Humanistic therapy is a type of talking therapy in which a person works with their therapist to examine the way in which they view the world affects the choices they make. This might mean having a particular focus on the choices you make that don't make rational sense, because they cause you harm or upset.

A brief overview of humanistic therapy

One of the key ideas behind humanistic therapy, and a starting point for sessions, is that people are the experts on their own lives. In humanistic therapy (sometimes referred to as humanism), your therapist works with you to move closer to being your most authentic self, to lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

Therapists working from a humanistic perspective will focus the individual, rather than assuming that elements of who they are, like their culture or economic background, are the key factors dictating how they experience the world. The way one person interacts with their environment and community could be entirely different to the way another person from a similar background does.

This form of talk therapy emphasizes values. A key value is the belief that all people can make healthy choices for themselves, because humans are inherently good.

Based on this view, humanistic therapists hold the people they work with in unconditional positive regard, with the expectation that this relationship will help to challenge any belief a person has that they are only accepted by people if they behave in certain ways. This helps the person to become more self-accepting and therefore fulfilled. [1]

What is the humanistic approach to psychology?

Unlike older forms of therapy, humanistic therapy is less concerned with what happened in people’s childhood or past and more about what is going on in their current life.

In the 1950s, humanistic therapy was developed in response to psychodynamic psychotherapy, which emphasized negative past experiences and less the present moment.

The humanistic theory was influenced by the works of a few key theorists, especially Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Abraham Maslow - an American psychologist - developed a more complex view of humans' emotional and physical needs. He argued that meeting these complex needs could help people realize their full potential and become 'self-actualized.'

Meanwhile, Carl Rogers developed the idea of 'person-centered' therapy, which requires therapists to view their clients holistically. To do this, the therapist uses empathetic understanding, active listening, and reflecting, among others. If all the 'core conditions' of Rogerian therapy are met between the therapist and client, there is more likely to be a positive outcome.

The core principle of humanistic therapy is that people are good, that they want to change and that they hold the keys to making the transformation they need to in their lives.

What is the goal of humanistic therapy?

Humanistic therapy aims to help people reach a level of fulfillment where they feel they are the most authentic version of themselves that they can be, and that the different parts of who they are in sync or ‘congruent’.

Your therapist should hold you in ‘unconditional positive regard’, which means they lead with empathy. This should be regardless of what you bring into the therapy room; in whichever way you bring it, they will continue to hold you in high esteem. This helps to focus on the person's potential for growth and their positive qualities that will help them to reach the goals they identify as important to them.

For this reason, person-centered therapy can be very effective at boosting confidence and self-esteem, and to tackle an over occupation with others assumed negative perception of you. This type of therapy is directed by the client rather than the therapist, so don’t expect the therapist to tell you what to do or decide what to cover within sessions. 

What is humanistic therapy used to treat?

Humanistic therapy is often recommended for ongoing issues or general mental health struggles, rather than just for people with diagnosed mental health problems or people seeking a diagnosis. People often enter humanistic therapy because they feel motivated to change the way they view the world and address the underlying causes of their feelings.

Humanistic therapy can be used to work with a range of personality disorders mental health conditions, including, for example, issues with substance abuse. Humanistic therapy tends to view mental health issues as a result of someone struggling to make authentic, meaningful choices, based on what they want, about how to go about their lives. [2]

Humanistic therapy is not necessarily better than any other type of therapy, as research has shown that it is similarly effective to other modalities in terms of creating change, and it is more effective than having no therapy at all. [3]

Humanistic therapy can be particularly useful for addressing deep-seated trauma and ongoing difficult life situations, like a long-term health problem or complex relationship issues. The most important thing is finding the right kind of therapy for you and what you're going through, and with the right therapist for you.

Some people do struggle with the lack of structure in humanistic therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might be better for you if you are dealing with strong anxiety or want to learn how to manage a specific symptom of a mental health problem. [4]

As with other types of therapy, your therapist cannot diagnose you but if you enter with an existing diagnosis for which you want support with, they can help you to manage it.

If you work with an integrative therapist, they might incorporate a humanistic approach alongside other types of therapy. 

What are common humanistic therapy techniques?

An important thing to note about humanistic therapy is that it is primarily defined by a set of values rather than a set of techniques. 

There are some common approaches within it, however. This type of therapy can include a ‘person-centered’ approach, which means you will focus on self-acceptance, an approach called ‘Gestalt’, in which you examine how things play out in relationships, and one called ‘existentialism’, in which you explore your sense of meaning. [5] [6]

Person-centered

The person-centered approach, which is also known as client-centered therapy or Rogerian therapy, means your therapist unconditionally accepts you even if they can’t agree with or fully understand your choices.

This approach is based on the ideas of a psychologist called Carl Rogers, who believed therapy could help people consider external factors or ideas of how their worth is measured that motivate their behavior. For example, one might believe “I am only good if...” or “In order to be successful I must...” Rogers believed this leads people to change their true selves, thinking it will help them gain love, approval, or success. [7]

If your therapist is using a person-centered approach, you will guide the direction of your sessions while your therapist listens without judgment, often reflecting back to you. [8]

Gestalt

The Gestalt approach focuses on any conflict with important people in your life that you have not resolved. This approach suggests that if things are unresolved with a romantic partner or close family member, for example, a person will continue to experience a level of distress that stops them from being fulfilled.

The Gestalt approach can include role play, to try to re-create how this conflict plays out in your real life and examine how it makes you feel. You might even re-enact a situation that happened recently with your therapist in order to understand it.

A common part of the Gestalt approach is using an empty chair and imagining the person you have a difficult relationship with is sitting in it. By having an imagined conversation with this person in the therapy room, you can work with your therapist to understand how you feel and why. This also may help you to resolve a conflict that you would not otherwise be able to resolve with the person

Existential

The existential approach is a more philosophical approach to therapy. It looks at how your concept of your own existence, and what it means, affects your worldview and therefore your wellbeing.

In existential therapy, you will work with your therapist to evaluate how your thoughts — conscious or unconscious — impact your mental health and goals, for example, whether you believe your choices are important in the world.  [9]

What should you expect in a humanistic therapy session?

How the session goes depends on the therapist, because being a humanistic therapist means that you are working from a certain set of values rather than using a set of techniques.

However, a key part of humanistic therapy is tackling someone’s self-esteem. A humanistic therapist should try to create a supportive environment in the session, leading with empathy, and helping to create trust with the person that they can share their feelings and experiences without being judged. 

A crucial element of creating this dynamic in humanistic therapy sessions is avoiding any sense of hierarchy between the therapist and the person. In humanistic therapy, your therapist should not give you the impression that they know more than you than you do, that they are an expert or carry the most authority in the room. This can take some time to achieve, but you should feel like you are working at the same level as your therapist and that there is no power imbalance.

Some elements you might notice in a humanistic therapy session are unstructured conversations, your therapist observing you and reflecting back things you say and exploring very open-ended questions together.

How do I know if humanistic therapy is right for me?

It is important to understand that humanistic therapy isn’t for everyone. A review of 86 pieces of research found that humanistic therapies were effective at helping people make lasting change over time, but there is no evidence to suggest that it is any more effective than other types of therapy. [10] The key principle of why humanistic therapy is effective is related to the strength of the relationship between client and therapist.

One reason you might want to try humanistic therapy is if you have previously struggled to have a good working relationship with therapists. The focus on the therapeutic relationship in humanistic therapy should help you to tackle this and reinstate your belief that therapy can work for you.

If you enter this type of therapy, it’s important to think carefully about what kind of therapist you want to work with because of the emphasis on the relationship. For example, whether you feel more or less comfortable opening up to someone from a similar background to your own.

If your therapist is not sure you can make the progress you want to with humanistic therapy or with them as an individual, they should recommend that you work with somebody else (and may refer you), or that you try a different approach.

Resources:

  1. Kirk, J., Schneider, J., Pierson F. ed. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Theory, Research and Practice. (2015). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE publications.
  2. Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse. (1999). Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US).
  3. Elliott, R., Lago, C., and Charura, Divine, eds. (2016) Research on person-centred/experiential psychotherapy and counselling : summary of the main findings. In: Person-Centred Counselling and Psychotherapy. England, Berkshire: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.
  4. Kahn, E. A Critique of Non-directivity in the Person-Centered Approach. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. (1999)
  5. Gillon, E. An introduction to person-centred counselling psychology. (2007). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
  6. Owen, I.R. Exploring the similarities and differences between person-centred and psychodynamic therapy. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. (1999).
  7. Dykes, F.B, Kopp, B., Postings, T. Crouch, A. Counselling Skills and Studies. (2014). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE publications.
  8. Rogers, C. Carl Rogers on the Development of the Person-Centered Approach. (1986). Person-Centered Review.
  9. Freud, S. The Unconscious. (1915). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud.
  10. Elliott, R. The effectiveness of humanistic therapies: A meta-analysis. (2002). In D. J. Cain (Ed.), Humanistic psychotherapies: Handbook of research and practice. American Psychological Association.