What Is Humanistic Therapy?

Depressed young woman talks to therapist

SDI Productions / Getty Images

What Is Humanistic Therapy?

Humanistic therapy describes a range of different types of therapy that focus on a person as an individual with unique potential and abilities. Instead of concentrating on what is wrong with people, this type of therapy is more focused on helping them overcome their difficulties through personal growth.

Humanistic therapy grew out of humanistic psychology, a perspective that stresses that people are innately good. This approach tends to be more holistic and looks at the whole person rather than just a single area of a person's life. By emphasizing a person's skills and positive characteristics, it encourages people to heal and find personal fulfillment.

This article discusses techniques used in humanistic therapy as well as the benefits and efficacy of this type of therapy. It also covers some factors you should consider before you decide to try humanistic therapy.

Types of Humanistic Therapy

There are a number of different types of humanistic therapy. Some of these include:

  • Client-centered therapy: Also known as person-centered therapy, this approach involves the therapist taking a non-directive approach to the therapy process. The individual acts as an equal partner, while the therapist offers empathy and unconditional positive regard.
  • Existential therapy: This is a philosophical approach to therapy that works to help people better understand their place in the universe. It works by helping people explore the things that bring meaning to their life. People learn to accept responsibility for their own choices and recognize that they have the power to make changes in order to bring more meaning and purpose to their lives.
  • Gestalt therapy: This form of humanistic therapy focuses on a person's current life and experiences rather than looking at their past. It places a great deal of emphasis on how the individual perceives and makes meaning out of their experiences.
  • Logotherapy: This type of therapy focuses on helping people find ways to endure life's difficulties and find a sense of purpose and meaning. It proposes that finding meaning in life can help improve mental well-being and relieve symptoms of conditions including depression, grief, and trauma.
  • Narrative therapy: This approach to therapy helps people identify their values and skills by focusing on their personal stories and experiences. It strives to help people see that they are separate from their problems.

Humanistic therapy is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different types of therapy. The specific type of humanistic therapy that is right for you may depend on your goals and what symptoms are being treated.

Techniques

Humanistic therapists use a number of techniques that are designed to support people as they work toward change. Some of the main techniques that are frequently used include:

  • Congruence: This technique is essential to humanistic therapy and involves the therapist being authentic, open, and genuine as they interact with the individual who is in therapy.
  • Empathetic understanding: This involves the therapist not only understanding what the client is feeling and saying, but also communicating that understanding to the client. The individual should feel heard, seen, and understood.
  • Reflective listening: This involves actively listening to the individual and then summarizing what the client has said in their own words. This strategy can help reinforce what the client is saying, allow them to reflect back on their own words, and clear up potential misunderstandings.
  • Unconditional positive regard: This technique involves the therapist accepting the individual without judgment. It is characterized by a caring attitude that plays an important role in fostering self-worth, personal growth, and self-awareness.

Because humanistic therapy is focused on the present, it may also utilize a practice known as mindfulness to help people become more aware of themselves and their environment. 

Therapists utilize these techniques to support people as they develop greater self-awareness. These techniques are focused on solving specific problems; instead, their goal is to encourage people to view themselves as capable of directing their own behavior and achieving their unique goals.

What Humanistic Therapy Can Help With

There is not a great deal of research on the efficacy of humanistic therapy for specific conditions. This may be in part because these approaches focus less on measurable symptoms and outcomes. However, humanistic therapy has been used to treat a range of different mental health conditions. Some of these include:

This approach can also be helpful for people who are not focused on treating a specific condition. Those who are interested in maximizing their potential and growing as a person may benefit from humanistic therapies.

Benefits of Humanistic Therapy 

One benefit of humanistic therapy is that this approach can be a great source of empathy and support. Because therapists are trained to be non-judgemental and listen with understanding, you may feel more comfortable opening up and sharing your feelings.

Humanistic therapy also allows the individual to play an active role in their treatment, while the therapist acts as a knowledgeable, trusted guide.

Because humanistic therapy focuses on a person's positive qualities, it can help people feel more empowered and active in the process of making changes in their lives. Rather than feeling overwhelmed or dragged down by problems, it encourages people to focus on their strengths and use those skills to fulfill their needs.

This approach to therapy can also be a good way to learn coping skills—including problem-solving and stress relief—that will be helpful whenever you are faced with problems in your life. Because it fosters self-esteem and self-efficacy, you'll feel more capable as you deal with challenges.

Effectiveness

Research suggests that humanistic therapy can be an effective treatment approach when dealing with a range of disorders and other difficulties. 

  • A 2013 review of the research found that client-centered therapy was an effective approach in the treatment of depression, psychosis, relationship problems, and trauma.
  • A 2017 study found that young people experiencing psychological distress showed improvement in emotional symptoms after receiving humanistic counseling.
  • A 2019 exploratory trial compared client-centered therapy to trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy in the treatment of mothers and children who had experienced trauma. While the results indicated that client-centered therapy led to significant symptom reduction in children, CBT was found to be much more effective at reducing symptoms in mothers.

Things to Consider

Humanistic therapy is a type of talk therapy. It is holistic, so expect it to cover many different aspects of your life. However, it tends to focus more on the here-and-now rather than delving into the burdens and difficulties of the past. Some may find this challenging because it emphasizes taking personal responsibility and direct action to make your present life better rather than placing blame.

Because humanistic therapists are often less directive than other types of therapists, you will play an active role in guiding your treatments. Your therapist will act as a supportive and empathetic guide. Rather than viewing your therapist as a teacher or authority figure, they will instead be equal. This may be difficult if you prefer a more structured approach.

It is important to recognize that humanistic therapy doesn't address specific problems. If you are having problems that would be better addressed by a more problem-oriented, structured type of therapy, then humanistic therapy might not be right for your needs.

Humanistic therapy can help you achieve personal growth, but it doesn't tend to focus on solving specific disorders or symptoms. You should consider your needs and goals before deciding if humanistic therapy is right for you.

How to Get Started

If you are interested in trying this type of therapy, your first step is to find a therapist who practices humanistic therapy. You might ask your primary health care provider for a referral to a professional in your area. Another option is to search an online therapist directory.

If you prefer to try online therapy, check with the therapy platform or look for providers in your area who offer an online therapy option.

If possible, ask for an initial consultation so that you can decide if the therapist is a good match. A therapist who is non-judgmental, empathetic, warm, and understanding can help build a stronger therapeutic alliance. Research suggests that it is this rapport between the therapist and the client that plays a critical role in therapy outcomes.

Was this page helpful?
12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Thir M, Batthyány A. The state of empirical research on logotherapy and existential analysis. In: Batthyány A, ed. Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. New York City; 2016:53-74. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-29424-7_7

  2. Hutto DD, Gallagher S. Re-authoring narrative therapy: improving our self-management tools. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology. 2017.24(2):157-167. doi:10.1353/ppp.2017.0020

  3. Moon KA, Rice B. The nondirective attitude in client-centered practice: A few questions. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies. 2012;11(4):289-303. doi:10.1080/14779757.2012.740322

  4. Cooke AN, Bazzini DG, Curtin LA, Emery LJ. Empathic understanding: benefits of perspective-taking and facial mimicry instructions are mediated by self-other overlap. Motiv Emot. 2018;42(3):446-457. doi:10.1007/s11031-018-9671-9

  5. Braillon A, Taiebi F. Practicing "Reflective listening" is a mandatory prerequisite for empathy. Patient Educ Couns. 2020 Sep;103(9):1866-1867. doi:10.1016/j.pec.2020.03.024

  6. American Psychological Association. Unconditional positive regard. APA Dictionary of Psychology.

  7. Cuijpers P, Driessen E, Hollon SD, van Oppen P, Barth J, Andersson G. The efficacy of non-directive supportive therapy for adult depression: A meta-analysisClin Psychol Rev. 2012;32(4):280-291. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2012.01.003

  8. Erekson DM, Lambert MJ. Client-centered therapy. In: The Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology. John Wiley & Sons; 2015:1-5. doi:10.1002/9781118625392.wbecp073

  9. Elliott R. Research on person-centred/experiential psychotherapy and counselling : summary of the main findings. In: Lago C, Charura D, eds. McGraw-Hill/Open University Press; 2016:223-232.

  10. Pearce P, Sewell R, Cooper M, Osman S, Fugard AJB, Pybis J. Effectiveness of school-based humanistic counselling for psychological distress in young people: Pilot randomized controlled trial with follow-up in an ethnically diverse sample. Psychol Psychother. 2017 Jun;90(2):138-155. doi:10.1111/papt.12102

  11. Brown EJ, Goodman RF, Cohen JA, Mannarino AP, Chaplin WF. An exploratory trial of cognitive-behavioral vs client-centered therapies for child-mother dyads bereaved from terrorism. J Child Adolesc Trauma. 2019 Jun;13(1):113-125. doi:10.1007/s40653-019-00264-2

  12. Norcross JC. Conclusions and Recommendations of the Interdivisional (APA Divisions 12 & 29) Task Force on Evidence-Based Therapy Relationships. Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy. Published 2014.