Self Portrait in Red by Rich Bargdill

The focus of this website is primarily existential-humanistic psychology and therapy. Mick Cooper’s (2016; originally version published in 2003) seminal text Existential Therapies identified five primary approaches to existential therapy: 1) Daseinsanalysis, 2) Meaning-Centered Therapies (including Frankl’s Logotherapy), 3) Existential-Humanistic Therapy, 4) Laingian approaches, based off the work of R. D. Laing, and 5) Existential-Phenomenological Therapy. There is much overlap across these approaches as well as variations within each school of existential thought. Cooper’s categorization focused on existential therapies. If one were to expand beyond the existential therapies, several additional approaches could be added, such as Terror Management Theory.

Brief History of Existential-Humanistic Therapy

The existential-humanistic approach to psychology and therapy originated in the writings of Rollo May, who is generally considered the father of American existential psychology. May was influenced by existential psychologists in Europe (i.e., the Daseinsanalysis tradition) as well as existential philosophers; however, the approach he developed also had some unique features. One of the unique aspects of May’s approach to existential psychology was the integration of ideas from humanistic psychology, which was developing concurrently in the United States. However, the label “existential-humanistic” did not come from May but rather from James F. T. Bugental. Along with May, Bugental became one of the influential figures in the development of existential psychology and therapy in the United States.

Like all the existential psychology traditions, existential-humanistic psychology was heavily influenced by philosophy. The different existential traditions often reflect other philosophical influences. While the existential-phenomenological tradition, for example, draws heavily from Heidegger, the existential-humanistic tradition was more influenced by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Buber, and Tillich. This is not to deny the influence of Heidegger on the existential-humanistic tradition; however, his influence is not as dominant in the existential-humanistic approach and is balanced by other perspectives.

A number of new scholarly and clinical voices continued to build on the early influence of May and Bugental, including Kirk Schneider, Myrtle Heery, Stephen A. Diamond, Orah Krug, Ed Mendelowitz, and others. In recent years, I (Louis Hoffman), along with several colleagues, such as Mark Yang, Nathaniel Granger, Xuefu Wang, Lisa Xochitl Vallejos, Veronica Lac, and others, have been working to continue to advance existential-humanistic psychology, particulalry with regard to multicultural and social justice perspectives.

Irvin Yalom has powerfully influenced the development of existential-humanistic psychology and therapy as well; however, it is not clear that he is properly classified as an existential-humanistic practitioner. In many ways, Yalom developed his own approach. Furthermore, Yalom (1980) did not see existential therapy as a stand-alone approach to therapy, which is different than most who align with the existential-humanistic tradition. Thus, while Yalom is a respected and influential figure in the existential-humanistic tradition and a extremely important contributor to existential psychology more broadly considered, I do not think labeling him as part of the tradition would be accurate.

Brief Summary of Existential-Humanistic Psychology 

It is difficult to provide a brief history of such a broad and complex tradition. Additionally, it is important to recognize that there are variations among those who identify as existential-humanistic. In the first chapter of Existential Psychology East-West, I advocated for a mosaic approach (Hoffman, 2009). In other words, people who identify as existential-humanistic tend to agree with many, though not all, of various tenets frequently associated with it. It would be very unexistential to require adherence to any ascribed set of principles. Furthermore, existential-humanistic scholars and practitioners may interpret each of the tenets differently. I would identify the major tenets of existential-humanistic psychology as including:

  1. Existential-humanistic psychology seeks to be honest about the human condition, including inherent challenges, potentials, and limitations.
  2. Existential-humanistic psychology recognizes the individual, relational, and cultural aspects of being human and one’s identity, including the potentials and limitations.
  3. Existential-humanistic psychology appreciates the paradoxical nature of being human.
  4. Existential-humanistic psychology appreciates the existential givens, variously defined and understood. The existential givens include death/finiteness, freedom/responsibility, isolation/connection, meaning, and emotions/embodiment. The givens are sometimes viewed as universal challenges; however, I view them as universal issues that all people experience. They may or may not be perceived as a challenge. The response to the existential givens is influenced by personal and cultural aspects. Existential-humanistic psychology does not espouse that there is one correct way to respond to the givens.
  5. Existential-humanistic psychology recognizes what May (1969) referred to as the daimonic. According to May, the daimonic refers to any natural impulse or tendency that has the potential to take over the whole personality.
  6. Existential-humanistic psychology, particularly in regard to therapy, is a relational approach. However, what is meant by relational varies. From the existential-humanistic perspective, relational is rooted in valuing the individual and their potential, personal agency, empathy, and compassion.
  7. Existential-humanistic psychology values conscious awareness. While there are various perspectives on the unconscious or, as it is sometimes preferred, subconscious in existential-humanistic thought, there is a general valuing of striving to be more consciously aware of oneself and what influences oneself.

by Louis Hoffman, PhD
Originally published on home page, 2004
Revision published on home page, April, 2017