InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellersContact Us
Textbook Site for:
Theory and Design in Counseling and Psychotherapy
Susan X Day , Iowa State University and University of Houston
CHAPTER 6: Humanistic Approaches and Their Existential Roots

Key Terms and Essential Concepts

Phenomenological stance: A number of psychological theories (existential, Person Centered, Adlerian and self psychology) approach human perspective as subjective and holistic. Each person interprets experience from a unique viewpoint, and that view is reflective of the personís overall approach to life. In contrast, psychoanalytically oriented counseling theo≠ries approach human nature as divisible with separate parts serving distinct functions that can be treated separately. To enter a clientís inner world requires therapists to clear away their own perspective and to take on the overview of the client. From a phenomenological perspective, a person reflects in each moment the whole of his inner reality, and therefore, reviewing past experiences in therapy would only be needed if the past were carried into the present by the clientís account.

Existentialism: In the mid to late 1800s, philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche described the basic issues affecting the human condition. People exist in their awareness of themselves as unique beings, within the natural world, in relation to others, and alert to spiritual issues. Life has no predetermined universal meaning and yet people yearn to have purpose. Each individual has the freedom and responsibility to construct the meaning of his or her life and to choose values that determine important choices. To live without considering lifeís pur≠pose, and to simply follow impulsive desires, denies personal responsibility and causes psychic pain. Ultimately each person is alone, though temporary meaning can be gained through transcendent intimacy with another person. Essential isolation requires each person to learn to depend on their own inner resources and to understand what cannot be gained from relationships. Life must also be understood as time limited. Anxiety related to death can be overcome through the meaning individuals create in the time they have. Rollo May and Yalom extended the philosophy into an existential therapy designed to support clients in making sense out of their lives through their own interpretations of lifeís meaning.

Existential anxiety: Given the existential requirement that each person defines lifeís meaning, anxiety represents the struggle to adhere to the personís subscribed values. A common experi≠ence for all people is a pervasive inner stressor forcing individuals to individually determine the meaning of their existence. The feeling of unease signals that the person needs to pay attention to lifeís requirements: that time for existence is finite; death is certain; and that we are responsible for creating meaning by choosing how we live. Psychological neurosis can be seen as behaviors that attempt to maintain important values in the face of lifeís conditions. For example, a workaholic may be preserving the only meaning a person has. Life involves unavoidable anxiety, since any subscribed meaning is limited and life events interfere.

Existential guilt: Existential guilt results when the anxiety indicators are ignored and no action is taken. The feeling of existential unease can develop into an overwhelming angst if the press toward meaning is ignored. Passively denying the press to create meaning shuts down the personís vitality, the natural innate quality to affirm the self and an inner drive to press forward. Guilt is the signal that change is needed and somehow the person needs to take charge of her life. To overcome the guilt, the person needs to determine those values that express personal meaning and to find ways to manage life accordingly.

Meaninglessness: A major concept of existential philosophy. Universal life is ever changing with no coherent design or purpose. Yet human beings have an innate need to determine the meaning of their lives and without meaning, they are subject to hopelessness and despair. Daily events must be managed, but people also need a larger context beyond the mandatory necessities and themselves. Mental health requires each individual to determine values that can provide standards for making choices. Meanings are held by people to make sense of their existence and to maintain patterns for living that meet higher goals.

Freedom: Another major existential concept. Endowed with freedom, every person is responsible for the choices he makes. Even attitudes toward negative experiences are chosen, and feelings are the individualís responsibility.

Wishing and willing: Rollo May, an existential counseling theorist, describes wishing as the force pressing human beings toward creating a life purpose. Willing is the movement toward action. Impulsive and compulsive behaviors stem from denying wishing, since the actions are taken without forethought regarding purpose. Behaving without a sense of responsibility to others or ourselves reflects a lack of purpose and the will to create meaning. Each individual has the freedom and responsibility to construct the meaning of his or her life and to choose values that determine important choices.

Isolation: Existentialists develop the concept of each personís aloneness as a part of the descrip≠tion of human life. Each person is alone in determining how she chooses to live and how she faces death. Although relationships can alleviate loneliness, ultimately even with friend≠ships and family relationships, one is alone.

I/Thou relationship: An authentic relationship in which one listens to another without an over≠lay of expectations or presumptions. The listener experiences the otherís described experience and transcends his own sense of self.

Fusion: A relationship where one person lives through another person, denying the meaning of his own separate existence by merging with the other. (In systems theory, fusion refers to a confu≠sion of emotion and thought.)

Death anxiety: Existential thought emphasizes the finite nature of every personís life and describes the impact of this fact on the lifeís meaning. An awareness of death is warded off by avoidance and fantasies that somehow weíll be protected from losing our existence. Existentialists make the point that the best defense against anxiously facing our ultimate dying is to create a meaningful life.

Logotherapy: Logo derives from Greek, meaning words or speech. Victor Frankl chose the logo stem as indicating a counseling method emphasizing meaning. His approach maintains that the meaning individuals give to their experiences are self controlled and that under all circum≠stances, the person has the freedom, and responsibility, to choose how she will react to externals.

Affect blocks: When a person does not experience her own emotions with awareness, the flow of affect has been overcome by anxiety. Often such an impasse indicates that the person has not determined the meaning associated with the experience. Existential therapists describe affect blocks occurring in therapy as the person struggles to attain an understanding of what is happening in his life.

Confrontation: When an existential therapist perceives the client is avoiding deeper meanings or personal responsibility, the counselor will challenge the client to face the issue. An example is pointing out the common use of the phrase, " I canít," when actually the person means, " I wonít." Another trigger for confrontation may be the counselorís becoming aware of his reaction to the clientís manner of interacting. The counselor will share the effect the clientís presentation had, offering feedback on how others may be reacting to the client.

Paradoxical intention: The counselor assigns to the client a task that is intended to create the opposite reaction of what the client expects. For example, the client may be told to exagger≠ate symptoms by trying to do the fearful reactions, such as fainting when afraid in a crowd. The consequence is that the client canít faint and then is able to recognize the fear with a new perspective.

Dereflection: A counseling technique used in logotherapy that is similar to an Adlerian technique. The therapist assigns the client the homework task of volunteering to do something for others, participate in a social activity, or take up a creative endeavor. The goal is for the client to take attention away from her own ruminations about herself and to focus on someone or something else.

Hyperreflection: Overdoing self-reflection. Logotherapy counselors describe clients who are so involved with their analysis of their own inner reactions that the self-absorption is unhealthy. Dereflection is the antidote.

Attitude adjustment: A counseling technique used in logotherapy to change the clientís view of a situation. The therapist suggests different language to describe a situation. An example is changing the word failure linked to losing a job to an opportunity to try something new. In behavior therapy the same technique is called cognitive reframing.

Appealing: Victor Frankl used this term to describe his method of exhorting the client to change as he reassured the client of his ability to change and described the benefits of solving the difficulties.

Boundary situations: Changes that come with ending one phase of experience and the opening of new life events are termed boundary situations. When people experience a transition from one set of life circumstances to a new situation, often the change requires a reflection on personal meanings. A personís sense of what her life has meant may be called into question with new experiences. Such an existential dilemma is most prominent when death is vivid, either oneís own death as with a terminal illness or injury, or the demise of a significant other. Beyond the grief felt in losing life or a relationship, are implications for how one lives his own life with questions such as, " Who am I?" or " How will I choose to live my life now?" Other major life events also involve losses when meanings are redefined, such as job loss, divorce, marriage, or unexpected defeats. The term boundary situation suggests coming to the edge of one phase of life before entering another era.

Humanism: Humanistic philosophy focuses on human beings and their positive attributes. Individuals are considered naturally capable of developing their innate potential, interests, and values. Humanists believe in an innate goodness to human nature. Fostering the natural core self will lead to self-worth and worthy lives benefiting all.

Authenticity: Living authentically is to be true to what oneís self really is, without any pretenses. An authentic person lets go of false masks and roles and does not choose to be guided solely by what others think. The authentic self is fluid, in the moment, without rigid, predetermined reactions, but open to new experiences.

Actualizing tendency: A belief of humanistic philosophy that each person has the natural capac≠ity to continually grow toward fulfilling all his inborn potential.

Self-actualization: To grow toward self-actualization is to reach for the fulfillment of the personís innate potential in all aspects of life (psychologically, spiritually, intellectually, physically, socially, etc.). Human nature requires progressive development of abilities, and blocking potential is a source of psychological difficulties. As each person accepts her true nature and realizes all she can be, there is movement toward greater personality integration. The combination of beliefs that human nature is basically good and that people strive to become all they can be directs humanistic therapies to foster the development of the self. Such an approach views psychological problems as blocks to natural becoming rather than pathological diseases.

Organismic valuing process: An authentic person trusts her internal reactions to experience and sets personal priorities according to self-chosen values. Humanists use the phrase organismic valuing process to describe a natural way of being that leads to positive choices for the individual and for others.

Locus of evaluation: Locus refers to the source and evaluation indicates how judgments are made. An individual can measure her worthiness by looking for outside reinforcement or by depend≠ing on her own internal valuing system. External evaluations such as grades or paychecks provide concrete feedback that may or may not reflect the personís own estimate of what the experience meant. An internal locus of control indicates that the person is not driven solely by external standards but also gives considerable weight to personal assessments of events according to personal values.

Fully functioning person: A fully functioning person is simultaneously open to new experiences and aware of his own internal framework. He trusts his own ability to evaluate each life event according to his own values and to make responsible choices according to the meaning he attaches to life. He accepts and trusts others, offering the same respect to their struggle for self-actualization as he gives his own striving.

Peak experience: When a person feels a sense of becoming who one truly is, a holistic feeling of the self in the moment occurs.

Flow: Becoming so absorbed in an activity that all distractions and irrelevant inner reactions are not present in the moment. The person and the activity flow together as though one.

Person-Centered: Originally described by Carl Rogers, Person-Centered counseling involves a focus on the clientís description of his experience and his internal self. As the client tells of his reactions, the counselor teases out the clientís unique feelings and meanings and reflects back to the client what has been said. As the counselor maintains empathy and genuine positive regard, the client begins to trust his sense of life and self and discovers his own internal valuing system. Feelings rise to the surface more easily for the client, and the flow of experi≠encing becomes readily available to him. Carl Rogers believed that truly listening to the client and allowing the true self to emerge brought forth the personís basic goodness and his natural capacity to relate to others cooperatively. Carl Rogers first developed his approach in the late fifties, but since then his concepts have been extended to parent and teacher training as well as to business and industry management, health care, and cross-cultural communication. The approach focuses on creating authentic relationships that honor the personís self-expression, rather than theoretical interpretations.

Necessary and sufficient conditions of therapy: Rogers defined the qualities of the therapist and of counseling interactions that encouraged client change. The therapist is sincere, congruent in his presentation and his true inner reactions to the client (also called genuineness or authen≠ticity). A false front mimicking honest caring, or a blank slate, would be antithetical to building a counseling relationship. The counselor feels unconditional positive regard or nonpossessive warmth for the client. Without judging the client, the counselor accepts the clientís experience at face value from the clientís perspective, placing no conditions for accep≠tance. The counselor shows respect for the client as a worthy human being who has seen and lived life in her unique way. Finally, the counselor feels and communicates to the client an understanding of the clientís inner world. Such empathy reflected back to the client allows the client to explore her experience in an atmosphere of safety and compassion. These condi≠tions, according to Rogers, are necessary for the client to feel free to change or capable of facing her existential situation. Under such conditions the client will naturally grow in a positive direction. Many therapy approaches consider Rogerian conditions as basic to estab≠lishing a relationship with the client and to setting a tone for therapeutic change. However, not all counseling approaches consider the core conditions as sufficient for helping clients change. Other approaches expect therapists to demonstrate additional knowledge and skills in counseling and regard client change as requiring further interventions.

Congruence and Incongruence: A person is said to be congruent when his inner world is reflected by his external presentation of self. Incongruence shows the person as wearing a mask or project≠ing a persona that is not truly representative of the self. Person-Centered therapy is designed to encourage the client to be open to honest internal reactions and to develop congru≠ency. The counselor models congruency by entering therapy sessions with her inner space settled and prepared to focus on the clientís description of his experience. The client experi≠ences his own description of his inner world and realizes his true self and how the valuing process works.

Unconditional positive regard: In authentic interactions between people, each shows the other a congruent positive appreciation of the otherís description of personal experiences. A listener does not evaluate the other from her own perspective but instead warmly accepts the otherís attempt to understand the journey toward self-fulfillment.

Empathy: To understand anotherís experience from the otherís felt perspective. Empathy requires divining the full meaning of the otherís statements including underlying feelings and per≠sonal meanings. When full understanding is gained, the listener actually enters the otherís experience and feels what the other is saying, without the listener losing his own sense of self.

Nondirective techniques: A Person-Centered counseling approach is designed to expose the clientís inner experience and the clientís valuing system. The client provides the content, or the material discussed in therapy; the counselor facilitates the process of the counseling interac≠tion to consistently reflect how the client creates meaning from his experience. Any interven≠tion on the part of the counselor that would move away from the clientís focus on inner experiencing would discourage the client from trusting his own subjective capacity to live authentically. The client is encouraged to look inward and to allow feelings to inform his experience. Directive techniques, such as advice giving or interpretations, would reflect the counselorís expertise and would reinforce the client in trusting external influences, not his own internal valuing. The counselorís trust in the clientís ability to direct his own life is modeled for the client, so the client can gradually trust his own reactions. Nondirective techniques are typically termed reflectingófeelings or contentóto emphasize the process of giving back to the client what he or she has said. Person-Centered counselors also clarify client statements so the clientís meaning is clear to both the counselor and the client. Open-ended questions are carefully framed by Rogerian counselors to allow the client to choose the direction of what is said. The Person-Centered therapist also takes care to time interventions so as to prevent interruptions as the client reflects on his experience. Nondirective techniques are also used in play therapy for children as originally described by Axline.

Focused listening: Existential and Person-Centered therapists pay attention to what the client says and to the underlying feelings expressed. From a full understanding of the clientís expe≠rience, the counselor determines the clientís unique personal meanings and how the content reflects the clientís identity.

Self-disclosure: When the counselor reveals something about her own life in therapy, there is the risk of moving away from a focus on the client. However, a limited amount of counselor revelation could also be considered a display of genuine caring and joining. Person-Centered literature recommends brief disclosures directly tied to client content and carefully timed to keep the focus on the client. Research of client reactions to counselor talk showed clients appreciating counselorsí sharing past experiences and current lifestyles as helpful, not at all what Person-Centered literature recommends.

Group work: Existential and Person-Centered counselors extend humanistic methods used in indi≠vidual therapy to groups. Given beliefs in human goodness, psychological growth, and a common quest for meaning, groups of individuals interacting authentically are seen as therapeutic. Yalom, who wrote the most widely used and respected text for group counseling, is philosophically grounded in existentialism. In counseling groups, members gain feedback from others about how they come across and can see how others deal with their experiences. The value of focused listening and respecting the internal process of each individual has also fostered applications for parenting workshops (PET) and teacher training (TET). Indeed, Rogers applied the humanistic approach to a variety of groups located in political and work settings.