Therapy & Carl Rogers

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 18, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

There are several names that are inextricably twined with psychology and mental health. While Sigmund Freud remains one of the most visible figures in the history of modern psychology and psychiatric theory, there are a robust number of figures regarded as“fathers” of modern psychological practice, and Carl Rogers is one such man, credited with the development of humanistic theory, or humanistic psychology.

Humanistic Psychology: A Definition

Humanistic psychology (also called humanistic theory) is an approach to mental health treatment that focuses on the individual as a single unit (called client-centered therapy), and experiential discovery in order to achieve self-actualization. In the context of modern psychological practice, self-actualization refers to the realization or fulfillment of an individual’s potential and goals. According to the early founders of humanistic theory, including Rogers, this was the goal os psychology: to help individuals experience their full potential.

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The Humanistic Psychologists

Humanistic psychology enjoyed its greatest heyday from the 1940s to the 1970s, and is attached to significant names such as Abraham Maslow and Rollo May. Carl Rogers is most well-noted for his contributions to the field of humanistic theory because he introduced the concept of unconditional regard, or a relationship between therapists and their clients in which therapists offer a positive, encouraging, and considerate atmosphere in which to conduct sessions.

The advent of humanistic psychology was valuable, because it provided a more holistic approach to mental healthcare than its predecessors, Freudian psychology and behavioral psychology. In both of these approaches, the focus was not on client-centered care, but was instead placed primarily on delving into a client’s background and unconscious in order to explain and diagnose behaviors and thought processes. A humanistic approach treated clients far less like objects to be picked apart and far more like people to be spoken to and collaborated with.   

Humanistic Psychology and Its Predecessors

The history of psychology is positively steeped with Freud’s contributions, and his legacy is firmly intact to this day. Although he was a pioneer in the field, engineering entirely new approaches to human health and investigation, much of his early work has been disproven or at the very least challenged, and those who came after have taken his approach to health and have expounded upon and moved away from the rigidity and conclusions of much of his work.

Apart from Freud, early psychological theory relied upon behavioristic theory or behaviorism, a psychological principle that focused on learned behavior and asserted that learned behavior was responsible almost entirely for the outcome of an individual’s psyche, nature, and habits. Behavioristic theory was perhaps less rigid than Freud’s work, but continued to approach psychology in a highly principled manner, utilizing only what could be readily observed and recorded during a session. Humanistic psychology relieves the sole burden of observation and evaluation from the psychologist, and instead encourages the patient in question to have equal share in the discovery and evaluation of psychological concepts.

The current study of psychology would be lost without the contributions of these early researchers and psychologists, who were eager to dive into the depths of the human mind and behaviors. Each laid the groundwork for the researchers and scientists who would come after, and provided the need for additional approaches to tease out and further evaluate the inner workings of the mind and corresponding behavior. Psychologists like Maslow and Rogers moved away from treating patients like machines that have been programmed to elicit a certain response, and more like individuals with a series of nuanced and complicated backgrounds, wants, and needs.

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow is one of the most prominent “fathers” of humanistic psychology. Perhaps best known for his contribution to the field in the form of his “hierarchy of needs,” Maslow has been recognized for decades as an important contributor to not only humanistic theory, but the field of psychology as a whole.

Maslow’s foray into psychology was marked by his movement away from behavioristic views of patients, and his belief that patients must first meet a series of criteria for basic shelter, safety, and health, before moving on to the development of self-actualization. This was na important concept to introduce into the study of psychology, as it treated humans as complex creatures with diverse needs, rather than a simple, prescriptive approach to human development that focused on a rigid understanding of childhood ails and what is now recognized as childhood trauma.

Maslow was recognized for his work in the development of humanistic psychology and was a contemporary of another important contributor to humanistic theory: Carl Rogers.

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers adhered to the same basic tenets espoused by Maslow, but his focus differed. While Maslow focused on the basics of human needs and how those needs interacted with and influenced mental health, Rogers focused more on the practical application of humanistic theory through his adherence to client-centered therapy and unconditional positive regard. Rogers’ contributions to psychology were invaluable in part because of his use of humanistic theory, and in part because he was a pioneer in the manner in which the relationship between psychologists and their patients was regarded.

Humanistic Theory in Practice

Where psychology practices once focused on a strict patient-psychologist relationship that treated a patient more as an experimental subject, humanistic theory turned that on its head and developed a new relationship between therapists and their charges—one created based on collaboration and client-focused care. In practice, humanistic theory continues to evaluate and treat mental health, but does so in a way that is designed to support the self-actualization and goals of the patient in question, rather than turning over a host of childhood issues and developing behavioral changes to shift patient thought processes and patterns.

Rather than evaluating a patient in order to determine what is “abnormal” or “wrong” with the patient, humanistic psychology focuses on evaluating a patient in order to determine what that individual patient’s baseline for normal is, and develops a treatment plan to re-establish that baseline. Using a humanistic approach, treatment plans will vary widely from person to person, and may involve different types of therapy in order to best suit the patient’s needs. There is more fluidity involved in a humanistic approach to therapy than there was in its predecessors, because those predecessors were far more inclined toward rigidity and a single-minded view of health and its restoration.

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The Lasting Legacy of Humanistic Theory and Carl Rogers

Humanistic theory is, arguably, the most enduring approach to psychology currently in use. Although most of the focus of early psychoanalysis was on unhealthy individuals in order to determine what did and did not constitute health, humanistic theory deviated away from this hyper attention on ill health and instead evaluated individuals based on their own unique “experiential field,” or the different events, thought processes, and desires that made up who they were and what they needed.

This approach to therapy is the most commonly seen approach in modern psychology, and is the approach most people think of when they think of someone attending a therapy session or going to see a therapist. Humanistic psychology’s endurance is largely due to its individuality; while other early forms of psychoanalysis were unyielding in their approach and either declared that a patient’s childhood was to blame or that a patient’s environment was to blame and needed to be fixed, humanistic theory offered a gentler avenue into psychoanalysis and posited that there was hope in the development of human health and personal evolution.

From Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to Rogers’ fully-functioning person, humanistic theory has continued to progress and be developed by mental health professionals. These perspectives of mental health have allowed psychologists to not only evaluate an individual’s needs, but to also prescribe individualized therapies to suit those needs. Where psychoanalysts once regarded patients as damaged creatures in need of being fixed, humanistic psychology views patients as creatures able to fuse their ideal selves and real selves, in order to achieve self-actualization.

The field of psychology in its current iteration is built primarily on humanistic psychology. Therapists, whether those working in an office, or those working online, are likely to rely on the tenets of humanistic psychology to see, evaluate, and subsequently treat their patients. Without the contributions of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, this field of psychology would neither exist nor provide a robust opportunity for treatment of mental health missteps and frustration.

Humanistic Psychology and Modern Therapy

Humanistic psychology is inextricably twined with modern therapy practices. The talk-and-listen model of current therapy, coupled with common therapeutic approaches, such as CBT, demonstrate the value of the humanistic model in current therapy practices. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides the groundwork for developing self-confidence, independence, and goal-reaching. Rogers’ client-centered approach to therapy is the foremost model used in therapy practices. Modern therapy is hugely informed by humanistic theory, from the therapist down the road, to the online therapists working through BetterHelp’s online therapy platform.

“Melinda is an incredible counselor. She is involved, responsive, caring, and very knowledgeable. I have been in counseling for years, and my experience with Melinda has truly been the best. I highly recommend her with all of my heart!”

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