woman, face, head, Existential-humanistic therapy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Click below to listen to this article:

Existential-humanistic therapy

Existential-humanistic therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the human condition as a whole, rather than on specific psychological problems or disorders. It emphasizes the inherent value and potential of each person, the freedom and responsibility to shape one’s own life, and the authentic and meaningful relationships with others. Existential-humanistic therapy draws from various philosophical and psychological traditions, such as existentialism, phenomenology, humanism, and gestalt therapy. In this article, we will explore the history, development, practical applications and limitations of existential-humanistic therapy.

History of existential-humanistic therapy

Existential-humanistic therapy was developed in the mid-20th century by pioneers such as Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Irvin Yalom (Schneider & Krug, 2010). It draws on the philosophical traditions of existentialism and humanism, which emphasize human freedom, choice, meaning, and potential. Existential-humanistic therapy aims to help clients explore their subjective experience of being in the world and discover their authentic values and possibilities.

As one of the founders of existential-humanistic psychology, Rollo May (1969) wrote: “The purpose of psychotherapy is to set people free” (p. 14). Existential-humanistic therapy is not a single approach, but rather a diverse family of theories and practices that share some common assumptions and principles. Some of the influential figures in this field include Viktor Frankl, Irvin Yalom, James Bugental, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Kirk Schneider. Existential-humanistic therapy is often considered an integrative or eclectic approach, as it incorporates elements from other schools of psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, gestalt, and narrative therapies. However, existential-humanistic therapy also has its own distinctive features, such as the focus on existential themes (e.g., death, freedom, isolation, meaning), the use of phenomenological methods (e.g., description, reflection, dialogue), and the emphasis on the therapeutic relationship as a collaborative and co-creative process (Cooper et al., 2015).

Sign up for our Newsletter!
We will send you regular updates regarding new articles, as well as hints and tips regarding self-transcendence. We aim to limit this to once per month, though some months we will have additional special editions covering significant articles worthy of being the sole focus of a newsletter. There will be no sales spam or selling your address to third parties.
Example therapy session

A client comes to therapy feeling depressed and hopeless about his life. He has lost his job, his wife has left him, and he has no friends or hobbies. He feels that his life has no meaning or purpose, and he wonders if he should end it all.

The therapist does not try to diagnose him or offer solutions, but instead tries to create a safe and empathic space for him to explore his feelings and thoughts. The therapist uses the principles of Existential-humanistic therapy, such as:

authenticity: The therapist is genuine and honest with the client, and does not hide behind a professional mask or role. The therapist shares his own reactions and feelings when appropriate, and invites the client to do the same. The therapist says: “I can see that you are in a lot of pain right now, and I appreciate your courage in coming here and talking to me. I want you to know that I am here with you, not as an expert or a judge, but as a fellow human being who cares about you.”

Presence: The therapist is fully attentive and engaged with the client, and does not get distracted by other thoughts or agendas. The therapist focuses on the here-and-now experience of the client, and helps him to become more aware of his body, emotions, and sensations. The therapist says: “What are you feeling right now, as you are telling me this? Can you notice where in your body you feel it? Can you describe it to me?”

Freedom and responsibility: The therapist helps the client to realize that he has the freedom to choose how he wants to live his life, and that he is responsible for the consequences of his choices. The therapist does not impose his own values or goals on the client, but encourages him to find his own meaning and direction. The therapist says: “You said that you feel that your life has no meaning or purpose. What does meaning or purpose mean to you? How do you want to live your life? What are some of the things that matter to you?”

Existential anxiety: The therapist acknowledges that the client is facing some of the existential challenges of human existence, such as death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness. The therapist does not try to avoid or deny these realities, but helps the client to confront them and find ways to cope with them. The therapist says: “It is normal to feel anxious and scared when we face the uncertainty and finitude of our lives. We all have to deal with these questions at some point. How do you cope with them? What are some of the sources of hope and strength that you have?”

New article alerts!
We will notify you of new articles as soon as they are published. There will be no sales spam or selling your address to third parties.

By using these principles, the therapist hopes to help the client to develop a more authentic and meaningful relationship with himself, others, and the world. The therapist also hopes to facilitate the client’s growth and potential, by helping him to discover his own values, goals, and passions. The therapist believes that the client has the capacity to heal himself, if he is provided the opportunity and support to do so.

Practical application of existential-humanistic therapy

Existential-humanistic therapy can be applied to various populations and settings, such as individuals, couples, families, groups, multicultural contexts, and end-of-life care. For example, existential-humanistic therapy can help clients with depression and anxiety to explore their existential concerns, such as meaninglessness, isolation, freedom, and mortality, and to develop a more positive and hopeful attitude towards themselves and their lives (Mental Health Center, 2023).

It can also help clients with relationship issues to enhance their communication, intimacy, and trust, and to overcome barriers such as fear of rejection, guilt, or resentment (Psychology Today, 2023).

Furthermore, existential-humanistic therapy can help clients from diverse cultural backgrounds to acknowledge and respect their differences, to find common ground, and to appreciate their unique contributions to society (Tutorials Point, 2022).

Additionally, existential-humanistic therapy can help clients with terminal illnesses or facing death to cope with their emotions, to find meaning and purpose in their remaining time, and to make peace with themselves and others (Positive Psychology, 2022). As one existential-humanistic therapist said, “The goal is not to change the person but to invite them to live more fully” (Iacovou & Weixel-Dixon, 2022, p. 12).

Existential-humanistic therapy can be integrated with other therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), narrative therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions, to provide a more comprehensive and flexible treatment for various mental health issues.

For example, CBT can help clients challenge their irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions, while existential-humanistic therapy can help them examine their existential concerns and existential givens, such as death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness (Wolfe, 2016).

Narrative therapy can help clients construct and re-author their life stories, while existential-humanistic therapy can help them discover their unique potential and purpose in life (Shahar & Schiller, 2016).

Mindfulness practices can help clients cultivate awareness and acceptance of their present experience, while existential-humanistic therapy can help them connect with their deeper values and aspirations (Mental Health Center, 2023).

Benefits of existential-humanistic therapy

Existential-humanistic therapy (EHT) helps clients to cope with existential challenges such as death, freedom, meaninglessness, and isolation, and to develop a more authentic and meaningful way of living. EHT has been shown to have positive effects on psychological wellbeing, Self-actualization, and existential anxiety.

According to Psychology Today, “Existential psychotherapy is concerned with more deeply comprehending and alleviating as much as possible (without naively denying reality and la condition humaine) pervasive postmodern symptoms such as excessive anxiety, apathy, alienation, nihilism, avoidance, shame, addiction, despair, depression, guilt, anger, rage, resentment, embitterment, purposelessness, madness (psychosis) and violence as well as promoting the meaningful, life-enhancing experiences of relationship, love, caring, commitment, courage, creativity, power, will, presence, spirituality, individuation, Self-actualization, authenticity, acceptance, transcendence and awe” (Diamond, 2011).

In addition, a study by Spinelli and Katsouyanni (2020) found that existential approaches can enhance cognitive behaviour therapy by addressing the underlying existential concerns of clients and facilitating their existential growth. They concluded that “existential approaches offer a valuable contribution to the understanding and treatment of psychopathology” (p. 14).


Existential-humanistic therapy faces some limitations, such as the lack of empirical evidence for some of its concepts and techniques, the difficulty of measuring its outcomes and processes, and the potential ethical dilemmas arising from its emphasis on personal freedom and choice.

For example, existential-humanistic therapy is highly philosophical and may be difficult to understand or apply for some clients or therapists (Cleveland Clinic, n.d.).

It may also conflict with some religious beliefs or cultural values that do not share the same assumptions about human nature and reality (Hoffman et al., 2018).

Furthermore, existential-humanistic therapy may open the door to painful memories or experiences that require careful handling and support from the therapist (Cleveland Clinic, n.d.).

Additionally, existential-humanistic therapy is less structured, action-based, and goal-oriented than other forms of therapy, which may make it less effective or efficient for some clients or issues (KMA Therapy, n.d.).

Finally, existential-humanistic therapy may pose ethical challenges when dealing with clients who have limited choices or face oppressive circumstances, as it may imply that they are responsible for their own suffering or that they can change their situation by changing their attitude (Hoffman et al., 2018).


Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Existential therapy: What it is, what it treats & limitations. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/25089-existential-therapy

Cooper, M., O’Hara, M., Schmid, P. F., & Bohart, A. C. (Eds.). (2015). The handbook of person-centred psychotherapy and counselling (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Cooper, M., & McLeod, J. (2011). Pluralistic counselling and psychotherapy. Sage.

Diamond, S. A. (2011). What is existential psychotherapy? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evil-deeds/201101/what-is-existential-psychotherapy

Hoffman, L., Trent, J., & Kleiner, S. (2019). Existential-humanistic therapy. American Psychological Association.

Hoffman, L., Yang, M., Kaklauskas, F., & Chan, A. (2018). Multicultural considerations in existential-humanistic case conceptualization and treatment planning. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 58(4), 461-486. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167818773115

Iacovou, S., & Weixel-Dixon, K. (2022). Existential therapy: 100 key points and techniques. Routledge.

KMA Therapy. (n.d.). What is existential therapy? The pros and cons. Retrieved from https://www.kmatherapy.com/blog/existential-therapy-the-pros-and-cons

Mental Health Center. (2023). The role of humanistic and existential therapy. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthcenter.org/role-of-humanistic-and-existential-therapy/

Positive Psychology. (2022). 9 powerful existential therapy techniques for your sessions. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/existential-therapy-techniques/

Psychology Today. (2023). Inside an existential-humanistic therapy session. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/authentic-engagement/202305/inside-an-existential-humanistic-therapy-session

Schneider, K. J., & Krug, O. T. (2010). Existential-humanistic therapy. American Psychological Association.

Schneider, K. J., Pierson, J. F., & Bugental, J. F. T. (2014). The handbook of humanistic psychology: Theory, research, and practice. Sage publications.

Schneider, K. J. (2008). Existential-integrative psychotherapy: Guideposts to the core of practice. New York: Routledge.

Shahar, B., & Schiller, D. (2016). Existential-integrative therapy for generalized anxiety disorder: A case study. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 56(4), 403-425.

Spinelli E., Katsouyanni A. (2020). Existential Approaches and cognitive Behavior Therapy: Challenges and Opportunities for integration. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 50:9–15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41811-020-00096-1

Tutorials Point. (2022). Humanistic-existential therapy: meaning and application. Retrieved from https://www.tutorialspoint.com/humanistic-existential-therapy-meaning-and-application

Wolfe, B. E. (2016). Existential-integrative psychotherapy: A cognitive-behavioral perspective. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 56(4), 426-445.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content