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Integrative counselling is a relatively innovative approach that is used in both counselling and psychotherapy. A total of 1.46 million referrals to talking therapies, such as counselling and psychotherapy were made in 2020-21, but as this figure refers only to NHS referrals and many counsellors operate on a private basis, the true number of people receiving counselling in the UK is likely to be considerably higher. Whilst it is impossible to know exactly how many of these counsellors are providing integrative services, we do know that integrative counselling has grown in popularity thanks to both its flexibility and the wide range of conditions it can be adapted to treat. But what is integrative counselling? How does it work? And what are the benefits of adopting an integrative counselling approach? Here’s everything you need to know:
What is Integrative Counselling?
There are many different unique approaches that trained practitioners can take to counselling and psychology. Integrative counselling refers to the practice of bringing together different elements of a wide range of these approaches: rather than a stand-alone approach of its own, therefore, it is a collaborative approach in which there are no hard and fast rules. This means that the way integrative counselling looks will be different for each client because the counsellor will use their expertise and their knowledge of a wide range of different approaches to blend theories and modify their approach to suit the unique needs of each of their clients.
When you adopt an integrative approach to counselling, you are adhering to the idea that not just one psychological theory is able to explain or understand human behaviour. Instead under this model all theories have value and can be used and integrated into the approach you adopt to work with your clients. Many people choose to work with integrative counsellors because their approach is so holistic and wide-reaching: They are interested in not only what works for their clients, but why it works They will use their knowledge and their significant training to tailor the therapy that they offer to their clients and not the client to the therapy.
The aim of integrative counselling is the same as the aim of almost all other forms of counselling: to process any mental health concerns or trauma, and to allow the individuals who choose to seek counselling to live happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives. Integrative counselling allows counsellors to create a bespoke programme that’s as unique as their clients, and this is considered to be one of the approach’s greatest strengths. It is important to note that just because integrative counselling encompasses multiple approaches doesn’t mean that it is a technique without structure or order. An integrative counsellor will not randomly pick and choose approaches as they feel like it. Instead, an integrative counsellor will use their training and experience to introduce any new approaches in a meaningful way, meaning that your session will still feel structured and controlled. Although some people consider integrative counselling to be experimental, your sessions will never feel experimental or out of control.
How Does Integrative Counselling Work?
At the heart of the integrative counselling approach is a central and simple premise: that there is no single approach that can explain human functioning and behaviour. Instead, a wide range of theories and systems must be taken into consideration to achieve the widest possible perspective on the workings of the human mind. Some of the common counselling theories or systems that can often be used and integrated into their approach by integrative counsellors include:
- Humanistic approaches
- Psychoanalytical approaches
- Psychodynamic approaches
- Cognitive and behavioural approaches
The relationship between the client and the counsellor is an interesting element of integrative counselling. Whilst the counsellor will lead the sessions, the two parties are considered equals: the counsellor will not assume an authoritative position. It is generally believed that the most effective way to adopt an integrative counselling approach is for the therapist to be non-judgemental, and interpersonal. They should spend their primary sessions with their client establishing a relationship with them that is supportive and cooperative. There should be feelings of understanding and trust. By building a relationship between the counsellor and the client based on them being equals, the counsellor is empowering the client to take responsibility for their own mental health and well-being. The counsellor may be providing the tools and the framework that they need, but the client is the one setting their own goals and learning to recognise patterns within their own behaviour, as well as changes they might wish to make. This aspect of integrative therapy is often referred to as the personal integration of counsellors. The counsellor isn’t solely listening to their client or providing them with access to a singular approach. Instead, they are committing themselves to the needs of their client, adapting their approach to meet those needs, and taking a journey of self-exploration alongside them.
According to the British Association of Counselling Practitioners (BACP), integrative counselling is beneficial because it uses elements of different approaches to help you explore and cope with your problems. One member of the organisation shared that “Every client who walks through the door is different. What works for one person might not work for another. As an integrative therapist, you can choose the right approach for the individual. I generally use a bit of everything. It’s all-around support and makes therapy unique for that person.”
Eclectic Vs Integrative Counselling
Integrative counselling is often compared to eclectic counselling, but whilst the two approaches bear many similarities, they are also very different. The main similarity between integrative counselling and eclectic counselling is that they both make use of multiple theories and approaches, using different techniques to treat their clients. However, the main elements of integrative counselling focus on blending theory and practice to create a tailored approach that is unique to every client, and counsellors adopting an integrated approach will consider the similarities and differences between relevant models when developing an approach, rather than simply grab at the theory they think will work best on an ad hoc basis. By contrast, an eclectic counselling approach will use different techniques in an ad hoc way, like having a toolbox of therapeutic techniques to draw upon when needed, and counsellors adopting this approach will not be concerned about the theoretical conflicts between models: their only concern is what works best for their clients at any given time. Eclectic counsellors also don’t incorporate modalities into a new model, because creating a new model, or thinking beyond the needs of one client at a time, is not a part of their primary concern.
There is no right or wrong when choosing which of these approaches would work best for you, either as a counsellor or as a client seeking counselling. However, it would be wrong to assume that because both approaches make use of multiple theories and are intermodal, they can be used interchangeably. Each approach is unique and stands alone in its own right.
Another form of counselling that is considered to be similar to integrative counselling is person-centred counselling, and these two approaches are also often wrongly used interchangeably. Person-centred counselling is an approach that focuses on the importance of the client in healing themselves rather than the role of the counsellor. It acknowledges that no one can ever know you better than you know yourself and therefore you hold the key to unlocking your mental well-being: you just need the help and support of a counsellor to help you use that key. The role of the counsellor is to help you to reach your goals, and to offer you support, expert advice and unconditional positive regard. This person-centred counselling approach is adopted by the integrative counselling approach, and in this regard the two techniques are identical.
Benefits of Integrative Counselling
There are benefits of integrative counselling both from the perspective of the practitioner and from the perspective of the client. Looking initially at what this approach can bring to a practitioner, it allows counsellors to tailor their therapy, to switch approaches when one approach isn’t working or has served its usefulness, and to ensure that the therapy sessions you are offering meet the specific needs of your client. This means that each session should be productive and fulfilling. This also applies to the client’s perspective: because each of your sessions has been tailored to suit your needs, integrative counselling is often much more effective than traditional therapy. This is because it looks holistically at your needs, and considers behavioural, affective, cognitive and physiological levels of functioning. The flexibility it affords is one of the main benefits of integrative counselling. The approach focuses on the client as a whole and looks at all elements of what they need: whilst one technique may best suit their current needs, for example, they may also be processing generational trauma which would benefit from being treated with a different approach.
Whilst any client can seek out the services of an integrative counselling practitioner, some of the conditions or needs that this approach has proven particularly effective at treating include:
- Personality disorders
Research has also shown that integrative counselling can be beneficial to young people with special educational needs such as autism. Parents commonly integrate complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with conventional care, so it is a logical continuation that the same benefits would occur when applying this approach to mental health. Because integrative counsellors will only ever use theories and techniques that have been accepted by the scientific community and are supported by scientific evidence.
Another benefit of integrative counselling, and one that is considered beneficial by both the counsellors and their clients, is that the therapy experience when using this approach is considered to be deeper and more emotionally charged: this goes some way to explaining why it is so effective. The reason for this assertion is that all aspects of the whole individual are involved in the therapeutic approach. Integrative counsellors will include approaches that will stimulate the mind, brain and body, often in the same session. Finally, within the integrative counselling approach, the counsellor and the client are considered to be equals and the client is encouraged to take responsibility for unlocking their own well-being, with the counsellor there to provide support. This harnesses an atmosphere of empathy, support, and trust, and can lead to greater breakthroughs during counselling sessions, which further explains why, for those who find this type of therapy to be so beneficial, sessions are so productive and breakthroughs happen so quickly.
Negatives of Integrative Counselling
No approach is solely beneficial, and there are also some negatives to adopting an integrative counselling approach. Firstly, like all psychoanalytical approaches, integrative counselling doesn’t work for everyone, leading to widespread claims that integrative counselling doesn’t work as well as many of its enthusiasts state. This is a negative that could be considered true of every counselling approach. Integrative counselling may not work for you, just as cognitive and behavioural therapy may not work for someone else. For this reason, you should take the time to speak to a wide range of therapists because you choose the approach and the individual counsellor that is the right fit for you.
Critics of integrative counselling state that using a mixture of different modalities can be confusing for clients that are subjected to the approach, and that a therapist switching between them frequently may not develop enough skills and knowledge to use any of them very effectively. For this reason, and to counterbalance this criticism, integrative counsellors are highly qualified and often undertake additional training in a wide range of therapeutic approaches so that they are able to offer the highest possible level of therapy in each of these. Much of the criticism of integrative counselling, and the negatives of this approach, comes from other counsellors and in particular purist person-centred therapists who argue that their particular approach cannot be effectively combined with other modalities. This is a debate that will continue to rage on between those counsellors who support the integration of approaches and those who do not and is therefore not something that we can give a definitive response to now.
The final and most commonly levelled criticism of integrative counselling is that counsellors may use techniques and approaches that are easier and more convenient for them, rather than those which are truly in the best interests of the client. Whilst it’s easy to see why and how some counsellors might do this, to behave in this way would be considered to be unethical and therefore a good integrative counsellor should not be subject to this criticism.