Today there are many different forms of psychotherapy offered by mental health practitioners, sometimes making it difficult to find the type that may be the best fit for you. Humanistic therapy is one type that adopts a “holistic approach” to improving mental well-being. It pays special attention to each individual’s unique experiences, plus the importance of free will, self-actualization and showing empathy.
If you’re interested in working with a nonjudgmental therapist who holds space for you to speak your mind freely, while also encouraging self-exploration so you can reach your full potential, humanistic psychology can be a great option.
What Is Humanistic Therapy?
What does the humanistic approach focus on? Humanistic therapy, also called humanism or humanistic psychology, is a branch of therapy that focuses on a person’s individual nature as a whole, dynamic and “innately good” person.
According to Psychology Today, while some forms of psychotherapy (such as psychoanalytic and behavioral therapies) categorize groups of people with similar characteristics as having the same problems, humanistic therapy is different in that it looks at each person’s personal strengths in order to help someone use his or her wisdom for growth and healing.
Humanism is considered a form of positive psychology because it emphasizes the positive side of human nature. In other words, humanism is grounded in the belief that people are innately good.
Positive psychology assumes that “people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
Humanistic therapy first emerged in the 1950s as a “holistic” approach to addressing clients’ problems. It was based on theories developed by acclaimed psychologists, including Abraham Maslow, who developed a human hierarchy of needs and motivations, and Carl Rogers, who developed a person-centered approach to therapy.
How It Works
In order to help people reach their potential, humanistic psychology focuses on people’s positive traits and providing support.
GoodTherapy.org states that the core tenets of humanistic psychology are:
- intrinsic nature
Humanism stresses the importance of these principles:
- Each individual is unique and different, and subjective reality is a guide to behavior.
- Free will exists, so each individual has the capability of changing and growing.
- People are inherently good and want to heal and live satisfying lives.
- People can experience growth if provided with suitable conditions.
- Reality is less important than a person’s subjective perception and understanding of the world.
Therapists use humanistic therapy techniques that are aimed at creating a supportive, nonjudgmental and empathetic environment. “Unconditional positive regard” is how the client is treated, which assumes that the client is doing her best to live a happy life.
If you meet with a humanist therapist, you can expect to mostly speak about how you’re feeling in the present moment, rather than harping too much on past events or your childhood. Because it emphasizes a person’s feelings in the “here and now,” humanism is said to use a gestalt approach, which is defined as “a present-centered, awareness building, high impact form of intervention.”
It’s important for the patient/client to feel that he can trust his therapist and be fully open and honest about his struggles. The goal is to form a relationship between client and therapist that feels equal and balanced, rather than having the therapist talk at the client.
How long does humanistic therapy last? It depends on the individual case.
Client-centered therapy is less structured and non-directive than other forms of psychotherapy, so he duration of treatment can really vary. Most often, clients meet with therapists for anywhere between four and 16 weeks (or sometimes longer) depending on their goals.
Therapists can incorporate humanism techniques and principles into a variety of different types of therapies.
What is an example of humanistic psychology? Therapeutic techniques that are utilized as part of this type of psychotherapy include:
- Rogerian (person-centered) therapy — focuses on targeting productive, adaptive and beneficial traits and behaviors of an individual. Also emphasizes that each person is created with a distinct priority of needs and drives and that each person must rely on a personal sense of inner wisdom and healing.
- Client-centered therapy — the client leads sessions regarding what she wants to discuss.
- Existential therapy — based on tenants of free will, self-determination and a search for meaning in life.
- Unstructured interviews — allows the therapist to gain access to an individual’s thoughts and experiences.
- Participant observations— facilitates the formation of personal relationships and allows the therapist the opportunity to get direct feedback from the person in therapy.
- Analysis of the client’s biographies, diaries and letters — helps the therapist gain insight into the client’s thoughts.
Many times, humanistic techniques are combined with other types of therapies for even broader results, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (which targets thought patterns) or somatic experiencing therapy (which focuses on the mind-body connection). Some practitioners may also use humanistic principles when working with clients on emotional freedom technique, reiki and other complementary therapeutic practices.
1. Can Improve Self-Esteem
Humanistic psychology emphasizes a goal of self-actualization, which describes the need for a person to reach her maximum potential.
This type of psychology also holds that morality, ethical values and good intentions are the driving forces of behavior. When a client’s problems are approached from this viewpoint, it can help him have more compassion for himself so he can grow.
Humanistic therapists believe people are inherently motivated to fulfill their internal needs, so a client will be encouraged to improve her self-esteem through a variety of endeavors — such as creative projects, spiritual enlightenment, building relationships, a pursuit of wisdom or altruism.
2. Boosts Self-Awareness, Coping Skills and Growth
A humanist therapist helps her/his client understand and analyze what that person is feeling in the present, which can help the client make sense of thoughts and behaviors.
Boundless Psychology explains this concept well:
By listening to and echoing back the clients’ own concerns, the therapist helps the client see themselves as another might see them. This can help them perceive inconsistencies or biases in their perceptions of the world and other people.
Having a nonjudgmental space to process emotions and experiences is an important aspect of growth according to humanistic therapy. In an open environment that promotes positive regard, an individual is expected to learn problem-solving and self-soothing skills, which can help when struggling with stress, depression and other issues.
3. Can Help Improve Relationships
The humanistic approach holds true that every person has free will, meaning each individual can learn to take responsibility for his own actions, including those affecting his relationships.
Who Is a Good Candidate for It?
What is humanistic therapy used to treat? Not only can it help manage mental health issues such as depression, but humanistic therapy is also helpful for those who want to grow as a person.
This type of psychotherapy is most often used to help those dealing with issues such as:
- Struggling to find their purpose, feel fulfilled or accept themselves as they are
- Depression and low self-esteem
- Panic disorders
- Personality disorders
- Relationship issues
How to Find a Therapist
If you’re interested in working with a humanist therapist, look for a licensed, experienced mental health professional with humanistic values and a positive psychology-based approach.
Keep in mind that a comfortable relationship between client and therapist is key according to humanism, so you may need to work with more than one therapist before you find a good fit.
Risks and Side Effects
All types of psychotherapies have certain limitations, including humanistic.
One argument is that there’s isn’t enough empirical evidence to support the key theories of this approach compared to the amount available for behavioral therapies and cognitive behavioral therapy. This is because it tends to be difficult to objectively measure, record and study humanistic variables (such as self-actualization and free will).
Other types of therapy may be better options for people dealing with complex mental health issues, since the client is expected to play a big role in her own treatment. Some psychologists believe that a therapist taking a stronger lead in the process and facilitating more progress is better when the client is under a lot of distress or out of touch with reality.
- Humanistic therapy, also called humanism or humanistic psychology, is a branch of therapy that focuses on a person’s individual nature as a whole, dynamic and “innately good” person.
- Because it’s a form of positive psychology, humanism emphasizes the positive side of human nature and assumes all people want to live fulfilling lives.
- Humanistic therapists believe people have free will, that their unique perspectives are important, and that all are inherently motivated to fulfill their internal needs and their individual potential.
- A humanistic therapist is usually trained to be a warm, empathetic, understanding and nonjudgmental person. An open client-therapist relationship can provide benefits for those dealing with depression, anxiety, addictions, personality disorders, low self-esteem and relationship issues.