Constructivism in Psychology and Psychotherapy

Group therapy. Getty Images Credit: Tom Merton

Constructivism is a theory that posits that humans are meaning-makers in their lives and essentially construct their own realities. In various psychotherapeutic approaches under constructivism, the client is viewed as an active participant in creating and determining their life path.

Constructive thinking differs from other forms of modern theory that view reality as fixed and to be discovered by clients. On the contrary, in constructivism, reality is something that is created.

Constructivist Theories

There are a number of theories that played a role in the development of constructivism or that have been influenced by the constructivist approach.

Genetic Epistemology

Genetic epistemology is a field that studies the origins of knowledge. It was introduced by the psychologist Jean Piaget, who suggested that children go through a series of progressive stages in developing cognitive abilities.

Personal Construct Theory

Personal construct theory suggests that people develop their constructs as they interpret information to understand how the world works. These constructs are based on each person's experiences and observations, which means that constructs are highly individualized and different from one person to the next.

Post-Rationalist Cognitive Therapy

Post-rationalist cognitive therapy is an approach inspired by constructivism and cognitive therapy. It was first introduced in the late 1990s and suggests that personal constructions of reality are both unique and unrepeatable. This treatment approach focuses on creating cohesive personal narratives and a sense of consistency to improve emotional well-being.

Constructive Therapies

Constructive therapies offer a shift from the traditional focus in psychology on what is wrong with a particular client to paying greater attention to someone's strengths. It is more optimistic and attends to a client's resources, goals, hopes, and dreams.

There is more concern about where someone wishes to go in their lives than their history or childhood. The client is seen as a proactive reality creator.

Some specific therapy tools that are often used in constructive therapy include:

  • Journaling: Writing allows people to make sense of their experiences, look for patterns, and consciously process their emotions. Journaling has shown that journaling can have a positive impact on a number of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
  • Meditation: The practice of meditation can be helpful for increasing self-awareness, empathy, and different aspects of attention.
  • Guided imagery: Constructivist therapists may also utilize guided imagery to help guide people through different experiences and help them create a better understanding.

Recap

Constructivist therapies often focus on helping people make sense of the world and their relationships. Instead of exploring what is wrong, it works to help people identify their strengths and to use those abilities to create positive changes.

How Does One Make Meaning?

In constructivist theory, the meaning is not necessarily created by an individual but socially in relation to others. It "posits an evolving set of meanings that emerge unendingly from the interactions between people. These meanings are not skull-bound and may not exist inside what we may think of as individual 'mind.'"

This means that reality is socially constructed. This theory is similar to that posited in the cutting-edge field called interpersonal neurobiology, which views human identity as more relational than the individual. In other words—we are who we are, as we are, in relation to another. 

Constructive Therapists

The constructive therapist's role in psychotherapy is unlike the classic "doctor" role in which the therapist is supposed to "heal" or "treat" a patient. While the therapist has skills and significant expertise at facilitation and guiding sessions, the constructive therapist is not seen as the objective expert.

A therapist might help people externalize their experiences by asking questions to guide the conversation forward. They might also paraphrase and repeat back what a person has explained to help the person gain greater clarity.

In constructivism, there is a deep awareness of the subjectivity that everyone has, therapists included. Therapists and clients are therefore seen as collaborative participants as they make meaning together and assist the client in creating their best reality as they move forward.

The constructive therapist subscribes to the belief in a socially constructed reality and sees their work with a client as co-constructing meaning together through conversation.

The therapist focuses on a client's strengths, and does not look for illness or deficiencies, but rather emphasizes resources. They are focused on the future and is both hopeful and optimistic about the client's ability to make positive changes.

Types of Constructivist Therapy

There are a number of different types of constructivist therapies that may be utilized to address different issues.

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy

Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) is a form of brief therapy that has been used with all kinds of people, families, and problems. The emphasis, as with many constructivist therapies, is on the client's strengths and solutions that may already be available to them. The focus on what is already working, as opposed to a focus on what is wrong, yields more solutions as a result.

Emotionally Focused Therapy

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) is used primarily with couples to deepen, enrich and save relationships. While EFT falls under the constructive umbrella, it also is an approach that is largely based on attachment theory, which emphasizes the importance of a safe and secure emotional bond with another.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy has been used with children, families, and adults. Narrative therapy offers clients the opportunity to master their lives through the stories they tell themselves. The narrative therapist helps bring forth preferred realities of clients and enables them to essentially re-author their lives.

Recap

Constructivist approaches to therapy include solution-focused brief therapy, emotionally focused therapy, and narrative therapy. The best approach may depend on an individual's needs and the problems they are dealing with.

A Word From Verywell

Constructivism in mental health offers a great deal of hope and optimism. With a trusted constructivist therapist who can skillfully facilitate life-changing conversations, new possibilities and opportunities emerge in clients' lives. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the main themes of constructivism?

    Some of the major themes within constructivism focus on the need for order, a sense of self, and a sense of active personal agency. Other important themes focus on social relatedness and development through the lifespan. 

  • Who is the father of constructivism?

    Jean Piaget is often identified as the founder of constructivism. His work focused on children's cognitive development and suggested that kids play an active role in constructing their knowledge of the world. His work also influenced other cognitivist thinkers, including Lev Vygotsky.

  • What personal issues can constructivist methods address?

    Constructivist theories and techniques can be useful when applied to personal problems. For example, people coping with grief and bereavement can benefit from making meaning, forging new connections, and adjusting their sense of self as they process their loss.

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