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Humanistic Psychotherapy

A Brief Introduction

What you need to know about it and how it works

The Humanistic approach is rooted in the so-called ‘third force’ of psychotherapy. After psychoanalysis and behaviourism, in our post-industrial culture, therapists started to think about human nature in a different way. This psychological perspective emphasises the individual’s ability to self-actualise. This is the inherited ability to express and potentially realise one’s own capabilities and creativity.

Humanistic philosophy is a holistic approach which pays attention to human existence and pays particular attention to creativity, free will, self-expression and human potential. The first main difference from the psychoanalytic approach and the behaviourism is that the humanistic approach is experiential; which means that it encourages self-exploration, as opposed to creating a study of the person’s psyche and behaviours. This means that the main goal of humanistic psychotherapy is self-awareness, which is seen as an essential prerequisite to a free choice and therapeutic change. Humanistic psychotherapy looks at the whole person, which includes: thoughts, behaviours, emotions and spirit. In humanistic terms, we all have a spiritual existence, but this means different things for different people. Transpersonal psychotherapy is a side branch of Humanistic therapy that looks at how we live our spiritual life (faith, religions, meditation, mindfulness…). In political terms, Humanistic-Existential therapy is the approach that models democracy more than any other. This is a truly relational approach, where the setting encourages an egalitarian power dynamic between the therapeutic dyad.

We can trace the humanistic philosophical roots all the way to Eraclitus. What we now call Humanistic Psychotherapy has its roots in the integration of three different modalities: Gestalt (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951), Person-Centred Therapy (Rogers, 1942) and Transactional Analysis (Berne, 1961; Clarkson, 1992a). They all have their roots in the phenomenological and existential thoughts of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marleau-Ponty and Sartre.

The Physis
I believe there are no absolutes in therapy. However, in Humanistic philosophy there is a fundamental element which gives us a direction for therapeutic work. This ‘force’ is what the presocratic philosophers called physis (Heraclitus, c. 535 – c. 475 BCE). The ancient greek word means ‘growth’ and ‘becoming’. It indicates that the person is in a process of constant transformation. In modern usage, I think about physis as described in Heidegger (1935): the tendency towards wholeness, growth and healing.
The same concept is also found in Transactional Analysis.

Rogers and Manslow
In my opinion, the first complete Humanistic formulation needs to be attributed to Carl Rogers (1942). The American psychologist was strongly inspired by Otto Rank. He worked towards the goal of self-development and helped his patients to create a more creative and healthier functioning. Rogers coined the term ‘Actualising Tendency’, which was also described by Abraham Manslow as ‘Self-Actualisation’. Manslow described this as one of the basic human needs. I see Rogers and Manslow as the fathers of what we now call Humanistic Psychotherapy. Their work was positive and creative and in strong opposition to what they viewed as the pessimistic psychoanalytic views.
In Person Centred Therapy it is postulated that "the organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (Rogers, 1951: 487).

The Élan vital
In Gestalt, the physis is the equivalent to the élan vital (Perls, 1969; Clarkson, 1989). Also existential psychotherapists trust and value the person’s inner resources (Laing, 1960, 1961; Yalom, 1980; Van Deurzen, 1997, 2002). From a Humanistic perspective, addressing uncertainty in therapy starts with the underlying assumption that human nature is essentially constructive (Bozarth & Temaner Brodley, 1986). By ‘constructive’ I mean a move towards what is more wholesome.

- Humanistic Psychotherapy is an umbrella term to identify different schools, mainly Gestalt, Person Centred and Transactional Analysis.
- This approach enphasises creativity, growth, self-development and 'Self-Actualisation'