study of humanistic psychotherapy

Humanistic psychology was introduced in the 1950’s as a movement to bring psychology to an understanding of what it means to be a person. The theory took psychology beyond unconscious thoughts, beliefs or behavioral responses to stimuli to a process of understanding free will, feelings ethics and relationships with others. The purpose of this paper is to develop an appreciation and understanding of humanistic psychotherapy, its origins, how it can be defined and clinical applications of the theory.

Unlike conventional psychoanalytic theory, humanistic theory allows the client an active role in determining issues and goals that he or she would like to address in treatment. The principles of humanistic theory are simple in that it sees the client in a holistic framework, as a whole person and the theory can be combined with any conventional treatment theory to allow an eclectic mix of treatment strategies and options. Humanistic therapy is inclusive as it brings the client to the center of the planning process and is supportive enough that other psychoanalytic theories or spiritual principles seem to become richer and more personal with the introduction of the humanistic theory to the treatment protocol.

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The Roots of Humanistic Theory

In the history of early psychotherapy there was Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. His premise of psychosexual development focused a client’s issues in his or her present to a developmental stage of the past. In Freud’s view, the failure to move through each stage successfully would be the catalyst for problems later in life. The unconscious was the driving factor of the client’s behavior. Psychoanalysis offered a “vision of counselors as unbiased neutral explorers of their client’s psychic terrain” (Brenner, 1973, Hansen, 2000, p.4). It was subjective only in the therapist’s interpretation of what the client shares. Over time, the movement to behaviorism brought the theory of conscious/unconscious mind as the catalyst for behavior to a scientific level to include observation to explain human behavior. Behaviorism put forward a theory that based human behavior on observable reactions driven by a stimulus to produce the stimulus response. “Behaviorism rejected [any] subjectivity all together for an emphasis on observable response contingencies “(Skinner, 1974, Hansen, 2004, p.4). Behaviorism does not take into account any conscious or unconscious response to a stimulus but believes a person’s behavior is a direct result of conditioning.

From these foundational theoretical approaches grew the theory of Humanistic psychotherapy. “The initial humanistic revolution, which occurred during the mid-20th century, challenged the assumption that human psychology should only be viewed through the . . . lens of science” Hansen, 2006, p.7). Humanistic theory emphasizes the client’s capacity to live up the highest caliber of his or her own ability and to decide on his or her future. The early days of psychotherapy were classified in a “medical model that began with Freud . . . [since] psychoanalysis was part of the medical community and everything associated with it was cast in medical terms” (Elkins, 2009, p.67-68). Since humanism looks beyond a medical model of psychology it brings to the forefront the speculation of “philosophical dualisms . . . science vs. non-science, sickness vs. health, objectivity vs. subjectivity” (Hansen, 2006, P.9).

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines Humanistic

Therapy as an emphasis on people’s capacity to make rational choices

and develop to their maximum potential. Concern and respect for others is

another important theme. There are three types of humanistic therapy that

are especially influential: Client Centered Therapy . . . Gestalt Therapy . . .

and Existential Therapy. ( 2010)

The theory was embraced by existential psychologists and was as an alternative response to psychoanalysis and behaviorism that some felt were too focused on personal failings. “Humanistic psychotherapy covers a broad range of therapies so some of its defining elements apply to some approaches more than others” (Nelson-Jones 2004, p.10). Almost any variation of a person centered therapy can find a place within the definition of humanistic therapy. Theorists like Maslow, Perls and Rogers believed that people needed to focus on personal growth to obtain a stronger sense of self or self actualization.

Rogers believed in healthy development and how the client could come to understand him or herself to be. His conditions for healthy growth focused on the relationship between the client and the therapist as he or she provides to the client the experience of dealing with another person with openness, empathy and unconditional positive regard. “Maslow describes the quest for self actualization as being intrinsic, not extrinsic and requires one to ask who one is as an individual and as a member of society” (Laas, 2006, p.87). His interpretation of humanistic therapy emphasized motivation as they key to understanding behavior. Rogers “had enough faith in his clients, believing that, if he could create an optimal therapeutic relationship, they would be highly likely to develop more of their potential for more effective living” (Cain, 2007, p.5)

A humanistic psychologist or therapist’s job is to help clients realize his or her potential and reach the goals that are set to the best of his or her own ability. Hansen in his 2006 article on humanism defined the development of the theory as follows: “The founders of humanistic theory objected to a scientific vision of human nature and argued that counseling should instead be grounded in the humanities such as philosophy, literature and art” (2006, p.5).

Humanistic psychology is focused on helping clients to discover what it means to be human, while humanistic therapy protocols are focused on the self within the client’s personal frame of reference. The focus is on positive growth rather than pathology, and can include different theories on human behavior including gestalt therapy, family therapies, existential philosophical principles and person or client-centered therapy. Seen as a specialty division of the American Psychological Association (APA) there is a classification division that is specifically dedicated to Humanistic psychology; it is called Division 32, Society for Humanistic Psychology.

Division 32 represents a constellation of Humanistic Psychologies . . .

Rogerian, transpersonal and existential orientations as well as the more

recently developing perspectives of phenomenology, hermeneutic,

constructivist, feminist and post modern (social constructivist) psychologies.

The Division seeks to contribute to psychotherapy, education, theory,

research, epistemological diversity, cultural diversity organization,

management, social responsibility and change (, 2010).

Since humanistic psychology looks at the client as a whole person, and the meaning that he or she finds in his or her life, it includes things like awareness, personal responsibility, and values. It does not involve any spiritual principles as it defines human potential. In his book, Cognitive Humanistic Therapy Richard Nelson-Jones explained that “humanism is a secular outlook or system concerned with human rather than divine or supernatural matters” (2004,p.3), and goes further to say that “humanism is concerned with the welfare of humankind and with developing the better aspects or higher potentials of human beings” (2004,p.4). Holistic in its view of the client, a humanistic approach shares common connection with the development of consciousness, awareness, choice and responsibility. It has traits that can be compared with Eastern philosophies yet contains no dogma or rule.

Along with the APA Division 32, Society for Humanistic Psychology there is an Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP). This organization also has a core set of beliefs and values:

A belief in the worth of persons and dedication to the development of human potential.

An understanding of life as a process, change is inevitable.

An appreciation of the spiritual and the intuitive.

A commitment to ecological integrity.

A recognition of the profound problems affecting our world and a responsibility to hope and constructive change. (, 2010)


Assessments and tests can be divided into six different classifications: standardized, rating scales projective tests, biographical measures and tests to discover psychological measurement. Since humanistic psychology deals with behavior and principles, one must consider the type of assessment or test to be used. The choice of test is defined by “who is making to assessment, what is being assessed . . . why the assessment is undertaken and how the assessment is conducted” (Hood and Johnson, 2006, p.22).

The assessment process used when first meeting a client can help the therapist understand the issues that the client is experiencing as troublesome or needing attention. An assessment used within the framework of humanistic therapy allows for “recognition of the inherent complexities introduced by the notion of holism, [and] can include a focus on positive growth through emphasizing client strengths and how they can be maximized” (Friedman and MacDonald, 2006, p.13). An assessment done by a humanistic therapist does not exclude client deficits, because a client’s shortcomings are as much a part of a person as his or her strengths. As inclusive as humanism tried to be it can still present a struggle to clients diagnosed with severe mental illness and those who present difficult or extreme behaviors. Since society as a whole has not embraced the attitude of inclusion in regard to someone with the diagnosis of mental illness it is not unusual or “fashionable to regard the disturbed client as having potentialities currently blocked. It is much more in line with our culture to regard them as “deficient” and to seek to correct them” (Mearns, 2003, p.12).

Regarding client assessment the following is an excerpt from The Journal of Humanistic Psychology (2008) published an article called Humanistic Testing and Assessment. The author of the article Tad T. Goreske PhD is a specialist in therapeutic neuropsychological assessments in adults and he believes

The following elements can be included in assessment to augment its humanistic value: (a) introduce and conduct the assessment as an interactive and participatory process between the assessor and the client, (b) invite the client to give direction to the focus and breadth of the assessment and to what information is most important to obtain, (c) actively include the client in development of assessment formulations – including incorporating client reactions to the purpose and nature of the assessment (Freidman and Douglas, 2006, p.522).

Goreske is an advocate for client involvement within the definition of a neuropsychological assessment. He points out the following: “a neuropsychological assessment has been used to diagnose brain-behavior relationships with the assessor as a detached observer” (p.336). His belief is that historically assessment has allowed the client little or no participation in the assessment process apart from being the subject. If the therapist includes the client as an active participant in the assessment, the process can be productive and effective. By bringing the client into the process he or she can become a resource for identifying pertinent goals toward healing and personal growth.

Therapeutic Empathy

Through the process of assessment and getting to know the client the therapist is presented with the opportunity to begin to develop empathy and understanding for the client’s situation or issue. The premise is that as the therapist begins to develop empathy for the client, the client begins to fee accepted and understood. “Research on therapist empathy (e.g.Watson, 2002), shows that it is usually related to constructive client outcome and that it is never harmful” (Cain, 2007, p.4). Empathic response to a client’s issues and concerns help the client to begin to listen to him or herself and what is shared with the therapist may provide the client with some personal insight or deeper understanding. Rogers defined empathy as the ability to “perceive the internal frame of reference of another” (1959). As the client begins to understand the therapist’s reactions of his or her experience and the empathy that result, he or she can begin to learn the skills needed to empathic towards him or herself. This process can be a direct result of developing an interpersonal relationship with the therapist. By cultivating the ability to understand the client’s emotional state and connect to him or her in this way “our empathic responses provide our clients with an opportunity to learn to listen to themselves” (Cain, 2007, p.37). The therapist can start to become a conduit for the client to increase his or her self understanding. Personal growth, teaching the client self acceptance, awareness and the process of healing may help the client to begin to develop the ability to accept and understand others.

Empathy can take many different forms: verbal and non verbal, body language

and tone of voice. Some cues to empathic communication are:

Direct eye contact and concerned expression.

A forward trunk lean and head nods.

A vocal tone that communicates interest, concern and expression of emotional involvement and intensity that matches the client’s emotional experience.

Clarity of expression and the use of emotional words.

(Watson, 2002, Cain, 2007. p.4)

A therapist can increase empathy by using active or reflective listening skills.

Active listening is a process where the listener hears what is being said by the client and interprets and evaluates the information shared. Reflective listening allows the therapist to repeat back to the client what he or she has heard the client say to be sure what was said was understood. Reflective listening helps the therapist to develop a perspective of the situation while helping the client to feel comfortable enough to share his or her concerns and speak freely. “Counseling is a discipline that depends heavily on listening . . . [while the therapist] makes contact with the world as the client experiences it” (Ryback, 2001, p.3). A study conducted by Myers and White (2009) focused specifically on the impact of interaction with counselors that provided an empathic tendency within session. The study concluded that “ten years after therapy clients continue to identify the therapeutic relationship as a significant contributor to their personal growth” (Meyers & White, 2009, p.93).


Humanistic psychotherapy offers many benefits to a client. The focus on the positive aspect of one’s own life cannot help but benefit one who chooses to make the commitment to the journey. Yet, the process and the success of humanistic therapy lies in “the therapist’s relational qualities or ways of being that facilitate the clients effective processing of [the] experience” (Cain, 2007, p.6). The relationship between the therapist and the client needs to be genuine and real. The client and his or her commitment to the therapy is ultimately the determining factor, not the therapist.

In his article Advancing Humanistic Psychology and Psychotherapy: Some Challenges and Proposed solutions (2003) Cain discussed his belief that humanistic psychotherapy has not been given its rightful place in mainstream psychology. He feels strongly that practicing psychologists have not done their due diligence in promoting the client benefits of humanistic theory. Cain proposed a focus on information sharing, exposure and a more vocal presence in the treatment room, schools and the media. In his view humanistic psychologists need to focus more on social issues and global concerns and encourage and mentor students to pursue careers focused in humanistic psychology. He also discussed some useful insights about client’s experiences of therapy:

1. Clients view therapy as a time that allows them to pay attention to themselves.

2. Client focus is associated with the awareness of problems and issues.

3. Clients found it helpful if the therapist comes across as self assured and relaxed.

4. The relationship with the therapist is crucial; clients pay more attention to it than to the therapist’s technique.

Humanist therapy in his view suffers from the belief of some that humanistic therapists are seen as ‘self absorbed, naA?ve, Pollyannaish seekers who can only see the positive side of the human condition” (Cain, 2003, p.21). Another article by Cain (2007) explains humanistic psychologists have made some major contributions to the theory, practice and research of psychotherapy.

Positive Psychology

Another client centered therapy more recently developed from the original principle of humanistic theory is the movement of Positive Psychology. Originating in the late 1990’s positive psychology conceptualized 3 major concerns:

Positive psychology takes an interest in positive subjective experiences such as subjective well being, flow, joy, optimism and hope.

It has an interest in studying the personality traits of thriving individuals with a particular focus on character strengths and virtues such as courage perseverance, open-mindedness and wisdom.

Positive psychology is intent on identifying, studying and enhancing those qualities of social institutions that sustain and enhance positive subjective experiences and adaptive personality traits of individuals.

(Grillham & Seligman, 1999; Seligman & Czikszentmihalyi, 2002; Robbins,

2008, p.1).

Not simply a theory to substitute a traditional psychotherapeutic process in working with clients, positive psychology is meant to be a way to examine the things that have gone right with people and society. It is the study of subjective experiences in well being, optimism and hope. Positive psychology has taken the original theoretical premise from the Masters (Rogers, Maslow) and provided another way to focus on human potential, and what it means to be truly happy.


Although humanistic psychology has been criticized for not providing a clearly defined purposeful theory or having enough empirical based evidence of process it does provide a way beyond the base theory to bring the client to the center of the therapeutic process. The work of the therapist is to assist the client in learning new coping skills or ways to address the issues that are causing him or her distress, and then integrating those skills into his or her daily life.

Humanistic theory seems to provide both the therapist and client the opportunity to focus on what the client is doing right, as well as the challenges that he or she may face. One could argue that humanistic theory is indeed an ideal that cannot be taken seriously because it is intent on blending the medical and scientific along with philosophy and subjectivity. Yet, if the APA affirms that the theory’s focus is “on people’s capacity to make rational choices and develop to their maximum potential” “(, it is difficult to determine if the critics of the theory have a valid case.

Humanistic psychology does not seem to promote narcissism or self centeredness as some may claim, but appears to promote personal responsibility, that is a direct result of developing awareness and learning to care for self and others. This ultimately honors the inherent value of all people. The social activism element of the theory can show us that all who approach it can benefit from the understanding that as a human being we are all connected in one way or the other. If that is true, then we are responsible for those around us, and should react when called to action whether that means to reach out and help or to speak out to injustice.

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