How Do Humanistic Psychologists Help Their Clients?

By Julia Thomas

Updated February 20, 2020

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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Humanistic psychologists approach clients and their mental health issues differently than other types of psychologists. They embrace the idea that each human, as well as their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, are unique. They focus on the positive potential of the people they see. So, how can they possibly help with troubling problems, stresses, and traumas? Here's a brief look at how humanistic therapists conduct their sessions.

Key Concepts in Humanistic Psychology

It helps to understand the theoretical framework behind humanistic psychology. Not surprisingly, this form of psychology is a part of what is called the human potential movement that started in the 1960s. These key concepts guide humanistic psychologists in treating mental health issues.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, created a pyramidal chart that lays out the needs all humans share. From the survival needs at the base of the pyramid to the self-actualization needs at its apex, each need must be fulfilled in turn to build a happy, healthy life.

Self-actualization means reaching your highest human potential. This is the ultimate goal of humanistic counseling. However, in most cases, self-actualization doesn't happen unless the lower needs are fulfilled first. Therefore, these therapists often spend much of their time helping their clients deal with the basic survival, safety, social, belonging, and esteem needs first.

Humanistic View of The Self

Humanistic psychologists have a special view of the self. They see it as a distinct whole that's based on the experiences you've been through and your thoughts and feelings about the attitudes of the people close to you.

They see the organismic self as an entity that's present at birth. The organistic self strives for growth, maturity, and self-actualization. Your ideal self is the you you'd like to become. In between, you may get side-tracked by forming a false self to meet your conditions of worth. These conditions are beliefs about how you must behave to be accepted. The humanistic psychologist helps you uncover your most authentic self and reach for your ideal.

The 4 Givens

Although the four givens are an existential psychology concept, humanist psychologists often incorporate them into therapy. The four givens are:

  • Death is inevitable.
  • You're free to make your own choices.
  • Each person is essentially alone on their path.
  • Life has no inherent meaning.

Understanding and accepting the four givens can seem like a monumental task. It can change your entire worldview. However, your therapist can not only help you explore these concepts but also support you through the process.

What Is A Humanistic Psychologist?

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Like any other psychologist, humanistic psychologists have studied psychology to earn a doctoral degree. They specialize in humanistic theory and practice during their studies, internship, and practice. Humanistic counselors also have training in these concepts and methods. Eclectic therapists may use humanistic psychology in one of many different treatment modalities.

Attitudes Towards Clients

For the humanistic psychologist, the client is the expert when it comes to their own being and experiences. In other words, no one knows you better than you do. These therapists see themselves as equal partners with their clients, working together to help the client achieve their highest potential. They view the clients as autonomous and free to make their own choices.

Humanistic counselors base their practice on three core conditions: empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard. The first means that the therapist looks at the problem as if they were in your position. The second refers to a sense of realness and transparency in which how you respond outwardly matches up with how you feel inside. The third means that they accept you unconditionally.

How Do They Compare to Other Types Of Psychologists?

Psychologists that primarily rely on humanistic theory and methods have a different attitude from many other types of psychologists. For example, they're often less interested in scientific research. To them, boiling down humanity into the raw elements of behavior isn't sufficient to truly understand complex, unique individuals. This attitude sets them apart from behaviorists, who tend to focus on techniques that affect behavior more simplistically, directly and systematically.

They're also different from psychoanalysts, who see current mental problems as the results of childhood traumas and drives that can't be undone. Instead, they focus on the human potential for change and growth despite what might have happened in the past.

How Humanistic Therapy Works

As you might expect, given its concepts and attitudes, humanistic therapy is very different from cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of therapy that approach problems more pragmatically. So, how do psychologists use humanistic theory in a therapeutic setting? Two of the most common ways are through gestalt therapy and transactional analysis.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy has two main purposes. First, the counselor encourages, supports, and guides you as you deal with unfinished business in your life. Second, they help you meld the individual facets of your being to create a cohesive self that is whole and complete. It's important to note that gestalt therapy is unrelated to gestalt psychology, which was a very different movement started in Germany over a century ago. Gestalt therapy fits in well with the humanistic model. It assumes that humans are basically good and have the potential to achieve true happiness and joy.

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Transactional Analysis

Transactional analysis or TA grew out of psychoanalytical theory. However, humanistic psychologists often use it as well. This type of therapy distinguishes between the Parent and Child parts of the ego. It recognizes a Parent state of the ego in which you relate to others in the way your early caregivers related to you as a child. It also assumes a Child state of the ego in which you respond to your current experiences in the same way as you did when you were a child.

The goal of TA is to create or build up a third position called the Adult. The Adult part of the ego is neutral, rational, and authentic. As you learn how to interact on the most appropriate level for any situation, you learn to adopt the right ego state for Parent to Child, Child to Parent, and most importantly, Adult to Adult.

In TA sessions, therapists may encourage you to talk about distressing conversations and interactions you had with others. They may then draw a diagram to help you see what ego state each of you was adopting during the exchange. Once you can objectively understand how you and those close to you are approaching the conversation, you can choose the Adult stance more often as needed.

Benefits of Humanistic Counseling

Humanistic counseling has many benefits that arise from its hopeful framework. Because it assumes humans are good, it encourages you to feel positive about yourself and what you are capable of changing and accomplishing.

This form of therapy not only acknowledges your right to choose, but it also encourages you to make the choices that are right for you. It celebrates your uniqueness and your worth as an individual. It gives you the insight you need to act in ways that are congruent with your hopes for yourself and the world and your need for good mental health and wellbeing.

One very positive thing about this type of therapy is that it reduces the stigma of getting help for mental health issues. Because it focuses on the positive and self-actualization, you and others who know about it are more likely to see it as an opportunity for personal growth rather than an indication that you're mentally defective and need to be "fixed" to be acceptable.

There's a certain feeling of self-worth and mutual respect that comes from engaging in humanistic therapy. Rather than focusing on what's wrong with you, this form of therapy encourages you to see the good in yourself and reach higher to be the best you that you can be. It's an optimistic view, but it's also a practical one that can lead you to a better, happier, more fulfilled life.

Where to Find Humanistic Psychologists

Whether you're looking for a humanistic psychologist or a counselor that uses these methods among others, you can find them in clinics, hospitals, and private practices in many different locations. Some regions have limited psychological help available to residents, and many clients have limited access to transportation or little time to wait in a therapist's office.

Online therapy offers a practical solution if you'd like to work with a humanistic therapist. You can work with a professional counselor trained in this method by visiting BetterHelp and signing up for therapy. You can connect with a counselor from wherever you like, as long as you have an internet-connected device.

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Humanistic psychologists work with their clients to empower them, increase their mental and emotional wellbeing, and encourage them to reach their highest potential. There are many different types of therapy to choose from. Not everyone responds well to any one type of therapy. So, it pays to find out about many different theories and treatment options. As any humanistic counselor would tell you, the choice is entirely up to you.


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