Humanistic Therapy: Definition, Techniques

By William Drake|Updated May 31, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Humanism is a school of thought that recognizes the good in people as individuals. While that sounds wonderful in theory, it may be hard to imagine how it translates into a therapy situation. If you need to solve a personal or mental health problem, you might want to consider talking to a humanistic therapist, either in-person or in online therapy. Understanding the humanistic therapy definition and its components and techniques is a good starting point.

Wondering If Humanistic Therapy Is A Good Fit For You?

What Is Humanistic Therapy?

So, what is humanistic therapy? What does it emphasize and what kinds of problems can it help you solve? The following brief look at a humanistic therapy definition and the ideas behind that definition can help you understand.

Humanistic therapy is a psychological treatment that's based on the humanistic theory that humans are good and have the power to make their own decisions. It also recognizes that humans have certain needs that need to be met and that each can benefit from accepting responsibility for meeting those needs. Humanistic therapy has many other names, such as person centered therapy, client centered therapy, Rogerian therapy, and existential therapy. This article may use all or some of these terms interchangeably, but they all refer to the "person centered" approach to therapy and therapies with similar characteristics to the humanistic approach. 

Focus On Positive Traits And Behaviors

Rather than emphasizing the ways a person is dysfunctional or "less than," humanistic approaches for mental health treatment focus on your positive attributes. The right therapist guides you in developing healthy behaviors instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of your life. You are seen as a good, powerful, and creative person in the humanistic perspective. As you learn to view yourself from this positive perspective, you become more capable and successful in solving your problems.

Focus On Personal Intuition

Humanistic therapy assumes that you have the wisdom and can gain the knowledge to deal with your problems yourself. Certainly, the client centered therapist is there to help you find the answers to your mental health challenges.  You make these decisions based on your intuition and sense of right and wrong.

Focus On Meeting Your Own Needs

When you talk to a humanistic therapist, they guide you as you find out which of your needs are unfulfilled. Then, they facilitate your quest to meet those needs for yourself. The therapist isn't there to push you or tell you what to do. They're only there to listen to you, provide a sounding board for you, and help you realize that you have the power to make the changes you need to make to meet those needs.

a man explores the outdoors

Focus On Accomplishing Your Own Goals

While many people begin therapy to overcome a problem, others go because they want to become more successful or happier with their own behavior. Humanistic psychology ultimately follows the core belief that people want to achieve personal growth and become "better" humans. It's only human nature. While most types of therapy are based in clinical psychology that focuses on treatment of certain emotions and specific symptoms through a structured approach, the humanistic approach views personal growth as its only goal.

Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, stated that self-actualization isn't just a want, but it's a need that's common to all humans, and therapy can help with discovering this greater meaning. Self-actualization means becoming your best self, identifying your positive characteristics, and using your increased self awareness to live a more meaningful life. Humanistic therapists acknowledge that self-actualization is something you must accomplish for yourself, with the help of unconditional positive regard from your therapist, of course.

Issues Addressed In Humanistic Therapy

You might be surprised at the range of issues that can be treated through the psychology of humanistic therapy. This type of therapy doesn't ignore these problems. Instead, it recognizes them as indications that you have needs you must meet to be mentally healthy and happy. The following list is not complete, and there are other issues that can benefit from humanistic psychotherapy.

  • Depression
  • Panic disorders
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD from past experiences
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Addiction
  • Relationship issues, including those with an authority figure
  • Conflict between family members
  • Personal development
  • Self esteem issues
  • Increased personal meaning and personal responsibility
  • Personal growth

Techniques Used During Humanistic Sessions

Humanistic therapists rely on a positive perspective and genuine concern for a person's life rather than a lot of gimmicky techniques. The underlying principles listed below are ways of looking at you and your problems through the approach of humanistic psychology. These humanistic therapies techniques aid you in finding your solutions for your own behavior, own choices, and own words.

a man consults with a mental health care professional

Wondering If Humanistic Therapy Is A Good Fit For You?

Therapist Listening Techniques

By using active listening techniques, the therapist keeps you engaged in the therapy session. They show that they're listening to simple phrases and facial expressions. If they don't understand something you've said, they might ask you to talk more about it. They might also tell you what they heard and asked if they understood you correctly. They encourage you all along the way.

In addition to listening actively, the humanistic therapist listens nonjudgmentally. Because humanism recognizes you as a good person, humanistic therapists allow you to work through your maladaptive thoughts during therapy while helping you find the good within yourself. This is central to the practice of existential therapy, and a good therapist client relationship makes all the difference with this philosophical approach. 

Assuming You're Good

Yes, humanistic therapy involves the assumption that you're good. You are good enough to overcome any problems or challenges you have or, at the least, learn to cope with them healthily. In humanistic counseling, you aren't labeled according to the mental health problems you face. That isn't who you are to a humanistic therapist. Instead, you are a good person dealing with a difficult situation.

Acknowledging Your Power To Decide

When you're facing a mental health problem or crisis, you might feel powerless to overcome it. You might feel that someone else or some circumstance needs to be changed for you before you can get relief. However, humanistic therapy acknowledges and helps you realize your power in any situation. Even if you can't change the person or the situation, you can decide how you will respond to it. This power to decide is a foundation of the humanistic approach to therapy.

Treating You As A Whole Person

Some types of therapy deal with one aspect of who you are and your relevant experience. Cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the more traditional approaches to therapy, works just with your thoughts and behaviors. Virtual reality therapy emphasizes your responses to perceived threats. Humanistic therapy, though, is a Gestalt therapy in that it treats you as a whole person - a person who perceives, thinks, behaves, believes, and has specific human needs. This is why it's also known as client centered therapy: your past experiences, true self, and individual nature play the most active role in your treatment. You are a combination of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects that make up the totality of who you are.

Recognizing You As An Individual

Humanistic talk therapy doesn't seek to categorize you. It stems from humanistic psychology in that it recognizes that no two people are exactly alike. Building on your uniqueness, you can blossom into a beautiful expression of human goodness that exists nowhere else but within you. Not only are you a unique individual, but you are the one best suited to solving your problems within the humanistic approach.

Dealing With Issues In The Here And Now

Some therapies are focused on resolving issues, thoughts, choices, or aspects from the past. This may be important to you, and if so, you may need to choose another type of therapy to deal with past traumas or abuse. Humanistic therapy methods deals with problems in the here and now, as they are happening with the individuals or person. If what you are doing now is an expression of a problem from the past and not a relevant experience, you can choose differently where you are, in the present moment. This leads to changes and exploring different ways to approach your current situation.

Identifying Your Needs

One of the most important things you need to do in humanistic therapy sessions is to get a sense of what you need in life. Your therapist might ask you open-ended questions to encourage you to talk out your problems and find the unfulfilled needs behind those challenges. It isn't always easy to recognize your needs and take responsibility for them as people, but a therapist can prompt you to look deeper at your mental health issues until you find your underlying need through gestalt therapy.

Accepting Responsibility

In the humanistic tradition, everyone must accept responsibility for meeting their own needs, not by blaming an authority figure or other person as an equal partner in their unhappiness. When you do this, you free yourself to find solutions where none seemed to exist before. Instead of blaming others for your problems, you recognize the part you play, whether that is in creating the problem or not dealing with it in a positive, productive way. The wonderful thing about accepting responsibility is that when you do, you gain control and power over your responses to the problem.

Finding Solutions

Your therapist won't tell you what to do about your situation. Also, the therapist taking no responsibility for your choices allows you to feel more confident in them being all your own. This is partly because they recognize that you are the one who is going to live with the consequences of your choices. It's also because you know yourself better than anyone else, so you're in the best position to decide what's right for you with the gestalt approach.

Plenty of peer reviewed studies, like this one, touch on the effectiveness of humanistic therapy and psychology as a treatment for self improvement. 

A humanistic counselor or therapist is typically very cognizant of their professional therapy boundaries and needs. This is important in humanistic therapy because therapy is intended to help you find your solutions. So, rather than offering solutions, the therapist is more likely to ask questions that help you access your creative problem-solving abilities and techniques. 

Connecting With A Humanistic Therapist

If humanistic therapy and psychology makes sense to you as a helpful way to deal with your mental health conditions, you might want to begin therapy with an in-person or online counselor who practices that style of therapies. If you’re considering online talk therapy. You can choose from hundreds of therapists at BetterHelp. Many of the BetterHelp therapists practice humanistic methods. You can find out about each therapist by reading their profile on the BetterHelp website. Below you can read some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who have been helped.

Therapist Reviews

"I've been working with Maria for a couple months now and found this time so worthwhile. I feel like she's very good at understanding where I'm coming from and supports me in a loving and compassionate way. She has a way of guiding me to feel more empowered and to think for myself. I look forward to her messages and phone calls because she more often than not offers another insight I can reflect on. I would highly recommend her to my friends who is looking for support towards a healthy and compassionate self."

"I'm not sure I have the adequate words to express how much Dr. Drew has helped me. She is supportive, and has given me so many different outlets and tools to work through our therapy together. I have had therapists who have tunnel vision in where they'd like to direct the conversation, and it was a relief to not have that with Dr. Drew. She lets me organically go where I need to in the session. She also has been able to connect with my personality and direct therapy in a fashion that is conducive to my learning. I couldn't recommend her enough."

Conclusion: Changes In Therapy

As you come to understand yourself in a more positive light, you can take charge of your responses to stress and bad situations. By the time you've been in therapy for a short while, you'll already be starting to make the changes you need to improve your thoughts, your behaviors, and your physical health. Your issues are manageable, all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.

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