What Is Humanistic Psychology?

Learn about the history of humanistic psychology, different types of humanistic therapies, and if it’s right for you.

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Key Takeaways

  • Humanistic psychology is an approach to therapy that emphasizes individuality and self-development
  • Humanistic therapists help you explore your identity, values, and strengths
  • Many therapists of all kinds integrate the humanistic approach into their practice

When considering in-person or online therapy, it’s important to choose an approach that suits you. Humanistic therapy, a form of psychotherapy, is one approach that therapists may use. It focuses on each person’s individuality as a key to self-growth.

Read on to learn more about the practice of humanistic psychology and how to find a provider.

What is Humanistic Psychology?

Humanistic psychology is an approach to therapy that emphasizes what makes us human. Practitioners believe that individuals are self-aware, can take responsibility for their actions, and have the power to make meaningful changes in their lives. Humanistic therapists adopt a holistic perspective, viewing individuality as a combination of mind, body, and spirit.

An article published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews emphasizes that humanistic therapists believe people are naturally driven to reach their full potential and just need the right conditions to support that process.

The humanistic theory emerged in response to the dominant theories of behaviorism and psychoanalysis in the 1950s and 1960s. These schools of thought were based on the assumption that people behave and think in certain ways due to outside influences. This perspective on human nature threatened the idea of free will. During the “human potential” movement that followed, humanistic psychologists offered a more positive and empowering point of view, according to an article published in 2021 in Frontiers in Psychology.

Humanistic psychologists acknowledge the value of behaviorism and psychoanalysis but recognize their limitations in capturing the complexity of the human experience, according to a chapter on substance abuse treatment protocol published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” was a founding tenet of humanistic psychology. He proposed that human beings have various needs, and only when those needs are met can someone achieve self-actualization, or the realization of their highest potential. Today, humanistic therapy still centers on fostering personal growth with empathy and care so people can become their best selves.

A meta-analysis of 186 studies published in the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change found that humanistic psychology can be a successful therapeutic approach. Research shows it can be an effective treatment option for many issues, such as:

Types of Humanistic Therapy

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), many therapeutic approaches fall under the banner of humanistic psychology. All humanistic therapies emphasize the importance of active listening, finding meaning in life, and empowerment.

Below, we break down some of the most common types of humanistic therapy.

Person-Centered Therapy

Person-centered therapy — also known as client-centered or Rogerian therapy — asserts that you are the ultimate expert on your own life. It was inspired by the work of Carl Rogers, an American psychotherapist who believed that everyone has a subjective perspective of the world. Rather than offering advice or directing you, your therapist provides sincere interest and support while you delve into the sources of your distress and find ways to feel better. They focus on your values and strengths, fostering positivity and facilitating transformative life changes.

Existential Therapy

Existential therapy emphasizes your capacity to make choices, change the course of your life, and find meaning, according to the APA. In therapy, existential anxiety is considered a central part of life. In other words, it’s normal to be concerned with major issues like the meaning of life, death, freedom, and isolation. Confronting and exploring these subjects with your therapist can guide you toward a more authentic, fulfilling life, according to an article published in The Humanistic Psychologist (PDF).

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy centers on the “here and now,” acknowledging that therapy can bring up unresolved conflicts and negative thought patterns. The goal is to direct your focus toward yourself, your feelings, and your responsibilities. Through direct conversations and encounters with your therapist, you can begin to address these existential issues and move forward.

Is Humanistic Therapy Right for You?

Humanistic therapy could be a good fit if its guiding principles resonate with you. You should believe that you are self-aware, can take responsibility for your actions, and have the power to make meaningful changes in your life.

Humanistic therapists prioritize active listening, empathy, and building a strong therapeutic relationship.

For more information about other approaches to therapy, read our guide to some of the most common types of therapy.

How to Find a Humanistic Therapist

If you’re interested in seeing a therapist who incorporates humanistic psychology into their approach, use filters or keywords during your search. Look for terms like “humanistic,” “client-centered,” or “existential” in therapist biographies.

Keep in mind that many therapists incorporate humanistic theory into their practice. Most practitioners use key elements — like a focus on building a strong therapeutic relationship — whether or not they identify as a “humanistic therapist.”

When seeking a therapist, consider factors besides their approach, like credentials, experience, specialties, and style to find the right therapist for you.

The Bottom Line

Humanistic psychology emphasizes individuality and potential for change. Humanistic therapists view you as an expert in your life, challenges, and solutions. Many therapists use techniques of humanistic psychology, even if they don’t specialize in humanistic therapy. Finding a therapeutic approach that aligns with your needs is one of many factors that can contribute to your success in therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main goal of humanistic therapy?
Humanistic therapy aims to facilitate personal growth. Therapists help you explore aspects of yourself, like your values and strengths, to help you reach your fullest potential.
What is an example of humanistic therapy?
Person-centered therapy is one example of humanistic therapy. Rather than offering advice or directing you, your therapist provides sincere interest and support while you delve into the sources of your distress and find ways to feel better.
What are the key elements of humanistic therapy?
Valuing the individual human experience, extending empathy and care, and supporting you as you find meaning and empowerment are key elements of humanistic therapy.

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