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The Evolution of Humanistic Therapy

Updated on March 12, 2011

Humanistic therapy and humanist psychology are most grounded in the philosophies of existentialism brought to the forefront by a number of late nineteenth century philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nieztsche. However, later psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are credited the most for introducing this form of treatment that focuses on the principle that all humans are innately good and that the intrinsic human desire is to improve and become more self-aware in order to reach a higher potential. Although not all psychologists and therapists subscribe to this approach or method of thinking, some aspect of humanistic psychology is still incorporated into a number of forms of therapies used today, and a number of distinctly humanistic psychologists still exist.

Perhaps the greatest benefit that humanistic therapy has brought to the table recently is reducing the amount of stigmatism associated with therapy and mental health treatment overall. The humanistic school of thought promotes the idea that there does not have to be something wrong with an individual in order for them to seek therapy, that those who do go to therapy are not deranged or inept, and that virtually anyone can benefit from some aspect of therapy.

Commonly referred to as the third wave in the development of psychological approaches, the school of humanistic therapy came to the forefront following conflicts between those who supported Freud and the psychoanalysts of the first wave and those who belonged to the school of behaviorism. Although psychoanalysis is still practiced by many today, it is based on the many theories of Sigmund Freud and the general notion that people aer unconsciously their own worst enemies. Psychoanalysis focuses on understanding the unconscious realms of thought that dictate human behavior. 

Behaviorism, which is most attributed to the research of Ivan Pavlov, is based on the idea that everything that humans do, including acting, thinking, and feeling, are classified as behaviors and can all be scientifically explained. This school of thought promotes the idea that the action is promulgated by a thought, and has laid the foundation for cognitive-behavioral therapy which is widely used today. Humanist psychology emerged near the middle of the twentieth century to present an opposing view to both of these types of therapy that in some ways complements the other two when instituted as a comprehensive form of treatment.

Although cognitive-behavioral therapy has its roots in behaviorism, some aspects of humanist thinking can be seen in this form of therapy, which assumes that the individual is taking an active interest in increasing their own level of self-perception or awareness and they are responsible for doing a great deal of the work related to changing their ways of thinking. While many methods of therapy have sought to focus on early childhood events which may have influenced an individual’s behavior later in life, humanistic therapy takes on the consideration of the whole person and the assumption that since all humans are innately good, that we are all equipped with the same intrinsic desire to learn, improve, and make choices that affect our lives. 


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  • tonymac04 profile image

    Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

    Interesting overview of the field.

    Love and peace