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Jul 06, 2021
5 min read

Humanistic therapy: what is it?

Based on the work of Carl Rogers, humanistic therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on the person as a whole rather than the individual problems or symptoms that they are experiencing. Because of its subjective nature, there isn’t as much scientific research to support it as some other more common types of therapy. Although it has been successfully used to treat clients with anxiety, substance abuse disorders, and dementia, research is still limited.

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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Many types of mental health treatment focus on diagnosing and correcting the unwanted symptoms that brought the person in for therapy. 

Other types focus less on symptoms and more on treating the person as a whole. Humanistic therapy is one such mental health treatment based on this philosophy.

But what is humanistic therapy, and is there any scientific research to support it?

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What is humanistic therapy?

Humanistic therapy is a broad term for a class of psychotherapies founded by the American psychologist Carl Rogers. They come from the humanistic theory, a holistic approach that involves looking inward and questioning the world around you. The greatest goal in humanistic therapy is to “know thyself” (Schneider, 2002).

According to this theory, to achieve personal growth, you need to question the meaning of life to decide how to live a meaningful life. That’s where humanistic therapy comes in (Schneider, 2002).

The humanistic perspective views human nature as basically good. Humanistic therapists believe that everyone has the full potential for healthy, meaningful relationships and for making choices in their best interest. So they focus on helping people free themselves from unhelpful thoughts and assumptions that are holding them back from living fuller lives (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

Another key proponent of humanistic psychology was Abraham Maslow. He popularized the concept of “self-actualization” in his hierarchy of needs (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

Humanistic therapy doesn’t use the word “treatment” because it implies medical technique and scientific measurement. Instead, humanistic therapists prefer the terms “approach,” “stance,” and “condition” (Schneider, 2002).

How does humanistic therapy work?

Humanistic therapy focuses on understanding the human experience. It emphasizes that the participant is a whole person rather than defining them by their symptoms. It uses a variety of approaches, but the central themes are “responsibility,” “self-determination,” and “free will” (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

Humanistic therapists focus on helping clients understand how their past experiences, present perceptions, and expectations for the future influence their reality (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

There are six foundational principles of existential therapy (a subtype of humanistic therapy) (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999):

  1. All people have the capacity for self-awareness.
  2. As free beings, everyone must accept the responsibility that comes with freedom.
  3. Each person has a unique identity that can only be known through relationships with others.
  4. Each person must continually recreate himself. The meaning of life and existence is never fixed; instead, it constantly changes.
  5. Anxiety is part of the human condition.
  6. Death is a basic human condition that gives significance to life.

It is common for humanistic therapists to incorporate breathing, centering, mindfulness, or somatic interventions into their therapy sessions to help manage emotions. A humanistic therapist might focus on defusing emotions and providing some stability in very short-term or crisis therapy, then connecting the client with further resources (Hoffman, 2021).

Examples of humanistic therapies

Some examples of therapeutic approaches that incorporate a humanistic perspective include:

Gestalt therapy

The theory behind the gestalt approach is that analyzing the parts of a person can never provide an understanding of the whole. Practitioners of gestalt therapy argue that rational and scientific means can’t explain human behavior. Rather, a person’s description of their direct experiences is the only way to understand the world of that human being. Gestalt therapy sessions focus on helping clients gain awareness of themselves and the world (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

Existential therapy

In existential therapy, sessions focus on specific concerns surrounding the client’s existence. It comes down to the client’s answer to the core question, “How do I exist in the face of uncertainty, conflict, or death?” (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

The mental health professional provides a safe space for the client to explore choices related to freedom, responsibility, uncertainty, and giving up false feelings of security. The goal is for the client to achieve an authentic sense of self by discovering their own meaning in the present and future (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

Client-centered or person-centered therapy

A humanistic therapist engaging in client-centered therapy holds the core belief that the client already has the keys to their own recovery. The therapist offers a therapeutic relationship that lets the client discover their reality (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

The three conditions that will help the client create change are (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999):

  1. Unconditional positive regard
  2. A warm, positive, and accepting attitude that includes no evaluation or moral judgment
  3. Accurate empathy, whereby the therapist shows they understand the client’s world through skilled, active listening

Narrative therapy

Narrative therapy assumes that events in life are neither inherently good nor bad. People’s lives are shaped by their relationships and the stories that they tell themselves and others about the events in their lives. Family, culture, and society influence how people construct their stories (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

Approaches to treatment and growth involve telling and re-telling the story until it leads to greater meaning and self-awareness (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).

Transpersonal Therapy

Transpersonal therapy highlights the spiritual, religious, and cosmic implications of the client-therapist relationship. The therapist incorporates religious faith traditions and mystical healing traditions into the sessions. (Schneider, 2002). 

What conditions could humanistic therapy help treat?

Humanistic therapists use this approach to deal with anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, and terminal medical illnesses (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999). 

Due to the nature of humanistic therapy, there has been little peer-reviewed scientific literature published. Humanist clinicians don’t necessarily focus on objective signs and symptoms of mental illness the way that other disciplines might. It can be challenging to assess subjective experiences such as “wholeness” or “meaningfulness” in a way that can be studied (Schneider, 2002).

This is a departure from other types of therapy such as psychoanalysis or cognitive behavioral therapy, which have been extensively researched.

There have been some scientific studies, though. For example, a systematic review and analysis of person-centered care for people with dementia found that it was effective in (Kim, 2017):

  • Reducing agitation
  • Reducing neuropsychiatric symptoms
  • Reducing depression
  • Improving the quality of life

The person-centered interventions included incorporating personal knowledge of the person, helping them perform meaningful activities, making well-being a priority, and improving the quality of the relationships between the healthcare provider and the individual (Kim, 2017).

The researchers felt that person-centered interventions would likely need to be incorporated into a larger plan of care to ensure continuing effects (Kim, 2017).

Resources for finding a humanistic therapist

If you think that humanistic therapy might be helpful for you, contact your healthcare provider. They can provide you with a referral to one in your area.

Alternatively, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s national helpline. They are open 24/7 and can provide information and resources for treatment in your area.

References

  1. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (1999). Brief interventions and brief therapies for substance abuse. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 1999. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 34. Chapter 6 –Brief Humanistic and Existential Therapies. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64939/

    Hoffman, L. (2021). Existential–humanistic therapy and disaster response: lessons From the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 61(1), 33–54. doi: 10.1177/0022167820931987. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0022167820931987

    Kim, S. K., & Park, M. (2017). Effectiveness of person-centered care on people with dementia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 12, 381–397. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S117637. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5322939/ 

    Schneider, K. J., & Leitner, L. M. (2002). Humanistic psychotherapy. In Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy (1st ed., pp. 949–957). Elsevier Science. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/8122546/Encyclopedia_of_Psychotherapy