A Guide On Humanistic Psychology

Updated April 4, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team

There are many types of psychology out there, such as transference psychology, transpersonal psychology, personality psychology, and humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology refers to a perspective in psychology that believes human emotions and self-image are connected to behavior. Humanistic psychologists study the person as a whole. This is the opposite of behaviorist psychologists who believe behavior is a product of a person's environment.

Humanistic psychologists emphasize human experiences such as grief, love, and self-worth as the driving force behind human behavior. These emotions are complex, as stated in the concepts of emotion psychology. The humanistic perspective proposes that how people see themselves and attach meaning to their experiences relates to their behavior. Decision-making and internal needs are considered far more than responses to external stimuli or instincts.

How humanistic psychology began and its origin story

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Psychologists Abraham Maslow and Clark Moustakas believed that the core tenets of self-actualization—being, becoming, individuality, intrinsic nature, health, and creativity—needed to be at the forefront of their new approach. Brandeis University sponsored the theory, thus establishing The American Association for Humanistic Psychology. Humanistic psychology, also called humanism, was developed in the 1950s. Maslow and Moustakas established humanism to pursue a theory that focused on a positive outlook and a humanistic approach.

Humanistic psychology assumes that:

  • Experiences are fundamental to behavior
  • Experiences are subjective to the individual 
  • Scientists cannot understand human behavior through the study of animals
  • Individuals, through free will, are responsible for self-fulfillment and growth
  • Behavior is not always determined
  • It is natural for a person to want to reach their maximum potential
  • Humans are inherently good
  • People must experience suitable environments during childhood to experience growth
  • People and experiences are individually unique; thus, group studies are not accurate

The humanistic model—how a person sees themselves and self-growth

Humanism stresses that subjective reality is the basis of behavior and that focusing on the individual is more important than relying on averages produced by a group of individuals. This view is drastically different than the medical model, which assumes that physical problems cause emotional and behavioral issues and thus should be medically treated.

There are some conditions where the medical model should be applied, such as cases of traumatic brain injury impacting behavior; however, humanistic psychology suggests that using the medical model can be problematic for many mental health problems.

Humanistic psychology also maintains that mental health problems can improve through psychotherapy and are often linked to interpersonal relationships. Psychologists who follow the medical model believe that people with mental health issues have illnesses that need diagnosing and treating. Diagnosing these illnesses is done through observing symptoms. Humanistic psychologists believe in the uniqueness of the individual that needs interpersonal relationships to thrive. The humanistic approach does not rely on symptoms and instead emphasizes how a person sees themselves and self-growth.

Using humanistic psychology in therapy—how exactly does it work?


Objective studies are not used in humanistic therapy because therapists that use the humanistic model believe that human nature cannot be reduced to mere numbers and statistics. 

When using the humanistic approach, interviews and humanistic therapy are not directed towards any particular topic, and the patient is not lead towards any particular answer. A humanistic therapist can also use a patient’s journal, drawings, or other material for analysis.

In humanistic psychology therapy, Carl Rogers' technique of person-centered therapy is used. This practice is also referred to as Rogerian Therapy and suggests people each have individual priorities of needs that dictate their drive and sense of self. Using this approach, humanistic psychology therapists use non-pathological methods and target adaptive and beneficial traits and individual behaviors during treatment.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

One of the foundations of humanistic psychology is that people have a hierarchy of needs that must be met for a positive self-image and fulfillment. The hierarchy of needs was developed by Maslow and comprised five tiers that are usually depicted as a pyramid. Maslow developed this theory of motivation in the 1940s and 1950’s. The theory’s basis suggests that people have needs that take precedent over others and must be met before other fulfillment levels can be reached.

The foundation of the pyramid is physiological needs. Without these basic human needs being met, a person cannot be expected to contribute and be a well-adjusted part of society.

The next level is also basic needs but are the things we are concerned with after being fed and rested. A person must feel safe, trust those around them, and live a relatively safe life before they can begin building relationships.

The third step of the pyramid begins with our psychological needs. Once our basic needs are met, we are motivated to make friends and build intimate relationships. We are motivated by the desire to belong and experience love.

The fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is esteem. Once others accept us, we begin to feel accepted in ourselves. Feelings of accomplishment and prestige motivate us. We want to be better and explore our potential.

The final stage of the hierarchy of needs is the need for human self-fulfillment. Once we have met our basic and psychological needs, we can achieve self-actualization—this is when a person reaches their full potential. This final step of the pyramid is also where people find success with creative endeavors.

In his later work, Maslow did clarify that we can simultaneously experience these needs and that each level does not have to be met 100% before experiencing a need for other levels. However, the longer a person goes without meeting these needs, the more they will strive to reach them. We cannot grow as a person, however, until self-actualization determines our motivation.

How to reach self-actualization

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Reaching self-actualization is not as hard as one may think. Maslow believed that self-actualization could be measured through peak experiences and achieved through artistic success, sport, academics, or a corporate leadership environment. The more a person experiences joy, euphoria, and wonder, the more self-actualized they are.

Maslow estimated that only 2% of humans would become self-actualized. Maslow studied people such as Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein to determine the characteristics of people who had reached complete self-actualization.

Maslow determined that these characteristics marked a person who had reached a state of self-fulfillment:

  • Grounded in reality
  • Tolerant of uncertainty
  • Self-accepting
  • Spontaneous
  • Focused on the problem at hand
  • Not self-centered
  • Good-humored
  • Objective
  • Creative
  • Resistant to conformity
  • Concerned for humanity's well-being
  • Able to appreciate the small experiences of life
  • Able to experience deep relationships with people
  • Able to have many peak experiences
  • Progressive in their attitude
  • Possessed of ethical and moral standards

Maslow was also able to create recommendations for behaviors that would lead to self-actualization. Maslow believed that if you retain a childlike perception of life, are full of wonder and curiosity, try new things, take risks, listen to your heart, are honest, are prepared to be unpopular, and take responsibility while working hard and having the courage to give up your defenses, you could reach self-actualization.

Receive guidance from a humanistic psychologist

While no two humans are alike or perfect, there is no one perfect way to reach self-actualization. Humanistic psychology is centered around the idea of the individual. Thus, reaching the final stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy will be achieved differently for everyone. Humanistic psychologists will also point out that people do not have to have all the characteristics of a self-actualized person to become one, just as people who are not at this stage may exhibit some of the traits anyway.

One of the best ways that you can begin the path to self-actualization is through humanistic therapy. Many different techniques are used in psychotherapy that can help you to determine where you are at on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Knowing which of your needs are met and what you need to work on can be sorted out through discussions with therapists and counselors. 

Online therapy is one way of working on your needs. Online therapy can often be more cost-effective than in-person therapy, and if you don't have a local therapist that meets your qualifications, you may be able to find just the right person online.

BetterHelp is on online platform with licensed therapists who are ready and willing to help you on the road to self-actualization. Once you are matched with a therapist, you can chat via text, phone, or video call. To work with a BetterHelp therapist, all you need is an electronic device and an internet connection. With some support, you can meet and exceed your goals.

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