Counseling Definition

Professional counseling is a skilled activity that involves assisting others in managing and resolving psychological, emotional, behavioral, developmental, relational, vocational, and other personal challenges (chronic or acute) in order to facilitate adjustment to changing life circumstances; promote personal growth, needs attainment, and overall wellness throughout the life span; and prevent the development of more serious conditions. At its essence, professional counseling involves the formal application of theoretical and empirically supported psychological, developmental, and learning principles to facilitate desired change or growth within a larger system of ethical and professional practice standards. These principles are implemented through specifically tailored cognitive, affective, behavioral, and systemic strategies and interventions delivered through therapeutically oriented conversations and interactions.

Types of Professional Counseling

Originally derived from the Latin root, consulo, meaning to advise, deliberate, or consult, counseling can be conceptualized in a number of different ways. Professional counseling is provided within the context of individual, couples, family, and group formats. Some counselors define their work on the basis of developmental life stages (i.e., child counseling, adolescent counseling, adult counseling, and geriatric counseling). Counseling can also be distinguished temporally, whether it is intended to be very short-term crisis counseling, brief counseling, or long-term counseling. Distinct subspecialties within the profession of counseling include school counseling, career counseling, and mental health counseling. Counseling is also sometimes defined by the distinct underlying theoretical orientations upon which the professional counselor draws (e.g., solution-focused counseling, person-centered counseling, existential counseling).

Differentiating Professional Counseling

There is a clear difference between professional counseling and lay counseling, with the former being bound by professional ethical standards and premised on sound theoretical and research-supported principles. Professional counseling is different from other helping activities such as guidance and health or psychoeducation in that these other activities are primarily directed at providing information and advice in an emotionally neutral context. In relation to other mental health professions, professional counseling is best distinguished by an emphasis on normal development, adaptation to changing life circumstances, and positive growth.

Although the terms counseling and psychotherapy are often used interchangeably, the two are distinct. A simple perspective may conceptualize counseling and psychotherapy as falling on a continuum, with counseling designed for normal populations and psychotherapy designed for clinical populations. To state this another way, some individuals see counseling as more concerned with adjustment to mainstream life transitions and normative stressors, while psychotherapy is seen as more concerned with psychological disorders and psychopathology. An alternative conceptualization is to attend to the traditional paradigmatic differences between the two. Counseling typically follows a growth-oriented, developmental, and preventive framework. In contrast, psychotherapy typically adopts a medical (i.e., diagnose-and-treat) model. Although the practice of counseling is not intended specifically to diagnose and treat psychiatrically classified mental disorders in the tradition as the medical model, it is intended to facilitate wellness, personal growth, needs attainment, and adaptation to changing life circumstances. Consequently, when professional counseling is employed with individuals who meet the criteria for specific disorders, the emphasis remains on the person’s ongoing adaptation, personal growth, wellness, and needs attainment. Through facilitating positive movement and change in these areas, the person’s diagnosable condition may improve.


  1. Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. (2016). Why Become a Professional Counselor. Retrieved from
  2. The International Registry of Counsellor Education Programs (IRCEP). (2016). Definition of Counselling. Retrived from
  3. Society for Counseling Psychology. (2016). Counseling Psychology vs Clinical Psychology. Retrieved from

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