Humanistic Psychology

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated July 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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Humanistic psychologists usually approach clients differently than other types of psychologists. Like other psychologists, humanistic psychologists typically study psychology and earn a doctoral degree. However, they also normally specialize in humanistic theory during their psychotherapy studies, internships, and practice. They usually embrace the idea that human beings and their experiences are unique and focus on the positive potential of their clients. You can connect with a humanistic psychologist by seeking out psychologists in your local area or matching with one through an online psychotherapy platform.

Humanistic psychology

The theoretical framework behind humanistic psychology is generally part of the human potential movement that started in the 1960s. Abraham Maslow is a psychologist who's credited as the founder of humanistic psychology. In 1961, Maslow started the Association for Humanistic Psychology, which is “a professional organization dedicated to a more meaningful, more humanistic vision”. Shortly thereafter, the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, the professional organization’s official journal, was established. 

Humanistic psychology has helped inform modern theories on human psychology and psychotherapy. Person-centered psychotherapy, gestalt psychotherapy, and several other modalities grew out of the concepts of humanistic psychology. According to an article titled “An Intellectual Renaissance of Humanistic Psychology”, the humanistic psychology approach influenced not only psychological research and treatment but also fields as varied as politics, education, and nursing.

In 1964, five basic postulates of humanistic psychology were outlined by James Bugental. These five postulates are quoted as follows:

  1. Human beings, as humans, are more than merely the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to component parts or functions.
  2. Human beings have their existence in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology.
  3. Human beings are aware and aware of being aware — i.e., they are conscious. Human consciousness always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
  4. Human beings have some choice and, with that, responsibility.
  5. Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value, and creativity.

The following concepts helped form the basic principles of humanistic psychology that continue to guide clinical psychology professionals in treating mental health concerns.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow introduced his theory of human motivation in an article published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Review. In the article, Maslow described a hierarchy of needs, which is a set of human values, from survival to psychological self-actualization, that drive human behavior. Self-actualization can be defined as reaching your highest human potential and is often the goal of humanistic therapy. However, in most cases, self-actualization only happens after a person fulfills their lower psychological needs. Therefore, humanistic psychotherapists often spend time helping clients achieve basic survival, safety, social belonging, and esteem needs.

Carl Rogers’s three core conditions

American psychologist Carl Rogers can be considered another central figure in the history of humanistic psychology. Rogers built on the concept of self-actualization proposed by Abraham Maslow, focusing on our free will and capacity for growth. His person-centered psychotherapeutic approach typically contains three core conditions for humanistic psychologists to follow as they treat humans with various psychological conditions. The three core conditions of person-centered psychotherapy include empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard. 

Empathy generally means the psychotherapist looks at the client’s challenges as if they were their own situation. Congruence usually refers to a sense of genuineness and transparency in which the psychotherapist’s responses match their inner feelings as they communicate with their clients. 

Finally, unconditional positive regard can mean the psychotherapist accepts their client and their client’s life experiences unconditionally, without making interpretations or assumptions. 

Humanistic view

In psychology, humanistic psychologists can have a unique view of the self as a distinct whole based on a person’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings about the people closest to them. They may see the self as an entity present at human birth that strives for growth, maturity, and self-actualization. Your ideal self can be viewed as the person you'd like to become. On the way, however, you may get side-tracked by forming a false self to survive and be accepted. A humanistic psychologist can help you uncover and reach for your ideal self.

Givens in humanistic psychology

Although the four givens may be a concept of existential psychology, humanist psychologists often incorporate them into psychotherapy. The four givens of human existence usually include the following:

  • 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 humanistic givens can be a monumental task. However, your psychotherapist can help you explore these concepts and support you through the process of humanistic psychology.

Attitudes toward their clients

For the humanistic psychologist, the client is generally the expert on their being and experiences. These psychotherapists may see themselves as equal partners with their clients, frequently working together to help them achieve their highest potential. They may view the clients as autonomous and free to make their own choices.

How do humanistic psychologists compare to other psychologists?

Humanistic psychologists often have a different attitude toward human consciousness than many other types of psychologists. For example, they're often less interested in psychological, scientific research. To most humanistic psychologists, boiling down humanity into the raw elements of human behavior may not be sufficient to truly understand complex, unique individuals. This attitude can distinguish them from behaviorists, who typically focus on techniques that affect human behavior more directly and systematically.

This type of humanistic psychologist may also be different from the psychoanalysts, who viewed behavior as a product of unconscious motivations. Humans who practice psychoanalytic therapy see current mental health disorders as the result of childhood psychological traumas and imbalances of brain chemicals. Professionals practicing humanistic psychology tend to have a different view on human life and behavior. Humanistic psychotherapy encourages participants to focus on the human potential for change and growth, despite what may have happened in the past.

Humanistic vs. positive psychology

Positive psychology is a psychological perspective based around the fundamental belief that the positive aspects of the human experience can be harnessed to address challenges. Humanistic and positive psychology take the view that a human being is capable of self-actualization, which can lead to fulfillment. However, humanistic psychology tends to rely on qualitative methods when explaining the human condition, while positive psychology tends to rely more on the scientific method. 

Additionally, the humanistic perspective usually incorporates a post-positivist, psychological ideology instead of the logical positivist ideology of positive psychology. Logical positivists’ view is that psychology researchers can objectively observe and evaluate phenomena, while post-positivists argue that psychology researchers are affected by their experience, values, and other factors.

How humanistic psychotherapy works

As you might expect, given its concepts and attitudes, humanistic psychotherapy can differ from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other forms of psychotherapy that approach problems more pragmatically. Instead, humanistic psychologists typically use Gestalt psychotherapy and transactional analysis.

Gestalt psychotherapy

Gestalt therapy usually has two primary purposes. First, the psychotherapist may encourage, support, and guide the client through unfinished business in their life. Second, they help the client meld the individual facets of their being to create a cohesive, whole self. Gestalt psychotherapy normally assumes humans are essentially good and have the potential to achieve true happiness and joy.

Transactional analysis

Transactional analysis (TA) is generally believed to have grown out of psychoanalytical theory. This psychotherapy usually distinguishes between the parent and child parts of the ego. It may recognize a parent state of the ego in which you relate to others in the way your early caregivers related to you as a child. However, it may also assume a child state of the ego in which you respond to your current circumstances in the same way as you did when you were a child.

The goal of TA is normally to create or build up a third position, called the adult. The adult part of the ego can be neutral, rational, and authentic. As you learn how to interact on the most appropriate level for any situation, you may learn to adopt the right psychological ego state.

In TA sessions, psychotherapists may encourage you to talk about distressing interactions with others. They may then draw a diagram to help you see which ego state each of you adopted during the exchange. Once you can objectively understand how you and those you interact with are approaching the conversation, you can choose an adult stance more often.

Benefits of humanistic psychology

Humanistic psychotherapy can have many benefits arising from its hopeful framework. Because it generally assumes humans are good, it can encourage you to feel positively about yourself and what you can accomplish.

This form of psychotherapy often acknowledges your right to choose and encourages you to make the right choices for yourself. It may celebrate your uniqueness and worth as an individual. It may give you the insight you need to act in ways that are congruent with your hopes for yourself and the world.

One positive aspect of this type of psychotherapy can be that it reduces the stigma of getting help for mental health disorders. Because it typically focuses on the positive and self-actualization, you and others who know about humanistic psychotherapy may be more likely to see it as an opportunity for personal growth, rather than an indication that you're mentally ill and need to be "fixed.” Rather than focusing on what's wrong with you, this form of psychotherapy can encourage you to see the good in yourself and reach toward your best self.

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Where to find a humanistic psychologist

Whether you're looking for an in-person or online humanistic psychologist or a psychotherapist who uses these methods, you can find them in clinics, hospitals, practices, and online psychotherapy platforms.

Research has found that a crucial factor for the success of any treatment can be a feeling of rapport between the client and psychotherapist. An online therapy platform may enable you to easily switch psychotherapists if you discover the person you are currently working with is not a good match for you. If you seek out a humanistic psychologist through an online psychotherapy platform and decide this approach is not the best one for you, switching to another psychotherapist and a different form of psychological treatment can be a fast and straightforward process. 

At this time, more research may be needed regarding the efficacy of online humanistic psychotherapy. However, in general, a growing body of evidence generally supports the idea that online psychotherapy is as effective as traditional in-person psychotherapy for treating a wide range of mental health disorders and concerns.

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Humanistic psychology usually differs from other types of psychotherapy by focusing intensely on a person’s experience using empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard from the therapist toward the client. Humanistic treatment methods can include Gestalt therapy, which usually seeks to help individuals unite the various facets of their being into a cohesive whole, and transactional analysis, which can examine personal interactions through the lens of parent, child, and adult parts of the ego. You can find humanistic psychologists in practice, in clinics, and through online therapy platforms.
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