Humanistic Therapy: The journey to self-actualization

Most have heard of psychoanalytic therapy, behavioral therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. However, these types of therapy are not the only interventions to treat mental disorders and life struggles. Humanistic therapy is just as successful as the more common therapies. Through humanistic therapy, individuals learn the unique attributes they possess to lead happy, successful lives as they reach their fullest potential.

humanistic therapy
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History of Humanistic Therapy

Humanistic therapy originated in the 1950s. Two world renown psychologists, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, developed humanistic therapy as a criticism of psychoanalytic therapy and behaviorism.

Maslow first created the hierarchy of human needs—a motivational theory which states humans have physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization—and needs at the bottom of the pyramid must be satisfied before the top. Rogers then established a person-centered approach. Their theories combined led to humanistic therapy that focuses less on past experiences and unconscious forces and more on self-understanding.

What is A Humanistic Approach to Therapy?

Humanism is a system emphasizing the importance of human potential rather than that of a supernatural power. All humans have the potential for goodness and to lead productive, fulfilling lives. Humanistic therapy applies the concepts of humanism for problem solving.

Every individual possesses unique attributes making them capable of choosing the right decisions for their life. These beliefs, upbringings, and thoughts guide behavior. Humanistic therapy encourages finding one’s true self and holding themselves and all humans in high positive regard. It is non-directive, meaning client’s follow their own, unique path in therapy rather than relying on a therapist’s direction.

Types of Humanistic Therapy

The term “humanistic therapy” categorizes numerous types of therapy. Existential therapy, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, and narrative therapy are each based on valuing human goodness.  

Client-Center Therapy

Client-centered therapy is a popular type of humanist therapy inspired by Carl Rogers in the 1930s. The therapist acts as a guide, while the client has the freedom to share their feelings. In client-centered therapy, the client is able to make independent decisions because the therapist offers little analysis. Listening respectfully allows the therapist to understand the client’s inner world. They simply listen rather than intervening or providing suggestions. When both are perceived as equals, clients are more likely to respond in a positive manner so that they eventually accept factors outside of their control.

Gestalt Therapy

While psychanalytic therapy emphasizes the past, gestalt therapy is a humanistic psychotherapy focusing on present time. Clients are asked to describe their experiences, whether past or future, in the here-and-now. This may involve re-enacting previous encounters. When telling of their experiences, it is important they use their own words and perspectives.

Integrating both the mind and body is a significant concept in gestalt therapy. The integration is a step toward self-actualization. The client can resolve unfinished business  and closure once they understand themselves.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy focuses on possessing the knowledge to prepare for the future. The practice originated from the work of two New Zealand-based therapists, Michael White and David Epston. Overall, the goal is to understand each story people develop throughout their lives and to separate people from their problems. It opposes labels. For a successful narrative therapy session, therapists must approach the patient without judgment—trusting that their client is the expert when developing their stories.

Goals of Humanistic Therapy

Depending on the situation, every person engaged in humanistic therapy may have different goals. However, in general, humanistic therapy seeks to help clients cultivate a healthy sense of self. The client develops a positive view of themselves, and in turn, others in their lives. They find meaning in life and the confidence to make beneficial choices that drive their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The fulfillment of these needs is self-actualization.

What Does Humanistic Therapy Treat?

Humanistic therapy is beneficial for numerous mental health conditions. This includes depression, anxiety, panic disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse such as alcoholism. Aside from diagnosable mental disorders, humanistic therapy applies to numerous life situations. Since the therapy keeps the client at the center and facilitates confidence in their capabilities of leading a productive life, the therapy is idea for low self-esteem issues, relationship problems, and interpersonal struggles.

Benefits of Humanistic Therapy

The main benefit of humanistic therapy is the non-judgmental environment. Clients are more inclined to share their emotions, struggles, and to convey their stories to the therapist when they trust they can do so without fearing criticism. Humanistic therapy offers the opportunity to process all factors and components of the client’s life, whereas therapy approaches like psychoanalytic therapy solely investigate past events that occurred in childhood.

Risks of Humanistic Therapy

Like any sort of medical or psychological intervention, humanistic therapy does have its risks. Some argue that humanistic therapy is not optimal for serious, complex mental disorders because clients may struggle dominating the therapy session when out of touch with reality and not as skilled in evaluating their emotions.  Others also claim that research available on humanistic therapy is inaccurate, as it is impossible to track progress without concrete data. Positive regard, self-actualization, and free will cannot be measured objectively.  

What Does Humanistic Therapy Treat?

Humanistic therapy is beneficial for numerous mental health conditions. This includes depression, anxiety, panic disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse such as alcoholism. Aside from diagnoseable mental disorders, humanistic therapy applies to numerous life situations. Since the therapy keeps the client at the center and facilitates confidence in their capabilities of leading a productive life, the therapy is idea for low self-esteem issues, relationship problems, and interpersonal struggles.

Humanistic Therapy Techniques: Empathy

While sympathy is understanding someone else’s suffering, it is not to be confused with empathy. In humanistic therapy, the therapist understands the client’s point of view in such a way that they experience their feelings. The capacity for empathy is necessary for therapy to remain non-directive. Without it, the therapist fails to consider the perspective of the client and the session is no longer client-centered.  

Humanistic Therapy: The journey to self-actualization
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Humanistic Therapy Techniques: Self-Actualization

The end result of humanistic therapy should always be self-actualization. Rogers and Maslow referred to self-actualization as the point in which an individual reaches their fullest potential. Basic physical and physiological needs are met, and the personal can shift their attention to their strengths. Self-actualization is when the client becomes the best version of themselves.  They are confident and pursue their creativity through their passions (i.e. art, writing, spirituality). Additionally, reaching self-actualization improves the quality of the client’ s relationships with friends, family, and loved ones. When they accept themselves in a positive manner, others do the same.

Humanistic Therapy Techniques: Authenticity

Humanistic therapy requires the therapist and client both display authenticity in their interactions. For a therapist to be authentic, they are present with their clients and engage in real dialogue. A study published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology reviewed a total of 262 statements from therapists. The consensus was that authenticity is being congruent in thoughts, beliefs, and feelings with external behaviors. It incorporates sensory and emotional qualities, along with cognitive and verbal components. Authenticity produces trust over time as the therapist and client relationship evolves.

Humanistic Therapy Techniques: Unconditional Positive Regard

Therapists must have unconditional positive regard for their client. Unconditional positive regard is the care the therapist has for the client. The therapist’s presence is open, warm, and honest. They do not express judgment with their clients. This behavior ensures the therapist does not dominate or overtake the relationship. They are both perceived as equals. Expressing unconditional positive regard is closely related to authenticity.

Humanistic Therapy Techniques: Role Play

Although there are attributes of the typical “talk therapy” in humanistic therapy sessions, the therapist often uses role play to encourage conversation. Role playing allows the client to resolve past experiences in the here-and-now. For example, if a client has had a disagreement with a friend that has resulted in “unresolved business,” role play prepares the client for the in-person interactions with those involved. In this case, the therapist would pretend to be the friend, while the client confronts their feelings. With humanist therapy being client-led, the client can analyze her behavior during these role play interactions will gain the knowledge of how to best speak with her friend.

Duration of Humanistic Therapy

Humanistic therapy can be long or short term. Generally, humanistic therapists require a minimum of six one-hour sessions with multiple check-ins.

Check-ins monitor progress in which the therapist and client ask the following questions:

  • Does the client wish to continue therapy?
  • Has the client reached self-actualization?
  • Does the client have a diagnosed mental disorder that may require longer treatment?

Studies reviewed in 2013 prove that humanistic therapy is equally as successful as other forms of psychotherapy. We are all unique, and humanistic therapy grants us the power to cater therapy to our individual needs.

References

Burks, D. J., & Robbins, R. (2012). Psychologists’ Authenticity: Implications for Work in Professional and Therapeutic Settings. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 52(1), 75–104. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167810381472