Humanistic Therapy: Unlocking Your Clients’ True Potential

Humanistic therapyHumanism recognizes the need of the individual to achieve meaning, purpose, and actualization in their lives (Rowan, 2016; Block, 2011).

Humanistic therapy was born out of the humanistic psychology perspective. It offers a person-centered approach that focuses on personal growth and fulfillment of the self “through self-mastery, self-examination, and creative expression” (Block, 2011, p. 765).

As such, the therapist supports the client on their journey to fully understand who they are, what makes them unique, and their connection with the world around them (Johnson, n.d.).

This article explores humanistic therapy and the theory behind it so we can understand its ability to unlock your clients’ true potential.

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What Is Humanistic Therapy?

Humanistic therapy emerged from the humanistic psychology movement that surfaced as a reaction to behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Behaviorism prioritizes the importance of observable and measurable behavior through conditioning, while psychoanalysis emphasizes the influence of the unconscious mind (Block, 2011).

On the other hand, humanistic psychology focuses on the individual’s potential for growth.

According to the humanistic therapeutic approach and underlying theory, freedom of choice is vital to creating and celebrating self-experience and self-transformation and is often referred to as self-determination. It aims to move beyond the earlier pathological views of therapy, which focused on illness and lack of mental wellness, to direct clients toward a healthier sense of self (Block, 2011).

In fact, “humanistic psychology addresses the nature of the human experience, calling into question the nature of objectivity and the role of objective knowledge in the personal experience of life” (Block, 2011, p. 766).

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy describes humanistic therapy as an umbrella term covering multiple types of therapy concerned with “free will, self-discovery, and achieving your full potential as a human being, rather than concentrating on individual problems or symptoms” (Johnson, n.d., para. 2).

As such, the approach is client led rather than therapist led and focuses on the uniqueness of the individual and their relationship with the world around them, providing a safe environment to explore the individual’s drive; break old, unhelpful patterns of behavior; unlock potential; and support growth (Johnson, n.d.).

A Brief Introduction to Humanistic Theory

Humanistic psychological theoryHumanistic psychological theory “is particularly concerned with self-actualization and with body-mind unity” and “has a good deal to say about liberation from the shackles of compulsion,” whether internal or external (Rowan, 2016, p. 1).

Self-actualization is a crucial aspect of humanistic theory. One of its key proponents, Abraham Maslow, known for his introduction of the hierarchy of needs, suggests that we have the potential to progress from lower needs, such as food and security, up through higher levels that include self-esteem and self-actualization.

The idea that individuals have the potential to achieve their real selves is central to humanistic theory (Rowan, 2016).

Another key psychologist, Carl Rogers (1987), believed it possible for people to achieve a state known as the fully functioning person, which can be supported by psychotherapy and group work).

More recently, psychologists have suggested that rather than self-actualization being the end of the line, it might be possible for individuals to grow even further, particularly with the support of a therapist (Rowan, 2016).

We must recognize that humanistic psychology is not a single theory but rather includes the views of several highly individual psychologists offering themes consistent with the focus on “uniquely human issues, such as the self, self-actualization, health, hope, love, creativity, nature, being, becoming, individuality, and meaning” (Block, 2011, p. 765).

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The history of humanism

The humanistic approach has its roots in 13th and 14th century Italy before spreading throughout Europe as part of the historical period known as the Renaissance (Grudin, 2024).

However, the term humanism did not surface until humanismus was used in the 19th century by German scholars. They used it to reference the importance placed by Renaissance educators on classical studies consisting of Roman and Greek literature, including art, history, philosophy, and mythology (Grudin, 2024).

Humanismus derives from the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius’s use of the word humanitas, meaning the development of human virtue to its fullest extent. And, like, our modern interpretation of humanity, connects with qualities such as compassion, mercy, judgment, fortitude, and benevolence (Grudin, 2024).

Humanism can, therefore, be considered a return to earlier classical thought. Indeed, Renaissance poet and scholar Petrarch (1304–1374) recognized the importance and need for personal autonomy, intellectual virtue, and individualism, which later became the hallmarks of humanism in 19th-century thinking by psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers (Grudin, 2024).

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5 Types of Humanistic Therapy

Humanistic therapy includes several variations and closely related therapeutic approaches, including (Johnson, n.d.; Rowan, 2016; Cox, 2018):

1. Person-centered therapy

Person-centered therapy is a nondirective therapy that Carl Rogers initially defined in the 1940s and 1950s. Rogers recognized that “people were the best experts on their lives and therefore the therapist should follow the lead of the client” (Cox, 2018, p. 52).

2. Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy takes influences from psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology. The therapeutic approach recognizes that people “strive to impose order and meaningful wholes on what they see and experience” (Cox, 2018, p. 67). The therapist is not seen as neutral but is very much a part of the process while using their “self.”

3. Existential therapy

Existential therapy is seen as an inquiry into meaning. It reaches beyond individual problems in the client’s life and considers the client’s ability to meet life’s challenges while reflecting on their existence (Deurzen, 2016).

4. Solution-focused therapy

Solution-focused therapy recognizes that the client has all they need to solve and address their problems. It focuses on the construction of solutions to ensure that positive change will occur (Cox, 2018).

5. Transactional analysis

Transactional analysis was developed to identify how “behavioral patterns of communication reveal something of the psychodynamics of the internal world of individuals” (Cox, 2018, p. 168). The approach focuses on strengthening how clients feel, think, and behave while considering the system or culture in which they exist.

6 Principles of the Humanistic Approach

Psychotherapy qualificationsThe humanistic approach incorporates several fundamental principles to support unlocking the client’s true potential.

The therapist is encouraged to be (Schneider et al., 2015; Hoffman, 2021):

  1. Genuine
    Being themselves and not putting on a façade through remaining authentic and genuine in their interactions
  2. Empathic
    Empathizing with the client’s emotions and experience to create a safe and nonjudgmental environment
  3. Present
    Remaining fully engaged and present with the client to support a robust therapeutic relationship
  4. Client centered
    Placing clients at the heart of the therapeutic process to ensure their autonomy and collaboration and fully exploring feelings and goals
  5. Focused on the whole person
    Recognizing the importance of addressing the client’s physical, emotional, social, and spiritual wellbeing
  6. Supportive
    Believing in the inherent potential of the client for personal growth and self-actualization by supporting their journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and reaching their full potential

The Benefits & Effectiveness of Humanistic Therapy

There are many benefits to the humanistic therapeutic approach. It is widely recognized that it (Sherrell, 2023):

  • Offers a personalized approach
    Recognizes the uniqueness of individual client strengths, needs, challenges, and experiences
  • Encourages self-growth and empowerment
    Supports the client’s move toward a healthier future by accepting their past and empowering them to take a more active role in their healing journey
  • Improves self-understanding and self-acceptance
    Offers personal insight, helping clients make peace with difficult experiences while emphasizing unconditional positive self-regard and a positive self-concept
  • Promotes empathy and support
    Encourages a therapeutic process where the therapist offers empathy and support
  • Encourages freedom of exploration and empowerment
    Supports the exploration of multiple topics within the therapeutic process without rigid constraints and empowers clients to take personal responsibility and an active role in their healing journey
  • Supports skill building
    Builds positive life skills and facilitates self-discovery
  • Is suitable for various issues
    Effective in dealing with multiple clients’ problems, including anxiety, depression, panic disorders, relationship challenges, and family dynamics

8 Disadvantages of Humanistic Therapy

Limited empirical evidenceWhile humanistic therapy has many positives, there are several potential disadvantages that we should note, including (Sherrell, 2023; Block, 2011):

  • Limited empirical evidence
    There is a lack of empirical evidence for the underlying humanistic theory due to challenges in measuring outcomes (testability).
  • Lack of structure and pace of progress
    Clients may need more structure to tackle specific issues quickly and may require a longer treatment duration. Indeed, some clients may wish for a more directive (rather than open-ended) approach from their therapist.
  • Lack of specificity
    Humanistic therapy is typically broad in scope and does not usually offer specialized treatment for specific conditions.
  • Need to be self-driven 
    It requires a high degree of self-motivation and a solid commitment to self-exploration, which may only suit the needs of some clients.
  • Potential for nonspecific goals
    Some clients may need more explicit, specific therapeutic goals.
  • Depth of issues addressed
    Deep-seated psychological problems may require more intensive therapeutic techniques.
  • Emotional intensity
    Clients may find the deep engagement with emotions and experiences triggering and overly intense.
  • Need for strong therapeutic relationship
    The therapist must be gifted at forming supportive and empathic bonds to maximize the likelihood of therapeutic success.

14 Humanistic Therapy Techniques

Humanistic therapy is an umbrella term that includes person-centered, Gestalt, existential, solution-focused, and transactional analysis therapeutic techniques (Grudin, 2024).

Approaches are wide ranging and varied yet typically require the following techniques (Cain, 2007):

  1. Active listening
    It is vital to listen deeply and seek to understand the client’s subjective world while building a therapeutic relationship based on understanding and acceptance. ​
  2. Displaying empathy
    The therapist must understand the client’s experience and communicate it back to the client. ​
  3. Therapist presence
    Being fully present with clients is vital. The therapist must bring focused attention and genuine care to the therapeutic relationship. ​
  4. Unconditional positive regard
    The therapist provides a nonjudgmental and accepting attitude toward their clients, creating a sense of safety and trust.
  5. Use of self
    It is vital to use personal and authentic qualities and talents to create a therapeutic atmosphere that facilitates clients’ ability to learn from their experiences. ​
  6. Humor
    Laughing with clients can, when appropriate, create a closer bond and alliance. It provides perspective and allows the client to see things from a new vantage point. ​
  7. Therapist involvement
    The therapist typically leaves the comfort and safety of their therapeutic roles and discloses human and personal aspects of themselves to create deeper connections. ​
  8. Helping clients embrace choice and responsibility
    Clients are encouraged to take responsibility for their choices and their role in their lives, recognizing they have the power to own their actions and create change. ​
  9. Focusing on the self
    The role of the self in clients’ perceptions and experiences is vital. The client explores and revises their perceptions of who they are and is encouraged to behave in line with how they view themselves. ​
  10. Exploring emotions
    Therapists invite clients to explore their feelings to enable changes in perceptions and behaviors. ​
  11. Helping clients embrace choice and responsibility for their lives
    Clients are encouraged to recognize they have options and are not simply victims of circumstances. They are empowered to facilitate change. ​
  12. Therapeutic relationship
    The therapeutic relationship is a priority. Therefore, constantly monitoring its quality is vital, as is adjusting to the client’s view of what helps. ​
  13. Client involvement
    Clients are encouraged to participate actively in therapy. Therefore, how they perceive the therapeutic relationship is vital. ​
  14. Client factors
    Openness, affirmation, and expressiveness play a significant role in therapy outcomes and can be used to enhance clients’ self-awareness and personal responsibility.

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available for mental health professionals providing humanistic-style therapeutic support to individuals, couples, and groups.

Several free resources include:

  • Four Worlds of Human Existence
    Reflecting on the four worlds (physical, social, personal, and spiritual) of human existence can be a powerful tool for your clients, considering their values and what gives their lives meaning.
  • Managing Existential Anxiety
    Experiencing a sense of unease, dread, or anxiety is natural when considering life’s more significant questions during existential therapy.
  • Solution-Focused Resilience Template
    Revisiting earlier challenges can help us (re)discover resources that have previously helped.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Embracing Your Humanness

Compassion often arises from recognizing that we are imperfect and fallible.

Ask the client to try out the following steps in a group setting to help them recognize and identify their importance:

    • Step one – Write down something about yourself that makes you feel insecure or self-critical. For example, “I am not smart enough.”
    • Step two – Place all statements in a box and ask group members to take turns picking one out at random and reading it aloud.
    • Step three – Ask other group members to raise their hands if they feel the same way.
    • Step four – As a group, discuss the following questions:

What was this exercise like?
Have you ever thought you were alone in experiencing such self-critical thoughts?
What was it like to see others have the same (or similar) thoughts?

  • Stay or Leave? The Empty Chair Technique

We can find it challenging to decide whether to stay or leave an existing job; work can be vital in defining who we are.

The empty chair technique can help clients untangle how they think about a personal situation or dilemma.

Ask the client to perform the following:

    • Step one – Write down your dilemma regarding staying or leaving a job.
    • Step two – Close your eyes and picture the person who stays in the job and the person who leaves.
    • Step three – Ask the client to imagine the person who stays sitting in the empty chair in front of the client.
    • Step four – Reflect on the following:

How does that person feel?
What is their posture like?
How energized and vital are they?
How do they feel about the future?

    • Step five – Repeat the process for the person who leaves.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

A Take-Home Message

At times, we all struggle to find and understand our purpose and what it means to live a meaningful life.

Humanism recognizes our existential uncertainty and our need to embrace a life of choice that involves self-experience and self-transformation.

As a therapeutic approach, it looks beyond focusing on a lack of wellness. Instead, it embraces a drive toward realizing an individual’s potential for growth and self-actualization, achieving their authentic self.

Humanistic therapy is a comprehensive term encompassing various approaches, such as person-centered, Gestalt, existential, solution-focused, and transactional analysis therapy, all sharing a common goal of promoting personal growth and self-actualization.

The therapist is crucial in maintaining authenticity, empathy, and a client-centered approach. In doing so, they foster an environment conducive to the client’s personal growth and self-actualization.

While critics point out a lack of empirical evidence and a potentially limited therapeutic structure, many clients benefit from the personalized approach, empathy, and unconditional acceptance.

Whichever therapeutic approach you adopt with your clients, the techniques associated with humanistic therapy can help them move closer to a life aligned with their deep-seated values and engage in the vital act of self-transformation.

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  • Block, M. (2011). Humanistic therapy. In S. Goldstein & J. A. Naglieri (Eds.), Encyclopedia of child behavior and development (pp. 765–766). Springer US.
  • Cain, D. J. (2007). What every therapist should know, be and do: Contributions from humanistic psychotherapies. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 37(1), 3–10.
  • Cox, E. (2018). The complete handbook of coaching. Sage.
  • Deurzen, V. E. (2016). Existential counselling & psychotherapy in practice. Sage.
  • Grudin, R. (2024). Humanism. In Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/humanism/The-English-humanists
  • Hoffman, L. (2021). Existential–humanistic therapy and disaster response: Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 61(1), 33–54.
  • Johnson, D. (n.d.). What is humanistic therapy? Types of therapy. British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. https://www.bacp.co.uk/about-therapy/types-of-therapy/humanistic-therapy/
  • Rogers, C. R. (1987). On becoming a person. Houghton Mifflin.
  • Rowan, J. (2016). The reality game: A guide to humanistic counselling and psychotherapy. Routledge.
  • Schneider, K. J., Pierson, J. Fraser., & Bugental, J. F. T. (Eds.). (2015). The handbook of humanistic psychology theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Sage.
  • Sherrell, Z. (2023, September 12). What is humanistic therapy? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/humanistic-therapy

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