Stephen Joseph Ph.D.

What Doesn't Kill Us


Is There a Difference Between Counselling and Psychotherapy?

It depends on whether you take a medical or humanistic view.

Posted Mar 26, 2019

Psychoanalysis as it was developed by Freud was based on the idea that symptoms of psychological distress were caused by conflicts between unconscious forces within the person. At first psychoanalysis was controversial. But the idea of a talking cure, and a psychodynamic approach that emphasised the power of the unconscious soon captured the imagination of those in the new discipline of psychotherapy. But as a specialised subject within medicine, other professionals were restricted from practising psychotherapy.

In contrast to the psychotherapy informed by medicine, counselling did not emerge as part of psychiatry but in opposition to it. Humanistic psychology, as  pioneered by Abraham Maslow mapped out a new psychology that described people as self-actualising beings, striving toward achieving their unique potential.

In contrast to psychoanalysis which was referred to as depth psychology, because its aim was to explore and bring to consciousness the darkest recesses of the human mind, Maslow’s humanistic psychology became known as height psychology, because its aim was to explore what people could achieve when at their very best.

Thus, from its beginnings the humanistic psychologists took a different stance from the psychoanalytic tradition. Rather than be concerned with the alleviation of specific problems they were concerned with the full development of human beings.

Carl Rogers was one of the first to use the term counselling to describe a new humanistic psychology way of working with people that he and his colleagues developed in the 1950’s. Carl Rogers, a practising clinical psychologist, came to exemplify the new humanistic approach and had developed these ideas into a new form of therapy.

Frustrated by the fact that the term psychotherapy was reserved only for those with a medical training, Rogers used the term counsellor to signify a non-medical but psychological professional. He was critical of how these earlier approaches to helping had looked upon people’s ‘problems in living’ as akin to medical conditions. In keeping with humanistic psychology, Rogers developed a new approach to psychotherapy. His famous 1951 book was called ‘Client-Centered Therapy’. In it he talked about how for him the terms counselling and psychotherapy were used interchangeably.

Rogers proposed that people are born with a natural tendency towards exploration, growth, and achievement of their full potential. What is otherwise seen as mental illness is a result of normal human development becoming thwarted by controlling and conditional socialisation processes. Rogers rejected the idea that therapy is a medical intervention designed to treat psychological disorders.

To this day, those who specialise in Rogers’ approach use the terms counselling and psychotherapy interchangeably. For humanistic therapists, counselling and psychotherapy are terms that describe the same thing - a nurturing therapeutic relationship in which the client can begin to connect with themselves and their potential. 

This post is adapted from an article on the implications of the different use of the terms counselling and psychotherapy for the training of therapists in universities in the United Kingdom.


Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.