Humanistic and Existential Models

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the key concepts and applications of the humanistic approach to psychopathology

Humanism and Humanistic Approaches

As is common with many of the psychogenic models and the treatment approaches connected to them, the humanistic approach emerged, in part, as a reaction to both psychoanalysis/psychodynamic approaches and the behavioral approach (to be discussed next). Humanists saw behavioral models as mechanical and overly focused on an objective perspective, lacking an understanding and concern for the depth of human experience, consciousness, and personality development. They also saw psychodynamic and analytic approaches as cold, distant, and overly deterministic regarding human development, especially the concept that negative early childhood experiences generated “fixations” or an inability of a person to progress in their life. They also believed these approaches were focused primarily on pathology, what is wrong with someone, rather than acknowledging human creativity, growth, and adaptation. Abraham Maslow, one of the major figures in the humanistic movement said, “It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.”[1]

The humanistic perspective within psychology emphasizes the potential for good that is innate to all humans. Two of the most well-known proponents of humanistic psychology are Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers (O’Hara, n.d.). Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) was an American psychologist who is best known for proposing a hierarchy of human needs in motivating behavior (Figure 1). Maslow asserted that so long as basic needs necessary for survival were met (e.g., food, water, shelter), higher-level needs (e.g., social needs) would begin to motivate behavior. According to Maslow, the highest-level needs relate to self-actualization, a process by which we achieve our full potential.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs (food, water, shelter, warmth), then security needs (safety, employment, assets), social needs (family, friendship, intimacy, belonging), then esteem (self-worth, accomplishment, confidence), and lastly, self-actualization (inner fulfillment).

Figure 1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs emphasizes that basic needs for food and safety need to be met before higher-level needs can serve as motivators.

Carl Rogers (1902–1987) was also an American psychologist who, like Maslow, emphasized the potential for good that exists within all people. Rogers’s focus was to ensure that human developmental processes led to healthier, even more creative, personality functioning. The term actualizing tendency was also coined by Rogers, and was a concept that eventually led Abraham Maslow to study self-actualization as one of the needs of humans.

The humanistic psychology perspective is summarized by five core principles or postulates of humanistic psychology, first articulated in an article written by James Bugental in 1964 and adapted by Tom Greening, psychologist and long-time editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. The five basic principles of humanistic psychology are

  1. Human beings, as human, supersede the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to components.
  2. Human beings have their existence in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology.
  3. Human beings are aware and are aware of being aware—i.e., they are conscious. Human consciousness always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
  4. Human beings have the ability to make choices and therefore have responsibility.
  5. Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value, and creativity.

Existential Approaches and Treatment

Another contributing element to humanism was existentialism, a philosophical approach emphasizing a holistic view of human beings, validating the nature of human emotions, thought, behavior, and choices. Existentialism focuses on the ability, and need, of human beings to define and find their own sense of meaning or purpose in an “absurd” world that does not have any innate meaning to it. In many ways, it echoes the core principles of humanism and the rejection of psychodynamic determinism and the objectivity of behaviorism. Existential approaches differ from humanism in an even stronger emphasis on free will, choice, self-determination, and the search for meaning and purpose.

An important concept in existentialism is angst or anxiety, created mostly by the responsibility that comes with freedom; free will conveys a sense of responsibility for the choices that we make and their future consequences. Angst is also related to the need to accept the inevitability of one’s own mortality and future death in order to live a full life. Other important concepts include authenticity, which is a person living the life that they have deliberately chosen to the fullest extent possible, and despair, which differs slightly from the usual use of that term to mean the emotional experience of being frustrated or unable to live the life that a person intended to create. For example, a student who has dreamed for her whole life to become a physician may experience despair if she is not accepted into any medical school. Existentialism is usually tied to the philosophical writings and ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, although it was shaped by many others, including Søren Kierkegaard, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Marleau-Ponty, and Albert Camus. Despite this description of some of the core concepts of existentialism, there was no coherent or single school or discipline of existentialism, but rather many different variations and forms of this philosophical and psychological approach.

This existential philosophical approach has been applied to psychotherapy particularly by Paul Tillich and Irvin Yalom. Tillich claimed that existential psychotherapy focused on dealing with the core issues of living including loneliness, suffering, and the meaningless of life; Yalom believed that universal themes experienced by all people include death, isolation, freedom, and emptiness (related to the concept of despair).[2] Thus, existential therapists do not see anxiety nor despair as a symptom of a disorder, but view it as a normal part of experience when human beings confront these critical aspects of life. With an emphasis on empathy and supporting the client, they may encourage clients to accept the anxiety and use its energy to help them make authentic or genuine choices about their life and to take responsibility for their future experiences rather than just reacting to circumstances. Because human beings exist in relation to others, Yalom, in particular, emphasized the value of group therapy as an effective approach to helping people live a more meaningful and authentic life.[3]

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Humanistic or Person-Centered Therapy

A therapist and patient sit across from each other in chairs in an office.

Figure 2. The quality of the relationship between therapist and patient is of great importance in person-centered therapy.

Because humanistic psychology focuses on a holistic view of individuals and believes that humans are inherently good and seek to achieve fulfillment and self-actualization, humanistic psychotherapy is aimed at fostering these goals. In contrast to psychoanalysis, humanistic therapists focus on conscious rather than unconscious thoughts. They also emphasize the patient’s present and future, as opposed to exploring the patient’s past. Symptoms are viewed as resulting from inconsistencies between a person’s behaviors or actions and their view of themselves and what they want to achieve. Thus, the goal of person-centered therapy (PCT), created by Carl Rogers, is to create conditions under which clients can discover their self-worth, feel comfortable exploring their own identity, and alter their behavior to better reflect this identity.

Unlike a psychoanalytic/psychodynamic approach in which the therapist plays an important role in interpreting what conscious behavior reveals about the unconscious mind, PCT involves the patient taking a lead role in the therapy session. Rogers, in particular, believed that all people have the potential to change and improve, and that the role of therapists is to foster self-understanding in an environment where adaptive change is most likely to occur (Rogers, 1951). Rogers believed that a therapist needed to display three features to maximize the effectiveness of this particular approach: unconditional positive regard, genuineness, and empathy. Unconditional positive regard refers to the fact that the therapist accepts their client for who they are, without condition. The therapist never criticizes or expresses negative opinions of the client’s actions or remarks, but expresses warmth and empathy. This creates an environment free from approval or disapproval, where patients come to appreciate their value and to behave in ways that are congruent with their own identity. Rogers believed that if these conditions were present, people were more than capable of dealing with and working through their own issues (Thorne & Henley, 2005). In general terms, this type of therapy is often called nondirective therapy because the therapist does not give advice or provide interpretations but helps the person to identify conflicts and understand feelings so they can take responsibility for their own direction in life and for their choices. The therapist tends only to ask questions and use active listening to ensure the client feels heard and understood.

One key advantage of person-centered therapy is that it is highly acceptable to patients. In other words, people tend to find the supportive, flexible environment of this approach very rewarding. Because of this, the fundamental aspects of PCT are now widely integrated into most other forms of psychotherapy. For example, most therapists of any orientation find that clients respond well to being treated with nonjudgmental empathy and the use of active listening. These are usually considered the core skills of effective therapy and counseling upon which other specific methods and techniques are built. The main disadvantage to PCT, however, is that findings about its effectiveness are mixed. One possibility for this could be that the treatment is primarily based on unspecific treatment factors. That is, rather than using therapeutic techniques that are specific to the patient and the mental problem (i.e., specific treatment factors), the therapy focuses on techniques that can be applied to anyone (e.g., establishing a good relationship with the patient) (Cuijpers et al., 2012; Friedli, King, Lloyd, & Horder, 1997). Similar to how “one-size-fits-all” doesn’t really fit every person, PCT uses the same practices for everyone, which may work for some people but not others. Further research is necessary to evaluate its utility as a therapeutic approach.

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Watch IT

Watch this video as Carl Rogers explains his nonjudgmental and accepting approach to person-centered therapy.

You can view the transcript for “Carl Rogers on Person-Centered Therapy Video” here (opens in new window).


active listening: a set of skills focused on the effective use of paraphrasing, reflection, and summarizing that aim to accurately capture the client’s thoughts and emotions

existentialism: a philosophical approach emphasizing a holistic view of human beings, validating the nature of human emotions, thought, behavior, and choices

humanistic therapy: therapeutic orientation aimed at helping people become more self-aware and accepting of themselves

mindfulness: a process that tries to cultivate a nonjudgmental, yet attentive, mental state. It is a therapy that focuses on one’s awareness of bodily sensations, thoughts, and the outside environment

nondirective therapy: therapeutic approach in which the therapist does not give advice or provide interpretations, but helps the person identify conflicts and understand feelings

Rogerian (person-centered therapy): non-directive form of humanistic psychotherapy developed by Carl Rogers that emphasizes unconditional positive regard and self-acceptance

unconditional positive regard: fundamental acceptance of a person regardless of what they say or do; term associated with humanistic psychology

  1. Maslow, Abraham (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being. p. 3.
  3. Psychology Today. Existential Therapy.