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Identify the key components of both psychodynamic and humanistic therapy

Humanistic therapy is a mental health approach that emphasizes the importance of being your true self in order to lead the most fulfilling life.

It’s based on the principle that everyone has their own unique way of looking at the world. This view can impact your choices and actions.

Humanistic therapy also involves a core belief that people are good at heart and capable of making the right choices for themselves. If you don’t hold yourself in high regard, it’s harder to develop your full potential.

Read on to learn more about humanistic therapy, including how it works and tips for finding a therapist.

How does it work?

Humanistic therapy involves better understanding your world view and developing true self-acceptance.

This is accomplished partially through the development of unconditional positive regard, both from others and from yourself. When you believe that others only respect you if you act a certain way, it’s easy to fall into the trap of constantly feeling like you aren’t enough.

This feeling of worthlessness, in turn, can negatively impact how you view both yourself and the world around you. Remember, according to the underlying principles of humanistic therapy, how you view yourself and the world around you has a big impact on your thoughts and actions.

Humanistic therapy can help you to both develop self-acceptance and overcome criticism or disapproval from others by offering a safe space to work toward personal growth. There are ways of doing this, which we’ll go over later.

How does it compare to other types of therapy?

Humanistic therapy differs from more traditional approaches, such as psychoanalysis or behavioral therapy.

To start, humanistic therapy tends to focus more on your current day-to-day life. This is very different from other approaches that tend to focus on your past experiences, including those you might not be aware of.

Similarly, humanistic therapy also focuses more on helping the individual as a whole, rather than treating a specific diagnosis. A humanistic therapist will often do this through active listening. This means that they’ll listen carefully to your words, making sure they fully understand what you’re saying. They may stop you to ask follow-up questions.

Humanistic therapists work from the idea that you are the expert in your difficulties. They’ll support the direction you take each session, trusting you to know what you need to talk about in order to work through the things bringing you to therapy.

What are some examples of humanistic therapy?

Humanistic therapies include a number of approaches. Three of the most common are Gestalt therapy, client-centered therapy, and existential therapy.

Gestalt therapy

In Gestalt therapy, your personal experiences are key, along with describing what you’re going through in your own words. It’s based on an underlying theory that unresolved conflicts with others — including family members or romantic partners — lead to distress.

Gestalt therapy provides a state of “safe emergency” where you can explore, in the present moment, the things bothering you. For example, you might explore the belief that your opinions don’t matter to your partner.

Therapists help create the “here and now” atmosphere by asking what you’re currently aware of or how certain emotions make you feel. You might use a range of techniques to do this, including:

  • role-playing
  • exaggerating a behavior
  • reenacting a scenario

For example, you might be asked to visualize a person you’re having a conflict with sitting in an empty chair across from you. Then, you’ll carry out a conversation as if the person were actually sitting there.

Client-centered therapy

Also known as person-centered therapy and Rogerian therapy, this approach is considered the main type of humanistic therapy.

It’s based on the idea that absorbing criticism or disapproval from others can distort the way you see yourself. This blocks personal growth and prevents you from living a fulfilling life, which in turn leads to mental distress.

As the name suggests, it also places a lot of focus on developing a strong client-therapist relationship.

A client-centered therapist will unconditionally accept you, even if they disagree with some aspect of your behavior. Feeling accepted in therapy, no matter what you share, can help you avoid holding back out of fear of disapproval.

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You’ll guide the direction of therapy while your therapist listens without judgement.

Existential therapy

Existential therapy draws more from philosophy than most other approaches to mental health treatment. The goal of this approach is to help you understand how your existence — the concept of you as a whole person — affects your unique worldview.

Existential therapists help you understand and explore the meaning you give to things that happen in your life. With their guidance, you’ll learn to accept responsibility for choices you make and realize the freedom you have to make changes that will give your life greater meaning.

Like other humanistic approaches, existential therapy is mainly concerned with the issues you currently face, rather than things from your past. But it does consider how your thoughts — conscious or unconscious — impact your mental health and goals.

Who’s a good candidate for humanistic therapy?

Humanistic therapy is worth a shot if you’re looking for ways to make your life more fulfilling, regardless of whether you have an underlying mental health condition. It’s also worth considering if you’ve previously had trouble building a rapport with therapists.

A 2002 review of 86 studies found that humanistic therapies were effective at helping people make lasting change over time. People in humanistic therapy showed more change than people in no therapy at all, according to the review.

People in other types of therapy showed similar amounts of change, suggesting it’s more about finding a type of therapy that you enjoy and will commit to doing.

In addition, a 2013 review of existing research suggests that client-centered approaches can be helpful for:

  • trauma
  • relationship difficulties
  • psychosis
  • depression
  • coping with chronic health issues

However, it wasn’t quite as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy for addressing anxiety and panic disorder.

Whether a humanistic approach fits your needs can depend on what you want to get out of therapy. Humanistic therapies typically don’t make diagnosis a priority and may not work toward specific treatment goals.

If you have specific symptoms or behaviors you’d like to address or are seeking therapy with a clear goal for diagnosis and treatment, you might find a different approach more helpful. On the other hand, it may be a good fit if you’re simply feeling “stuck” or in a rut.

Keep in mind that other types of therapy often incorporate aspects of humanistic therapy, such as unconditional acceptance and active listening.

How do I find a humanistic therapist?

It’s not always easy to find the right therapist. When looking for a humanistic therapist, start by considering what you’d like to work on. This can be a specific issue or a more abstract concept.

Also think about any traits you’d like in a therapist. Would you prefer to work with a therapist of your own gender? The therapist-client bond is particularly important in humanistic therapy, so you’ll want to make sure the therapist is one you’ll feel comfortable with.

When looking for a therapist, you also want to take note of how much each potential therapist charges per session. Some therapists take insurance, but others don’t. And some may offer a sliding scale program that allows you to pay what you can.

Learn more about how to find affordable therapy.

The bottom line

Humanistic therapy is a type of mental health treatment that centers around your unique experience and perspective. Humanistic therapists offer empathy, genuine concern for you and your experience, and unconditional positive regard.

While it might not be the best option for getting a concrete mental health diagnosis, it can be a good option if you’re simply looking for ways to lead a more meaningful life.

Humanistic psychology believes that people are good and focuses on helping people reach their potential by exploring their uniqueness. It is based on the assumption that people have free will and are motivated to reach their full potential through self-actualization.

Humanistic psychology and humanistic therapy go together as the latter focuses on people’s capacity to make rational choices and reach their full potential. This therapy approach focuses on the client and allows them to take lead in the conversation. It also allows them to discover their true authentic selves and find solutions for their concerns in the process.

The therapist acts as a non-judgmental, respectful listener who guides the therapeutic process. They acknowledge your experiences without trying to shift the conversation in another direction.

Important assumptions of humanistic psychology include:

  • Feelings, thoughts, perception, and more are central to how you feel about yourself, which is the main indicator of your behavior.
  • Your need to reach your full potential is a natural process.
  • All people have free will, and you need to take responsibility for your behaviors for personal growth and fulfillment.
  • People can be good with the right set of conditions, especially during childhood.
  • A psychologist should treat each case individually as each person is different with unique experiences.

Humanistic Approach

Humanistic Approach

Saul McLeod, updated 2020

Humanistic, humanism and humanist are terms in psychology relating to an approach which studies the whole person and the uniqueness of each individual.  Essentially, these terms refer to the same approach in psychology.

Humanistic psychology is a perspective that emphasizes looking at the the whole person, and the uniqueness of each individual. Humanistic psychology begins with the existential assumptions that people have free will and are motivated to acheive their potential and self-actualize.

The humanistic approach in psychology developed as a rebellion against what some psychologists saw as the limitations of the behaviorist and psychodynamic psychology.

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The humanistic approach is thus often called the “third force” in psychology after psychoanalysis and behaviorism (Maslow, 1968).

Humanism rejected the assumptions of the behaviorist perspective which is characterized as deterministic, focused on reinforcement of stimulus-response behavior and heavily dependent on animal research.

Humanistic psychology also rejected the psychodynamic approach because it is also deterministic, with unconscious irrational and instinctive forces determining human thought and behavior.  Both behaviorism and psychoanalysis are regarded as dehumanizing by humanistic psychologists.

Humanistic psychology expanded its influence throughout the 1970s and the 1980s.  Its impact can be understood in terms of three major areas:

1) It offered a new set of values for approaching an understanding of human nature and the human condition.

2) It offered an expanded horizon of methods of inquiry in the study of human behavior.

3) It offered a broader range of more effective methods in the professional practice of psychotherapy.

Basic Assumptions

Humanistic psychology begins with the existential assumption that people have free will:

Personal agency is the humanistic term for the exercise of free will.  Personal agency refers to the choices we make in life, the paths we go down and their consequences.

People are basically good, and have an innate need to make themselves and the world better:

The humanistic approach emphasizes the personal worth of the individual, the centrality of human values, and the creative, active nature of human beings.

The approach is optimistic and focuses on the noble human capacity to overcome hardship, pain and despair.

People are motivated to self-actualize:

Self-actualization concerns psychological growth, fulfillment and satisfaction in life.

Both Rogers and Maslow regarded personal growth and fulfillment in life as a basic human motive. This means that each person, in different ways, seeks to grow psychologically and continuously enhance themselves.

However, Rogers and Maslow both describe different ways of how self-actualization can be achieved.

The subjective, conscious experiences of the individual is most important:

Humanistic psychologists argue that objective reality is less important than a person’s subjective perception and understanding of the world.

Sometimes the humanistic approach is called phenomenological. This means that personality is studied from the point of view of the individual’s subjective experience.

For Rogers the focus of psychology is not behavior (Skinner), the unconscious (Freud), thinking (Wundt) or the human brain but how individuals perceive and interpret events. Rogers is therefore important because he redirected psychology towards the study of the self.

Humanism rejects scientific methodology:

Rogers and Maslow placed little value on scientific psychology , especially the use of the psychology laboratory to investigate both human and animal behavior.

Humanism rejects scientific methodology like experiments and typically uses qualitative research methods.  For example, diary accounts, open-ended questionnaires, unstructured interviews and unstructured observations.

Qualitative research is useful for studies at the individual level, and to find out, in depth, the ways in which people think or feel (e.g. case studies).

The way to really understand other people is to sit down and talk with them, share their experiences and be open to their feelings.

Humanism rejected comparative psychology (the study of animals) because it does not tell us anything about the unique properties of human beings:

Humanism views human beings as fundamentally different from other animals, mainly because humans are conscious beings capable of thought, reason and language.

For humanistic psychologists’ research on animals, such as rats, pigeons, or monkeys held little value. 

Research on such animals can tell us, so they argued, very little about human thought, behavior and experience.

History of Humanistic Psychology

  • Maslow (1943) developed a hierarchical theory of human motivation.
  • Carl Rogers (1946) publishes Significant aspects of client-centered therapy (also called person centered therapy).
  • In 1957 and 1958, at the invitation of Abraham Maslow and Clark Moustakas, two meetings were held in Detroit among psychologists who were interested in founding a professional association dedicated to a more meaningful, more humanistic vision.
  • In 1962, with the sponsorship of Brandeis University, this movement was formally launched as the Association for Humanistic Psychology.
  • The first issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology appeared in the Spring of 1961.
  • Clark Hull’s (1943) Principles of behavior was published.
  • B.F. Skinner (1948) published Walden Two, in which he described a utopian society founded upon behaviorist principles.

Humanistic Approach Summary

Basic Assumptions

Humans have free will; not all behavior is determined.

All individuals are unique and are motivated to achieve their potential.

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A proper understanding of human behavior can only be achieved by studying humans – not animals.

Psychology should study the individual case (idiographic) rather than the average performance of groups (nomothetic).

Areas of Application

Person Centered Therapy Motivation Depression




Shifted the focus of behavior to the individual / whole person rather than the unconscious mind, genes, observable behavior etc.

Real life applications (e.g., therapy)

Humanistic psychology satisfies most people’s idea of what being human means because it values personal ideals and self-fulfillment.

Qualitative data gives genuine insight and more holistic information into behavior.

Highlights the value of more individualistic and idiographic methods of study.


Ignores biology (e.g., testosterone)

Unscientific – subjective concepts, which are difficult to tes.

Behaviorism – human and animal behavior can be compared

Ethnocentric (biased towards Western culture)

Humanism – can’t compare animals to humans

Their belief in free will is in opposition to the deterministic laws of science.

Issues and Debates

Free will vs Determinism

It is the only approach that explicitly states that people have free will, but its position on this topic is somewhat incoherent as on one hand it argues that people have free will.

However, on the other hand it argues that our behavior is determined by the way other people treat us (whether we feel that we are valued and respected without reservation by those around us).

Nature vs Nurture

The approach recognises both the influence of nature and nurture, nurture- the influence of experiences on a person’s ways of perceiving and understanding the world, nature- influence of biological drives and needs (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

Holism vs Reductionism

The approach is holistic as it does not try to break down behaviors in simpler components.

Idiographic vs Nomothetic

As this approach views the individual as unique it does not attempt to establish universal laws about the causes of behavior, it is an idiographic approach.

Are the research methods used scientific?

As the approach views the individual as unique it does not believe that scientific measurements of their behavior are appropriate.

Critical Evaluation

The humanistic approach has been applied to relatively few areas of psychology compared to the other approaches.  Therefore, its contributions are limited to areas such as therapy, abnormality, motivation and personality.

Client-centred therapy is widely used in health, social work and industry. This therapy has helped many people overcome difficulties they face in life, which is a significant contribution to improving people’s quality of life.

A possible reason for this lack of impact on academic psychology perhaps lies with the fact that humanism deliberately adopts a non-scientific approach to studying humans.

Humanistic psychologists rejected a rigorous scientific approach to psychology because they saw it as dehumanizing and unable to capture the richness of conscious experience.

As would be expected of an approach that is ‘anti-scientific’, humanisticpsychology is short on empirical evidence. The approach includes untestable concepts, such as ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘congruence’.

However, Rogers did attempt to introduce more rigour into his work by developing Q-sort –an objective measure of progress in therapy.

In many ways, the rejection of scientific psychology in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was a backlash to the dominance of the behaviorist approach in North American psychology. For example, their belief in free-will is in direct opposition to the deterministic laws of science.

Another limitation is the humanistic approach is that it is ethnocentric. Many of the ideas that are central to humanistic psychology, such as individual freedom, autonomy and personal growth, would be more readily associated with individualistic cultures in the Western world such as the US.

Collectivist cultures such as India, which emphasise the needs of the group andinterdependence, may not identify so easily with the ideals and values of humanisticpsychology.

Therefore, it is possible that the approach would not travel well and is a product ofthe cultural context within which it was developed and an emic approach is more appropriate.

It proposes a positive view of human nature, however, it could be argued that this might not be very realistic when considering the everyday reality such as domestic violence and genocides.

Furthermore, the approach’s focus on meeting our needs and fulfilling our growth potential reflects an individualistic, self-obsessed outlook that is part of the problem faced by our society rather than a solution.

Also, the areas investigated by humanism, such as consciousness and emotion are very difficult to scientifically study.  The outcome of such scientific limitations means that there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the key theories of the approach.

However, the flip side to this is that humanism can gain a better insight into an individual’s behavior through the use of qualitative methods, such as unstructured interviews.

The approach also helped to provide a more holistic view of human behavior, in contrast to the reductionist position of science.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2015, December 14). Humanism. Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.

Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1,  415-422.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist 1,  415-422.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2015, December 14). Humanism. Simply Psychology.



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