Humanistic psychology is one of the most profoundly misunderstood approaches to therapy today. Much of this is due to the influence of pop psychology versions of humanistic psychology. Many “don’t worry, be happy” approaches to life became associated with humanistic psychology. Most notably is Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. However, this is not the essence of humanistic thought. Ironically, many humanistic thinkers would strongly critique this line of thinking as denying aspects of human limitation and our existential reality. The following is a summary of some of the more important misinterpretations of humanistic thought which emerged over time:
1) Humanistic psychology is the same thing has Humanism
This misunderstanding has been the root of many conflicts between religious groups and humanistic psychology. Some early versions of Humanism purported that humans could evolve to become gods. Other versions viewed a supreme confidence in human potential as an appropriate replacement of religion. While there have been some humanistic psychologists who agreed with one or both of these positions, this is not the essence of humanistic psychology. To be clear, humanistic psychology does NOT purport that humans can become gods or that confidence in the human condition should replace religion. In fact, humanistic psychology is arguably extremely compatible with the values of many religious groups, including the various theistic religions.
2) Humanistic psychology is just about being empathetic and reflecting back to the client what they are saying and feeling.
This is one aspect of what humanistic psychotherapists do, but it is a small part of the bigger picture. Many times I have heard other professions joke “how could humanistic psychology work with a suicidal person? What are they going to do? Just reflect back to them in a soft voice ‘oh, so you’re thinking of killing yourself’ or ‘oh, you’re so sad.’” All this demonstrates is a gross misunderstanding of humanistic psychology.
3) Humanistic psychology is just using Roger’s therapeutic triad of empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard.
Again, this just demonstrates a poor understanding of humanistic thought. However, this is what is commonly taught to students taking courses which provide an overview of the different therapy approaches. This, as with myth number two, is only one small aspect of the bigger picture.
4) Humanistic psychotherapy only works with intelligent, motivated, high functioning clients.
This is maybe true for someone who is not very effective at humanistic psychotherapy, but not true of the experienced clinician. In fact, some research has suggested that humanistic psychology may be very effective with a variety of disorders and in a variety of contexts. As with all the depth psychotherapies, it takes years of training, supervision, and practicing to become an effective humanistic therapist. Few therapists are able to master this approach to therapy in a less than 3-5 years.
5) It’s a good base to all theories.
Yes and no. Rogers was one of the first people to really explore and emphasize the importance of developing a positive therapeutic relationship. This is important with most or all approaches to therapy. But, again, this is an oversimplification of humanistic psychology to just some of the more popular aspects of the larger theory.
Original Version added 2004. Never been updated.