Humanistic Theory

Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

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What Is Humanistic Theory?

Humanistic theory, or humanistic psychology, centers on individual potential and stresses the importance of growth and self-actualization. It contrasts with other approaches by prioritizing personal experience, self-determination, and the inherent goodness of individuals, focusing less on dysfunction and more on the pursuit of holistic well-being.

The Origins of Humanistic Theory

The humanistic approach developed in the late 1950s. It was a critical reaction to the technical emphases of the psychodynamic and behaviorist learning approaches to psychology.


Drawing deeply from work done in the fields of existential and religious philosophy, the humanist psychologists staked a claim to the idea of a "client-centered psychotherapy" rather than a technique-oriented therapy.

According to major humanists like Carl Rogers and Fredrick Perls, people were born knowing how to be healthy and were naturally drawn towards making healthy choices. These healthy natural impulses were thwarted by parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other authorities acting on a variety of dysfunctional but culturally endorsed convictions—or, in some cases, abusive motives. The job of the therapist was to help clients overcome the negative influences of authority, society, or abusers and get back to making healthy choices that support growth. 

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The humanist vision of what healthy growth might look like is a tolerant and essentially liberal one. The direction of growth should be driven from the inside so every human being is able (to become all they were born to be—fully exploring their inborn interests and making a unique contribution to society. This theoretical pinnacle of self-expression is referred to as a self-actualized state.

Understanding Self-Actualization

Self-actualization represents the realization of an individual's self-fulfillment. It is considered the pinnacle of the hierarchy of needs proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943, signifying the moment when a person achieves their fullest potential and becomes everything they are capable of being.

Key characteristics of self-actualized individuals include:

  • Autonomy: Someone is independent in thought and action and has a strong sense of inner direction.
  • Realism: They have an accurate perception of the world, themselves, and other individuals.
  • Acceptance: They accept themselves and others as they are, without pretense.
  • Problem-solving: They focus on problems outside themselves and are concerned with basic issues and eternal questions involving the larger world.
  • Spontaneity and simplicity: They are straightforward, natural, and unconstrained in their interactions.
  • Continued freshness of appreciation: They continue to appreciate the simple pleasures of life with awe and wonder.
  • Peak experiences: They often experience intensely positive moments of happiness and fulfillment, known as peak experiences.

Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says, "Peak experiences involve heightened perception, interconnectedness, and unity with the universe. Everyone can have these experiences. However, self-actualized individuals tend to encounter them more frequently.'

In personal development, self-actualization serves as a motivational force that drives individuals to explore and realize their own capabilities, interests, and desires. This pursuit of growth encourages individuals to transcend their limitations, engage in meaningful activities, and cultivate inner potential, leading to a richer, more fulfilling life.

There are a whole range of conditions that must be met before any person can work on becoming self-actualized. According to the needs hierarchy described by Maslow, people must first secure basic organismic needs. Those include the adequate food, clothing, and shelter necessary to keep themselves alive.

Having achieved the basics, individuals next worry about and work to achieve a feeling of adequate safety, a sense of belonging to one or more social groups and relationships, and a sense of self-respect and social respect. Self-actualization, the drive to do all that you desire to do with your life, is something that only emerges as a motivator of behavior after all the earlier needs are adequately satisfied.

Dr. Vanta notes, "Therapists integrate humanistic principles into mindfulness-based interventions, highlighting present-moment awareness, self-acceptance, and compassion. This approach supports personal growth and resilience and contributes to overall well-being."

Other Considerations

In addition to being as genuine as they could manage to be with their clients, humanist psychotherapists developed a number of techniques designed to help clients move past fears, social commitments, and responsibilities that kept them too frightened or too dutiful to think about pursuing their own inborn agendas.

Realizing that many such roadblocks took the form of an internalized sense of duty or fear, humanist therapists developed techniques to help people reconnect with their hidden, or suppressed, wishes and dreams. Frequently, these techniques, including Perl's empty chair technique described below, worked at an emotional level rather than a rational one.

Ethical Considerations in Humanistic Psychology

In humanistic psychology, ethical principles are integral and focus on empathy, authenticity, and unconditional positive regard in therapy. These principles ensure respect for the client's autonomy, encouraging self-exploration and growth within a non-judgmental and supportive environment. Humanistic therapists prioritize understanding clients from their perspective and facilitating their journey toward self-actualization, emphasizing personal responsibility and the ethical impact of decisions.

Misconceptions about humanistic psychology often cause people to see it as being permissive, unstructured, or less effective than other approaches. However, its flexibility allows therapy to be tailored to individual needs, fostering deep personal development. Despite its client-centered approach, humanistic therapy is grounded in a rigorous ethical framework that promotes well-being and personal fulfillment and proves effective in various therapeutic settings.

Humanistic Theory in the Modern World

Humanistic psychology made a lot of sense in the 1970s during the height of the liberal "me" generation. It might look rather monstrous in 21st century America, which has become a far more conservative and conforming place.

It is important to keep firmly in mind that the humanists were not suggesting that everyone should pursue any course of action that pleased them. Rather, they were concerned that there were many people who failed to become artists because their parents urged them to become accountants instead or many homosexually oriented people who were afraid to live authentically for fear of being rejected by family and society.

Humanistic philosophy was aimed at helping people develop the benign and healthy parts of themselves that would otherwise get squashed by society. It wasn't meant to encourage the development of monsters or sociopaths.

The humanistic philosophy does encourage a sort of selfishness, but it is not the monstrous sort of selfishness of the narcissist. Instead, it encourages the healthy mature characteristic of the happy fulfilled person who knows how to set limits and be responsible while following their bliss.

The key insights to take home from humanistic theory are:

  • Achieving happiness is often a matter of developing the freedom for yourself to pursue your deepest interests
  • There are many ways your deepest interests can get sabotaged or buried. You will need to overcome roadblocks before you become free.
  • Techniques that are often helpful in getting you back on track tend to play towards your emotions, helping you reconnect with your buried desires and feel their motivating force.

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