Humanistic Therapy Overview

Humanistic therapy revolves around an individual’s capacity to make rational choices and reach his or her maximum potential. It champions the concepts of compassion and respect for others.

The development of humanistic therapy was highly influenced by writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Buber, and Soren Kierkegaard, and was influenced by the psychologists Abraham Maslow, Carol Rogers, and Rollo May.

Unlike psychoanalysis and behavioral therapies, humanistic methods focus therapists on clients as human beings instead of on a client’s observable behavior or unconscious mind. Humanistic therapists take an interest in a person’s perceptions, beliefs, and the need to maximize their potential.

Maslow’s Contribution to Humanistic Therapy

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s primary contribution to the formation of humanistic therapy is his concept of man’s hierarchy of basic needs.

  • Level 1, physical or physiological needs: air, water, food, clothing, shelter.
  • Level 2, safety or security needs: personal and financial security, and health or well-being.
  • Level 3, love and belonging needs: family, friends, colleagues, and connections through church, organizations and institutions.
  • Level 4, acceptance and self-esteem needs: being recognized for our accomplishments and our intrinsic worth.
  • Level 5, self-actualization needs: personal, creative, and spiritual development.

Maslow’s belief was that a person cannot meet higher level needs unless the lower level needs are met first. For example, Kelly is struggling to find an apartment and pay her bills. She cannot focus on meeting her needs for love and belonging (level 3) because her physiological and safety needs (levels one and two) are not being met.

Carl Rogers and Client-Centered Therapy

Client-centered therapy is one of the prominent forms of humanistic therapy. Developed by Carl Rogers and his followers, it emphasizes that clients are the experts concerning their inner experiences, not the therapist.

Therapists help clients change by being genuine, accepting and empathizing. These three actions, Rogers believed, cause clients to feel validated, promoting growth and healing.

Rogers also taught that people instinctively try to self-actualize, or develop spiritually, physically, and mentally. A therapist facilitates this growth by acting as a mirror, reflecting back to the client what they have said. This gently guides the client to the answers that lie within them.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is an offshoot of the humanistic movement. It focuses on what takes place in the here and now (the present moment) between the therapist and client, and works with the client’s emotional responses to what happens.

For instance, if a client were to get into an argument with their Gestalt therapist, the therapist would focus on the client’s actions and emotional reactions during the disagreement and process these factors with the client. Individual responsibility is an important aspect of Gestalt therapy.

Generally, humanistic therapy focuses on the good in people and sees them as wanting to improve their lives. Instead of focusing on the negatives, humanistic therapy sees the potential in each client and helps them to maximize that potential.

Further Reading


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