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Why are we Ashamed of Humanistic Psychology?


By: Ginger Clark, Ph.D., Co-President


A student sat in my office, talking about applying to doctoral programs in Counseling Psychology.  She said, “I need to come up with a way to sell my theoretical orientation using new language, because everyone has told me not to say that I come from a Humanistic perspective.”  It seems that telling a doctoral selection committee that you are “Humanistic” today, is what telling them that you were “Eclectic” was 15 years ago: Meaningless.  But, why?


We’ve all read articles where humanistic principles were actually relabeled as “common factors” (Lambert & Barley, 2001).  These principles are now seen as fundamental to all forms of therapy, sometimes with reference to their Humanistic roots (Wampold, 2012), but more often not (e.g., Lambert & Barley, 2001). Warmth, accurate empathy, unconditional positive regard have all been infused into the ambiguous concept of the “Therapeutic Relationship” or “Common Factors” that are required of all effective clinical approaches.  What has been lost is the understanding of where those ideas came from, why they are important for change, and how to implement them.  Counseling students are instructed to make these elements a fundamental part of their clinical work, but are rarely shown how.  The ever-ambiguous “Therapeutic Relationship” becomes whatever the student assumes it should be, rather than a clear set of parameters to be met and measured, as Steven Hayes (2012) has suggested.

Empathy and acceptance have also infiltrated the value systems of schools, work settings, and leadership trainings, unascribed to Humanistic Psychology.  The terms have become so ubiquitous they’ve almost become cliché.  And yet, these principles are not effectively applied in these contexts.  They are not operationalized, taught, or measured, only encouraged, with the assumption that people know what they are and how to use them.  In fact, despite the knowledge that these characteristics are often the precondition to self-examination and change, we see organizations cling to paternalistic policies and practices that, more often than not, make things worse.

For example, we continue to incarcerate rather than treat people with addiction issues.  According to Pettit and Western (2004), our incarceration rate is the highest in the world, with 60% of the prison population serving time for drug crimes.  This phenomenon disproportionally affects people of color, though there is no difference in rates of drug use among white people and people of color.  And black inmates receive sentences averaging 8 times as long as white inmates for the same crimes.  The War on Drugs is an unmitigated failure:  Incarceration for drug crimes has made no dent in drug use or sales (Pettit & Western, 2004).  Conversely, we know that treatment does have positive outcomes in affecting substance abuse, particularly if it is long-term and provides wrap around support services.  These interventions are even more effective when they are self-determined, empowering, non-threatening, where relapse is seen as a part of recovery, and where sobriety is not a pre-condition to participating in treatment (Zerger, 2002).  These sound similar to Rogers’ cornerstones of therapy: Unconditional positive regard, non-judgment, genuine relationship, client-centered, and self-actualizing.  So why aren’t humanistic approaches to substance abuse getting funding rather than the private prison industry?

Clearly we are not teaching it effectively, and we are not influencing policy as an evidence-based school of thought.  We have somehow lost control of our brand.  Worse, our brand is seen as outdated and irrelevant, when in reality it is the foundation of all effective types of psychotherapy, communication, and education.  It is time for us to reclaim our contributions to the evolution of the human experience, and to do a better job of defining it, teaching it, and measuring it (Hayes, 2012).  We have to help others see how it can be used to benefit, not just the field of mental health and personal growth, but education, corrections, government, and foreign relations, to name a few.

We can do this by using the same processes used by other groups who started a sea change in the 21st century.  The use of social media, grass roots movements, on-the-ground and online conferences can broaden our base and further our reach.  We need to address policy and influence legislation, in order to show our government how these principles can be effectively applied to solve big problems.  Combining both a bottom-up and top-down approach cultivates an environment where an expectation of Humanistic-based approaches exists, such that leaders must respond.  We need a cultural shift where public attitudes that value these principles are developed.  Such a shift would make it safe for, and more powerfully, mandate leaders to make policy and legislative change that is aligned with the attitudes of those constituents.  AHP is the seed to grow this effort.

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