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Humanistic therapy

Humanistic Therapy


Humanistic psychology focuses on psychological health rather than on mental illness. "Its view is optimistic, with an emphasis on the human potential. It's a healthy viewpoint. In 1942, Rollo May was stricken with tuberculosis. After eighteen months in a sanitarium in upstate New York, he decided that his attitudes and his personal will were more important to his recovery than the treatments. He entered the graduate psychology program at Columbia University in New York City, receiving his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1949 with the highest honors. In the decades that followed, May's dissertation, The Meaning of Anxiety, published in 1950, and revised in 1977, had a major influence on the development of humanistic psychology" (Crompton).

Rollo May argued that culture was in an "age of anxiety" and, furthermore, that channeling his own high anxiety was a major factor in overcoming his tuberculosis. (This would be the first we’ve heard of the mind/body connection to illness in the field of psychology I believe.) May was one of the most influential American psychologists of the twentieth century. He helped to introduce European existential psychoanalysis to an American audience. He was a founder of humanistic psychology, with its focus on the individual, as opposed to the behaviorist psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis that was prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s.

May's writings were both practical and spiritual and they promoted the power and worth of the individual. As such, they contributed to the development of the human potential movement. May maintained that widespread alienation and anxiety were a result of breakdown and upheaval in culture and society, rather than the result of individual psychological problems. I would add that the lack of spiritual awareness is another component of breakdown and upheaval.

Maslow's thinking was surprisingly original - most psychology before him had been concerned with the abnormal and the ill. He wanted to know what constituted positive mental health. Humanistic psychology gave rise to several different therapies, all guided by the idea that people possess the inner resources for growth and healing and that the point of therapy is to help remove obstacles to individuals' achieving this. The most famous of these was client-centered therapy developed by Carl Rogers. (Frager & Fadiman).

Client centered therapy is based on Carl Rogers premise that the therapist can trust the client’s ability to move forward in a constructive manner if the appropriate conditions fostering growth are present is an offshoot of the Humanistic Theory (Corey, p.172). Because this is a rational and logical way of thinking it’s hard to dispute the truth of the premise. He also believed that his therapy should be considered a set of principles of therapeutic development, rather than a dogma. This has significant appeal to me personally, since I believe that there are many ways to solve a problem and no one way is the only possible solution.

"According to the person-centered approach, psychotherapy is only one example of a constructive personal relationship. People experience psychotherapeutic growth in and through a relationship with another person who is caring, understanding, and real" (Corey, p.173). The therapist however, must be congruent with the client. They must be authentic in their presence with the client. The therapist must also be supportive, accepting, present in the here and now, and empathic. When the therapist successfully integrates all of these components then the client is free to grow into their authentic self. Obviously, the therapist must first discover his or her own authentic self and have a solid core of self-awareness along with self-acceptance, in order to be able to be authentic with the client. This demands that they resolve any issues they may have before becoming arbiters of change for others. Which is certainly of value to anyone who is in the field of therapy and immensely important to the clients they may work with. However, one must watch out for as Corey states: "This does not mean that therapists should impulsively share all of their reactions, for self-disclosure must also be appropriate and well timed. A pitfall is that counselors can try too hard to be genuine" (p.177).

Maslow saw human beings' needs arranged like a ladder. The most basic needs, at the bottom, were physical - air, water, food, and sex. Then came safety needs - security, and stability - followed by psychological, or social needs - for belonging, love, and acceptance. At the top of it all were the self-actualizing needs - the need to fulfill oneself, to become all that one is capable of becoming.

Maslow felt that unfulfilled needs lower on the ladder would inhibit the person from climbing to the next step. Someone dying of thirst quickly forgets their thirst when they have no oxygen, as he pointed out. People who dealt in managing the higher needs were what he called self-actualizing people. Benedict and Wertheimer were Maslow's models of self-actualization, from which he generalized that, among other characteristics, self-actualizing people tend to focus on problems outside of themselves, have a clear sense of what is true and what is phony, are spontaneous and creative, and are not bound too strictly by social conventions (Frager & Fadiman).

Although Maslow doesn’t specifically note spirituality as part of this hierarchy of needs, in his list of 15 characteristics of self-actualizers (1970, pp.153-172) include mystic experiences (no. 8) and in his paragraph following that list say: "There are no perfect human beings! Persons can be found who are good, very good indeed, in fact, great. There do in fact exist creators, seers, sages, saints, shakers and movers" (Frager & Fadiman, pps. 448-449). He further expounds on that when he describes as transcendence and self-actualizers. Which leads me to belief that Maslow, as well as Mays believed in spirituality as a healthy part of humanity’s need to become fully actuated beings.

Which fits in well with my personal philosophy that any therapy that doesn’t take into consideration the spiritual needs of the clients is one that leaves the client in the abyss of philosophical emptiness. This, of course, doesn’t apply to the problems of phobias, physical disorders such as schizophrenia, O.C.D., etc. But for those who come into therapy because they are having relationship problems, feel lost or empty, directionless, etc. it would be necessary to help them find their sense of spirituality.

I also think that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs describes well the reality of humanity’s ability to find spiritual growth. It is without a doubt necessary to move through the first four stages in order to have the wherewithal to reach the all-important fifth stage. This hierarchy of needs concept shows his ability to be an original thinker par excellence. How better to demonstrate what we need to do as a society to become the best expression of who we are? Is there any doubt that without assuring that everyone has the means to reach that fifth stage we are doomed to more of the same? Poverty, war, crime, destruction of precious species, environmental destruction of our own world, all of these could be significantly reduced and eventually eliminated if we only chose to do so. Yet, we don’t connect the empty, mindless, capitalistic consumerism that we’re so caught up in with that empty feeling we have in the pit of our stomachs, and that we keep trying to fill with things instead of spirituality. It is the duty of the therapist, as a member of the human race, to help those who come to us feeling that emptiness, searching for that meaning of life to help them find thatconnection to spirituality which will lead them to the fifth stage of self-actualization.

It was in the book, Conversations With God that I found the blending of the view of humanistic therapy with spirituality to be the most homogenous. God says to Neal Donald Walsch that, "You may think this is easy, this "be Who You Really Are" business, but it’s the most challenging thing you’ll ever do in your life. In fact, you may never get there. Few people do. Not in one lifetime. Not in many" (Book 1, p. 148). CWG always stresses that you need to ask yourself if this is the highest expression of who you are regardless the question. I think that’s exactly where Maslow’s "hierarchy", Mays awareness of "alienation", and Rogers’ "authentic" personhood all come to the same conclusion regarding healthy human beings. We must be authentically ourselves; our highest expression of who we are is where we find our greatest sense of self-actualization, non-alienation, and authenticity. How else could we be?


Corey, G. (2000). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (6th ed.). California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Crompton, S.W. (1999). "May, Rollo." An American National Biography, John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (Eds.). Vol. 14. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frager, R., & Fadiman, J. (1998). Personality & Personal Growth (4th ed.). New

York: Longman

Walsch, N.D. (1995). Conversations With God: An Uncommon Dialogue.

Book One. West Virginia: Hampton Roads Publishing.

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