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Constructivism is a theoretical perspective that asserts that people attempt to make sense of the world by developing their own set of personal individualized constructs. Personal experience, interpretation, social context, and linguistic factors define a person's subjective reality. Constructive psychotherapy focuses on individual experience, personal resilience, change, and the therapeutic relationship to assist people with change. The current article asserts that constructivism and constructive psychotherapies heavily draw from principles of past theorists such as George Kelly and Kurt Lewin, and constructivism and constructive psychotherapies do not represent facets of a new paradigm. In this sense constructive psychotherapy is not a unified form of psychotherapy but instead a form of integrated psychotherapy. Finally the article applies five basic principles of constructivism: activity, order, the self, social-symbolic relations, and lifespan development in the proposed psychotherapy of Sam, a man who is experiencing frustration and anger-management issues at his work and in his relationships. The therapeutic process is viewed as an integration of several schools of psychotherapeutic thought.
Constructivism can be broadly defined as a theoretical perspective that asserts that people attempt to make sense of the world and the events in the world by developing their own set of personal individualized constructs (Mahoney, 1988). Constructivism is not a system of psychology, despite what some would lead us to believe but instead would be best described as a metatheory or an epistemology which is centered on the presumption of the active involvement of people in construing their own personal reality, and not necessarily their reflecting on or their representing reality (von Glasersfeld, 1984). This last point is very important in understanding how constructivism fits in with both psychological theories and psychotherapeutic models. However, the term "constructivism" has taken on a number of different definitions. Von Glasersfeld (1984) described a radical constructivism in which knowledge does not necessarily reflect reality but instead personal knowledge is an ordering of the world based on experience. Mahoney (1988) did not agree with von Glasersfeld's model and assumed a more realistic ontological formulation, and yet when one reads some of his later works Mahoney appears to accept the notion of personal constructs as more idealistic (e.g., Mahoney & Granvold, 2005). Chiari and Nuzzo (1996) tried to settle these types of discrepancies by identifying two broad classes of constructivism: (1) epistemological constructivism is the view that believes that there can be numerous and yet equally legitimate constructions of a single reality, whereas (2) hermeneutic constructivists view knowledge as an interpretation that is historically founded, contextually confirmable, and socially and linguistically created (sort of a post-modernistic slant). Constructivism has found its way into psychology becoming a brand of psychotherapy known as constructive psychotherapy.
One can see where a viewpoint like constructivism would eventually find utility in psychological thought, especially in schools of psychotherapy. However, the question that a serious student of psychology might ask is "What is so new and innovative about all this?" Indeed constructivism has roots in philosophy and can be detected in learning theory where it was first popularized in psychology (Raskin, 2002). For me, a student of personality theories, the constructivist movement in psychology is a blatant plagiarism of the work of Kurt Lewin and George Kelly with a touch of Hazel Markus thrown in for good measure (e.g., Kelly, 1955; Lewin, 1935; Markus, 1977). Mahoney states that constructivist themes can be found in the work of such greats as Adler, Bandura, Kelly, and others (Mahoney, 2003; Mahoney & Granvold, 2005). But he is wrong. Constructivism contains themes from Aldler, Bandua, Kelly, and others. Personally, I am able to see constructivist-like themes in psychotherapeutic models as far back as Freud and extending to Aaron Beck. The difference is that Beck and Freud outlined some universal principles of "constructivism," whereas in the post-modernistic era things like subjectivity, context, social values, and linguistic variables are given priority. To me this is all old wine in new bottles, but also an example of theory development as admittedly there is a sense of evolution involved in going from Lewin to Mahoney in terms of updating certain aspects of theory.
Regardless, Raskin (2002), who shares many of my sentiments, acknowledges that constructivist psychologies (hence constructive psychotherapies) have grown in quantity and in their influence. This has resulted in a large number of theoretical and research settings that have gradually intermingled and become entrenched with psychology at large. In fact, there is even a Journal of Constructivist Psychology that has attempted to make a mark on the vast area of psychotherapy research. However, in spite of the growing influence of constructivist psychologies and constructive psychotherapy the field has not been able to evolve into a unified and theoretically consistent orientation. So we have Personal Construct Psychotherapy and Narrative Psychotherapy, etc. All have different constructivist flavors.
For me, constructive psychology, aside from being old wine in new bottles, is really a form of integrative or eclectic psychotherapy. The difference between integrative psychotherapy and eclectic psychotherapy is that integrative therapy ties together at least two different elements from at least two different schools of thought into a unified theoretical approach, whereas eclectic approaches combine different techniques from different schools on a case by case basis (Palmer & Woolfe, 1999). Probably the first true integration of two different schools of modern psychological theories was the integration of behavioral and psychodynamic models of thought to explain neurosis (Dollard & Miller, 1950). Cognitive behavioral therapy would qualify as an integrated therapy that has become a unified school of therapy on its own as it has developed hypotheses that are distinct from which the original integration was based (Arkowitz, 1992). Given their numerous theoretical differences there is no agreement among constructivist psychotherapists arriving at a singularly recognizable orientation (Raskin, 2002). Even Mahoney (2003) acknowledges that constructive psychotherapy is not defined by specific therapeutic techniques. Again constructivism is not a school of psychology. So, given the framework from which constructive psychology is drawn, I would currently classify it as another form of integrative psychotherapy. In fact, one might suspect that this form of integrative psychotherapy more often than not becomes eclectic psychotherapy in real practice.
However, just because I view constructive psychotherapy as a form of integrative therapy that draws from past theorists does not mean that I am unable to find relevance in some of the themes from constructivism and apply them to my own orientation. If nothing else the constructivist perspective for me combines elements of cognitive and humanistic perspectives along with schema theory and social cognition. I find myself agreeing with the five main features of constructivism as they apply to therapeutic practice outlined by Mahoney (Mahoney, 2003; Mahoney & Granvold, 2005). Consider the case of Sam, a 32-year-old male of Greek-American descent referred by a coworker who was concerned about Sam's recent poor work performance, marked by bouts of angry outbursts, moodiness, and sarcasm towards coworkers. He is employed as a photographic editor at a large marketing firm. Sam's major concern is the stress that he is feeling at his current job. He is concerned that his supervisor does not recognize his efforts, and is trying to "keep him on the back burner" and prevent future advancement in the organization. Sam is very frustrated by this, as he reports that when he first started working at the company, his supervisor "was an amazing mentor who literally took me under his wing." Sam reports that he has done "everything that he could" to win back the approval of his supervisor.
Sam says he feels "empty and bored" lately. He is considering making a career change but is not certain what he would like to do next. He reports that he has an active social life, going out several times per week to clubs and bars. Although Sam does not use recreational drugs, he does note that he sometimes "drinks too much when he is out partying." Recently, he was involved in a physical fight with another man at a bar. He has been married twice previously (for two and five years respectively). He described his second divorce as particularly painful, during which he was briefly hospitalized for a failed suicide attempt. He is very eager to be in a relationship now, and believes that he just has not found "the right woman." Applying the themes of constructivism to Sam's case as outlined by Mahoney (2003) and Mahoney and Granvold (2005) we use the following five principles:
The Principle of Activity.
Unlike many of the behaviorists and hardcore Freudians constructivism asserts that people are active participants in their lives. People choose from alternatives and their choices can affect their lives and the lives of others with whom they have connections. People can also be reactive as in conditioning, but survival is a process that is fundamentally proactive. People anticipate what they want to happen and what they think will happen and try to merge both of these. There are also factors outside our sphere of influence but people learn to read them and anticipate them…[continue]
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Human nature allows a person to demonstrate the cognitive, social and emotional behaviors that enable him or her to function in society and satisfy biological, psychological and emotional needs. The drive to display such behaviors is inborn but is shaped through environmental forces. New behaviors are learned and unlearned through experience and instruction. Functional human beings are able to read the situation, identify their goals and select from a repertoire
Generally, it works by either giving a reward for an encouraged behavior, or taking something away for an undesirable behavior. By doing this, the patient often increases the good behaviors and uses the bad behaviors less often, although this conditioning may take awhile if the rewards and removals are not sufficient to entice the patient into doing better. Existentialism is important to discuss here as well, and is often seen