Humanistic and Existential Approach


Humanistic psychology is a psychological perspective that arises in the mid-20th century in answer to the confines of Sigmund Freud‘s psychoanalytic theory and B. F. Skinner‘s behaviorism. With its roots running from Socrates through the Renaissance, this approach highlights individuals’ inherent drive towards self-actualization, the process of realizing and expressing one’s own capabilities and creativity.

One of humanistic psychology’s early foundations was the work of Carl Rogers, who was strongly influenced by Otto Rank. Rogers’ focus was to ensure that the developmental processes led to healthier, if not 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. Rogers and Maslow presented this positive, humanistic psychology in response to what they viewed as the overly pessimistic view of psychoanalysis. The other sources of inspiration include the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology.

Conceptual origins

  • The humanistic approach was introduced in the 1940’s in the United States. It can be traced to Abraham Maslow as the founding father, but through time has become closely associated with Carl Rogers.
  • The humanistic and existential approach distinguishes itself from other therapeutic styles by including the importance of the client’s subjective experience, as well as a concern for positive growth rather than pathology.
  • The main aspects of humanistic psychotherapy contained genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard, the major themes of existential therapy are the client’s responsibility and freedom.
  • Humanistic and existential approaches share a belief that clients have the capacity for self-awareness and have freedom of choice.
  •  The humanistic perspective views human nature as basically good, with a potential to maintain healthy, meaningful relationships and to make choices that are in the best interest of oneself and others.
  • The existentialist, on the other hand, is more interested in guiding clients to find logical meaning while they face anxiety. This is done by exploring the importance of choosing to think and act realistically and responsibly.

Other Humanistic and Existential Therapies

Client-Centered Therapy

Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy assumes that the client can openly discover and test his/her own reality, with genuine understanding and acceptance from the therapist. Therapists must create three conditions that help clients change:

  1. Unconditional positive regard
  2. A warm, positive, and accepting attitude that includes no evaluation or moral judgment
  3. Accurate empathy, whereby the therapist conveys an accurate understanding of the client’s world through skilled, active listening

Core Beliefs

  • Each individual exists in a private world of experience in which the individual is the central focus.
  • The most basic striving of an individual is toward the maintenance, enhancement, and self-actualization.
  • An individual reacts to situations in terms of the way he perceives them, in ways consistent with his self-concept and self-awareness about the world.
  • An individual’s inner tendencies are toward health and wholeness that motivates a person to behave in a rational and constructive ways and chooses pathways toward personal growth and self-actualization (Carson, 1992).

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy can be roughly translated to ‘whole’ and focuses on the whole of an individual’s experience, including their thoughts, feelings and actions. Gaining self-awareness in the ‘here and now’ is a key aspect of gestalt therapy. In a therapeutic setting, this approach opposes the notion that human beings can be understood entirely through a rational, mechanistic, scientific process. Gestalt therapy claim that the empirical world of a client can be understood only through that individual’s direct involvement and description.

According to Gestalt theory

  • The organism should be seen as a whole (physical behavior is an important element, as is a client’s mental and emotional life).
  • Being in the “here and now” (i.e., being aware of present experience) is of primary importance.
  • How is more important than why (i.e., causes are not as important as results).
  • The individual’s inner experience is central.

Transpersonal Therapy

Transpersonal psychology developed as a “fourth force” in psychology in the late 1960s and has strong roots in humanistic and existential psychologies. A transpersonal approach highlights development of the individual beyond, but including, the ego. It acknowledges the human spiritual pursuit and recognizes the human striving for unity, ultimate truth, and intense freedom. This approach also recognizes the potential for growth inherent in “peak” experiences and other shifts in consciousness.

Core Beliefs

  • Transpersonal psychotherapy is an approach to healing and growth that recognizes the centrality of the self in the therapeutic process.
  • Transpersonal psychotherapy values wholeness of being and self-realization on all levels of the spectrum of identity (i.e., egoic, existential, transpersonal).
  • Transpersonal psychotherapy is a process of awakening from a limited personal identity to broad universal knowledge of self.
  • Transpersonal psychotherapy makes use of the healing uplifting nature of subjective awareness and intuition in the process of awakening.
  • In transpersonal psychotherapy, the therapeutic relationship is a vehicle for the process of awakening in both client and therapist.

Psych synthesis

Psychosynthesis is a therapeutic approach that derives from psychoanalysis. It was developed in the early 20th century by Italian psychiatrist, Roberto Assagioli. Psychosynthesis explores and supports the ways in which people harmonise various aspects of their personal self in order to grow and develop. Psychosynthesis is a conscious attempt to cooperate with this natural process of personal development in order to foster awareness, self-healing, and a greater connection to the ever-changing nature of human life.

Core Beliefs

According to theoretical framework

  • The practice of psychosynthesis is based on the idea that every person only uses a small part of their potential and that we are all capable of leading fulfilling lives.
  • In order to uncover a person’s inner wisdom, psychosynthesis counselling will focus on the exploration of feelings, thoughts, sensations and spirit in order to uncover any internal conflicts and blocks. 
  • Psychosynthesis is the belief that out of every crisis or challenge, something new is seeking to emerge that will lead us on to the path of growth and transformation. 
  • Psychosynthesis therapists believe that while we cannot always control what comes our way, we do have a choice about how we respond and relate to these events. They aim to help clients find a new sense of direction that provides a source of empowerment.  

Reality therapy

Reality therapy is a person-centered approach that focuses on the here and now rather than issues from the past. Developed by William Glasser in the 1960s, it promotes problem-solving and making better choices in order to achieve specific goals.

Core Beliefs

Central to reality therapy is the idea that mental distress is not the result of a mental illness. Instead it is the result of a socially universal human condition that occurs when an individual has not had their basic psychological needs met. These are:  

  • love and belonging
  • power and achievement
  • Survival (nourishment and shelter etc.)
  • freedom and independence
  • Fun (enjoyment and pleasure).

According to Glasser, we are all the time acting to meet these needs. While we may struggle to choose our feelings and physiology, we are able to directly choose our thoughts and actions. Sometimes however, we don’t act effectively, and this can have negative consequences for our health and well-being.

  • Reality therapy is therefore considered to find ways of meeting a person’s basic needs, while facilitating clients to become aware of, and change negative thoughts and actions.
  • Reality therapists take the view that changing what we do is key to changing how we feel and to getting what we want.

Transactional Analysis

Transactional analysis (TA) is a widely acknowledged form of modern psychology Founded by Eric Berne in the late 1950s that involves a set of practical conceptual tools designed to promote personal growth and change. It is considered an important therapy for well-being and for helping individuals to reach their full potential in all facets of life. It is commonly recognized as a brief and solution-focused approach, transactional analysis can also be applied as an effective long-term, in-depth therapy.

Core Beliefs

TA therapy is based on the theory that each person has three ego states: parent, adult and child. These are: 

  • Parent ego-state – A set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours learnt from our parents and other important people. This part of our personality can be supportive or critical.
  • Adult ego-state – Relates to direct responses in the ‘here and now’ that are not influenced by our past. This tends to be the most rational part of our personality.
  • Child ego-state – A set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours learnt from our childhood. These can be free and natural or strongly adapted to parental influences. 
  • The TA therapist will work directly on here and now problem solving behaviours, whereas helping clients to develop day-to-day tools for finding constructive creative solutions. The ultimate goal is to ensure clients regain absolute autonomy over their lives.

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy

Solution-focused brief therapy is also known as solution-focused therapy – is an approach to psychotherapy based on solution-building rather than problem-solving. Although it acknowledges present problems and past causes, it primarily explores an individual’s current resources and future hopes and helping them to look forward and use their own strengths to achieve their goals.

Core Beliefs

  • Solution-focused therapy concentrates solely on an individual’s strengths and possibilities to help them move forward.
  • It works by helping those overcome problems without confronting them – using the solution-building concept to substitute change and help individuals to develop a set of clear, brief and realistic goals.
  • It is the role of a solution-focused therapist to help stimulate and implement these solutions through a series of discussions.
  • The therapist will help individuals to imagine a clear and detailed picture of how they see their future and how things will be better once changes are made. They will also encourage them to explore past experiences and times when they were as happy as they see themselves in their future vision.


Existential-Humanistic psychology helps in the development of higher self-esteem in an individual and make social contributions to the community and society that they live in. Improving one’s self-esteem can be achieved with the help of others (existential therapies, transpersonal psychology, positive psychology, or interpersonal psychodynamic therapy or by self-reflection (mindfulness/meditation). Individuals with higher self-esteem are happier, have better academic performance, and are more aware of the interconnectedness of humans, societies, and countries. This awareness motivates them to make a contribution to others who are not that fortunate and to appreciate the gifts of kindness and compassion shown by others towards them. Life is justly an ever increasing spiral – the more you give the more you will feel better about yourself and improve your self-esteem. It is important to note that social change begins with the individual. From the individual it can extend to the immediate family and community, eventually leading to global change.