Humanistic psychology can be traced to Abraham Maslow as the founding father, but through time has become closely associated with Carl Roger’s Person-Centered Therapy (or Client-Centered Therapy). However, humanistic psychology today is much broader and more complex than Maslow and Roger’s foundational approach. A broad definition of humanistic psychology can include many different approaches, including person-centered therapy, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), Gestalt therapy, focusing, and existential-humanistic therapy.
Today, it is common, at least in the United States, for scholars and practitioners to view existential psychotherapy as one of the humanistic psychotherapies and research suggests that it is one of the more popular humanistic approaches (Paige et al., 2018). There are many reasons for the convergence of these therapies. For one, since their emergence, these two approaches have been in close dialogue. Second, there have been many attempts to blend existential and humanistic therapy (i.e., Bugental’s existential-humanistic psychotherapy). Finally, both approaches share many of the same values.
Similarities to Existential Psychology
Both approaches are phenomenological. While the term phenomenology is a complicated term which many psychologists and philosophers disagree about, the essence of what it means for these approaches is that they value personal experience and subjectivity. Psychology, in its attempt to become a science, has developed a preference for the objective. While phenomenological approaches don’t discount the importance of objective approaches, they believe it is important to recognize the limitations of objectivity. This, in part, means objective knowledge is only one part of the big picture.
The “here-and-now” or the therapeutic moment is a shared value of these approaches. While the past is important, it is also important not to forget the present. Included in the here-and-now is a commitment to understanding, processing, and valuing the therapeutic relationship. This relationship is seen as being a real relationship under unique constraints, boundaries, and contexts. In other words, while many psychoanalytic approaches see the therapy relationship as primarily a product of transference, humanistic, and existential approaches focus on the real in the relationship in addition to the transference/countertransference patterns.
Both approaches value self-awareness. In the more general sense, this is shared with all the depth psychotherapies. However, there is another unique aspect to self-awareness within humanistic and existential thought. Self-awareness in the more general sense refers to an understanding of the self that is primarily seen as accumulated life experience and unconscious knowledge. In humanistic and existential thought, self-awareness is also deeply concerned with the human condition and how this impacts the individual self.
Humanistic and existential approaches both value the basic goodness in people and human potential. Part of the therapy process is understood as freeing the individual up to embrace their basic goodness and potential. In doing this, it is believed they will be happier and satisfied with life.
Differences from Existential Psychology
While both approaches believe in human potential and goodness, existentialism has focused more on the potential for evil and human limitation. This is more of a distinction of process than basic values. In other words, humanistic psychology typically espouses a similar position to existentialism, but humanistic therapists have not spent as much time dwelling in the shadow or daimonic. This distinction should not be minimized despite the shared foundation of their beliefs. Through time, humanistic psychology has been unfairly characterized as being overly “warm and fuzzy.” Many people have shied away from this theoretical approach because of the perception that it does not deal with the reality of the human condition. Conversely, existentialists often get accused of spending too much time in dark places and being rather morbid. Neither characterization is accurate, yet these characterizations have, at times, influenced who has been drawn to the different theoretical positions and how they have developed over time.
An important discussion between Carl Rogers and Rollo May highlights and extends these differences. The discussion began with an article published by Carl Rogers in the Association for Humanistic Psychology’s Perspectives. It was followed by a later article published by May (1982) in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology along with a reply by Rogers (1982; both articles were republished in Miller, 1992). For Rogers, human evil is distinct from human nature. It is located in the culture. For May, people innately have both the potential for good and for evil. For Rogers, and many humanistic psychologists, evil is an external reality that impacts individuals through culture and socialization. May voiced concern for this partially because he does not believe this adequately deals with our own potential for evil.
In this same dialogue, May (1982) points out another important distinction which sometimes arises between humanistic and existential therapists. May voices concern that, in the extreme focus on the client and the empathetic response in person-centered therapy, there is some cost to a deeper genuine engagement that requires the therapist to focus on their own subjective experience. Stated differently, humanistic psychologists may focus on the client, at times, to the expense of acknowledging their own experience. In doing so, the client is deprived of the opportunity for a deeper engagement with the therapist as a subjective self.
These two theories have different philosophical roots. Humanistic thought is not as closely associated with humanistic philosophy as existential psychology is to existential philosophy. In fact, the confusion between humanistic psychology and humanism in the historical sense is rather significant. Generally speaking, phenomenological, continental, and existential philosophies have influenced both humanistic and existential psychology more than humanistic philosophy and humanism. In stating this, it still must be acknowledged that there are many broad approaches to humanistic psychology, and many approaches to humanism. Furthermore, humanism is often misunderstood as being anti-religion. Although some forms of humanism are opposed to religion, there are religious approaches to humanism, even Christian humanism. Yet, the misperception that humanism is always anti-religion, and the assumption that humanistic psychology is rooted in humanism, has left some assuming that humanistic psychology is anti-religion, which is not accurate.
Humanistic psychology has tended to focus more on the art of therapy, the subjective, and intentionality, to the neglect of the science of therapy, the objective, and human limitation. While some humanistic thinkers would rightly challenge this statement, when compared to existential thought, there is a strong case for this statement. Existentialism tends to be more balanced. Its values are consistent with humanistic psychologies focus, but it creates more space for science, objectivity, and human limitation.
Humanistic and existential approaches both value authenticity, but they have a different take on what this means. Du Plock and Tantam (2019) clarify stating,
The debate between humanists and existentialists on the meaning of “authenticity” is important here. Humanistic think it is about self-assertive living — being true to the essential self. Existential therapists consider authenticity to be about being open and truthful to life: accepting its limitations and boundaries and allowing it to manifest as fully as possible through one’s own transparency. (p. 151)
While I think it would be more accurate to replace “humanists” with “humanistic psychology scholars,” this quote clarifies an important difference in the understanding of authenticity. There is a stronger emphasis within existential psychology to manifest the courage to face the givens of existence.
Last, it could be maintained that existential thought maintains a more flexible framework to integrate other approaches. This is even true in regards to solution-focused therapies. While I have some concerns about some cognitive-existential approaches, at the same time I consider it a strength of existential thought that it is adaptable enough to allow for this. Existential psychology is more commonly used as a frame that integrates other depth approaches. While this can still be done with humanistic psychology, it is not as naturally as adaptable.
In the end, it is the adaptability and balance which are the strengths of existential psychology. Many times in my career I’ve re-evaluated where my therapy foundation lies. I have considered whether Jungian, relational psychoanalysis, or humanistic approaches would be a better fit for my values. In the end, it is also this adaptability and balance which keeps me convinced that the existential approach is the more appropriate foundation when compared to other depth psychotherapy approaches.
du Plock, S., & Tantum, D. (2019). History of existential-phenomenological therapy. In E. van Deurzen, Craig, E., Längle, A., Schneider, K. J., Tantum, D., & du Plock, S. (Eds.), The Wily world handbook of existential therapy (pp. 135-153). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Paige, J., Byock, G., Ellis, S., Falk, J. Godsey, M. L., Hoffman, L., O’Neill, J., Rathsack, J., Silveira, D., Sipes, G. S., Wamsley, D., Whitaker, A., & Vu, T. (2018, August). Who practices humanistic psychology? Clarifying demographics. Poster presented at the 126th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, CA.
Original Version added 2004. Updated July 2016. Updated January 2020.