Humanistic Approaches

Humanistic approaches to counseling include a number of theoretical viewpoints. The dominant perspectives in this category are person-centered therapy and Gestalt therapy, which emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as alternatives to the prevailing approaches of the time, psychoanalysis and behaviorism. This entry will review person-centered therapy and Gestalt therapy, along with a more recent approach that combines elements of these two: process-experiential psychotherapy.

Assumptions of Humanistic Approaches

Humanistic theorists emphasize the freedom and responsibility of the individual. In psychology, these theoretical viewpoints evolved as a reaction to psychoanalytic and behavioral perspectives that characterized human behavior as determined by forces not directly under individual control. The humanists rebelled against the conception of humans as pawns controlled by genetically programmed instinct or environmental forces and accompanying assumptions that seemed to split the individual into pieces. Instead, humanistic theorists emphasize individual agency and holistic functioning.

A related assumption in humanistic approaches is the importance of individual experiencing. Human functioning is viewed as the direct result of the internal world of the individual; thoughts and feelings are given primacy over external forces in the motivation and production of behavior. However, an essential element of human experience is the relationship with the surrounding environment, most notably, other individuals.

Humanistic approaches to counseling tend to emphasize self-awareness, and these therapists prompt clients to explore their inner worlds. In these systems, it is recognized that it is natural for individuals to deny or distort aspects of experience that they find painful or unacceptable to their self-conceptions. These denied or distorted experiences cause problems in living. The tendency to reject aspects of life experience is seen as learned, primarily from the cultural norms and expectations that are incorporated into people’s self-concepts as they traverse the developmental path from childhood to adulthood. Freed from societal influences, individuals’ natural growth tendencies lead them to become fully functioning, healthy (in both mind and body) human beings who can adequately satisfy their physiological and psychological needs. Healthy individuals freely experience internal and external events and processes, and live authentic lives unfettered by the rules and dictates of society.

Although specifics differ somewhat across theories, one important task of the therapist in humanistic approaches is to provide the correct therapeutic environment for the client. The client must be freed from blocks in experiencing so that they can become authentic. To do this, the therapist, too, must be authentic. The therapeutic relationship is viewed as an encounter between two individuals; the client’s experiencing is blocked in some way, and the therapist is experiencing more freely. Ultimately, the therapist’s acceptance of the client leads to the client’s acceptance of the self, with all of its experience.

Humanistic Approaches and Person-Centered Therapy

Person-centered (PC) therapy was developed by Carl Ransom Rogers and has been known by three different names. It was called nondirective therapy when first introduced in the 1940s, and then Rogers renamed it client-centered therapy in the 1950s. In the 1980s, because many PC concepts were being applied beyond counseling and psychotherapy, in areas such as education, industry, and conflict resolution, Rogers began using the name person-centered approach to reflect the potential for application of this theory beyond traditional individual psychotherapy.

As noted earlier, PC theory was developed by Rogers in response to the two dominant psychotherapy approaches in the 1940s and 1950s: Freudian psychoanalytic theory and behavior therapy. Rogers was one of the major figures using the humanistic approach in his time. Reflecting his positive viewpoint on human nature and his insistence on equality in the counseling relationship, he was the first person to use the term clients (instead of patients) to refer to individuals who seek psychotherapy.

Rogers’s most prominent philosophical assumption was that human beings are inherently good. Rogers believed that the primary motivation of human behavior is to grow into one’s full capacity. Humans have a self-actualizing tendency that will orient people toward growth if unconditional positive regard and emotional support are provided. When individuals are well functioning, this growth is guided by the internal regulation of the organismic valuing process. The organismic valuing process evaluates experiences in terms of whether they are good or bad for the organism, without reference to cultural or societal standards. In addition, Rogers thought that all human beings have a need for positive regard and that individuals seek love from significant others to fulfill this need.

The concept of the self occupies a central position in PC theory. As individuals grow and experience the world, they soon learn to differentiate self from others and develop a sense of who they are. All of the experiences related to the self and perceptions about who the self is, as well as the values (e.g., positive or negative) associated with them, comprise an individual’s self-concept. On the other hand, the concept of ideal self refers to what a person would like to be based on societal messages. In psychologically healthy individuals, the ideal and real selves are nearly identical.

Rogers used the term conditions of worth to describe the underlying source of humans’ problematic behaviors. When individuals are young, if they consistently perceive that they are more valued or liked by significant others when they perform some behaviors and less valued when they perform others, then they experience conditions of worth. Initially, conditions of worth are external; that is, they are the reactions of others (such as parents) who value behaviors differentially, often based on societal norms (e.g., boys don’t cry, girls don’t shout). However, because the need for love from significant others is so intense, the conditions of worth will be internalized as parts of the self if they continue to exist for a period of time.

When conditions of worth are internalized, the individual is said to be in a state of incongruence. Self-relevant experiences are evaluated based on whether they are consistent with the internalized conditions of worth, instead of through the organismic valuing process, which determines whether experiences are growth producing or detrimental to the organism. Incongruence is a discrepancy between self and experience; that is, people deny or distort some of their experiences that do not fit the conditions of worth. Another way to describe dysfunction is that the person’s real and ideal self (which incorporates the conditions of worth) are discrepant.

Rogers saw therapy as an encounter between two individuals and contended that the therapist’s attitude or philosophy was critical to the success of therapy. Thus, there are no formally recognized techniques in this approach. PC counselors strive to develop understanding, supportive, and empathic counseling relationships with their clients. Rogers believed that the therapist’s congruence (or genuineness) was critical to the success of therapy, and along with empathy and unconditional positive regard, necessary and sufficient for client change. When the therapist consistently provides these conditions and trusts the client to lead the way, the client will be able to get beyond the internalized conditions of worth, progressing from a state of incongruence to one of congruence. The self-actualization tendency (in tandem with the organismic valuing process) is in charge and orients the individual toward positive growth once again.

Rogers’s assumption that each person has sufficient internal resources and strengths to grow and become a better person leads to a therapeutic relationship that stresses client autonomy and encourages clients to be self-directing. The main function of the PC counselor is to provide a safe, empathic, and supportive therapeutic environment that allows clients to follow their own directions. This respect for the individual’s autonomy leads to PC counselors’ attitude of equality within the therapeutic interaction; they eschew an expert role in the counseling process. In addition, the PC approach is phenomenological; an individual’s subjective perception is considered the defining force of reality for that person. Therefore, the focus of PC counseling is on the clients and their perceptions of the situations, not what might be viewed as “reality” by others. As PC counselors respond with empathic reflection and genuine reactions to the clients’ presenting concerns, they focus the clients’ attention to their own internal wisdom and assist their clients’ emerging self-awareness. Simultaneously, they also accept their clients as worthy and valuable beings regardless of their actions. This valuing from the therapists sets the stage for the clients’ own self-acceptance.

PC theory has been criticized for being too simplistic and oblivious to the true qualities of human nature. Although counseling outcome research appears to support the effectiveness of the PC theory, empirical evidence indicates that the core conditions (i.e., counselor’s empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard) are likely to be necessary but not sufficient for therapeutic change. However, research clearly demonstrates that the therapeutic relationship is critical to the outcomes of therapy of all kinds.

Because PC therapy focuses on the person and stresses the necessity of self-actualizing tendency for the person’s healthy functioning, the individualistic emphasis within PC theory can be detrimental to clients from more collectivistic cultural backgrounds or to those who have experienced oppression. In addition, PC theory has been criticized for its lack of attention to familial and cultural factors, which may be particularly problematic in dealing with clients from other cultures. On the other hand, PC theory’s trust in the individual to know what is needed can be helpful in working with clients from diverse backgrounds.

Humanistic Approaches and Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls is considered the founder of Gestalt therapy (GT). However, several individuals, including his wife, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman, also made significant contributions to the development of the GT in its early stages. After Perls’s death in 1970, second-and third-generation GT therapists such as Walter Kempler, Erving Polster, and Gary Yontef continued to practice and promote the approach. Over time, the theory evolved into several different versions. In fact, a somewhat confusing feature about the GT approach is that although some core principles and theoretical concepts are shared by the various versions of GT, there is little orthodox doctrine about how these are put into action.

Perls believed that humans have the potential to act and function in an authentic and holistic way. GT theory posits that all human beings have an innate tendency to grow toward fulfillment and actualization. GT’s existentialist flavor is seen in its strong emphasis on an individual’s choice and responsibility. Influenced by the concept of wholeness in Gestalt psychology, a branch of perceptual psychology that explores how humans create meaning out of perceptual stimuli, GT theory holds that it is human nature to integrate one’s inner experiences (e.g., feelings, needs, and perceptions) with one’s outer reality (e.g., environment) into a whole. According to this holistic perspective, individuals cannot be separated from their environments, nor can they be divided into parts (such as body and mind). Physical and psychological functions are inherently related; thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are all a part of a unified being.

Need satisfaction, contact, and awareness are three central constructs of the GT theory. Perls believed that individuals strive to meet needs such as physical and emotional support throughout the life process. Needs are met through contact with the external environment (including other human beings) or aspects of the self. Contact is essentially an unending cycle of need emergence, activity by the individual aimed at satisfying the need, need satisfaction, and disappearance of the need. For example, when people realize they are thirsty, they might get some water and drink until their thirst is quenched. However, if they are unable to find anything to drink, their thirst is not satisfied and may intensify so that it becomes all consuming. Psychological needs arise and are satisfied in a similar manner. Effective contact, which involves the successful completion of the cycle, leads to awareness and creates growth. Perls postulated that people have problems because they anticipate that some of their needs or parts of their selves are unacceptable to significant others or society, so they avoid contact by using defense mechanisms such as introjection (i.e., unquestioning internalization of values, rules, and standards of behavior from significant persons or aspects of the environment), projection (i.e., disowning personal qualities by seeing them as existing outside oneself, often in others who are emotionally important to the person), deflection (i.e., directing an impulse toward a substitute object or subject in the environment instead of the object or subject that casued the impulse), retroflection (i.e., doing to yourself what you would like to do to a subject in the environment), and confluence (i.e., failure to establish personal boundaries, so it is not clear where you leave off and significant others in the environment begin). Since people’s needs are met through contact with the environment, their needs go unmet when they use defense mechanisms to avoid contact. This disurpts their awareness of the environment and results in unfinished developmental business. Lack of awareness disrupts the ongoing cycle of contact by which people meet their needs and it contributes to further dysfunction.

The main goals of GT are to facilitate awareness, rather than directly addressing behavioral problems, and to help clients accept the ownership of their experience as well as personal responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. GT counselors support and encourage clients to freely experience and express their inner feelings and their needs. GT therapists often employ experiential techniques or activities in counseling to help facilitate awareness. In fact, the GT approach is often perceived as synonymous with one well-known technique called the empty chair dialogue. In this technique, important others are placed metaphorically in a chair and the client engages in discussions with these people. In another variant of this technique, called the top dog/underdog dialogue, a critical, parental facet of the self is placed in the empty chair and the therapist encourages the client’s weaker, responsibility-evading self to dialogue with the tyrant. By engaging in some sort of experimentation in which clients are directed to focus on how they are feeling and what they are experiencing in the here and now, it is believed that clients will assume effective contact, heighten their awareness, and begin to accept and take responsibility for experience.

The original GT style presented by Perls was rather confrontive and directive. This was due, in part, to Perls’s personal style, which some therapists imitated. However, the modern GT approach has turned its emphasis to creating an authentic, here-and-now relationship between the therapist and client. Exploring experience, however, is still the critical focus of therapy. GT therapists usually do not use any formal assessment or diagnosis. A GT counselor is to be authentic in providing feedback to his or her clients and will self-disclose if it is believed helpful.

GT has been criticized for its extreme emphasis on individual responsibility. This orientation may lead to problems in using this approach with individuals who are from cultures that are more relationship or group oriented. In addition, the emphasis in GT on verbal, emotional, and behavioral expressiveness is counter to the values of many cultural groups. However, GT’s emphases on awareness, personal power, and responsibility may be encouraging and helpful to female clients in finding their worth from within rather than in others’ perceptions of them.

Process-Experiential Psychotherapy

A recent approach, process-experiential psychotherapy (PE), fuses aspects of the person-centered and Gestalt approaches. Classified by its authors as one type of emotion-focused therapy, PE is based on the assumption that human emotions are adaptive signals that tell people what is important and prepare them for action. Dysfunction results from problems in symbolizing experience, and accompanying distorted emotional processing of the experience. Thus, the goal of therapy in this approach is to help clients learn new ways of processing emotion that lead to different meanings and more adaptive coping strategies. The therapist in PE first strives to create a therapeutic climate similar to that in person-centered theory in order to evoke and understand client emotional experience. Once the relationship is established, the therapist can then use interventions that help reprocess the emotions; among these are chair dialogues similar to those used in Gestalt therapy.

Process-experiential psychotherapy emphasizes the importance of a collaborative therapy relationship and the power of the therapist’s empathic prizing of the client in creating a situation in which clients can productively explore their experiences. Techniques in PE include some that are similar in person-centered theory (focusing, systematic evocative unfolding, narrative retelling, and meaning creation) and dialogues reminiscent of Gestalt therapy’s two-chair and empty-chair techniques. Focusing, systematic evocative unfolding, narrative retelling, and meaning creation are all interventions that support clients’ exploration of feelings and the transformation of these feelings in ways that promote effective client responses to them. In the two-chair dialogue, clients experience aspects of themselves as they shift between two chairs. Two types of dialogues are identified: those between conflicting aspects of the self and those between the experiencing self and an aspect of the self that is blocking the expression of emotions or needs. Resolution of the conflict generally requires the two aspects to be accepted by the client so that they can work together.


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