What is humanistic therapy?
Humanistic therapy is an umbrella term for a group of therapies that share a common approach. Humanistic therapists believe that humans are inherently good and have the potential to grow in positive ways.
The humanistic approach to therapy arose after the more traditional behavioral and psychoanalytic approaches, such as those pioneered by Freud or Jung, for example. These more traditional approaches focus on symptoms and reducing distress.
In contrast, humanistic approaches work on the idea that you have the potential to be as you choose; that your thoughts, feelings and behaviors do not need to be prescribed as a result of your past experiences. Humanistic therapies help you to identify and develop your unique strengths to become the best person you can be and create a sense of meaning in life.
Because they can be applied to a wide range of mental health challenges, many people choose to work with a humanistic therapist because they find the nature of the approach appealing.
Types of humanistic therapy
Numerous types of therapy are based on the therapeutic approach, including: (1)
- Gestalt therapy: This is one of the most common humanistic therapies, which focuses on identifying your current thoughts and feelings (not the causes of thoughts). You can learn more about gestalt therapy here.
- Person-centered therapy: This is also one of the more common humanistic therapies. Here, the therapist is less directive. They create a supportive environment in which you are able to develop your true identity.
- Compassion-focused therapy: The aim here is to help you to be kinder to yourself and others.
- Phenomenological therapy: You are encouraged to question your assumptions and perspectives, and then develop new beliefs and paths forward.
- Transactional analysis: This approach helps you become aware of how you think, feel, and behave, and use this information to change the way you relate to yourself and others.
- Existential therapy: The therapist helps you to identify your values and use them to create a meaningful life. You can learn more about existential therapy here.
- Transpersonal therapy: This therapy has an emphasis on connections: to yourself, others, and to a more spiritual sense of a greater whole. You can learn more about transpersonal therapy here.
Issues that humanistic therapy can help with
Humanistic therapies can be applied to help with an array of issues, including:
- Relationship challenges
- Family difficulties
- Grief or bereavement
- Eating disorders
- Communication problems
- Identity issues
- Existential crises
- Problems at school or work
Effectiveness of humanistic therapy
A review of 86 studies found that people who participate in humanistic therapies show large amounts of change, in quantities equal to other therapies like cognitive behavior therapy. (2)
However, it’s difficult to determine how to define and measure what is ‘effective’ in humanistic therapies. Usually, experts will look for a reduction of symptoms. However, a reduction in symptoms is not necessarily aligned with the aims of humanistic therapies.
Humanistic therapies have been criticized by some because the base of research to support their efficacy is not as strong as other evidence-based therapies. More research will help to determine how effective humanistic therapies are.
How humanistic therapy works
Humanistic approaches have a holistic approach to wellbeing, where the focus is on the person, not the symptoms. These therapies foster creativity, growth and free will to help you to develop a stronger sense of self and create meaning in life.
Humanistic approaches help you to identify and develop your unique strengths. They help you to identify unmet needs and fulfill them yourself, and develop to your full potential. Humanistic therapists call this ‘self-actualization’. (3)
Frequency and length of humanistic therapy sessions
The frequency and length of humanistic therapy sessions depend on the specific type of therapy you choose, as well as your individual circumstances and the problems that you are experiencing. You are your therapist will decide together when the appropriate time is to end therapy.
Structure of humanistic therapy sessions
These therapeutic approaches, by nature, tend not to be structured in a specific way. Each person is considered a unique individual and therapy is therefore equally as unique. The structure of therapy then depends more on your own particular preferences and goals. (4)
What happens in a typical humanistic therapy session
Humanistic therapists create a supportive and non-judgemental environment for you to develop insight. They listen to you speak about your experience and try to understand your point of view with warmth and acceptance. This unconditional positive regard is an important aspect of the humanistic approach.
Generally, your therapist helps you to focus more on positive aspects of your experience and reduce the focus on negatives. They help you become more confident; to believe that you have the resources available to meet fulfill your needs and become the best person you can.
The focus is on becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings as they are in the here and now; less on the past or identifying the causes of your thoughts or feelings.
Depending again on the particular type of humanistic therapy you choose, your therapist might use specific techniques to help you develop insight and change. The ‘empty chair’ technique is one of the most well known, where you speak to an empty chair as though you are speaking to a particular person in your life. This is believed to help identify inner conflicts or unmet needs and be healing and transformative.
What to look for in a humanistic therapist
The best-fitting type of therapist for you will depend on individual factors, symptoms and your location. It can be helpful to consider the following factors:
The therapist offers your preferred therapy type
Learn a little more about the different types of humanistic therapy and consider which feels the best fit for you. You can then use this information to guide your search and choose therapists who offer this particular therapy.
The therapist has a current license
Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that our therapists have already been vetted.
The therapist has completed specialized training
Look for a therapist who has completed specialized training in one or more types of humanistic therapy. It can be helpful to take a look at therapists’ biographies. This is often where they note their experience and specializations.
They are professionally committed to the approach
Find a therapist affiliated with an organization with a humanistic orientation. This demonstrates their professional interest in the humanistic approach. For example, look for therapists who are members of:
- The American Psychological Association’s Society for Humanistic Psychology
- The Association for Humanistic Psychology
You feel comfortable talking to them
Prioritize the potential for developing a strong working relationship between you and your therapist. This trusting relationship, called the “therapeutic alliance”, can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy.
Talk in advance
The best way to gauge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:
- Training and experience in providing humanistic therapies
- Experience working with people with similar concerns to your own
- Which type/s of humanistic therapy they offer and which they would suggest for you
- What that therapy will be like
- Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy
Finally, humanistic therapists are characterized particularly for their warm, non-judgemental, empathic approach, so make sure you feel this during your phone call
It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
Sources and references
- The Humanistic Approach – What Types of Therapy Use It, and Is It For You?
- The effectiveness of humanistic therapies: A meta-analysis
- Approaches to Psychotherapy
- Humanistic therapies versus other psychological therapies for depression