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Humanistic therapy, also known as humanism, is a form of talk therapy that focuses on a person’s individual nature, rather than assuming that groups of people with similar characteristics have the same concerns. Humanistic therapists aim to consider the whole person, but especially their positive characteristics and potential for growth, not only from their professional viewpoint but from a client’s own personal sense of their behavior. The emphasis in sessions is on a person’s positive traits and behaviors and developing their ability to use their instincts to find wisdom, growth, healing, and fulfillment within themselves.

When It's Used

Humanistic therapy can be used to treat people with depression, anxiety, panic disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia, addiction, and interpersonal and familial relationship concerns. The approach can also benefit people who have low self-esteem, who are struggling with finding a purpose or reaching their potential, who lack feelings of “wholeness,” who are searching for personal meaning, or who are not comfortable with themselves as they are.

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What to Expect

Humanistic therapy sessions encompass a gestalt approach—exploring how a person feels in the here and now—rather than trying to identify past events that led to these feelings. A humanistic therapist seeks to provide an atmosphere of support, empathy, and trust in which an individual can share their feelings without fear of judgment. The therapist should not assume the role of an authority figure with clients; the relationship is one of equals and wherever possible, the direction of sessions is determined by the client and their concerns in the moment as the expert on their own life and challenges.

Do humanistic therapists all follow the same approach to sessions?

No. Humanistic values are a central part of multiple forms of therapy. Some humanistic therapists practice person-centered therapy, some rely on gestalt therapy practices, some employ narrative therapy, some offer existential therapy—and a number may use elements of all of these modalities. No matter a professional’s chosen approach, though, all successful humanistic therapy depends on establishing the following conditions:

1. Unconditional positive regard. This means that therapists remain empathetic and non-judgmental as they hear and accept the client’s statements and that they convey understanding, trust, and confidence so that they can encourage clients to feel valued in discovering and making more positive choices.

2. Empathetic understanding. This means that therapists fully understand and accept an individual’s thoughts and feelings in a way that enables them to reshape their sense of their experiences.

3. Congruence, or genuineness. This means that the therapist brings no air of superiority or authority to sessions, but presents an accessible face that clients see is honest and transparent.

When humanistic therapy succeeds, people experience themselves as well understood by their therapist, which should help them feel more empowered, more conscious of their strengths and skills, and better equipped to make changes in their life that will help them fulfill their goals and needs.

For more, see person-entered therapy, gestalt therapy, narrative therapy, and existential therapy.

How It Works

Humanistic therapy emerged in the late 1950s, out of a perceived need to address what some psychologists saw as the limitations and negative emphases of behavioral and psychoanalytic schools of therapy. They developed humanism as a new, more holistic approach less focused on pathology, past experiences, and environmental influences on behavior, and more on the positive side of human nature.

Around this time, Abraham Maslow developed his hierarchy of human needs and motivations, and Carl Rogers developed his person-centered approach to therapy. Both of these thinkers and their theories influenced the development of humanistic therapy. A core tenet of humanistic therapy is that people are inherently motivated to fulfill their internal needs—and that each of us has the power to find the best solutions for ourselves and the ability to make appropriate changes in our lives, a concept known as self-actualization.

What are the potential limitations of humanistic therapy?

Some people may struggle to adapt to the lack of structure typical of humanistic therapy approaches; clients with higher levels of stress or anxiety may benefit from working with therapists who offer more direction. Similarly, since humanistic therapists may not focus on diagnosing a client, those with symptoms of certain personality disorders may not achieve success with this approach.

If a professional becomes convinced that a client cannot make further progress with humanistic therapy, they may recommend that the individual accept a referral to a therapist with different training or expertise.

What to Look for in a Humanistic Therapist

There is no formal certification required to be able to practice person-centered therapy, and a humanistic approach may be incorporated into various therapy practices. A humanistic therapist should be warm, empathetic, understanding, and non-judgmental. In seeking a therapist, look for a licensed mental health professional with humanistic values and experience with a humanistic approach with whom you would feel comfortable discussing personal issues.

References
Association of Humanistic Psychology website. Historic Review of Humanistic Psychology.  
Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain website.
Kirk J, Schneider J, Pierson F. ed. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Theory, Research and Practice. Second Ed. 2015, Sage Publications, Inc.
Last updated: 08/04/2022