Theoretical Orientation

Martin’s counselling approach in his work with children, teenagers and young adults is informed by a constructive–developmental theoretical framework. This theory, formulated by Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, honors some of the deepest tenets of existential–humanistic and psychodynamic personality approaches, but is fundamentally an extension of the developmental theory of Jean Piaget. Piaget saw people as “conceptualisers” or as “meaning makers” in the way that we actively construct and continually reconstruct our sense of ourselves, our views of the world, and our reactions to that world in terms of the specific meaning that it has for each us. Following this, the constructive–developmental approach “…attends to the development of the activity of meaning–constructing.” (Kegan, 1982, p.4). It is constructive in terms of the way that we each actively constitute our own realities, and developmental in terms of this being an ongoing, evolving process. This process follows general stages but, importantly for the counselling context, is limited to our present conceptual ability.

From this viewpoint the development of our awareness of self and what is happening in the world around us (and our ability to mediate between the two) can be seen as a gradual “emergence from embeddedness”. This means that as we develop we gradually move from a state of awareness that is embedded within our experience to a perspective that is increasingly set apart in its ability to view and consider that experience, including what we consider to be aspects of the self. It is said that a way of knowing becomes more complex when it is able to look at what previously it could only look through. This is referred to as the “subject–object balance” and is a central structure behind how humans make meaning. Its development is essential to the adaptation process.

The goal of counselling from this perspective is to facilitate movement from what a person is subject to (i.e. strong emotional and/or behavioral reactions in certain situations) to what becomes object for them. This is known as the subject–object reversal and occurs through an expansion of their meaning making ability. So instead of an experience having the person, the person begins to have the experience. As mentioned, they can now look at what previously they could only look through, and now begin to be able to mediate the emotions, thoughts and assumptive beliefs that were previously immediate to the experience. This subject–object balancing lies prior to a person having the ability to successfully adopt and sustain new coping and change strategies such as arise in the counselling process.

Kegan, R. (1982). The Evolving Self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Kegan, R. (1994). In Over Our Heads. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Kegan, R., Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to Change. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
Piaget, J. (1955). The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Basic Books.

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