What Is Humanistic Therapy?

two women sitting on an couch discussing

Humanistic therapy rests on the belief that every human is born with unique potential that, with the right nurturing, can be fully realized. This field of psychology strives to foster the potential in individuals via treatment that focuses on their humanistic traits and provides them with positive support.

Because of the individual nature of personal growth, humanistic therapy is a personalized mental health treatment crafted to serve your specific needs and goals. Humanistic therapy puts you at the center of your treatments and allows you to guide your sessions.

Humanistic therapy is an effective treatment for a wide range of mental health conditions, but is also helpful to those who don’t suffer from mental illness symptoms but instead want to grow as a person. Instead of working on a diagnostic criteria, humanistic therapy focuses on personal understandings of the individual as a person.

The Development of Humanistic Therapy

Psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers developed the field of humanistic therapy in the 1950s. The movement towards humanistic psychology was grounded in a growing motivation in the discipline of psychology to focus on human potential. Maslow and Rogers developed humanistic therapy to do just that: use the science of psychology to bring out the best in people.

Humanistic therapy was founded on the following core concepts:

  • At their core, humans are good and naturally strive to better both themselves and their world.
  • People seek to self-actualize — become the best version of themselves.
  • People have unique, subjective experiences, which can and should serve as the starting point of their therapy.
  • Therapy should focus on understanding a person holistically.
  • Humans can achieve growth best when treated with unconditional positive regard.

These concepts are the foundation of humanistic therapy. When Maslow and Rogers were engaging in their research, this was a unique and novel approach emphasizing a new way of looking at mental health. Now that it has become a recognized discipline,humanistic therapy has helped countless individuals to live to their full potential.

What to Expect in Humanistic Therapy

A therapist practicing a humanistic approach will be open-minded and positive in their approach to you and the issues you’d like to focus on. They will work to empathize with what you’re experiencing and support you during sessions. Humanistic therapy is a non-judgemental space where you will take an active role in shaping to match your mental health needs.

Some of the most common humanistic therapies include gestalt therapy, client-centered therapy, and existential therapy — all of which can be used in tandem or separately based on what best fits you.

Gestalt therapy

The gestalt approach focuses on processing the present, what you’re currently dealing with in your life. The word gestalt translates to “whole,” alluding to how this approach seeks to alleviate unresolved emotional difficulties to actualize the most whole version of yourself. Gestalt therapy helps you understand and analyze what you’re feeling in the present so that you can move forward with less emotional baggage that may have been limiting your potential.

When working through difficult past emotions, gestalt therapy works to conjure those negative feelings in the present to fully explore them with your current capacities and resources. This method helps resolve past emotional difficulties.

Client-centered therapy

In client-centered therapy, also called person-centered therapy, the therapist is not an authority figure but a guide to help you better make sense of your thoughts. You are the expert on your life and feelings, and while you lead sessions regarding what you want to discuss, your therapist will listen and help direct you.

Because every individual has a subjective experience of the world, client-centered therapy takes these differences into account to best help you with your mental health and relationships. A client-centered therapist will help increase your awareness of your own challenges and make suggestions for and what can be done as you work through your struggles. Your therapist will listen with empathy and treat you with unconditional positive regard in your self-directed journey toward growth.

Existential therapy

Existential therapy, another option when considering a humanistic approach, takes a more philosophical approach to treating mental health and is based on tenants of free will, self-determination, and a search for meaning in life. Existential therapy was heavily influenced by philosophy and emphasizes positive choices and innate wisdom.

Grappling with mortality and meaning via existential therapy may seem daunting, but it can be a positive therapy experience for those who are inclined toward deep thought and searching — support during the search for freedom to live more authentically.

Benefits of Humanistic Therapy

There are many ways that humanistic therapy benefits clients and their mental health. The positivity channeled in this type of therapy leads to empowering personal growth for those participating in treatment. Having a non-judgmental space to process emotions and experiences can do wonders in treating mental health conditions. And humanistic therapy’s holistic approach ensures all aspects, as opposed to simply early childhood, or the present, are processed.

The individualistic focus of humanistic therapy also helps you learn problem-solving and self-soothing skills, which can help when struggling with the stress and anxiety of daily life. Humanistic therapy can also increase self-esteem and promote an active approach in your life.

Critiques of Humanistic Therapy

Like all psychological processes, humanistic therapy has its limitations. In some cases, a humanistic approach can be overwhelming for individuals with complex problems, in which case a therapist taking a stronger lead in the process and facilitating more progress for the client. If you are still learning to tune in with your emotional needs, beginning with humanistic therapy could be a challenge.

Additionally, the benefits of humanistic psychology are not as easily researched. This means there is not as much clinically backed data supporting humanistic therapy as compared to other types of treatment and therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy for example.

Is Humanistic Therapy Right For You?

Humanistic therapy may be right for you if you struggle with feeling whole as a person, lack positive support in your life, and or seek to improve yourself and self-actualize. Humanistic therapy can also be a beneficial in treating:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic disorders
  • Addiction
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Relationship issues
  • Self-esteem struggles

If you’re ready to begin your therapy journey or find a counselor focusing on humanistic therapy, browsing online psychologists is a great place to start. Talkspace has many therapists trained in the humanistic therapy approach and many therapists combine approaches — such as including techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy — which is also something to keep in mind when searching for a provider who is the right fit for you.

Whether you choose a humanistic therapist or a counselor in another specialty, keeping in mind the ideas of humanism is great for your emotional well-being. Do your best to be gentle with yourself and have a positive outlook as you take the important step of caring for your mental health.

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