Humanistic psychology, which is associated with theorists such as Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls and Existential psychology, which is associated with theorists such as Irvin Yalom and Victor Frankl share certain concepts that utilize a range of approaches with case conceptualization, therapeutic goals, intervention strategies, and research methodologies (Richert, A. J. , 1999). As explained previously, the psychologies’ similarities are that they both place an emphasis on life meaning, objective reality and human potential (van Deurzen-Smith, 2006) and incorporate methods to understanding human experiences.
Collaboratively, the Humanistic-Existential approach is to facilitate the development of one’s self-awareness and most importantly, the understanding of ones self. The focus of this paper is to elicit the significant roles each perspective plays individually and collaboratively in understanding aspects of human nature and provide an overview and evaluation of various approaches by comparing and contrasting the observed similarities and differences within their assumptions.
Due to certain aspects that differentiate these two psychologies, it is acknowledged that how they interpret the understanding of human nature comes from two distinct foundational views and thus generally defines them as not being interchangeable with one another. Humanistic psychology is seen as having a more positive view on humanity and working towards our potentials, while Existential psychology delves more into the darkness of humanity’ (Cozon, 2008, p1) and the understanding of our limitations, accepting them and choosing how we exist with them.
To expand on these perspectives, it appears to be implied that Humanistic psychology centers on growth and kindles positive change, whereas Existential psychology perceives people as not having an internal nature to count on (Cozen, 2008). However having the capability for self-awareness and choice, is a belief shared by Humanistic and Existential approaches but this belief comes from differing ideologies (CSAT, 1999).
The Humanistic approach observes that people are able to free themselves to encompass their goodness and potential (Hoffman, 2004) allowing them to make choices with their life experiences. Therefore, if we allow ourselves to self-aware and acknowledge a positive faith in ourselves, we may possibly find means to reaching unrecognized capabilities and the strength to make decisions on how to tackle life’s difficulties. Humanistic psychology also places emphasis on a person being able to grow and reach a degree of self-actualization (Maslow, 1968).
In other words, if we are predominately content with our needs being met and thus feel confident and motivated to move forward in expanding our potential to its fullest, a sense of overall fulfillment can be achieved. This ideology thus takes into consideration a similarity to the Existential approach, in that it values within a person the means to develop the ability to become responsible for self direction. Therefore with an awareness of this it is possible for a person to adapt positively to their concerns that then initiates growth and hopefully motivation towards change (Rowan, 2005) and their true self.
It is then assumed that when a person who does not have all these ideals in their cognition, that the opportunity to be aware of how to implement them within their being (personal learning, psychotherapy-Humanistic), may enable them to obtain a sense of optimism toward moving in a direction where they feel more positive about themselves and their abilities as well as give them the capability to amend functionalities that have prevented them moving forward.
In contrast to this, Existential psychology observes that people can find meaning in the face of anxiety by choosing (Sartre, 1958, Strasser, 1997) to think and act authentically and be responsible for how they accomplish this. According to Yalom (1980) the underlying concerns that instigate psychological problems are entrenched in anxiety surrounding the notions of death, freedom (and responsibility), isolation and meaningless.
What has perhaps been suggested here is that worries acquired from negative experiences can establish factors which develop fears of death or failure (loss), losing free will and accountability to do things the way we wish to, alienation from others and the lack of understanding who we are and how we engage with the environment around us, ultimately causing anxiety because they are reminders of our human limitations (CSAT, 1999).
It therefore is assumed that people acquire certain anxieties because it is not in their nature to implement their choices or judgements well enough to form and establish meaning in aspects of their lives and these limitations are possibly influenced from external factors, such as developmental processes in childhood, contributing to a person’s inabilities.
Although if a person can confront their anxieties and become aware of finding their own means to acquiring a more positive outlook and accepting their issues (existential), then the progression to become authentic/self-actualized (Frankl, 1969, Strasser, 1997) and the establishment of free will can possibly be achieved, which in turn forwards the potential of a person to live a life with more meaning in times of being uncertain about themselves and the world and when facing difficulties.
Ultimately allowing them to develop the ability to change (van Deurzen-Smith, 2006) and enhance their abilities to move in a more optimistic direction. Even though Humanistic and Existential Psychologies value beliefs from differing ideologies they do share a significant amount in common. Corey mentions that these psychological theories; ‘overlap in that they share a respect for a (person’s) subjective experience and a trust in the capacity of the client to make positive and constructive conscious choices.
(This is) emphasized with such concepts as freedom, choice, values, personal responsibility, autonomy, purpose and meaning’ (2005, p99). All these concepts are considered and included with the individual in mind as they take into consideration a person’s own subjectivity, personal meaning and personal choice (Cozen, 2008).
These ‘individual’ ideologies appear to suggest that everyone has the capacity and capability to be aware of establishing their own processes to functioning in a way that facilitates a healthy psychological well being as well as giving accreditation to the idea that a person has the choice to make and accept decisions in their lives that contribute to a more positive and meaningful existence.
Both psychologies recognize the significance of personal development/growth, choice, motivation to change and self-actualization/authentic-self as contributing factors to achieving this healthy psychological well being (Maslow, 1968, Rogers, 1961, Perls, Hefferline & Goodmen, 1951/1973, Coan, 1997, Rowan, 2005, May, 1994, Yontef & Jacobs, 2008, van Deurzen-Smith, 2006, Frankl, 1969, Strasser, 1997).
Development and growth from an Existential outlook is considered to be formed from motivational behavior in the context to changing the self. It is from engaging in positively motivated pursuits, that a person can experience facilitating movement towards self-change (Cohen, 2008). For some however this motivation may be diminished due to not been able to facilitate positive processing mechanisms and a lack of ‘ontological security’ (Laing, 1960), which encapsulates a person having a sense of their own and other people’s reality and identity.
Existential perspectives acknowledge that anxieties are sometimes not avoidable but they can be worked on and interpreted to make sense of them in the hope of development. This occurs when a person addresses anxieties with determination and curiosity, gains an understanding of how to accept the reasons underlying their issues and evaluates the thought processes that are responsible for “mis-understanding and evading life experiences” (van Deurzen-Smith, 2006). Once a person has recognized in themselves the opportunity to develop and grow, then maybe they can become more inclined to change?
Humanistic psychology suggests that if we do not restrict ourselves by acknowledging our potentials then we should be able to implement processes that enable us to feel confident to change and move in a more optimistic direction (Rowan, 2005). In other words if we begin to look at ourselves in ways that enable us to diminish our self-imposed limitations (through self-discovery), we possibly may be more inclined to recognize within us the abilities to see what we need to do to change how we feel and think in a positive way.
From an existential perspective, change and transformation is one life long process and although it is most often that someone wishes to implement change, aspects in their lives imposes on them to continuing their present situation. (van Deurzen-Smith, 2006). It is then perhaps most likely that the sense of having to conform to the impositions placed on us by others and our environment as well as not having the conviction to rely on our own potentials, reduces our abilities to find within ourselves the confidence to make the changes we need.
But if a person is able to find within the means to re-process and re-interpret their concerns (via self-discovery or psychotherapy) they; “may become aware of the many ways (they have) kept such change at bay…(and rather than) just conform to their own negative predictions of the future…(opt) for more constructive predications (so that) a change for the better may come about” (van Deurzen-Smith, 2008, p7) Existential psychology acknowledges anxieties and concerns as signs notifying us to begin re-evaluating the negative processing utilized in times of crisis.
As it’s at these times of crises we then can try to recognize and establish within ourselves the means to revise our negative modes of functioning and initiate changes for the better (van Deurzen-Smith, 2008). It may take a person in crisis some time to implement this process but hopefully with self-learning or psychotherapy the capability to do so could be brought into awareness and therefore when a person faces their anxieties in such a way, being open to change becomes much easier so they may be able to “make the most of life’s naturally transformative character” (van Deurzen-Smith, 2008).
In Humanistic terms, when a person is then able to develop and grow and feel motivated to change they are on their way to becoming self-actualized (Maslow, 1968, Rogers, 1961, Perls, Coan, 1977) and in Existential terms these processes enables a person to be authentic (van Deurzen-Smith, 2006, Frankl, 1969, Strasser, 1997).
From the ideologies in Humanistic and Existential psychologies, it seems that self-actualization and authenticity come about once all these processes have been fulfilled and our potentialities are complete. These theories give the impression that we have to develop a greater awareness and understanding of ourselves as individuals to then enable us to obtain the capacity and capabilities to live our life to its fullest even when faced with circumstances out of our control.
Thus in theory, self-actualization occurs when needs are met (Maslow, 1968), when a person has the motivation to “expand, extend, develop, mature (with a) tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the self” (Rogers, 1961, p351) and have within the strength and confidence to function at the highest level (Coan, 1977). Authenticity is said to come about through an existential stage, which goes beyond a person’s ego and the process of self-actualizing, which leads to accepting destiny and thus facing anxiety with courage (May, 1994).
Self-Actualization and Authenticity appear to be an end goal within Humanistic and Existential approaches to obtaining psychological well-being, but once we are able to feel confident to grow, develop, make choices, and then change to feel more positive about ourselves, do we really know that we have reached ascertaining our full potentials and achieve self-actualization/authenticity, even through personal learning or psychotherapy?
We may come to points in our lives where we are happy with its direction and happy with who we are and where we fit in the world, yet is this ever enough, and are we actually always on a continuum of self-actualizing to achieve fulfillment when other needs have been met? People may have the sense of fulfillment but are they self-actualized enough to be able to face and manage losing certain ‘met’ needs created by unfortunate circumstances?
Some-one who has a good level of actualization and authenticity should be able to take comfort in that they are confident in, their potentialities and thus be able to make positive steps to regaining back these needs. Someone who is not as actualized and authentic may lack a positive awareness of their potentialities and therefore be less inclined to motivate themselves. With all this in mind self-actualizing is most probably a process that strives to ascertain the self on a moment to moment basis, but in contrast to this, self-actualization in its finite implies an ending to the search (Cohen, 2008).
On reflection, this striving for self maybe refutes the idea of a finally achieving self-actualization because an actualized self indicates an absolute end to self-change, which in theory is unattainable (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, Erikson, 1995, Peiper, 1952). The same can be said for authenticity and the goal of being true to oneself in the hope of becoming more real. Can authenticity be actually achieved as; “…it is a gradual process of self understanding, but of the self as it is created in one’s relationship to the world on all levels.
(For) people to become authentic…means them …gaining a greater understanding of the human condition, so that they can respond to it with a sense of mastery, instead of mercy. To be authentic means to face one’s limitations and possibilities” (van Deurzen-Smith, 2006, p205). Therefore in an ever changing world, are we not constantly facing these limitations and possibilities in correlation to relationship to others and experiences of the environment around us? Do we end up caught in a cycle of perpetuated circumstances that we have to adapt to?
Existential perspectives seem to view people as creating themselves in relation to their perceptions, yet the notion of achieving self-actualization entails the idea that some kind of fulfillment must be strived for, which goes against the idea of self as relational and forever changing (Strasser & Strasser, 1997). So maybe it is more significant to review self-actualization and authenticity as something that is ongoing for a person, a process of being able to feel true and real to whatever circumstances come along rather than value them as an ultimate goal. Humanistic and Existential psychologies appear to be similar in terms of theory.
Observing the similarities puts them in close dialogue with each other as both approaches place value in self-awareness, the basic goodness in people and the human potential. Overall, each approach has some focus on life meaning and experiences, subjective reality and our capability to achieve self-actualization/authenticity, but these theories are “not to be confused with one another (as) Humanistic psychology tends to focus more on limitless possibilities and goodness, whereas Existential emphasizes evil and the shadow sides of existence” (Cozon, 2008, p4).
On contemplating achieving self-actualization/authenticity the two psychologies value engaging in behavioral factors (developmental growth, choice and change) as contributors to a stronger sense of self, but perhaps in the quest for self, moments of realization may be only be temporary yet steer us onwards, thus “it (possibly) is the journey that’s important, not the destination”. (Cohen, 2008). References Corsini, Raymond J. , and Danny Wedding. Current Psychotherapies.
Chicago: New House, 2014. Print. Richert, A. J. (1999). Some thoughts on the integration of narrative and humanistic/existential approaches to psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 9(2), 161-184. Cain, D. J. (2002). Humanistic psychotherapies: Handbook of research and practice. American Psychological Association. Cohn, H. W. (2002). Heidegger and the roots of existential therapy. Existentialism. Yalom, I. (1980) Existential Psychopathology.
New York: basic Books. Frankl, V. E. (1969) The Willing to Meaning: Principles and Application of Logotherapy. New York: The world Publishing company CSAT – Centre for Substance Abuse Treatment (1999) Chapter 6 –Brief Humanistic and Existential Therapies. In: Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse. Cozon, H. (2008) Existential vs Humanistic Therapy. [internet] Corey, G (2005) Theory and Practice of counselling. 7ed. Belmont: Brooks/Cole-Thompson Learning.
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