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An Introduction to Humanistic Therapy

September 26, 2023


A happy family sitting on a cozy couch while having a face to face consultation with a therapist


What is humanistic therapy? According to practitioners and proponents of humanistic therapy, the main premise of the person-centered therapy approach is based on the subjective experience of the individual as the primary driver of behavior. Humanistic therapy practitioners believe that we each have our own experiences and viewpoint of the world. This means that while two people can experience a similar event — no two people will ever have the exact same experience or perception of the same event.

An Introduction To Humanistic Therapy

Humanistic therapy practitioners operate under the premise that people are inherently good unless circumstances beyond their control cause them to act out of characters. Psychology researchers who study humanistic psychology and therapy approaches believe that free will exists in each individual. This means that we are all responsible for our own behavior. This includes both successes and failures. Humanistic practitioners believe that we are all capable of making the best decisions for our own lives based on the information we have available.

This person-centered therapy also places emphasis on the idea that individuals should take personal responsibility for self-growth and self-fulfillment. When we take responsibility for our own self-fulfillment, we take proactive steps to educate ourselves and learn about things that interest us. The final principle of the humanistic therapy approach states that not all behavior is determined. This means that an outcome cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy until an action is physically taken. Even after an action is taken, there is no guarantee that the action taken will produce the desired result.

Humanistic therapy has been used to treat a wide range of mental health related illnesses and disorders. This person-focused form of therapy has been used to treat mild-to-moderate mental illness including chronic issues like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mood disorders, depression, and anxiety.

Two women share a tender moment of embrace in a group therapy session while surrounded by seated individuals in a room

Humanistic Therapy and Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s self-actualization theory is based on a hierarchy of needs. This motivational theory proposed by Abraham Mazlow operates under a 5-tier model depicted by a pyramid. Each level is said to place you one step closer to realizing self-actualization. According to Maslow’s theory the lowest needs in the hierarchy need to be satisfied before people are able to reach higher levels of self-actualization.

The needs represented by Maslow’s hierarchy are explained below. This hierarchy is listed numerically in ascending order. For example, on a visual pyramid, physiological needs would be listed at the bottom followed by safety, belongingness and love, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

  1. Physiological Needs – Bottom Tier of The Pyramid
    Anything that supports keeping your body healthy and alive is considered a physiological need. Food, water, exercise, and sex are examples of physiological needs. These physical based needs are those that are dictated by our biological process and often have little to do with logic and reason. When it comes to physiological needs, people who don’t consistently have these needs met may become stuck in a constant loop of seeking things, situations, and people that temporarily satisfy these needs.
  2. Safety Needs
    When people feel unsafe this means they are prone to feeling more anxiety. Living in constant fear and anxiety can cause issues with our physical bodies over extended periods of time. Mazlow’s hierarchy considered safety needs as being met when we have a stable home, reliable income, plus good mental and physical health.
    When people feel safe from harm, they are able to perform at their best. On the other hand, when people are under constant pressure and feeling unsafe, these conditions can become debilitating and manifest themselves as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or similar chronic mental health disorders.
  3. Belongingness and Love
    Intimate relationships and friends are the third needs category on Mazlow’s hierarchy. Psychology research has shown that people who have stable, supportive, and loving relationships fare better than those who don’t have these relationships. As a result, according to Maslow’s hierarchy, people seek belonging and love after satisfying their more primal needs for physiological needs and safety.
    The hierarchy states that people need to feel belongingness and love in their lives in order to perform well in other aspects of their lives. Examples of successfully satisfying belongingness and love needs are being in a happy marriage, satisfying relationship, or deciding that relationships aren’t for you and establishing other strong relationships with friends, coworkers, or animals.
    Humanistic therapy tells us that not every person’s need for belonging, love, or any of the other needs factors may be the same for any two people. A humanistic therapist will help therapy clients who are struggling in this area to identify their real needs in the belongingness and love category. After these desires are understood, the next step is to discover the obstacles that have been preventing you from establishing the kind of loving and supportive relationships that we all need in our lives.
  4. Esteem
    Self-esteem falls into the category of prestige and accomplishment on Mazlow’s needs hierarchy. This means that people need to feel validated and recognized for their efforts. This is especially the case when their efforts have been outstanding or above-average. Self-esteem strongly relates to being able to experience the feeling of a job well-done and to have others appreciate our accomplishments. A humanistic therapist will help people who are struggling with self-esteem to learn what raises and lowers their self-esteem. Humanistic therapists work very closely with clients to help them go from feeling powerless to feeling empowered by uncovering the root of their self-esteem issues.
  5. Self-Actualization
    According to Mazlow, this final level of self-actualization has occured when people feel they have achieved their full potential including expressing themselves in creative activities. People who are “self-actualized” have satisfied the needs in the other four levels of the self-actualization hierarchy.
A smiling nurse holding and assisting a happy senior woman walk

American Association For Humanistic Psychology is responsible for creating diagnostic and treatment tools related to the subject of humanistic therapy. As more is learned through the study of psychology principles and therapy techniques, more principles and standards of practice for humanistic therapy are created, studied, and updated in order to keep humanistic therapy practices in line with the evolving needs of mental health clients.