integrates meaning, cognitive processes, and behavior in a way that is
close to the human experience and is, thus, highly usable in intervention. It can help
families understand the intervention process, as it is situated within daily contexts,
as well as understand how ongoing actions serve to construct successful outcomes
Identifying Systems and Levels of Projects and Action
A central task of the intervention is the
identification of the systems, goals, and
projects in the family’s life. Parents’ engagement and involvement in the interven
goals, functional steps, and elements. This process is also been regulated by the
child’s behavior and characteristics and the parent’s available resources and internal
processes. This goal regulation process occurs over time and moment-by-moment
Parent narratives are an inherent part of the ongoing identification processes and
are also helpful in generating a good parent–professional relationship by providing
a framework in which issues and related emotions can be addressed. However, this
approach does not rely simply on narrative; it also relies on observations. Hence we
recommend using observations and the “self-confrontation procedure”
the identification of on-going action in family interactions. Videotaping parent–
child interactions has been used by speech-language therapists in communication
training, such as the Hanen Program®, to coach parents in adapting their conversa
tion to facilitate language development in their child (Pennington and Thomson
. However, Contextual Action Theory takes this technique a step further, and
examines not only the use of language facilitation techniques, but also the meaning
and internal processes of the communication interaction. A video recording can be
taken by the parents while interacting with their child at home or during a therapy
session. This recording then can be jointly reviewed by the parent and the profes
sional, with the parent stopping the videotape whenever she wants to comment on
what is taking place. Alternatively, the therapist stops the videotape at regular in
tervals and explicitly encourages the parent to express her thoughts,
feelings, and
comment on her actions at the time of the interaction. The video recall interview is
the time best suited to address the parents’ feelings and emotions, particularly those
that are differentiated and processed cognitively and through language (Greenberg
. However, the professional must also be attentive to preconscious, physiolog
ical experiences that may manifest themselves in non-verbal behavior. For example,
grabbing a toy from Adrienne’s hand indicated that Karen was not following Adri
enne’s lead. Ongoing attention to emotions and feelings contribute significantly to
For exam
ple, the auditory–verbal therapist suggested that Karen place Adrienne in
a half-day preschool 4 days/week to increase her exposure to peers with typically
language. However, with three other weekly therapy appointments for
that she could do this, as it conflicted with her goal to spend more time with her
son, as well as her joint project with her husband to focus on paying down the fam
ily’s debt. The therapist and Karen then discussed other cost-free ways to increase
Adrienne’s exposure to
peers, such as church-based children’s groups, and play
dates with the children of friends and relatives. By identifying the family’s projects
and can steer both negative and positive processes. Hence it is important to
explore parents’ emotions as part of the intervention process. Professionals who
work with the family of a child with special needs must be aware of these cycling
emotions and be open to discussing the family’s feelings about the child’s excep
Emotions also influence meaning-making. For example, a parent’s involvement
in therapy activities can be driven by the joy of engaging with their child, and seeing
her progress toward established goals. On the other hand, frustrations around the
child’s lack of progress and undesirable behaviors pose a challenge for the project’s
progress. In addition, emotions function as a steering process, guiding and directing
actions. Further, emotions also function in the self-
regulation of behavior (Zaid
man-Zait and Young
). Professionals may feel that they only have a limited
amount of time with the child during their scheduled sessions, and may reluctant
to use that time to invite the parent’s narrative; however, it must be recognized that
the family’s emotions will influence the carry over therapeutic goals into the home
environment; if the parent feels depressed, for example, he may avoid spending
time with his child. Professionals who are aware of the parents’ emotional state and
their on-going projects can help the family frame their thoughts and
feelings as part
of the goal-directed process. For example, when Karen openly discussed with the
auditory–verbal therapist her anger toward her mother for not being more nurtur
ing, she recognized that her mother was, in fact, trying to be helpful by offering to
take Adrienne so that Karen could spend more time with Jacob. This process led
Karen to reconstruct her perspective and become more accepting of her mother’s
offer to help her. As described by Rosenbaum and Gorter (
as the ‘generational
sandwich’, grandparental voices are another contextual factor that can powerfully
influence parents of children with disabilities, and hence, should be asked about and
understood. Addressing emotion also turns our attention to the emotional memories
that are actualized in the current project and actions, such as feelings of guilt,
competency, being stigmatized, or being punished, which may influence the
to act in a detrimental manner.
To summarize, adopting a Contextual Action Theory perspective that examines
parents’ behaviors in the context of their daily life is needed to improve profes
sional practice with families of children with disabilities. We believe Contextual
Action Theory offers potential as an established integrative and conceptual frame
work with a distinctive, relational view, on implementing family centered services
and enhancing professionals’ work with families. The theory can guide early inter
vention professionals in creating and maintaining parent–professional relationships
and joint actions. Professionals can address the ongoing needs of the child and
family by observing individual and joint actions, identifying systems and levels
of projects and actions. Throughout the therapy process they can merge therapy
actions and life processes, helping parents to recognize emotions and thoughts that
they are experiencing, and helping them to establish optimal goals, strategies, and
regulation processes to. This in turn will strengthen families by increasing their
awareness of their own actions and goals, supporting their needs and enhancing
Bailey, D. B., & Bruder, M. B. (2005). Family outcomes of early intervention and early child
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Prevention Science
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Hostler, S. L. (Ed.). (1994).
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ville: Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center.
Jones, N. A., Field, T., & Davalos, M. (2000). Right frontal EEG asymmetry and lack of empathy
in preschool children of depressed mothers.
King, G. (2009). A relational goal-oriented model of optimal service delivery to children and fami
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with cerebral palsy and their families: A review of the literature.
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ogy, 11,
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havioral assessment with families of children with developmental disabilities.
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ing children’s cochlear implantation: An action theory perspective.
Chapter 15
The Action of Mindfulness in Counseling
Brenda Yaari Dyer
Springer New York 2015
Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Experiencing mindfulness, whether explicitly in a clinical intervention such as
mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), or implicitly through the relationship
between mindful clinician and
client, can be seen as a process of paying attention
to one’s embodied experience in a curious and nonjudgmental
way. In a therapeutic
context, this process is relational, dialogical, and goal-directed: we pay kind atten
tion to self and other in the midst of, and through, language-based relating. Thus,
the joint action of mindfulness, while on one level experienced privately and indi
vidually, on another level, is constituted in the
intersubjective space and is manifest
dialogue. When we observe how mindful
ness may be taught, learned, and experienced in a counseling relationship, it is pos
sible to view mindfulness as an interpersonal phenomenon with goals, verbal and
non-verbal behavioral elements, and social meanings—in other words, as a joint
tion and project. Understanding mindfulness from the contextual-action theoretical
perspective helps to explain its potential role in counseling
psychology, particularly
It can be said that
mindfulness, defined as paying attention on purpose and with
out judgment (Kabat-Zinn
, is relevant to all the helping professions: counsel
ing, medicine, social work, and education. This cultivation of attention, intention
and nonjudgment appears to promote well-being (Baer
; Hoff
man et
. Germer
classified mindfulness-oriented psychotherapy
into three types: mindfulness-based therapy, in which mindfulness is taught formal
ly through
meditation exercises, the mindful therapist whereby mindfulness acts as
a common factor, and mindfulness-informed therapy in which the underlying philo
sophical principles of mindfulness such impermanence and
acceptance are taught
indirectly through relational process. In this chapter, I take up the latter type identi
fied by Germer, that of mindfulness-informed
therapy. However, I also propose that
not only are the philosophical principles of mindfulness taught through relational
process, but also the components of mindfulness itself—attention,
intention, and
B. Y. Dyer
nonjudgment. The mindful counselor attends to the client’s experience with com
passionate curiosity, drawing the client into a joint attentional process, that is, a
action, which we can call mindfulness. The therapeutic goal of this type of
movement is that over time, the client becomes more and more able to relate to her
own experience in the same kind, patient, attentive way that the counselor and client
The negotiation of goals within the working alliance of counseling is an inter
esting process when the theory of change is an acceptance-based one such as in
mindfulness-oriented counseling. The client may come to counseling with goals of
eradicating what is painful or ugly in her life, assuming that in order to change, she
needs to learn new ways to push away and get rid of the problem, whether these
so-called problems are external, such as an annoying person, or internal, such as
one’s fear of that person. The client may be puzzled by the mindful counselor’s
invitation to move closer to what is painful and undesirable. In this chapter, I pres
ent a contextual action theoretical framework for mindfulness, and mindfulness-
informed counseling first, and then demonstrate, through a clinical example, how
the jointness of mindfulness-informed counseling action becomes manifest even
when the counselor and client begin with different theories of and goals for change.
In unpacking the vignette, contextual action theory is referenced as a tool for iden
tifying the target processes of teaching and learning mindfulness, addressing the
outcomes. The relevance of contextual action theory for investigating relational,
Mindfulness and Contextual Action Theory
First of all, how do we construe mindfulness itself to be an action? Its ontology
has eluded Buddhist scholars and Western psychological researchers alike. Western
researchers have primarily understood and defined mindfulness as an individual
. In a seminal outcome study
on the use of mindfulness in chronic pain manage
ment, mindfulness was defined as a “highly developed, coherent, systematic and
multimodal utilization of attention” (p.
165). In extant literature,
it is rare to view
mindfulness in its simplest terms as an action. Indeed, a common image of a medita
tor would probably be a sedate contemplative rather than a person of action. Even
more, some of the basic mindfulness exercises call for paying attention to one’s
A common conceptualization of mindfulness is as a set of mental skills or atti
tudes which are then applied to action. And indeed, one of the purposes of mindful
meditation as it is practiced in various schools of Buddhism is the eventual cul
tivation of a particular kind of
ethical action in our life, so-called “right action” and
“right speech.” Through mindfulness practice, we work to interrupt and eventually
The Action of Mindfulness in Counseling
undo harmful habitual thought and behavior patterns and thus gain liberation from
the suffering caused by unconscious action. Through the contemplative practice of
Another way of conceptualizing mindfulness, however, is not a separate men
tal attitude, or set of mental “skills”, that precedes action, but as an action itself,
which includes not only behavior but thoughts,
logically, this has been taken up by Depraz et
al. (
of mindfulness, which they describe as an emotional, cognitive, and physiological
“leaning towards.” Not a mindful gesture, but the gesture of mindfulness; not a
mindful action, but the action of mindfulness. This may seem like a moot philo
sophical point, but it becomes practically relevant when we turn to understanding
how mindfulness may be constructed relationally in the actual process of counsel
ing dialogue. The overt teaching of the “how” and “what” of mindfulness through
verbal didactic instruction is one way mindfulness is taught and learned, as in the
meditation instruction in MBSR and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT),
and the exercises of dialectical-behavior therapy (DBT). At the same time, I suggest
that a complex, joint, and contingent intersubjective action of mindfulness may take
place between the mindful counselor and the client in counseling dialogue,
can be observed, described and understood through the lens of contextual action
theory, and its associated qualitative method of inquiry, the action-project method.
At the core of contextual action theory is the ontological understanding of human
experience being comprised of goal-oriented intentional action (Young et
is also an important concept within Buddhist psychology, and
a primary feature of mindfulness. In fact it is a factor that seems to bridge the vari
ous definitions of mindfulness. For example,
expanded on their
operational definition of mindfulness, explaining that the first component, attention,
is “an intentional effort to observe and gain a greater understanding of the nature
of thoughts and feelings” and the second component,
acceptance, involves “a con
scious decision to abandon one’s agenda to have a different experience” (p.
Similarly, Germer (
) said that mindfulness always includes an intention to
direct attention somewhere. He described the advanced practice of mindfulness,
choiceless awareness, in which attention moves without attachment among the
changing elements of experience: “Even choiceless awareness includes intention,
in this case, the intention not to choose, but to stay aware of where our attention
resides” (p.
16). In a compelling
model of the mechanisms of mindfulness, Shapiro
posited intention as one of three main components. It may be useful
to compare the place of intention in
Buddhist and Western
investigate the possibility of mindfulness as, first and foremost, a phenomenon of
I am positing that mindfulness may be enacted through counseling dialogue. It was observed to
be enacted through the Dialogue and Inquiry component of MBSR, a dialogue between mindful
ness teacher and participants which are typically conducted after participants do the formal medi
B. Y. Dyer
Olendzki (
contended that in order to understand mindfulness, one needs
to understand the historical setting of mindfulness and its philosophical underpin
nings in Buddhist psychology. He outlined the Buddhist understanding of the most
elemental unit of human experience as comprised of five interdependent factors:
247). It is associated
rather than knowing. When one makes a choice to move or speak, for ex
ample, intention manifests as action. Intention thus includes the notion of choice or
volition, but, paradoxically, is often initiated habitually or even sometimes uncon
sciously. He went on to explain, “A disposition to respond, mentally or behaviorally,
to circumstances in a characteristic or patterned way is an expression of a subtle,
passive influence of intention”
247). This is because
of the Buddhist notion of
karma, which is the understanding that a person is continually shaped by his or her
previous actions. “It is from the background of accumulated patterns that intentions,
perceptions and feelings in the next moment are shaped. Every action is thus con
ditioned by all former actions and every action also has an effect on all subsequent
action” (p.
248). Thus our volit
ional actions spring from habituated dispositions
and learned behaviors. Even so, intention is an “active and creative function that
has a great impact on how the moment’s experience is organized and presented by
A major
influence on the Western psychological understanding of intentional
ity is that of the phenomenologist, Husserl who claimed that consciousness is
tentional, which does not mean deliberate or willful, “but sheerly a directedness
towards the external object and an openness to the world” (Depraz
Richardson (
) went on to explain the notion of intentionality as being neces
sarily tied to socio-cultural meaning: “intentions … are associated with the con
struction of meaning in that they are understood in relation to the interpretive and
symbolic systems provided by culture” (p.
487). She drew from
cultural psychol
in her view of intention and action as one unit, with intention
referring to the state of consciousness comprising directedness toward the world,
and action comprising what a person might actually do. This echoes the
notion of intention as an attitude taken toward experience, associated with doing
In order to continue to position mindfulness within contextual action theory, we
turn again to the notion of mindfulness as a goal-directed
action, and also poten
tially a joint
action, and project. In what ways can mindfulness be construed as
goal-directed? Bishop et
al. (
say that “much cognition occurs in the service of
goals” (p.
236) and that our
thoughts and behaviors function in a goal-oriented way
to reduce the discrepancy between what is and what is desired. According to them,
mindfulness, on the other hand, “teaches us to disengage from goals” (p.
However, there is
surely the immediate goal of paying attention to present experi
ence. Further, Shapiro et
al. (
spoke of the superordinate goals in Buddhism of
enlightenment and compassion for all beings, and Shapiro (
found that medi
The Action of Mindfulness in Counseling
tation practitioners had goals of self-
regulation, self-exploration and self-liberation.
Clients of mindfulness-based clinical interventions may be advised to let go of their
goals of feeling better or more relaxed (Kabat-Zinn
, but
must commit to the goal of dropping these goals and instead attending to their pres
ent-moment experience. Kabat-Zinn referred to this emphasis on nonattachment to
outcome “a radical departure from most clinical interventions” (p.
148). Yet while
embodies nonattachment to outcome, it still is initiated intentionally
and with the goal of present awareness.
In action theory, action is conceptualized as having social meaning (Young et
). Although mindfulness
may appear to be the private experience of an indi
vidual while he or she is meditating or engaged in a mindfulness exercise, as it is
practiced in relationship, it becomes a richly social enterprise. In this case, rela
tional connection becomes the object of mindfulness (Surrey
). There are other
possible social meanings for actions of mindfulness, depending on the practitioner
and his or her context. For example, achieving therapeutic goals involves socially
sanctioned views of mental
socially negotiated “ideal” or spiritual qualities such as compassion, wisdom, or
Further, mindfulness is not only an intentional goal-directed action with social
meaning, but can be viewed as action performed
, that is, as a project.
structed as having common goals, over a midterm period of time” (p.
217). Mind
fulness is
not a one-time action. In spiritual circles, it is referred to as a
which involves formal daily sitting but also an intention to be mindful in daily life
activities. The action of mindfulness, then, is repeated each time—hundreds or
thousands of times—
). Mindfulness can be construed as a joint ac
in its traditional context of students practicing mindfulness meditation within a
close relationship with a spiritual teacher and a
community. Another way in which
mindfulness can form a joint action or project is in counseling. Surrey (
ited “relational mindfulness” as part of the therapeutic alliance, whereby “both the
therapist and patient are working with the intention to deepen awareness of the
present relational experience, with acceptance” (p.
92). She described a
B. Y. Dyer
therapist as gradually and organically inviting the client into mindfulness, without
While the therapist’s focus remains on the experience of the patient, both patient and thera
pist are engaging in a collaborative process of mutual attentiveness and mindfulness in and
through relational joining… This view of therapy as co-meditation offers new possibilities
for the therapeutic enterprise. Through the relationship, the therapist offers the patient the
possibility of staying emotionally present with the therapist, perhaps staying with diffi
cult feelings for “one more moment”… Psychotherapy becomes mindfulness practice, and
The suggestion that mindfulness can become, in the
psychotherapy or counseling
framework, a collaborative process highlights the possibility of mindfulness as
both joint and goal-directed, in other words, a joint project in itself, or perhaps a
step of a wider or super-ordinate project within the working alliance.
This joint action and project of mindfulness can be understood within a wider
theoretical context of relational psychotherapy, and what we have learned about
the psychotherapeutic importance of the present moment, and here-and-now pro
attunement and attachment (Siegel
. Viewing mindful
ness, then, as an intentional goal-directed action which can form a project, and
a joint project, helps to set this phenomenon within a dynamic context over time
and invites the exploration of its potentially social aspects in such a context as
The Joint Action of Mindfulness in Counseling
How might contextual action theory conceptualize counseling clients dealing with
problems sensitive to mindfulness? It may be no exaggeration than most problems
that clients bring to counseling may be appropriately addressed through a mindful
The range of issues sensitive to mindfulness-based therapy
is vast. Mindfulness has been implemented in various treatment programs for such
anxiety, depression relapse prevention, eating dis
orders, chronic pain, borderline personality
disorder, insomnia, substance
anger management, relational conflict (Shapiro and Carlson
). The efficacy
of mindfulness-based interventions such as MBSR, MBCT, DBT, and acceptance
and commitment therapy (ACT) has been summarized in several reviews and meta-
analyses (Baer
; Hoffman
Further, there
is the view that mindful awareness may be fundamental to all therapy
. The question then becomes more broadly, what are
the primary processes involved in teaching, learning and experiencing mindfulness
in the counseling context? Contextual action theory offers a way of investigating
There are some exceptions. The contra-indications for formal mindfulness practice are an area
The Action of Mindfulness in Counseling
dialogue, I investigated the joint
actions of the dialogue component of an MBSR
course (Dyer
Contextual action theory and action project method provided a
framework and tools for identifying the target processes of mindfulness as they were
manifest relationally. These processes were particular to the psycho-educational
format of the single-case study of an 8-week MBSR program. However, since they
were based on the dyadic exchanges between MBSR teacher and students which
often approximated micro-counseling processes,
the study serves as an illustrative
example of how contextual action theory may be helpful as a tool for identifying
target processes in mindfulness-informed counseling.
The joint action processes identified and described in the findings of the study
were first, two super-ordinate joint projects of mindfulness and relationship, and
insight, compas
sion and connection. These sub-ordinate joint projects are best understood as
steps in the process of learning and experiencing mindfulness. In the
vignette that follows, contextual action theory is the guiding framework for iden
tifying and understanding these joint processes. What is of interest is how these
actions occur relationally, through the dialogue. The enactment of mindfulness is
information or skill-instruction. The
counselor did not simply tell the client to be mindful, or to accept his
pain. They
worked together, in a goal-directed and joint process, to illuminate the sensory,
emotional and cognitive lived inner experience of meeting pain with
and self-compassion, and the linguistic expressions (manifest behavior) of this
movement. Furthermore, the counselor embodied and modeled nonjudgmental
I would like to recognize the contributions of the participants of the research study from which
the case vignette for this chapter was taken. In addition, I am grateful to Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada (Canada Graduate Scholarship) and the Mind and Life
Institute (Francisco Varela Grant), for their generous financial support.
Kabat-Zinn (
) states that MBSR is not therapy, but rather, is an educative process. The facili
tator of the MBSR group of my study was not a counselor. However, many of the micro-processes
in the dyadic exchanges of the group would be familiar in a counseling context. For the purposes
of this chapter, I have named the two participants in the dyad as counselor and client.
B. Y. Dyer
project can be seen as a suboptimal life project, since it really hasn’t worked, hence
his desire to try a different approach. The counselor wanted to teach him another
way of working with the pain—mindfulness—which paradoxically invited him to
come closer to the pain rather than push it away. So we can see a joint mindfulness
project, which at first glance seems at odds with the client’s “getting-rid-of-pain
project.” (Since this is a chronic issue in his life, we might even call it his pain ca
reer, in contextual action theory terms). Importantly, there was also a joint relation
project, a strong working alliance in which both parties admired and respected
each other, and in which the client felt supported to try a paradoxical, new, and by
no means easy, approach to finding a solution to his pain.
In the following excerpt, the client started off speaking generally, conceptually,
and even melodramatically, and the counselor assisted him in “retelling” his story
in a bottom-up, body-focused narrative. She achieved her goal of teaching mindful
ness through dialogue by using such elements as “asks for body sensation” “asks for
cognition” “asks for emotion” “asks for clarification.” She responded to his experi
ence with a nonjudgmental present-moment curiosity about his thoughts,
sensations. A kind of scaffolding communication ensued with the counselor
gently leading the participant into verbalizing his
embodied experience. Their joint
Client: Whereas I try to focus on all the things that are working but it actually stirred
it up, stirred up the feeling of being really, um, old and feeling like a victim and
focusing on the pain. So I got really frustrated with it. But frustrated with myself
too that I couldn’t manage it…. Because I’ve trained myself to, not to ignore it
Client: Yeah.
Client: Yeah, it was.
Client: Um, the story’s been about, um, “is it going to get worse?”
We see the counselor taking a nonjudgmental curious approach to the client’s expe
Counselor… Just the sensation, just the bare sensation. What’s going on there, with
out the story, just the sensation of it.
Counselor: Ok. But isn’t that the story as well?
Client: Yeah.
Counselor: Ok. The actual feeling, the actual sensation in the body. What is it?
Client: (pause) Apprehension, anxiety.
Counselor: Ok, apprehension and anxiety, those are the emotions that are coming.
Good. But that’s still not… I’m guessing that’s still not the actual feeling. The
actual feeling that stirs it up. What pushes that button?
The Action of Mindfulness in Counseling
Here the counselor gently drew the client into approaching his pain, noticing it with
gentle kindness (joint functional step of attention). He had stated a few minutes
prior that he was not able to look at this painful experience—“nope, not going to do
Counselor: Ok. So the pain. Can… it’s really a hard thing to ask you to do, but it
really is an important thing, is to be with the pain. (client sighs). Be with the
pain and notice that it arises in the body. And just notice that. Notice that and it’s
really good that you’re noticing the story as well. So keep a tab on that too. But
see if you can separate the one from the other. Just see if you can look at the one
without the story. (client sighs).
In the counselor’s self-confrontation
interview, she watched this excerpt from the
dialogue and commented that while she was relating with the client, she was paying
attention. Her action was energized by curiosity in these moments rather
than empathy per se and while her goal appeared to be to stay present and respon
Researcher: And as you’re listening to him and noticing how he is struggling, how
Counselor: Hmm. Not exactly empathy. It’s more… not really cognitive, but more
conceptual somehow, I’m paying careful, careful attention, I’m staying present
with him and each comment, at the same time somehow deciding what the best
way to respond is. But it isn’t really a decision, it just comes… like from some
other place. It’s not emotional. It’s more… noticing, attending, wondering, stay
In the client’s self-confrontation interview of this same minute, he identified that
he felt met by her.
Client: Well, I felt really heard and understood by her. She really got connection
with where I was and where I was feeling it. That’s what I felt anyway. And, um,
I find when she kind of interacts with me with those kinds of questions it helps
me clarify even what I’m experiencing because some parts of it I don’t know
Presumably the counselor’s “careful, careful attention” to his experience contrib
uted to his feeling heard. Another way of phrasing this would be that he felt noticed.
The client reports that she helped him clarify even what he is experiencing. In re
defined relational
attunement as contingent communication which
is more than just perceiving the verbal and nonverbal signals of the other, but also
the ability to allow one’s state of mind to be influenced by that of the other, so that
one “feels felt” by the other. In this moment of the clinical vignette, we see how the
joint superordinate action of mindfulness includes sub-ordinate actions (or more
precisely, functional steps) of
attention, language and connection. One of the foun
dational functional steps of mindfulness is attention: noticing with gentle kindness.
In the counseling relationship, it is not only the counselor who pays kind attention
to the client’s experience. It is not a uni-directional action. It becomes joint as the
B. Y. Dyer
client joined the counselor and together they paid kind attention to his experience.
The client was also paying attention to the counselor, as he explained in his self-
… I really pay attention to her interactions … She kind of reflects it back to me and that
helps me sort it out…In the way that she gives no answers but she asks questions. I actually
, and
implies that intention may
be active, passive, implicit or fully conscious. In this sense client and therapist in
tentionality may also be considered to be implicitly oriented to the therapeutic tasks
Intertwined with the functional step of paying attention
is the functional step
insight which counselor and client jointly enacted within the wider project of
Client: Yes.
Counselor: What happens?
Counselor: Where is that, where is that, in terms of past, present, and future?
Client: That’s in the future.
Client: To the future.
Counselor: Gone to the future. And so it’s excellent that you’re noticing that.
Here we can observe how salient the joint actions of attention and
insight are. The
client was noticing body sensation and cognition. Held in the curious, kind, atten
tive relational container where they were engaged jointly in understanding his expe
rience, the client was even able to laugh at his own story. Humor is another emotion
that energized the action.
The next segment of the exchange highlights the functional step of language:
the counselor assisted the client in verbalizing the experience of pain. She does this
by actually suggesting a possible metaphor, in a kind of “scaffolding” process by
which she put words in his mouth and led him into a different way of relating to
The Action of Mindfulness in Counseling
Counselor: Pain is one of the more difficult things to work with. But if you look at
it really, really closely, you might notice that there’s um almost a wall. Is there a
Client: Yup, yup.
Client: Yeah, and pushing up against it too.
Counselor: Ok. Pushing up against it. Ok, and if you can soften those walls a little
The following week, the client came to the session expressing wonder and satisfac
tion that he had been able to relate to his pain differently that week:
Client: The
pain hasn’t gone away but the way that I approach it and how I feel
about it is what’s different. So I’m still experiencing the pain, the inflammation.
But it’s the way I respond to it that seems to be so different. I decided to [look at
pain softly], to see it was like a pat of butter just melting in a pan and then disap
pearing. Then it’s not at the top of my mind but I’m aware of it
Counselor: And you mentioned that you noticed that when pain arises
Counselor: And then what do you do?
Client: I make a choice to stay with it. Which I never did before. I either resisted it,
ignored it, or go take a bunch of drugs, painkillers. So this week I slowed it right
down and I see the pat of butter and see it soften down. It’s my way of opening
B. Y. Dyer
The client and counselor engaged in several joint functional steps in the hierarchy
of actions taken to learn and experience mindfulness. These functional steps of at
language, connection, compassion and insight were enacted in a mindful
deconstruction of the client’s pain project. In the functional step of connection, the
counselor worked to stay present, and the client reported he felt connected to her.
Visibly, there was a physical attunement expressed through nods, smiles, and even
chuckles. In the functional step of compassion, the counselor modeled nonjudgmen
tal, caring attention to the client’s experience, expressing calm curiosity about it,
and invited the client explicitly to do the same. Thus, the client in this case vignette
did not learn mindfulness by doing formal meditation practice or a mindfulness “ex
ercise.” He learned and experienced mindfulness in dialogue through processes that
we can identify from the research perspective of action theory and action-project
method as joint actions, functional steps or projects. In relational models of coun
targets of exploration and processing. In this case, the client engaged in an attuned
reciprocal dialogue in which he noticed his counselor, was noticed by his counselor,
and most importantly, noticed his counselor noticing him. Their kind, patient, joint
de-construction of his pain project was enacted through counseling dialogue but
then carried outside the session as the client engaged in a new and more functional
Counseling Tasks and Counseling Outcomes
From this example, the five counseling tasks within contextual action theory, as
al. (
), can be observed. Contextual action theory un
derstands counseling processes as goal-directed action, “which importantly paral
lels the processes in which clients… are engaged” (p.
23) in their lives
outside of
counseling. The first counseling task is linking counseling and life processes. In this
case example, the action of counseling was linked with the client’s life-project, his
illness career of pain. The counseling dialogue was “about” his pain career and at
the same time constructed a new way of being with the pain, through the enactment
of mindfulness. The second task of counseling is identifying systems and levels of
projects and action. Even in the few minutes of the case vignette, the counselor as
sisted the client in identifying how his language, thoughts and
feelings amplified
the experience of suffering. In the analysis, I identified levels of projects and ac
tions, including the joint mindfulness and relationship
projects, the functional steps,
and the way the client’s pain project was met and deconstructed through mindful
dialogue. The third counseling task is dealing with emotion, which we see, in this
example, as
energizing and steering the dialogue through such affect as fear, curios
ity and even joy.
The Action of Mindfulness in Counseling
Counseling’s fourth task, dealing with suboptimal actions, projects and careers,
was approached; the client wanted to “beat” or get rid of pain, while the counselor
invited him to stay with and move closer to pain. On a certain level, their goals
are at cross-purposes, yet the action of mindfulness—turning toward the problem
with nonjudgmental attention—paradoxically helped the client achieve his goal.
Lastly, the fifth counseling task, creating and maintaining the working
alliance, was
an essential aspect of the mindfulness project. The client’s suboptimal “powering
through pain” project was explored through mindful dialogue, within a working al
insight, compassion and connection that comprised the larger mindfulness and rela
projects. In sum, the client had a new experience within the therapeutic
lationship, discovering just how curious, kind and present he could be with his pain,
and then he was able to continue to process and expand this new knowing outside
of session. These five counseling tasks are not sequential but rather simultaneous
and concurrent, just as the several levels of joint functional steps of the enactment
Contextual action theory can also serve as a tool for understanding counseling
goals and
outcomes. As alluded to earlier in this chapter, the negotiation of counsel
ing goals and outcomes in a mindfulness-based (acceptance-based) counseling par
adigm may appear paradoxical at first glance. Buddhist psychology and the mind
fulness tradition assume that our suffering has its origins in our basic human drives,
for the most part unconscious and beyond our control. Desire is the compulsion to
pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Mindfulness teaches us to uncover these insatiable
desires, and sit with pleasure and pain without being run by them (Olendzki
noted that mindfulness is associated with non-striving. This may seem
at odds with action theory with its emphasis on agency, goals, and movement over
This apparent paradox can be resolved when we recall that intentionality is un
derstood within Buddhist psychology as a core ontological factor of existence, and
the “gesture of mindfulness” is an intentional opening to experience in a nonjudg
mental and curious way. This gesture, or action of mindfulness, does have a pro
found goal, although many writers such as Kabat-Zinn warn of the dangers of being
too caught up in focusing on the outcome. The goal is liberation from suffering, a
rather more-encompassing version of symptom reduction. The concept of “choice
less awareness” in advanced mindfulness practice means that rather than taking ac
tions of pursuing and avoiding, we become able to take “right action,” to experience
all of life more fully and with less suffering.
Within the Buddhist philosophical model, change occurs when we are able to,
through mindfulness, become aware of habitual and hitherto unconscious patterns
which lead to suffering, and with the
intentionality intrinsic to our nature, make dif
ferent choices, in
Buddhist terms, “right action,” toward our happiness and the hap
B. Y. Dyer
ent goals, but through approaching what is unwanted with kind curiosity rather than
getting rid of it. The case example demonstrates how intentionality and goal direc
tion are co-constructed in attuned dialogue. The client shifts from “John-wayning”
his way through pain, and striving against a “wall of pain,” to watching the pain
“melt like butter.” These metaphors capture the emergent action of mindfulness and
may be seen as expressing a moment of liberation from suffering. Thus mindfulness
35) in which even an action
and apparently subjective and private as mindfulness, can be investigated as it is
enacted jointly in counseling dialogue. The joint actions, projects and functional
enactment of mindfulness were particularly salient in this case vignette
since the client was a participant in a psycho-educational group, the purpose of
which was to learn mindfulness. Hence, we could assume that mindfulness was be
ing taught and learned, and subsequently observe, describe and understand
was done, that is, the joint dialogical processes of mindfulness as action and project.
As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the “gesture of mindfulness” in counseling can
be observed in different ways: as a common factor, as formal meditation instruc
tion, or as an
embodiment and enactment of certain phenomena such as attention or
compassion. It is the latter that was highlighted in the case vignette, as the counselor
and client jointly deconstructed a “suboptimal” pain career and constructed a new,
more benign and helpful experience of pain. The construction occurred relation
ally, both verbally and nonverbally, through five functional steps of joint attention,
insight, compassion, and connection. The functional step of connection
can be seen as reflecting attunement processes. The super-ordinate joint actions of
mindfulness and relationship were contiguously co-constructed and enacted. Thus
contextual action theory served as a generative and highly integrative framework
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Chapter 16
A Contextual Action Theory Perspective
Carey Grayson Penner
Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, BC, Canada
e-mail: [email protected]
This chapter aims to advance understandings on the process of self-efficacy con
struction within counseling. It applies contextual action theory with the goals of
deepening Bandura’s (
self-efficacy construct and offering suggestions for
how this expanded conceptualization could be employed by counselors seeking to
enhance their clients’ self-
efficacy. It draws from conceptual arguments, empirical
findings, and clinical observations and responds to the need for knowledge on the
process of self-efficacy construction within counseling.
The chapter begins with a brief conceptual and empirical introduction to self-
efficacy designed to demonstrate how research on the sources of self-efficacy has
become stagnant. It proceeds to demonstrate how the core tenets of contextual ac
tion theory offer conceptual advancements that are useful for renewing self-effi
construction within counseling. The majority of the chapter adopts a contextual
action theory framework and draws upon case materials to explore underlying pro
cesses of the four main sources of self-efficacy and, more importantly, illuminate
processes useful for constructing client self-efficacy within individual counseling
sessions. This culminates in five recommendations for helping client’s construct
Self-efficacy was a core construct in the development and evolution of Albert
Bandura’s (
theory and remains at the center
of the theory’s research activities. It was introduced to the psychological litera
ture in a series of articles that reported on investigations involving therapeutic
intervention with participants who experienced symptoms of a specific phobia
; Bandura and Adams
. The first of
these articles asserted the additive benefits of a self-directed mastery experience
for snake phobic participants whose fears had been eliminated using a partici
pant modeling intervention (Bandura et
). In the second article, Bandura
coined the term self-efficacy in reference to the self-competence ratings
competence identified in his earlier research. Self-
efficacy was
operationalized as specific perceptions of self-confidence, alternatively referred
to as self-efficacy expectations or self-efficacy beliefs, that were assessed through
pencil and paper measures that asked participants to report on their ability to per
form target behaviors related to their snake phobic symptoms (i.e., touch a snake,
hold a snake, etc.). These articles supported four main sources of self-efficacy,
master experience, vicarious
In spite of a proliferation of self-efficacy research spanning more than 30 years,
the remarkable consistency of findings regarding its sources and consequences,
and the ever growing list of self-efficacy scales, knowledge regarding the sources
efficacy remains relatively unchanged from the seminal research of the
1970s. Though the body of self-efficacy research encompasses considerable re
search demonstrating positive correlations between self-efficacy increases and
favorable counseling outcomes for substance abuse (Gossop et
nagh and Sitharthan
, depression (Jarrett et
; Yusaf
and Kavanagh
anxiety (Biran
and Wilson
Williams et
, and disordered eat
this research has not expanded
understandings regarding the sources of self-efficacy within counseling process.
In fact the process of self-efficacy construction within counseling is a neglected
area of study.
Action Theory Perspective
Contextual action theory offers a theoretical framework and research methodology
that provide new avenues for conceptualizing and researching self-efficacy as a
counseling process. In particular, contextual action theory provides a conceptual
lens whereby self-efficacy can be viewed as a dynamic interactive process that is
embedded within the joint action of counselors and clients. This theory rests on a
complex understanding of human intentionality to depict human experience within
relationship across time. Though these aspects of contextual action theory are high
lighted briefly below, readers interested in a more detailed presentation of the theo
retical and methodological features of the theory are directed to the first section of
A Process Perspective
Action theory defines action as intentional, goal-directed behavior and seeks to
understand human experience according to the goals and intentions of the
. By focusing
on the
intentionality of human experience con
textual action theory and the action-project method provide a means for linking
action across time (Young et
. All human experience,
including self-efficacy, is viewed as occurring within a social context and is un
derstood according to a number of specific action systems and three distinct per
spectives on action. The action systems also encompass
that are useful
for analyzing the connectedness of clients’ and counselors’ actions and for making
Contextual action theory as an explanatory framework embeds client self-ef
ficacy construction within a relational perspective, something that is particularly
important given the relational nature of counseling. The three perspectives on action
provide additional means for embedding client self-efficacy within the client–coun
selor relationship and for understanding self-efficacy construction as a dynamic in
teractive process of the client–counselor relationship. More specifically, the social
meaning perspective provides a means for understanding clients’ and counselors’
overt behavior and internal
process according to the shared meanings that sup
port their joint-action. The social meaning perspective also considers the particular
meanings that are constructed within clients’ and counselors’ joint-action. All told,
the social meaning perspective and joint-action systems provide a useful framework
for identifying and examining interactive counseling processes underlying the four
sources of self-efficacy.
The primary finding arising out of Penner’s (
efficacy was
“embedded throughout all phases of the counseling process in
cluding exploration, problem definition, intervention, client change, consolidation
of change, and termination.” This finding demonstrated the utility of his coding sys
tem and the usefulness of the action project method for studying client self-efficacy
A Contextual Action Theory Perspective on the Construction
Penner’s (
research demonstrated that the contextual action theory framework
and the action theory method can be used to describe client self-efficacy as a dy
namic interactive process. More specifically, his research showed that the multi-di
mensional model of action offers an epistemological and ontological lens useful for
understanding discrete manifestations of client self-efficacy as linked across time
and for embedding their construction within the dialogical exchange of individual
counseling sessions. In his conceptualization the various action systems and levels
of action organization establish functional links that connected discrete manifesta
tions across time thereby providing a basis for reexamining the roles of mastery
experience and physiological arousal in the development of self-efficacy. Simi
larly, the social meaning perspective and the joint goals/projects specified within
the action depict the social construction of client self-efficacy thereby offering an
expanded perspective on the verbal persuasion and vicarious
learning sources of
client self-efficacy. The remainder of this chapter draws upon Penner’s research and
expands on the four sources of self-efficacy by articulating joint-action processes
efficacy construction within individual counseling sessions.
A Process Perspective on Mastery Experience
and Physiological Arousal
Research has consistently shown that mastery experience is the strongest source of
increased self-efficacy beliefs (Bandura
. The successful
enactment of a target
behavior yields affirmative beliefs regarding one’s capability to perform similar
behavior in the future. This empirical observation provides compelling rationale
for the use of role-play and guided behavioral techniques within counseling. These
approaches are particularly useful when working with client issues, that is, specific
phobia, that center on a specific set of overt behavioral enactments. Guided behav
ioral techniques typically utilize an incremental approach starting with less difficult
behavior and gradually increasing to more and more difficult enactments (Bandura
). This optimizes the likelihood that clients will experience success early in the
process, draws upon early increases in client self-efficacy, and provides a progres
sive pathway that builds upon clients’ increasing levels of self-efficacy.
Mastery Experience as Goal Directed Action
The typical orientation toward mastery experience involves the use of a functional
analysis. This approach to self-efficacy is highly focused and tends to identify a
limited number of very specific behavioral enactments required for effective per
formance in a particular area of concern, for example, specific phobia,
or disordered eating (Bandura
. Taking a telenomical view, a contextual action
theory perspective expands the list of behavioral enactments to include dialogue
related to the area of function as this dialogue is enacted with the goal of addressing
clients problem situations. This dialogue encompasses all of the in-session dialogue
pertinent to clients’ problem situations including that which identifies, explores, and
seeks to address their concern as well as subsequent dialogue that observes and con
solidates positive changes occurring in relation to the problem situation. Similarly,
precursor behavior such as the decision to seek counseling and the action taken in
arranging and attending a first session also constitute important steps toward the
goal of addressing a problem situation. The telenomical view taken by contextual
action theory offers a broader understanding of the precursor behavior and the dia
logical actions casting them as important mastery experiences relevant to the goals
clients construct within counseling. Consequently, the individual and joint-action of
father and her. Their conversation also described feelings of dissatisfaction that the
client experienced in her current relationship with her father expressed in terms of
her inability to communicate frankly and openly. The client’s goal of reestablishing
a close relationship with her father became a key focus of the first three counseling
sessions. The goal’s initial construction was marked by perceived inefficacy regard
Since the action theory perspective understands the dyad’s conversational ele
ments as manifest behavior in service of the client’s relational goal, the client’s
in-session efforts to address her relational goal constitute behavioral enactments
toward her goal. In this particular case the client’s goal directed behavioral enact
ments involved open self-disclosure to the counselor about the relational issues she
felt incapable of talking about with her father. Her experience of talking openly
about the relational issues represents progress toward her relational goal of commu
nicating openly with her father and constitutes the type of master experience known
to enhance self-efficacy. Her open self-disclosure with the counselor was also ac
companied by expressions of perceived efficacy related to her communicative and
self-disclosure capabilities with her dad and stepmother. Focusing on the client’s
framework helps establish connections between the discrete expressions
of efficacy/inefficacy and the conversational elements enacted toward meeting the
client’s relational goal.
The importance of the functional links and the corresponding in-session mastery
experience becomes more pertinent and useful for counselors when they attend to
the emotional states accompanying clients’ in-session action/enactments. Emotions
serve to steer and energize clients’ manifest behavior within the contextual action
theory framework and are important to their in-session actions. Though the coun
seling dialogue that aims to identify, explore, and address clients’ problem situa
tions might be thought of as low difficulty level enactments, the level of emotional
arousal clients experience in conjunction to these goals increases the difficulty level
considerably. From a self-efficacy perspective, heightened emotionality is inversely
related to self-efficacy beliefs and is considered a contextual factor that increases
the difficulty of a behavioral
enactment. Returning to the case, the strong emotions
the client experiences when disclosing how problems with her stepmother get in the
way of her relationship with her father serve to raise the difficulty level of the her
conversational action. In managing her emotions and enacting this emotion-filled
conversation she constructs heightened self-efficacy in relation to talking about her
relationship with her dad while experiencing and managing the resulting emotion,
An action framework utilizes the internal
processes perspective to incorporate
observations regarding clients’ emotional states. In keeping with an action theory
conceptualization, action remains as the main unit of
analysis and allows for inte
grating multiple perspectives. Manifest behavior, internal processes—thoughts and
feelings, and social meaning are all simultaneously present at an individual and joint
level in the construction of action over time. Consequently, clients’ in-session enact
ments are viewed in light of their intentional frameworks and their emotional states.
This provides a useful lens for integrating two sources of self-efficacy, mastery
experience and physiological arousal, and for considering how clients’ emotionally
laden behavioral enactments might construct perceptions of capability related to the
The case presented above offers a positive example for how counselors can use
contextual action theory to engage in efficacy enhancing conversations with their
clients. The thoughts and emotions that the client experienced when feeling blocked
in an important relational project were potentially strong enough to inhibit an open
discussion about her relational project and motivate her to avoid talking about the
relationship. However, the enactment of an open dialogue with a counselor while
experiencing the strong emotions associated with her relational project facilitated
a more difficult mastery experience and provided the
client with an opportunity for
constructing perceptions of capability. The counselor supported the client’s mastery
experience by being attentive and responsive to all three perspectives of action, the
client’s intentional
framework, emotional experiences, and in-session behavior. More
specifically, she joined the client in working toward the client’s goals, developing a
relationship, and by supporting the client in regulating her emotions.
Thus, a contextual action theory perspective understands that changes to the in
tentional frameworks of clients and counselors that allow the integration of mastery
experience leading to reduced physiological arousal as key sources of client self-
efficacy. This expanded view is particularly useful for identifying self-regulatory
processes, that is, thoughts and emotions that are needed for the successful enact
ment of target behaviors. Since clients’ self-efficacy beliefs regarding their self-
social persuasion and modeling sources of self-
al. (
of young adult clients and professional counselors constructed several kinds of joint
projects including relational, identity, educational, and vocational projects.
Viewing clients’ and counselors’ action according to shared goals is useful for re
examining verbal persuasion and modeling sources of self-efficacy and for describ
ing underlying joint processes at work in the construction of client self-
In the same way that the telenomical lens of contextual action theory establishes
functional links that help expand the mastery and physiological arousal sources of
self-efficacy, the social constructionist lens used to conceptualize joint goals and
shared social meaning establishes functional links between clients’ and counselors’
individual goal directed action. Put another way, the action
elements of counselors
and client are seen as unfolding in a meaningful goal directed manner. These ele
ments include efficacy relevant utterances, discrete client and counselor utterances
that reference clients’ abilities thereby offering evaluations of efficacy and ineffi
cacy. For example, dialogue from the case referenced earlier in the chapter includes
an action sequence where the counselor describes a way that the client might initiate
a conversation with her father and then asks, “
Would you be able to do that
?” and
the client offers an efficacious evaluation by saying, “
.” The counsellor contin
?” The client
I don’t know
” thereby suggesting doubts about her capability.
Consistent with the three perspectives on action, the utterances also constitute the
manifest behavior that clients and counselors seek to make sense of. In this way the
social meaning constructed in their dialogical action encompasses the efficacious
and inefficacious evaluation of client and counselor alike.
Verbal Persuasion and Modeling as Social Constructive Processes
dialogue were instrumental in the construction of self-efficacy for this client. They
also provide a strong example of how the verbal persuasion and modeling sources
of self-efficacy can be expanded and described as a social construction processes
Recommendations for Counselors
Contextual action theory conceptualizes individual counseling as a relationship that
is constructed out the goal-directed communicative exchanges of a client and a
counselor. This conceptualization invites counselors to view clients’ in-session be
havior in light of the meanings constructed over the course of one or more sessions.
The contextual action theory framework also enables counselors to move back and
forth between a micro level view of clients’ in-session action and a macro level
understanding the meanings that are being jointly constructed within the counseling
sessions. The micro level perspective provides counselors with the ability to detect
their clients’ discrete expressions of efficacy and inefficacy and the macro level
perspective offers counselors opportunities to harness the constructive processes
observed in the preceding section. What follows are practical recommendations for
using this framework toward constructing increased client self-
efficacy within indi
Attend to Client’s Efficacious and Inefficacious Dialogue
Recognizing expressions of efficacy and inefficacy is the first step toward helping
clients construct increased self-efficacy. From an action theory perspective this in
volves attending to key elements of their manifest behavior including phrases such
as, “I can …”, “I can’t …”, “I find it hard to …”, “It’s easy …”, “I’m not very good
at …”, etc. As noted earlier, Penner (
found that these types of phrases were
embedded throughout the counseling process in a sample of professional counselors
and their young adult clients. Noticing and attending to the micro level expressions
offer counselor insight into the perceptions clients have of their abilities.
Be Mindful of the Goals Constructed in the Client’s Dialogue
Attentiveness to goals is a defining feature of contextual action theory and is criti
cal to its use as a framework for counseling. It is also indispensable when it comes
to making sense of the action elements used to detect expressions of client self-
efficacy. Expressions of efficacy or inefficacy are understood according to the goals
Goals give meaning to the clients’ self-efficacy beliefs. Perceived inefficacy may
be experienced as innocuous if the ability is irrelevant to a client’s goals. On the
other hand, perceptions of inefficacy related to important goals are often defined
as barriers and are definitive of the problem situations clients seek to address in
counseling. Being attentive to client goals increases the relevance of counseling and
offers clients opportunities to make progress toward their goals.
View the Dialogue of Counseling as a Joint Action Process
A contextual action theory approach to counseling views the
dialogue of counseling
action process. The dialogue that identifies and explores clients’ prob
lem situations and provides insight and self-management strategies for clients is
particularly important because it is defined by the superordinate goal of helping
the clients move forward toward reaching their goal. By viewing the sessions as
such, counselors understand their clients’ engagement in the counseling
low-level mastery experiences that are linked to increased perceptions of capability.
Counselors who communicate this meaning within the counseling sessions that is,
notice increased clarity gained by talking about the situation, note the steps clients
take toward their goals, inquire about subsequent steps the client could take and so
forth, help their clients experience increased self-efficacy in relation to their coun
goals. Focusing on practical self-management strategies enacted outside the
sessions provides clients with additional mastery experiences that further heighten
From a contextual action theory perspective, emotions are steering processes that
direct and energize client behavior. Client emotionality within the session indicates
the significance of what is being discussed. It suggests that the client goals are
highly important. It also alerts counselors to be mindful of any expressions of effi
cacy or inefficacy. The combination of heightened emotion and expressions of inef
ficacy are particularly important in that they indicate that clients are experiencing
barriers in relation to their goals. The dialogue that identifies and explores clients’
problem situations and provides insight and self-management strategies in these
situations are more difficult for clients because of the diminished self-efficacy ex
perienced with heightened physiological arousal. Consequently, the mastery experi
ence gained in talking through these situations is particularly useful for construct
ing perceptions of client self-efficacy. As with the lower level mastery experiences
counselors are advised to process these discussions with their clients taking care to
Be Intentional in Communicating About Clients’ Abilities
Contextual action theory views counseling as goal directed action that is reflec
tive of the individual and shared goals of clients and counselors. In this view the
dialogue of counseling is action that reflects and constructs shared social meanings
related to counselors’ and clients’ goals. This perspective on counseling suggests
that the dialogue of counseling constructs perceptions of clients’ capabilities. Coun
selors who draw from this perspective as well as an understanding of the modeling
and verbal persuasion sources of self-efficacy seek opportunities to help clients
construct self-
efficacy beliefs. As noted in the case material presented in the previ
ous section, counselors who frame the conversation in terms of what their clients
about their situation model a self-efficacious orientation. Similarly, by invit
ing clients to identify, describe, and explore what they have done in a situation or
what they might do in a situation, counselors facilitate a conversation about what
their clients can do thereby constructing perceptions of ability.
This chapter applied the process perspective and relational lens of contextual ac
tion theory to advance knowledge on the process of self-efficacy construction in
individual counseling. It took the four sources of self-efficacy, conceptualized them
as joint-action processes, and provided case examples to illustrate how client self-
efficacy is constructed in counseling. The chapter ended with several practical rec
ommendations for how counselors might utilize contextual action theory to help
their clients construct increased self-efficacy.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change.
Review, 84,
Bandura, A. (1986).
Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory
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Bandura, A. (1997).
Self-efficacy: The exercise of control
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154–196). New York: Guilford.
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Bandura, A., Adams, N. E., & Beyer, J. (1977). Cognitive processes mediating behavioral change.
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125–139. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.35.3.125.
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cy and other self-evaluations while adapting to bereavement.
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methods: A self-efficacy analysis.
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British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 29,
Jarrett, R. B., Vittengl, J. R., Doyle, K., & Clark, L. A. (2007). Changes in cognitive content dur
ing and following cognitive therapy for recurrent depression: Substantial and enduring, but not
predictive of change in depressive symptoms.
Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology,
Kavanagh, D. J., & Sitharthan, T. (1996). Prediction of results from correspondence treatment for
controlled drinking.
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Penner, C. G. (2011).
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individual counselling process
. Ph.D., University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
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perceptions and in-treatment drug use among regular cocaine users.
& Alcohol Abuse, 23,
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ery from bulimia: A preliminary examination.
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gramme for controlled drinking.
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search in the social sciences
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behavioral therapy for bulimia nervosa: Time course and mechanisms of change.
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& Associates (Eds.),
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Behavior, 79,
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Chapter 17
Counseling Women: Feminist Perspectives
and Contextual Action Theory
Springer New York 2015
University of Victoria, V
Janna, a 27-year-old single woman attended counseling because of a relationship
break-up and problems at work with colleagues. She explored how these difficulties
were connected to her chronic anger, harsh criticism of others, and unwillingness
to be vulnerable. She reported that people were afraid of her until she let them get
to know the “real” her. The client discussed how she did not want to change and
newer theoretical advances, such as Contextual Action Theory (CAT) (e.g. Valach
, can be utilized as a meta-theory to examine how
context, relationship, and action are integrated in clients’ lives and in the therapeutic
relationship. The purpose of this chapter is to discuss women and counseling by
combining feminist perspectives and action theory. By doing this, I am hoping to
Changing Perspectives of Theory and Therapy
In the past, many traditional psychotherapies, such as psychodynamic
cognitive behavioral therapy, family counseling, and even person-centered
rarely considered
gender, context, and
developed by Erik Erikson
or Piaget, have been premised on ideas of male devel
opment, individuation, and autonomy. Instead of pathologizing women for their
desire to stay connected
in close relationships, a feminist lens provided a new
theory of change that challenged traditional thinking espousing separation from
others as the psychological marker of normality and maturity. In the three client
vignettes at the beginning of this chapter, feminist theory and therapy, particularly
Theory (Jordan and Hartling
; Jordan et
; Walker
ing women from their primary relationships, clients were supported to explore how
to renegotiate their relationships in a way in which they could be healthier and more
vibrant, and how to honor their desire to be in connection, even when painful and
gender, social expecta
tions, and context were considered, as well as the client’s strengths, successes, and
healthy coping strategies. Therapy facilitated change, in part, by creating awareness
and insight about how each woman used both connecting and disconnecting strate
gies to manage their close relationships. During the course of therapy, each of the
three women learned more about how to listen to their own wisdom, participate in
interconnected and healthier mutually empathic relationships, and understand the
Counseling Women: Feminist Perspectives and Contextual Action
broader societal context of women’s roles. Although this strength-based approach
may seem common to many counselors, the roots of this approach harkens back
to early feminist principles that have been integrated into many of today’s current
In considering how an action theory perspective might provide an additional lens
to the case conceptualization of these three clients, we can see that each woman
was engaged in socially constructed processes with others and enacting intentional,
actions. Specifically, all three women were trying to figure out the
meaning of their own and others’ actions in light of the difficulties they were facing.
The women’s identities became apparent through the very interactions that created
pain in their lives. For example, Janna acted out her identities in her gendered field
of action, because she saw herself as helper of lost souls (friends), a victim of family
dynamics (sister and mother), and a person who fears intimacy (coworkers and boy
friends). The relational dynamics created and maintained these identities, keeping
Janna feeling stuck in re-enacting the same joint actions with others time and time
. From these vignettes, we see that context, identity, and
relationships provide women with the range of actions and joint actions with others
Background of Feminist Theory and Therapy
Given that we have already known the background, purpose, and context of CAT
from previous chapters, I will provide some background to feminist theory and
therapy. In the 1960s until the 1980s, second wave feminist ideas flourished in
Western society. Gloria Steinem, an activist, Simone de Beauvoir, a French phi
losopher and writer of The Second Sex (
nondiscrimination against married or aging women (e.g., flight attendants), nondis
crimination against people of color (e.g. renting apartments), laws related to job
interviews and selection (e.g., marital status; pregnancy plans; number of children),
reproductive rights (e.g., birth control pill; abortion), and shifts in marital arrange
ments (e.g., dual-income households; divorce; common-law relationships). Despite
the fact that we experience these rights and freedoms as common
sense or taken-for-
granted, it took decades of protest and advocacy to change cultural attitudes, social
Differences in feminist thought began to arise in both academic and clinical circles.
Despite different strands of feminism, many agreed on the core concepts and val
ues of feminist therapy that have led to many positive changes in clinical services.
Today, feminist concepts are embedded in many therapies, including consciousness
having a biological basis (e.g., a vulnerability or predisposition),
but that the cli
ent’s abusive relationship (e.g., violence against women),
which she is underpaid and underemployed (e.g. hitting the “glass ceiling” or being
in a “pink-collar” job), and historical childhood sexual abuse (e.g., sexual violence
against women and children) have created and maintained the conditions necessary
to trigger a major depression. If we consider the cases at the beginning of this chap
ter, individual problems can instead be contexualized within the larger systems of
Many feminist clinicians work from an integrated eclecticism based on core val
and Genest
, trauma treatment
; Webster and Dunn
, cultural formulation (Arthur and Popadiuk
), and psychodynamic therapy (Director
; Vasquez
. Finally, inter
sectionality theory posits that gender is only one of the multiple strands of personal
identity (Constantine
, and can no longer be taken as a stand-alone construct.
Instead, the intersection and valuing of multiple social locations need to be taken
account, such as gender, social class,
, ability level, age, and sexual
Counseling Women: Feminist Perspectives and Contextual Action
Counseling Women: Feminist Therapy and Contextual
CAT is a comprehensive perspective that provides an overriding framework for
creating a new understanding that both enhances and extends current feminist coun
practices with
women. Not only can action theory provide an additional way
of explaining women’s relationships and joint actions with others in their everyday
dimensions of relationship, context,
expectations, goals, and empowerment. Margo
and her mother each sought power in order to make attempts to change the other.
Relationally, both perspectives
might see that the mother–daughter relationship is
the key focus and that Margo’s relationship with her mother would need to be re
negotiated if Margo wants to empower herself and alleviate pain. Both theories
would seek to empower Margo by working with her on examining and changing
her expectations, and learning to accept that her mother may be doing the best she
can relationally given her own upbringing and experiences. Further, both action and
feminist theories would work with the client to create new goals, such as redefining
and changing her actions and interactions with her mother. Action theory informed
counselors would also help Margo to recognize her emotions when engaging with
her mother and to identify the actions that stem from her emotional memories. She
would also work on disentangling these negative emotions from her current
Margo would further recognize the joint
projects she participates in with her mother
and learn other possible and more constructive projects in accordance with her val
ues and long-term
goals. Relational
empowerment, an important concept in both
theories, focuses on how each person in the relationship creates, maintains, and
changes the power dynamic through relational interactions (Lynam and Young
. Overall, counselors working from a feminist perspective would be aligned
Counseling Women: Feminist Perspectives and Contextual Action
which the family each plays their roles in relation to their matriarch of the family.
Action theory, therefore, can extend feminist thinking by providing a time-oriented
framework that can help clients make meaning of individual and joint
projects over
In deepening the work with Margo, she might begin to question the meaning of
the relationship with her mother, and consider how this project fits into her other
projects, for example, her own family, a successful career, and being an avid reader.
At the point of contact with the therapist, the mother–daughter project negatively
impacted and interfered with the many other projects in Margo’s life that provided
energy, passion, and contentment. However, Margo seemed to be most
shaken by how this mother–daughter project played out with her identity project:
“I can’t be a woman, a daughter, a person unless I give myself over to my mother
regardless of the costs to me and those I love.” In other words, relationship and
relational projects between mother
and daughter over the course of a lifetime, which
create a relational career (e.g., many projects related to mother and daughter in
teractions from childhood to old age). This way of chunking individual
thoughts, and behaviors into larger and larger chunks helps clinicians to concep
tualize how actions over time are interrelated and have a goal, conscious or not,
related to an overriding project or lifetime career at the core. Thus, in considering
Margo and her mother, there is a lifetime of joint actions (e.g., events) that can be
made more manageable, and meaningful, when chunked together to create many
comprehensive projects (e.g., short stories), and then further brought together to
Many feminist researchers and clinicians agree on the core concepts and values of
feminist therapy, such as mutual respect, egalitarian counselor/client relationships,
strengths-focus, and systemic influences (Brown
. Similarly,
action theory would purport to uphold these same values, especially the idea of
working together to co-create new joint actions toward the unfolding of a more
counselor and client in
each session, and then across sessions, to form a unit of
meaning. These joint actions between the counselor and client are two systems, the
joint and the individual processes, and include communication, emotional monitor
steering, control and regulation processes, goals, actions steps,
elements (Valach et
. For
Irene, the 67-year old woman in an
abusive relationship, the mutually empathic communication that occurred between
the counselor and the client led to changes in how the client experienced herself.
Instead of feeling invalidated from an emotionally abusive partner, Irene began to
experience acceptance, respect, and empathy first from the counselor—and then as
she learned to integrate these messages—from herself. Together, the counselor and
client explored the emotional and cognitive steering processes that triggered the
client, and together, they worked at changing the meaning from “I’m worthless and
no one loves me” to “I am a worthy human being and can take actions to stop others
from abusing me.” Irene and the counselor experienced hundreds of joint actions
together over the course of a year, a solid “counselor-client relational project”
served to empower the client and provide a safe, empathic space from which to ex
plore and grow. This collaborative and empowering journey resulted in significant
changes in the client’s identity and major shifts in her relational projects with her
husband, daughter, and friends.
Part of the function of the client–counselor relationship is to hold a space for
collaborative self-construction to occur. Similar to Irene, Janna and the counselor,
through many complex joint actions over time, worked on a counselor–client proj
ect of re-defining Janna’s identity, or identity project, from the “blacksheep” and
“mean girl,” to an authentic identity of “strong woman who respects herself and
others.” Rather than maintaining a power-over stance with other people in her life,
Janna learned through the individual joint actions within the counselor-client proj
ect that she could be vulnerable and not be hurt, and be respectful without being
weak. Everything that occurred in therapy worked toward the overriding goal of
assisting Janna in re-defining the meaning of her actions, thoughts, and emotions in
such a way that she could empower herself. The more Janna took actions in sessions
with the counselor, the more she was able to try out new actions in her relational
world at work and at home. She successfully transformed previous projects, and in
some cases careers, by creating new joint actions with co-workers, supervisors, and
family members. The types of communication elements and joint actions in thera
py arose from a feminist theoretical orientation based in mutual respect, empathy,
empowerment. The framework of joint actions, project, and careers provided a
Counseling Women: Feminist Perspectives and Contextual Action
Both feminist theory and CAT are similar and embedded in ideas of empowerment,
relationships, actions, expectations, and goals. However, what action theory adds to
feminist theory and practice is a language and meta-framework that describes the
processes of how individual joint actions create larger projects over time, and final
ly, how multiple projects over a lifespan create a career. Action theory provides us
with a superordinate construct of what is going on in any given project at any given
point of time. Its differentiated language helps in understanding everyday processes
of clients, the counseling process, and the interventions. Overall, the
addition of
action theory serves
to expand and strengthen the framework of feminist therapy,
which in turn, serves to further empower women in therapy.
American Psychiatric Association. (2004).
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders
(4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Arthur, N., & Popadiuk, N. E. (2010). A cultural formulation approach to career counseling with
Journal of Career Development, 37,
Brown, L. (2004). Feminist paradigms of trauma treatment.
Psychotherapy: Theory, Research,
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Bruns, C. M. (2011). Feminism and feminist therapy across generations.
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Constantine, M. G. (2002). The intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, and social class in counsel
ing: Examining selves in cultural contexts.
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48–70). New York: Guilford Publications.
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connection: Writings from the Stone Center
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Lynam, M. J., & Young, R. A. (2002). Empowerment, praxis, and action theory in health-promo
tion research. In L. Valach, R. A. Young, & M. J. Lynam (Eds.),
Action theory: A primer for
applied research in the social sciences
123–138). Westport: Praeger
Popadiuk, N. E. (2004). The feminist biographical method in psychological research.
Popadiuk, N. E. (2008). Intimate relationships of female international students.
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Action theory: A primer for applied research in
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Counseling for the transition to adulthood as joint, goal-directed action.
Journal of Vocational
Chapter 18
Suicide and Counseling for Suicidality
Ladislav Valach and Richard A. Young
Springer New York 2015
e-mail: [email protected]
British Columbia, Vancouver
Counseling a person whom counselors consider at risk for suicide is a very chal
lenging task. The appropriate counseling procedures are debatable—the number
of intervention studies that show a positive outcome for suicide preventive treat
ment is low (Linehan
and the risks are large. While the stakes in many other
counseling discussions about optimal treatments are mostly economical, such as
the merits of short-term or long-term interventions, the stakes in suicide counseling
are substantial—the eventual loss of a human life. The World Health Organization
indicates that suicide is a problem in many countries (
suicide/en/). Moreover, the number of completed suicides must be multiplied many
times (10–20 fold) to estimate the number of attempted suicides, which again repre
sents only a segment of the number of people who considered suicide, at least once.
Given the challenge and gravity of counseling clients who are suicidal, looking be
yond some of the current and widespread assumptions about suicide and suicidality
treatment is warranted. It is also very reasonable to pose anew two main questions,
namely, how to understand suicide and how to treat and counsel a suicidal person.
Goal-directed action, addressed extensively in this book, has provided us with
a perspective from which we can look beyond the widespread assumptions about
suicidality and its treatment. Elsewhere, we outlined a conceptualization of suicide
based on cases and proposed how the treatment of suicidality can be developed
). The present chapter is another stepping stone in formulating
the contextual action theory informed approach to the counseling and treatment of
clients experiencing suicidal ideation and intentions. Specifically, we describe how
suicide is seen from the perspective of contextual action theory and then use the five
tasks of counseling identified elsewhere in this book to frame the application of this
perspective to counseling clients addressing issues of suicide. We also summarize
L. Valach and R. A. Young
some of our published and unpublished research findings about the proposed sui
What is suicide and suicidal behavior? Although the terms
have clear meanings and the professional definition on which the law is based
is also fairly precise, we should remember that from the standpoint of contextual ac
tion theory, suicide, suicidality, and counseling clients who are suicidal are complex
and interrelated processes that can be seen from different perspectives. The subjec
tive view is the perspective of the person who shows suicidal behavior or expresses
suicidal intention or wishes. The social view is that of the significant others who
consider the person suicidal, the latter either representing or not representing the
personal intention. Finally, relevant professionals (the professional view) consider
. This view, however simple as it may seem, contra
dicts many theories and established professional codifications, which see suicide
; Esquirol
; Merian
see also Valach
. These theories offer some advantages. They freed our under
standing of suicide from its moral underpinning with which it was viewed for many
of those who attempted
suicide are among those who die of suicide (Jenkins et
. At the same time, only a small portion of people with a
mental disorder diagnosis is suicidal (Bostwick
. These theories opened the
door to the scientific inquiry of suicidality. They also helped in having suicide ac
Nevertheless, clients’ stories and narratives of suicide are about action processes,
projects and longer-term involvements such as career. This is the case even when
clients maintain that their attitude to suicide is a negative one, that they did not
want to kill themselves, but the impulse to take their own lives suddenly came upon
them or that they do not remember what happened. Using terminology informed by
contextual action theory in qualifying suicide processes (Michel and Valach
we not only see human behavior in different terms but also connected to a different
professional tradition in human disciplines such as psychology (James
; Vygotsky
), psychia-
try (Jaspers
; Wittgenstein
; We
). It also is of interest to note that, in the past 30 years, neurology has con-
. The purpose of using contextual action theory to understand suicide is
not to find its cause but to identify a systemic and sequential order of suicidal pro
cesses, such as actions and projects. Moreover, at the same time as they are working
with clients who may be suicidal, counselors are also engaged in the goal-directed
systems of their own professional career and projects as well as in the systems of
their own organization, agency, and other professional bodies. Thus, the counselor
has to identify and be aware of the complex systemic order of the joint
Our view is that working within and on these systems occurs in a contextual-
constructionist way (Young and Collin
. The contextual stance recognizes the
rich, complex environments that surround the target process, in this case the suicide
process. These environments are functionally connected. The contextual stance also
postulates that the meaning of the target processes changes as their contexts change.
Their meaning is not defined in a physical and definitive manner. Put another way,
constructionist counselors understand that clients as well as counselors are continu
ally constructing their social reality (Young and Valach
Furthermore, this construction
happens in joint social actions, projects, and careers.
The majority of processes counselors deal with is joint processes. Thus, it is impor
tant to assert from the beginning that the relational perspective in counseling is very
; V
alach and Young
relational view impacts how we see processes—our
ontology, that is, it is the rela
tionship between “things” and not the individual “things” that is relevant. This view
epistemology, that is, how we understand the process of obtaining
information about the targeted phenomena; and our
L. Valach and R. A. Young
can assume that if naive observers observed short-term suicidal behavior of a per
son (the suicidal act) they would describe it in terms of goals. The action of a person
cutting his wrists deeply or overdosing on drugs is readily understood in relation to
the goal of taking one’s own life. This would also be the case even if observing the
mid- and long-term behavior of a person who is suicidal. Naive observers assume
that actors have goals in order to describe their behavior in terms of goal-directed
; Vallacher and Wegner
. Their accounts take the form
of descriptions of the actor’s action, project, and/or career. These shared attributions
are occasionally addressed in social cognition research (Fiske and Taylor
or social representation conceptualizations (Moscovici and Markova
because of this socially anchored and shared understanding of suicide processes, we
also find a comparable conceptualization in the subjective perspective of the actors
themselves (von Cranach and Valach
; Valsiner and van der Veer
. That
is, people who are suicidal also describe their own suicide-related behavior in terms
Empirical evidence for this postulate is provided in a study in which 39 persons
who had attempted suicide were interviewed regarding their attempt (Valach et
. T
o collect information on the subjective
projects, we engaged the participants in an interview with video supported recall
of the action processes (the interview) recorded on video. To obtain data on so
cial meaning, we relied on naive observation (Valach et
processes from the self-confrontation
video-recording, we
also gathered data on manifest behavior which provided the
opportunity for professional systematic observation. In essence, the naive observers
and the participants themselves taught us that the target processes could be seen as
goal-directed processes in short-, mid-, and long-term forms. We were also able to
integrate this knowledge into systematic
system that allowed us to address the systemic organization of these goal-directed
processes fully.
The basis of our analysis of these data was as follows. At the highest level of the
suicide process, we assumed a goal in order to define a unit of analysis—an action.
At the middle level, we described the ongoing manifest and subjective processes
in term of their functions in regard to the goals. Finally, at the lowest level of the
systemic organization, we registered all the physical properties of such ongoing be
havior in categories of space, time, and sound. This system was used in understand
ing, describing and coding the ongoing processes in their short-term, mid-term, and
long-term forms. In addition, we know that the majority of actions and projects are
processes, thus we had to conceptualize and monitor individual as well as joint
actions, which we did in describing such joint actions as two systems of individual
and joint processes (individual goals/joint goals, individual cognitive-emotional
processes/joint communication, individual functions/joint functions related to the
Following these methodological procedures, we arrived at a conception of sui
cidal processes as systems of socially meaningful, goal-directed, cognitive-emo
tionally and communicatively organized embedded joint actions, projects and long-
term career. Although researchers and clinicians often can follow suicidal projects
and careers, they seldom have the opportunity of monitoring suicidal actions first
hand. They can occasionally read about the naive observation of suicidal actions
provided by witnesses and can assume some correspondence between subjective
processes immediately prior a suicide action and the reports people who have at
tempted or completed suicide leave in their good-bye letters or notes (Leenaars
. Consequently, the major source of information on ongoing suicide
processes is the actors’ narratives. Of particular relevance and high
ecological valid
. Consider
the following example
Suicide Actions, Project and Career in a Narrative After
L. Valach and R. A. Young
understand the motivation that emerges when actions are connected to super-ordi
nate goal-directed processes (Averill and Nunley
The same participant described the following suicide project and actions con
‘Husband proposes leaving her’, ‘She leaves as usual for holidays’, ‘Husband announces
This participant saw her suicide
attempt as part of a whole project in which her
husband indicated his intention to leave her. She mentioned that her husband’s in
tention to start a relationship with another woman was very relevant to her suicide
project. Adjoined is a project of visiting a friend and her godchild that could have
been instrumental in strengthening her husband’s extramarital relationship
A rejected proposal to renew their relationship also played a relevant role in this
Clients often see suicide actions as part of suicide projects, in which other ac
tions or considerations were undertaken to realize the project goal. In some other
cases, a suicide action is part of a project with a different goal. In this study, all
the participants saw their action as a part of a suicide or other project. The woman
referred to above listed the following projects as a part of her suicide career (Valach
‘Personal identity project’ (participant describes herself as a bit depressed, not very sociable
The woman described a suicide career and related her identity
to make her suicide attempt understandable. She maintained that there is not a direct
. Suicide and
attempts are often undertaken because of relationship disappointments but the con
clusion that suicide should be treated in a relational manner has not been drawn.
The following examples are taken from a previous publication in which we de
The long-term
processes of relationship careers were reported in the participants’
narratives as influential in their suicide actions and projects. These relationships
often included parents, such as described by a 17-year-old woman:
The participant maintains that she has a problem with her parents. Her father, who left the
family when she was 3 years old, was promising things all the time, such as that he is going
to take her to the movies, but he never showed up. He returned a year ago and is living with
them now. He is a Moslem and according to his ideas a girl of the daughter’s age is not
allowed to have a boy friend and go out. His daughter complains that he drinks when he has
a problem. When he is drunk he comes home and tries to explain to her that he loves her and
that is too much for her, because she does not consider him to be her father. She feels that
when her parents have a problem her mother “takes it out” on her. Her mother had stomach
reduction surgery and now she is depressed and tense.
For the majority of participants, their partners were involved, as illustrated in the
The woman mentioned that she was relying on her boyfriend a lot because she went through
three sexual abuse attempts when she was 6, 15, and 16 years of age. She felt that he would
not abuse her, but she found that he was misusing her trust. Two months ago an abusive
incident nearly happened again. This time it was his best friend.
The relationship careers also included spouses, as illustrated in the narrative of a
The man reported that his wife did not feel well. He complained that she listened to loud
music and did not watch television. He cooked all of the time. After some time, she said
that he should go. She said that he destroyed her. Once they went to the cemetery, to the
grave of his aunt and she suddenly started screaming and crying. She said again and again
that he had destroyed her.
The participants’ narrated stories of the suicide attempt were embedded mostly in
projects. These projects are parts of the relationship careers described
above. The relationship projects, including the breaking up of relationships, were
often influential in the participants’ crises. However, sometimes they proved to be
life supporting. For example, although an 18-year-old participant considered sui
cide, she would not attempt it because of a relationship she had. Also of interest are
situations in which relationship projects functioned in such a way that the persons
felt unable to communicate their urgent problems.
L. Valach and R. A. Young
A teenage woman experienced a number of relationship disappointments embed
ded in an unsatisfactory home situation, complicated by a multicultural background:
‘Last call.’ The woman describes her getting in touch with her best girlfriend and openly
discussing her suicide intentions. Although this friend was well meant telling her to be
reasonable, to calm down and sending her to sleep this did not prove efficient to inhibit her
‘Saying goodbye to her mother.’ Prior to her suicide attempt, the woman shows her
mother how desolate she feels. He mother recognizes that her daughter has problems but
is unable to intervene, as their communicative relationship is complicated. The woman
declines her offer to talk and her mother does not try any further.
‘Talking to her mother after the suicide action’, ‘Mother’s response to her daughter’s
suicide attempt.’ The mother’s reaction represents their relationship of mistrust. However,
receiving proof of her daughter’s suicidal intentions, she acts according to the possible
‘Encounter with woman’s father after the suicide attempt.’ Her father, on the other hand,
seems to be out of touch with what is going on at home and what the adequate reactions
‘Talks by a third party after the suicide attempt.’ She reports conversations between her
mother, her friend, and her former boyfriend who were very important to her.
‘A young woman and her boyfriend’s interaction after her suicide attempt.’ The wom
an’s girlfriend attempted to restore the broken relationship between the woman and her
boyfriend, which caused so much distress to her. The intervention of her mother and her
girlfriend led to a call of her boyfriend. However, it was not satisfactory to the young
woman. Nevertheless, the patient acknowledges that she managed to have a good exchange
with her mother.
The whole process around this participant’s suicide attempt is accompanied by her
contacts with other people significant in her life. The encounters with them did not
help her but served the other people to justify their position prior to the participant’s
A young man, 18 years of age, talks about his biological mother who left him
when he was
7 years old and does not want to hear from him. Despite his at
tempts, he managed to see her only twice. His father, who is alcoholic, is not
present. His adoptive parents, his aunt and uncle, are described as showing in
difference, lacking feeling, but high on discipline. The young man experiences
A middle age
woman described the loss of her mother who left the family when
the woman was 7 years old. Her mother said that she was going to a spa, but left
the family with another man. The fear of being left behind is very intrusive.
When a young women,
17 years of age, was 3 years old her father left the family.
He promised several times that he is going to visit her, take her to the cinema,
but he never came. The woman described this emotional relationship as unstable,
insecure, indifferent, and disappointing. Later in boarding school she felt dis
carded. The fear of being rejected was very acute.
A young woman,
addicted to drugs, HIV positive, described her unstable family
situation and how her brother sexually abused her when she was 13 years old.
These reports indicate a presence of negative emotional memories, which the par
ticipants related to their suicide careers. The emotional processes anchored in these
memories should be attended to in understanding suicide and should be addressed
Top–Down and Bottom–Up Steering in Suicide
An emotional memory of feeling worthless and the desire to disappear, when actual
experience in a suicide action. To account for
such processes within the goal-directed processes described above, we describe the
situations in which the action is steered by top–down strategies, as is common in
goal-directed processes. In suicide, top–down steering strategies are complemented
by bottom-up steering strategies (Valach et
). We indicated
people process suicide-related and life-related projects and careers in parallel ways.
L. Valach and R. A. Young
processes, the links occur in processes of a lower order in goal-directed action, that
is, in words, phrases, movements, images, perception of environmental features,
or sudden feelings rather than goals or long-term plans. This perspective captures
unconscious processes or responds to a momentary pull or impulse that is critical
in some suicide attempts. Bottom-up steering is reflected in the terms “affective,”
“emotional” or “impulsive” suicide (Simon et
; Williams et
perspective is captured
in dynamic systems theory (Vallacher and Nowak
However, it is important to keep in one’s mind that suicides are seldom rational
in the full sense of the word, that there is no action without affective processes
involved and that what is often called affective action is a goal-directed action after
all. The following examples are taken from Valach et
al. (
in which a more
The woman
describes her husband writing to her that he is reconsidering their
and will not come home and how, despite this information she continued to do her
The woman indicates
that she had made the decision to take her own life
a long time ago. Only the last straw that broke the camel’s back was missing. Her
husband’s informing her that he couldn’t stand it any longer and that is why he was
leaving was the last straw. She was expecting this (Valach et
Suicide Attempt Action
The woman describes how
she has prepared everything
for her suicide a half a year ago, how she proceeded during the day of her suicide,
The action that preceded the suicide
attempt was the woman’s husband leaving
her. The link was, as she indicated, that she had decided a long time ago to die by
suicide. She also prepared the necessary means for her suicide act and was only
waiting for a situation to arise, which would give her the “last push.” This situation
occurred when her husband indicated that he wanted to leave her. Then she pro
ceeded in a controlled way, took precautions, made sure that the details would not
Life-Related Actions that Preceded the Suicide Attempt Action
The woman
described a feeling of internal
She reported that she
felt being driven outside, that someone wanted her to
She reported that she
did not remember anything. She
was told that she got up after the yoghurt and walked to the terrace and jumped, as
if this was the clearest thing. Her sister saw it at the last moment, asked what she
was doing, but she had already jumped. It is about a 10–15
m drop (Example from
The actions
that preceded the suicide
attempt involved the woman trying to gain
control over her thoughts. In the link, she was challenged by thoughts, feeling rest
less and disorganized, and losing control. She felt she was being driven outside
and to jump. The internal process that directed her actions was the experience of
mental disorganization. Both of these represent bottom-up processes. However, this
suicide process was integrated into a suicide project, which she described in her
narrative, for example, dealing with the issue that “better no mother than a mother
L. Valach and R. A. Young
In our analysis of the descriptions of the links, that is, how the clients changed
the course of their actions from life-oriented to death-oriented, we were able to
distinguish three types of links following the “top-down” and “bottom-up” typol
First, most links reflected a “top-down”
steering and control, characteristic for goal-directed processes (in 17 of 39 cases).
These research participants reported a conscious decision to attempt a suicide, in
cluding having the goal to attempt suicide and the choice of means. Second, bottom-
up links occurred in 9 of 39 cases. Finally, in some cases in our study the suicide ac
tion seemed to be launched by a mixture of “top-down” and “bottom-up” processes
an action step (as in top down processes) as well as engaged in the suicide process
without a clear goal, including what the end state of the action was (as in bottom-
up processes). In our sample we found that more women than men (30
% vs. 14
reported bottom-up links and more men than women (53
% vs. 39
down links. The distribution
of mixed links across gender was about equal (women:
Earlier in this book (Chap.
9) we identified five counseling tasks that we consider
the primer for counselors
working from a contextual action theory view. These tasks
Counseling’s First Task: Creating and Maintaining
the Working Alliance
Creating and maintaining a working alliance (Michel and Jobes
with clients who are suicidal in two particular ways. First, it is important to see
suicidal processes in terms of joint, goal-directed systems of actions, projects, and
careers. As we have argued, social reality is constructed as joint goal-directed pro
cesses. Thus, it is relevant for counselors to reflect on the way they jointly construct
the social reality of clients who are suicidal because these clients will take this
construction to their lives outside the counseling office. If counselors want clients
to act in a self-responsible, goal-directed way, facilitating their own life-enhancing
projects, counselors have to treat them in their joint encounters in that way. Coun
selors have to strive for joint goal-directed action in the encounter, to give clients
all the necessary space to enable them to construct their narratives in terms of
goal-directed systems, and to support their life enhancing projects and career that
Secondly, creating and maintaining the working
alliance relies on recognizing
and acknowledging clients’ emotions experienced when they address what we call
“life-career issues.” These emotional experiences, such as experiencing rejection or
We were able
to report that when therapists apply a sensitive strategy, that is, ad
dress clients’ emotions related to their reported key life-career issues, the clients
believe that the therapist is helping them, that the interview is helping them, that the
therapist understands them, and that they are working together with the therapist in
a joint effort. All of the preceding client perceptions indicate the importance of joint
efforts in creating a successful encounter, the importance of relating the various
goal-directed systems to each other—action, project and career as in the case of life-
career—and, finally, of letting the client outline the goal-directed system rather than
providing the client with a schema for how such narratives should be developed,
and connecting with clients through emotions related to life-career issues related
emotions. However, the following four counseling tasks contribute equally to, and
are important prerequisites for, the working
Counseling’s Second Task: Linking Counseling and Life
The important processes in lives of clients who are suicidal are those experienced
prior to counseling and those that will continue after counseling, hopefully in im
The counselor
care that the narrative of the client who is suicidal is developed according
to how the client sees action in the context of his or her communication commu
Narratives about suicide and suicide attempts are socio-cultural constructions
and should reflect the socio-cultural context. This use of the common
theory, that is, how the client sees action, in the counseling session of clients who
L. Valach and R. A. Young
Counseling’s Third Task: Identifying Systems and Levels
of Projects and Action
We encourage counselors to identify how both, suicide and life facilitating actions,
projects, and careers are organized in clients’ lives, including the relevant other
. In
addition, clients’ other
goal-directed systems should be identified, including work and life relationships
and mattering (Schultheiss,
), cul
), among others.
Counselors are encouraged to
recognize that clients who are suicidal are engaged in both, health promoting and
life facilitating actions, projects, and career (Valach and Badertscher
limiting and health-detrimental actions, projects, and careers, such as drug
(Graham et
; Valach
and suicide. In counseling for
suicidality, the counselor is aware that not only should life endangering action sys
tems—suicide action, project and career—diminish, but also life facilitating action
Counseling’s Fourth Task: Dealing with Emotion
Emotions are central to the counseling
process. They also have to be allowed to
occur and be actively used in the counseling (Pascual-Leone and Greenberg
Contextual action theory recognizes the relevance of emotion within goal-directed
. As Averill (
indicated, emotion is neither the
Although the division between rational or cognitive and emotional processes as
separate events has been rejected (Phelps
, some memory events anchored in
traumatizing experiences of clients who are suicidal can be seen more specifically
as emotional processes. The person’s quick holistic monitoring of events, which
has been attributed to emotional processes, can be deterred by emotional memory.
These emotional memories may not be identified as such by the client who is suicid
al. Thus, an everyday situation can become frightening, with the consequence that
the suicidal client disengages from the ongoing processes or copes with his or her
fear in another, perhaps even detrimental, way. Clients often present these situations
or complaints as difficulties or insecurities. Emotional memory is readily addressed
in contextual action theory by analyzing and dealing with the processes within ac
tions and projects as well as looking at the issue of long-term career in various areas
of clients’ lives. For example, a client’s childhood experience of unsuccessful at
tempts to attract her mother’s attention could have impacted her ability to process
joint goal-directed actions with adequate emotions for many years to such a degree
Two interventions contribute to directing emotions toward life enhancement and
life facilitating in clients who are suicidal. The first is to ensure that the clients
competency in emotional processing, that is, that he or she is able to dif
ferentiate their emotions, as well as the emotions of others. The second task is to
identify and work on negative emotional memories that impact everyday situations
and action monitoring. When clients are reminded of traumatizing situation experi
enced earlier in their lives, the emotion from the traumatizing experience occurs as
the emotion of the action in “here and now.” Exposure and trauma therapy provide
Related to the issue of emotional memory impacting certain relevant actions
within projects and careers is the problem of linking various careers in different
areas of life. This linking and intertwining are reflected in both facilitative and
successful as well as the destructive and unsuccessful engagements of clients in
life projects and careers. Although these processes are all goal-directed and follow
rules of top–down steering, the links between these processes can also occur as
bottom-up steering often understood as impulsive or affective response as described
above. The links from suicide processes to life-facilitative processes must be de
veloped in a suicide preventive way following the conceptualization of the links
between life-facilitating and suicidal processes. Some of the links facilitating a life
enhancing action can be utilized in a precontemplated way as top–down steering,
other depend on the bottom-up steering, when the desired action or sub-action is
generated in an indirect way.
Counseling’s Fifth Task: Dealing with Suboptimal
L. Valach and R. A. Young
in this volume). Rather than intervention-control group designs or administrative
performance evaluation, we suggest counseling can be called successful when more
of the following questions are answered in a strongly positive manner: Is the client
engaged in meaningful goal-directed action? Is the client involved in a motivated
way in projects generated by him or herself or by others, but agreed upon by the
In regard to actions, counselors should ask themselves the following questions:
Is the client engaged in shared action goals that are relevant for life-enhancing proj
ects and career? Are the client’s cognitive-emotional
processes salient and do they
In regard to project, counselors should ask themselves the following questions:
Is the client engaged in a joint goal-directed project relevant for a life-enhancing
career in a way that serves his/her identity goals, in an emotional sensitive man
ner, and in a cooperative way? Are these mid-term goals challenging but not too
stressful? Is the client performing successful project steps and receiving positive
feedback in cooperative undertakings? Are these projects emotionally satisfying
In regard to life-enhancing career, counselors should ask themselves: Is the client
involved in a life-enhancing and life sustaining career that provides a meaningful
life in a socially integrated and emotionally satisfying way? Do these long-term
engagements allow for novelty and also allow enough security and predictability?
and career should also be monitored and evaluated. Here the questions address the
adequate execution of the actions, projects and career as well as the presence of
In this chapter, we have suggested that, in order to develop successful encounters
with clients who are suicidal, we can advantageously use the understanding of sui
cide behavior as goal-directed action, rather than, for example, suicide as a response
driven by a mental disorder. Systems of goal-directed processes in form of short-
term actions, mid-term projects, and long-term career offer a differentiated network
for classifying of various processes involved in suicide. First, we illustrated the
hierarchical nature of these processes and stressed the importance of seeing suicide
in relational terms, suggesting that suicide is a social process. Secondly, we pointed
out that people who are suicidal contact many lay people before and particularly af
ter their incomplete suicide action. Thus, lay people become an important target for
prevention. Thirdly, we further indicated that many people who are suicidal
describe social events from their childhood as an important part of their suicidal
career. These events are part of their emotional memories, which are often opera
tional in their suicide action. Fourthly, in outlining that goal-directed processes of
suicide are subject to both top-down and bottom-up steering, we indicated that early
emotional experience is accommodated in these two types of steering processes
in different ways. Finally, in the context of counseling clients who are suicidal,
we described the five counseling tasks and discussed the conceptualization of the
client-counselor encounter in term of goal-directed processes. By addressing the is
sue of life-enhancing goal-directed processes, we stressed the positive psychology
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Chapter 19
Counseling Processes and Procedures
Richard A. Young, Ladislav Valach and José F. Domene
Springer New York 2015
University of British Columbia, V
ancouver, BC, Canada
The authors of the previous chapters have extensively examined the place of ac
tion in counseling. In particular chapters they have shown its connections, both
in similarities and differences, with major counseling trends and positions. Others
have applied action to particular counseling populations and presenting problems.
In Chaps.
9 and 10, we
provided an overview of counseling and action from the
perspective of contextual action theory (CAT) and, in applying this perspective,
identified and discussed five counseling tasks. In this chapter, we provide more de
tails on counseling processes and procedures based on CAT. They are not intended
to replace similar or competing processes and procedures that counselors may be
using. Rather, in this chapter we invite counselors to examine more closely what
Our invitation in this chapter, and in the book generally, is to join us in reflect
ing on the possibilities for professional practice and everyday life by respecting the
power of our clients and our encounters with them in life facilitating
ways. It is an invitation to consider how relevant an everyday understanding of cli
ents’ lives and counsellors’ practice is for professional practice and theorizing. As
readers of this book, you know that its focus has not been limited to practical appli
cations. You know that we, as editors and authors, have invited you to consider the
broad conceptual dimensions of action in counseling as well as their implications
for practice. It is our view that the basic philosophy and the methods and techniques
go hand-in-hand, that they are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, the pre-condition
of engaging in CAT-informed counseling is to be acquainted not only with the ac
tion project methods and techniques (Valach and Young
, but also with the basic philosophy and approach of CAT. This approach as
8) overlaps to a
great extent with some of the procedures of coun
seling informed by CAT. The latter also adheres to many principles of dialectic
therapy (Linehan
, as, on the one hand, dialectics is a basic principle
of a relational orientation and, on the other, CAT also frames processes as oscillat
ing between internally and externally directed constructions. Counseling informed
by CAT is also related to experiential
; Green
, as
action and the experience of action – some authors would say
– is the center of the counseling process. Existential
therapy (Frankl
; Yalom
finds many comparable ideas in CAT as mean
ing (of life), goals, and projects provide cornerstones of CAT conceptualization.
Psychodynamic therapies with their emphasis on interpersonal aspects and
scious processes as well as their ability to construe a long-term working
are also well represented in counseling informed by CAT. Constructivist (Neimeyer
and constructionist approaches (Burr
; Young and Collin
are mirrored in CAT-informed counseling as social construction through ac
tion is its basic premise. Equally, many other counseling processes are used in CAT
counseling, including problem-solving (Leith
psychotherapy (Angus and McLeod
, post-traumatic growth (Tedeshi and Calhoun
approaches (Halling and Dearborn Nill
; Laing
, mindfulness (Kabat-
, career construction counseling (Savickas
, and project work
This list could be much longer as CAT is not an approach defined
theories allow the counselor to conceptualize their cases and, based
on that conceptualization, to act jointly with the client relative to the case. The theo
ries answer the question of how counselors think about their clients and the issues
they present. Logically, case conceptualization may precede the processes and pro
cedures, but in effect, conceptualization and the implementation of counseling pro
cesses and procedures occur simultaneously with the counselor’s engagement with
the client. Although the theories the counselor has learned, accepted, and integrated
are an important part of that process, the counselor knows that it is unlikely that
the client is guided by a similar formal counseling theory. Rather, clients bring ev
eryday understandings of themselves, their lives, and their problems to counseling.
In addition, no matter how sophisticated the counselors’ conceptual frameworks
may be, they still rely on an everyday understanding of clients’ lives and problems.
Counselors rely on this understanding because it is the clients’ frameworks in which
they are acting out their lives. Moreover, the counseling processes and procedures
are actions and, like all the actions discussed in this book, are subject to every
day understandings. The main difference from the aforementioned approaches is
that CAT-informed counseling relies on the basic principles of
CAT, including the
important principles of systemic order, multiple perspectives, process
relationalism, contextualism, and constructionism.
Shortly, we provide and elaborate on a list of processes and procedures that detail
how the different levels and systems of actions can be addressed in counseling for
optimal client outcome and functioning. Before examining the list in detail, it may be
helpful to immerse oneself in a case example of how action theory can provide a way
of conceptualizing a case (see Text Box
) and a second example of how CAT is
process as implemented in one counseling
(see Text Box
). Some readers may prefer to refer to these cases as they read the
Text Box 19.1
The Case of Veronique:
In this chapter we described the aspects of action, project, and career that
can be addressed in counseling to assist clients to engage in meaningful joint
projects and life-enhancing careers. Coupled with the five counseling tasks
envisioned in counseling informed by contextual action theory (see Chap.
and Valach and
Young 2012), a rich, integrative conceptual framework and
practice guidelines emerge. This framework and these guidelines are briefly
illustrated in the following case example of how a client’s situation and pre
senting problems may be conceptualized by a CAT-informed practitioner.
Veronique, a 37-year-old woman, sought therapy and counseling because
she became very anxious after being involved in a traffic accident. She reported
a number of actions she could no longer perform, for example, driving her car.
She also reported on actions she could engage in only with great difficulty
because of anxiety; for example, relaxing when her 16-year-old daughter is
out. In addition, her relationship with her daughter (project) suffered.
Veronique indicated that she would like to “get on with my life,” that is,
continue with her other projects and long-term involvements, but could not
leave the accident behind. She also complained about her partner, the father
of her daughter, who had been living with them for the last year, after a nine-
year absence. She reported that he does not help at home, and is impulsive,
self-righteous, and violent. He also does not contribute much to the running
of the household. Veronique spoke in a very distant manner about the accident
in which she suffered internal injuries after being run over by a car. Reflecting
upon her past, she talked about her unreliable alcoholic mother under whom
she suffered much. Veronique had returned to her previous employment as a
clerk in a shop after the injury. However, she expressed dissatisfaction with
this job and her lack of qualifications to get the better job she desired. Fur
thermore, she expressed her intention to leave her partner after their daughter
reached her 18th birthday. Thus, the counselor recognizes a number of long-
term involvements and strivings we label “career,” including her relationship
to her partner, to her daughter, to her mother, and her employment career. Her
projects include getting over the accident, progressing at work, terminating
her relationship with her partner, improving her relationship with her daugh
Veronique wants to improve some actions, such as being able to drive her
car again. Some of the strivings and goal-directed processes can be addressed
at goal level, such as her career project. Others would have to be unpacked at
the level of action and project steps; that is, the control system where the func
tionality in regards to the action and project goals is examined and changed.
Some others have to be addressed and worked on as action regulation, for
Veronique was inhibited in her actions and projects by a number of emo
tional memories. These included the trauma of the accident, then an emo
tional memory of an earlier car accident in which she was not injured. There
was also the memory of a number of emotional events and actions with her
abusive mother, her violent partner, and others. Additionally, during the fear
ful experiences with her mother, she developed a tendency to dissociate, a
Veronique’s suboptimal and detrimental actions and projects are related to
her traumatization, but also to her belief, enacted in her relationship project
with her partner, that she must remain in an abusive relationship as she had
experienced with her mother.
In the joint elaborating of Veronique’s action systems, of her emotional
memories and her detrimental actions and projects, a helping alliance can be
constructed. However, Veronique has to learn about her dissociative strategies
that make it difficult for her to engage in the work on her traumatic experi
ences and emotional memory, which are the topic of her dissociation.
Text Box 19.2
Counseling Process: A Session with Sandra and Anne
a 19-year-old woman, was seen on four occasions by a counselor,
Anne, who works from a systems perspective. Sandra’s initial presenting
problem, elaborated in the first session, was the challenge of returning home
after having lived in another city for a year. Specifically, she was concerned
about her relationship with her parents and her possible reimmersion in the
local drug culture. The third session is discussed here from a contextual action
theory perspective based on a detailed analysis of all the sessions from that
Sandra’s presenting problem and subsequent engagement with Anne
revealed two interrelated projects that were of concern to her, namely, iden
In Session 3, Sandra’s goals were to gain support and validation for both
the adult she was becoming and her position within her family. The latter goal
seemed particular salient in light of her parents’ lack of acknowledgement of
her progress toward responsible adulthood. She perceived that her parents
were treating her “like a child,” “like I’m still 15.” The relational project
is intertwined with her identity project and goal that is apparent throughout
this session. She wanted to be able to define herself in opposition to both her
brother and her mother, and paradoxically, in likeness to her mother in some
respects. Part of the session is given over to trying to resolve her indecision
about staying in this city or moving to another city.
Sandra used a number of functional steps in this session to reach her goals.
She openly shared details about herself and her family. She explained in detail
the challenges of her family situation—not being recognized as an adult,
being caught in the middle, being considered as one who needs to be con
trolled, being lashed out against. She repeatedly expressed frustration, anger,
In engaging with Sandra in this session, Anne, the counselor, had the fol
lowing goals. She wanted to align herself with the client and to continue to
build the working alliance begun in the first session. She addressed Sandra’s
sense of identity with her. Anne’s goals included trying to understand the fam
ily context and to make suggestions so Sandra would experience less conflict
at home. She wanted to encourage the client to understand her parents’ goals
so that she could base her actions on them and not on her feeling of being
devalued. In this way, Anne hoped that Sandra would be able to lessen her
Anne took a number of functional steps to reach her goals. Anne expressed
interest in tracking Sandra’s narrative. She normalized and validated Sandra’s
experience. She encouraged Sandra to see her parents’ perspective and to see
herself in relation to others. She explored with Sandra her family context,
9 and elsewhere (Valach and Young 2013), we have described the five
counseling tasks inspired by
CAT. Here we adopt a complementary way of expand
ing and detailing that information. Specifically, the counseling task of connecting
with the client’s daily life and with the actions and projects in the client’s daily life,
involves addressing where to go with the client’s actions and projects. Of course,
This list of
“optimal” functions is neither definitive nor exhaustive, but it offers a
framework for further considerations. Table
provides exam
ples of the issues
for the counselor and client to address in counseling. The best chances for success
ful counseling is greatly increased when these issues are well processed and inte
The following simplified schema distinguishes between action, project and ca
reer systems. It further distinguishes between three levels of each system. At the
highest level, action, project, and career can all be considered from the perspec
tive of goals. These goals reflect their steering processes. Goals are constructed,
identified, and spoken about in socially meaningful categories. The second level
of Table
represents the
steps in implementing an action, project, and career.
These steps have a control function and are represented by their functional descrip
tion. The third level represents the elements of action, project, and career. This level
captures regulation processes and is defined in physical terms. The numbering in
the following text corresponds to the numbers used in Table
using a family systems lens. She advised about effective communication tech
niques to use with her family. At the same time Anne was challenged in trying
to help the client develop some awareness of her own internal processes as
Sandra’s and Anne’s individual goals and functional steps came together
to form joint goals for the session. Addressing the client’s identity was one of
them, represented in the issues of Sandra holding down two jobs and finish
ing high school. Addressing the relational project was engaged in through
a dynamic process of the client requesting support by complaining and the
counselor providing support by validating, praising, approving, and comple
menting the client. Their joint counseling project is seen as satisfactory by
both participants, yet the tension between them of client complaints and coun
The Goal Level/Steering Processes of Action
(1) Shared Action Goals
To what extent are counselors aware of their clients’ individual and joint
goals and of the possible strengths and weaknesses of these actions? With their
clients, counselors can address and work on supporting resourceful actions and im
proving or abandoning detrimental ones. In order to understand and work with a
client’s shared action goals, counselors can ask themselves questions such as the
following: What are the client’s actions and goals when relating to others? What are
the actions the client is dissatisfied with? What are the actions the client is proud
of? What are the client’s destructive action goals? What are the client’s constructive
and life enhancing actions and goals and how can they be improved? What were my
own and the client’s joint actions and goals in the session?
Table 19.1
Domains and issues of
the life-enhancing career. (Source: Young and Valach
Motivated participa-
tion in projects gener-
At the level of mean-
At the level of control
11 Emotional and cog
17 Allowing predict
18 Attendance to emo
elements (uncon-
behavior, structural
support, resources)
and regulation
19 Energy
23 Adequate structural
25 Adequate emotional
Clients can also
be mistaken in connecting actions and projects. For example,
a client could connect her action of engaging in numerous arguments with others,
from which she reports feeling upset and disappointed with herself, to her project of
“addressing injustice.” However, she might subsequently learn that the feelings mo
tivating her aggressive engagements with others are based on her emotional memo
al. 2008;
. Ongoing
relationships to partners, children, parents, work
and other colleagues, neighbors, and friends can often be valuable resources but
also a source of problems. Occupational projects are equally important in modern
postmodern societies and often of concern in counseling (Domene et
Frequently, these projects involve one or more sub-projects that
have the client’s attention, such as fitness, body weight, eating habits, sleeping,
(4) Motivated Projects Are Consensual or Cooperative
To what extent does the counselor address the issue of whether and how the client
is engaged in cooperative
projects? Cooperative projects stress the consensual as
pects of any engagement in a joint venture. It is important for clients to understand
and experience how their joint projects are mutual, even if there is disagreement or
conflict in the engagement. It is particularly helpful in counseling when the coun
selor and client can attend to the client’s cooperative projects with other people in
the client’s life. What are these projects? What is their quality? How is the client
involved? What function or role does the client have in the project? Is the client part
of goal setting? Do the client and other people in the client’s life share the project
goals? How does the client contribute to the project? Are these projects helpful to
the client’s personally relevant career?
To what extent do counselors assess whether clients’ projects are emotionally sensi
tive in a life-facilitating or life-detrimental way and consider appropriate interven
tions? What is the emotional dimension of these projects? Are the projects con
ceived with the appropriate emotional understanding, are they emotionally well
monitored, and are they energized or de-energized?
A number of questions arise for counselors when assessing the relevance of client
projects for their career and identity processes. Do clients link their projects with
something more long-term? How do clients make this link? To what extent are cli
ents conscious of their references to the link between project and career? How are
projects integrated with and help the client’s identity processes? To what extent are
The Level of Functional Processes and Control of Action
The action steps clients take should facilitate their action goals. They should also
serve actions related to client identity. In CAT-informed counseling, actions are
short-term goal-directed processes containing action steps as a system of function
ally defined units directed at achieving the goal. Thus, counselors can analyze how
clients proceed in pursuing goals. The analysis is based on the client’s actions dur
ing the counseling sessions, and on reported actions that take place outside of coun
seling. For example the action of a mother who describes trying to provide
to her adolescent son by using the reproachful question, “why don’t you ever do as
I tell you?” is easily recognized as an action
step dysfunctional to her goal of trying
(11) Emotional and Cognitive Components
Counselors do much more than address their clients’ observable manifest
Addressing the emotional and cognitive processes in action is part of counselors’
required competence. There is substantial information on optimal emotional and
cognitive processing in the counseling and psychotherapy literature for counselors
to use. Thus, the question counselors can ask themselves is: to what extent are they
aware of the cognitive-emotional processes in their clients’ actions? The last phrase
in their clients’ actions
, is important because it suggests that emo
tions and cognitions have to be addressed as they are
embodied in action. Emotions
and cognitions are much more than representational states or philosophies; rather
embodiments. In addition, in answering the question, counselors should
not limit themselves to focusing on emotions that disrupt action. Cognitive strate
gies, such as mindfulness, accepting, problem-solving, and
The Level of Functional Processes and Control of Project
(12) Mid-Term Challenging
Short-term harmony and adaptation are not the primary aims of CAT-informed
counseling. Instead, the temporal focus of the approach is in the mid-term; that is,
its focus is on how actions are constructed as projects over various periods of time.
Furthermore, the steps of a client’s project should be challenging but not overpow
ering. The steps should be neither too exciting nor too boring, neither beyond the
client’s means nor too easy to complete.
(17) Allowing for Predictability and Novelty
In the long-term, it is likely that clients want to maintain a balance between their
thirst for novelty and their need for predictability. The relative proportions of this
mixture differ from person to person, and from career to career.
cited example of a career in which an imbalance between
predictability and novelty
can become a problem. This issue of finding an appropriate balance should be ad
dressed explicitly in counseling and clients should be supported in trying to con
To what extent are the necessary verbal and non-verbal skills to perform actions
well ingrained and readily or automatically available to the client? Skills include
plans. For example, planning has long been recognized as a skill that clients
require. Skills also refer to those micro processes we execute semi-automatically,
for example, the counselor’s physical openness to the client. Skills training is a very
common procedure in many counseling and therapy approaches and should not be
overlooked by CAT-informed counselors.
To what extent are the client’s beneficial as well as detrimental behaviors habitual
ized? For example, getting very little sleep on a regular basis may be a habit a per
son developed while a student. It may have been beneficial for a short period of time
for the student’s academic achievement, but when habitualized may be detrimental
to the person’s health. As noted, habits can be life enhancing or life detrimental.
They can also facilitate action or inhibit it. Counselors can assist clients to identify
and change habitualized actions, for example, chronic nail-biting, and habitualized
elements of action, for example, talking too much in anxiety-provoking social situ
ations. Habit reversal training is one intervention successfully used to change habits
The Level of the Elements of Project
(23) Adequate Structural Support
To what extent can clients provide or obtain adequate support for their projects, in
cluding material, personal, and social resources? Clearly some actions and projects
are structured and thus entail structurally supportive as well as inhibitive features.
For example, the availability of special education teachers is a resource needed for
many educational projects for developmentally delayed children. Similarly, social
capital, a resource identified by
sociologists (Coleman
, contributes to the pro
portive processes and structures can frequently make the difference in implement
ing a project. Thus, attending to and helping the client to obtain adequate structural
support is typically an important component of CAT-informed counseling.
(24) Predictable and Manageable Time Order
Do the projects that clients are engaged in have a manageable and predictable time
order? Is this an issue clients need to become more aware of? Time order is also
monitored and attended to at this level of action and project organization. For exam
ple, the single mother who has two jobs may not have as predictable and manage
able time order to engage in the parenting project she and her children would like.
Counselors help their clients develop an adequate time order in which the required
(25) Adequate Emotional Resources
To what extent do clients’ projects receive adequate emotional support and do they
have access to the necessary emotional resources? These emotional resources are
part of how a project is regulated. For example, having a sufficient number of re
warding interpersonal relationships that can be drawn on may assist a young person
in his transition project from living at home to living on his own. These are differ
ent than attending to emotional issues as a part of control
scribed above (18). As an example of the latter, one would expect that incorporating
regular holidays as part of a professional career could be identified as a functionally
The Level of the Elements of Career
(26) Long-Term Adequate Time and Sequence
To what extent do clients’ careers and other long-term processes possess an adequate
time order? To what extent are the career aspects well organized sequentially? For
example, aspiring to, developing, and engaging in professional occupations require
a long-term time perspective and sequence. Counselors and clients are encouraged
avoid formulating judgmental propositions. It offers a constructive solution to the
dilemma of the counselors’ class and culture dictating the goals of the counseling,
on the one hand, and leaving goal construction solely to clients’ formulations, on
the other. Specifically, we know that the counselor’s lifestyle might not be suitable
and attractive to everyone. We also know that the goals clients formulate relative
to their presenting problems are often overshadowed by the same problems when
addressing other aspects of their lives. For example, the
helplessness of a depressed
client may be evident in both the presenting problems, the counseling process, and
the client’s other projects and career. The CAT-informed list of features provides a
way to integrate both the counselor’s and the client’s perspectives in formulating
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Askenazy, P., 93
Atkin, A., 98, 99
Atkinson, J.W., 70
Attitudes, 26, 27, 45, 51, 110
Austin, J.T., 168
Autonomy, 61, 76, 227, 286
Averill, J.R., 300
Avoidance-related emotions, 75
Awareness, 28, 55, 107, 115, 117, 120, 137,
Badertscher, M., 308
Baer, R.A., 255, 260, 267
Bailey, D.B., 240
Bakan, D., 115
Baker, B.L., 239
Baldwin, M.W., 158
Bandura, A., 2, 40, 70, 71, 271, 272, 275, 276,
Bargh, J.A., 69, 70, 168
Barker, E.D., 197
Battle, A., 70
Bauer, J.J., 274
Bauman, Z., 91, 93, 110, 116, 117, 120, 124
Baumeister, R.F., 51, 117
Bayne, T., 172
Beattie, O.V., 97
Beck-Gernsheim, E., 53, 116
Beck, U., 53, 116
Bedi, R.P., 156
Behavior, 110
Bellah, R.N., 116
Bereczkei, T., 2
Berger, P.L., 5, 117, 120
Bergum, V., 169
Berry, J.W., 182
Berzonsky, M.D., 26
Bickhard, M.H., 115, 117, 122, 123, 124
Biernacki, P., 213
Blonk, R.W.B., 81
Blustein, D.L., 4, 53, 69, 71, 118
Bohart, A.C., 61
Borden, J.W., 272
Borderline personality disorder, 260, 286
Bourdieu, P., 18, 60, 64
Bowlby, J.A., 117
Bradley, M.M., 7
Brandstätter, P.M., 80
Brandstätter, V., 80, 81
Brandtstädter, J., 51, 198
Brentano, F., 297
Brody, L.R., 186
Broonen, J.-P., 72, 180
Brown, K.W., 260
Brubaker, R., 120
Bruder, M.B., 240, 247
Bruner, J., 51, 52, 56, 116, 120, 122, 125, 128,
Burr, V., 318
Campbell, P., 246
Canadian Psychological Association, 2
Career(s), 42, 43, 44, 104, 118, 151
76, 80, 92, 108, 110, 117, 118, 119,
psychology, 4, 33
Carkhuff, R., 61
Carver, C.S., 104
Cassar, O., 18
Cerebral palsy, 242
Chandler, D.E., 15
Chang, S.W., 330
Chen, C.P., 5, 69, 158, 182
Christopher, J.C., 115, 117, 122, 123, 124
Client-counselor encounter, 2, 307, 334
Clinical psychology, 3, 77
Clot, Y., 93
Cochran, L., 52, 118, 163
Coelho, H.F., 260
Counsellor, 19
Couple therapy, 144
Creed, P.A., 70
anthropology, 3
Cushman, P., 62
Dachler, H.P., 169
Damasio, A., 105, 106, 107, 136, 138, 146
Dawis, R.V., 25
de Beauvoir, S., 287
Decety, J., 141, 144
de Kemp, R.A.T., 198
DeVries, N., 308
Dewey, J., 64, 151
Dey, P., 160, 299, 300, 324
Dialectic behavior therapy, 318
Diaz-Martinez, A.M., 288
Diefendorff, J.M., 74
Director, L., 288
Discourse, 62, 116, 118, 121, 125, 179
Domene, J.F., 82, 92, 102, 118, 119, 125, 152,
Dossetor, J., 169
Dreyer, P.H., 126
Druskat, V.U., 186
Dualistic, 115, 175, 178
Dunn, E.W., 124
Dyer, B., 119, 171, 261
Eating disorder, 155, 225, 228
Ecker, B., 318
Ehlers, A., 80
Ekman, P., 185
Embodied, 60, 117, 123, 178, 183, 219, 241,
Emirbayer, M., 169
Empathy, 20, 61, 62, 143, 144, 157, 232, 240,
Employability, 110
Employer, 22, 53
Empty-chair, 142
Giddens, A., 53, 54, 55, 93, 116, 120, 121, 124
Gielen, U.P., 3
Ginzberg, E., 108, 109
26, 28, 40, 70, 78, 81, 119, 181, 197,
198, 206, 211, 235, 258, 287, 299, 317
Gollwitzer, P.M., 70, 72, 78, 80, 81
Gorter, J.W., 250
Greenberg, L.S., 61, 136, 137, 138, 141, 144,
Greenberg, M.T., 249
Gross, E.F., 199
Gysin-Maillard, A., 172
Habermas, T., 128
Hacker, W., 168
Hall, D.T., 15, 163
Harper, M.S., 202
Harris-Bowlsbey, J., 163
Harris-Bowlsbey, J.A., 176
Hartung, P.J., 95
Hatzenbuehler, M.L., 202
Havel, V., 177
Healey, A.C., 288
Heesacher, M., 7
Heider, F., 172, 298
Hershberger, W.A., 72
Hiemisch, A., 80
Hoffman, R.E., 197
Holmes, A., 45
Horberg, E., 104
Horner, R., 247
Horvath, A.O., 156, 169
Hser, Y.I., 211
Hulley, L., 318
Huynh, V.W., 202
Ickes, W.J, 141, 144
project, 119, 171, 173, 174, 178, 205, 206,
Impulsivity, 27
Individualism, 40, 116, 117, 118
Individualization, 54, 116, 117, 118, 120
Inner language, 107, 109, 110
Intentionality, 4, 6, 15, 43, 71, 167, 179, 180,
Interests, 14, 28, 37, 98, 110
Interian, A., 288
Jacques, F., 99
James, W., 72, 98, 297
Jellab, A., 96, 97
Joint action(s), 15, 19, 104, 105, 119, 154,
Joint goals, 40, 110, 159, 214, 221, 261, 279,
Joint project(s), 43, 44, 119, 216, 290, 291,
Jordan, J.V., 62, 286
Josselson, R., 117, 120, 124, 128
Judt, T., 53
Kaplan, A., 126, 127, 128
Kelly, G.A., 15, 24
Kelly, J.F., 211
Kerr, S., 93
Kessler, R.C., 201
Kleiman, T., 69
Koestner, R., 80
Kroger, J., 120
LaFromboise, T., 3
Lankshear, C., 125
Lannegrand-Willems, L., 126
Latham, G.P., 71
Laverty, R., 247
Law, M., 240
Leary, M.R., 117
Leenaars, A., 299
Lens, W., 71
Lent, R.W., 1, 71, 176
Leong, F.T.L, 40
Lerner, R.M., 40, 51, 55
Levy, N., 172
Lietaer, G., 182, 318
counseloing for, 110
domain, 13, 16, 91, 97, 100, 118, 125
Lilgendahl, J.P., 171
Liquid modernity, 91, 93, 110
story, 42, 56
Meiser, D., 297
Menna, P., 25
Merleau-Ponty, M., 172
Ostrov, E., 199
Paal, T., 2
Parents, 105, 119, 172, 205, 223, 242, 243,
Parsons, T., 6
Pascual-Leone, A., 308
Patton, W., 34, 35, 36, 38, 40, 41, 42, 43, 46
Peavy, R.V., 45, 46
Pedersen, P.B., 181
Penner, C., 156
Penner, C.G., 274, 275, 276, 281
Pepper, S.C., 55
Perls, F., 137, 141, 143
Personality, 36, 37, 74, 158, 168
Person-centered therapy, 286
Philosophy, 6, 109, 169, 240, 257
Play, 96, 225, 244, 247
Post, A., 119
Power, 7, 57, 60, 72, 117, 286, 317
Powers, T.A., 80
Practice, 4, 7, 14, 34, 81, 110, 118, 122, 167,
Predictability, 136
Prestwich, A., 82
Price, L., 118
Prosser, E.C., 57, 182
Pryor, R.G.L, 54
Psychiatry, 297, 305
Psychopathology, 4, 201
Psychotherapy, 7, 8, 57, 58, 61, 62, 137, 174,
PTSD, 211
Purging, 228, 235
Quinney, L., 162
Ratner, C., 63, 64, 258
Recovery, 211, 212, 220
Reflexivity, 52, 55, 60, 92, 101, 103, 126
cultural theory, 62, 286
ontology, 40, 168, 169
project, 119, 156, 199, 200, 205, 217, 233,
Responsibility, 6, 93, 116, 162
Reynolds, T., 53
Richardson, M.S., 4, 51, 52, 62, 118, 177, 178,
Rifkin, J., 118
Robins, R.W., 5
Rochat, P., 117
Rødner, S., 218
Roehling, P., 53
Rogosch, F.A., 201
Rogosh, F.A., 201
Rorty, R., 57
Rosbruch, N., 118
Rosenbaum, P., 240, 250
Rosenberg, M., 28, 52
Rossier, J., 170
Rumpf, H., 211
Russell, G.F.M., 224
Ryan, R.M., 260
Salmon, P.G., 272
Sarbin, T.R., 56
97, 109, 118, 158, 170, 176, 218, 318
Sawyer, A.T., 255, 260
Schaeffer, C., 51
Schafer, R., 58, 172, 297
Scheidegger, G., 298
Scheier, M.F., 104
Schlossberg, N.K., 44
Schneider, J.A., 272
Serino, A., 181
Sheeran, P., 79, 80, 81, 82
Shweder, R.A., 123
Simon, T.R., 304
Sinclair, S., 3
Sinclair, S.L., 62
Sitharthan, T., 272
Smelser, N.J., 118
Snell, A.F., 3
Snyder, C.R., 57, 318
cognitive theory, 2, 71, 271
Social order, 128
Social psychology, 3, 82
Social reality, 45, 297, 306
Social sciences, 6, 33, 115, 120, 297
Social structure(s), 18, 57, 58, 59, 60, 63, 117,
Somech, A., 199
Staats, A.W., 72
Stability, 14, 40, 41, 53, 63, 125
Stadler, K., 307
Steenbarger, B.N., 33, 34
Steinberg, L., 201
Steinegger, C.M., 229
Sternberg, R., 256
Teasdale, J.D., 256
Tedeshi, R.G., 318
Templeton, L., 213
Teplicky, R., 240
Thayer-Bacon, B.J., 169
Tibos, K., 70
Tice, D.M., 51
Ticic, R., 318
Time, 1, 6, 15, 22, 27, 35, 41, 52, 56, 97, 110,
Tipton, S.N., 116
Tiryakian, E.A., 137
Tobias, A., 3
Todd, G., 223
Tomasello, M., 2
Transcript, 274
Transformation, 21, 30, 78, 116, 123, 202
Traskman-Bendz, L., 296
Trauma, 21, 30, 309
Traumatic, 58, 171, 218
Traumatizing, 308, 309
Trimble, J.E., 181
Weems, C., 202
Wegner, D.M., 172, 181, 298
Weick, K.E., 54
Weight restoration, 224, 225, 231
Weisner, T.S., 247
Well-being, 177, 198, 229, 239, 240
Welsh, D.P., 202
Wenger, E., 121, 122
Wertz, F.J., 172
Wester, K.L., 69
Westermann, R., 80
Wharton, A.S., 53
White, W.L., 211
Wigfield, A., 70
Wilcox, M., 246
Wiley, N., 99
Willenpsychologie, 72
Williams, C., 304
Williams, D.C., 58
Williams, S.L, 272
Wilson, E.C, 288
Wilson, G.T., 272
Wilson, T.D., 124
Winnicott, D.W., 117
Winograd, G., 217
Winslade, J., 3
Witt, A.A., 255, 260
Wittgenstein, L., 297
Woike, B., 171
Wolff, S.B., 186
Women, 98, 174, 285, 287, 289
Wonderlich, S., 224
Wong, Y.S., 160
Wood, R.A., 215
Work, 102, 118, 121, 125, 142, 145, 171
Working alliance, 19, 20, 24, 155, 156, 157,
World Health Organization (WHO), 295
Worldview, 33, 35, 36
Wu, R., 3
Yakushko, O., 3
Yalom, I.D., 137, 318
Yelleman, R., 213
Yoder, J.D., 3
Young people, 69, 109, 126, 198
Young, R.A., 14, 16, 17, 33, 34, 35, 40, 41, 42,
106, 118, 119, 125, 152, 156, 160, 161,
Youth, 5, 160, 202
Youth workers, 101
Yusaf, S.O., 272
Zaidman-Zait, A., 152
Zakai, A., 69
Zeddies, T.J., 62
Zeelenberg, M., 182
Ziegelmann, J.P., 83
Ziglar, Z., 21
Zindel, V., 318

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