Humanistic counselling: or "you're studying what?"

When I tell people what I am studying, a PGDip in Humanistic Therapeutic Counselling natch, often I get confused looks. Only the truly foolhardy or desperately curious will ask what does that actually  mean? The PGDip bit is easy enough, it’s a postgraduate diploma that once (if!) I graduate will qualify me to practice as a counsellor. But humanistic counselling is more difficult to explain unless you have experienced it. As over Christmas I have to write a whole 5,000 word essay explaining humanistic counselling (pray for me dear reader), I’m going to use this post as a way of organising my thoughts on the theory of humanistic counselling.
There are three main branches of counselling: psychodynamic, behaviourism and humanism. At a simplest level all counselling theories strive to answer three questions: how do human beings develop, what causes humans distress, and how can that distress be alleviated. The vastly different answers each theory provides, tells us a lot about the cultural and historical climate as well as the people developed them.

Psychodynamic counselling

Let me start by defining what humanistic counselling isn’t. It isn’t lying on a soft leather couch, “Tell me about your mother”, and truth derived from dream interpretation. This stereotypical image of therapy lodged in our collective consciousness is of psychodynamic therapy, and the founder of modern-day therapy as we know it: Freud. Psychodynamic theorists argue that many of our thoughts and desires are buried in our unconscious, often inaccessible. Think of the mind as iceberg, only the  tip, our conscious thoughts and feelings, emerges into the icy air. The vast majority is submerged in the watery depths, our unconscious inaccessible to us except through dreams and freudian slips. Psychodynamic theory paints human beings as conflicted, torn apart by warring drives, the id, ego and superego all in constant battle. Using the therapist as expert interpreter the therapist and client dig into the past to discover the root of trauma.

Behavioural counselling

Behaviourism is the attempt to create a scientific, empirical model of human behaviour. Behaviourism argues that human behaviour is learnt and can be reconditioned. If you think of human beings as like a computer, by rewriting the programme and combating negative thoughts and beliefs you can change your behaviour. Like Pavlov’s dog behaviourism works by reinforcing helpful behaviour, becoming conditioned or used to certain phenomena and is generally very good when combating the habitual behaviours associated with conditions such as OCD and eating disorders. Behaviourism is very firmly located in the here and now and not interested in the past. Because of this I feel that behaviourism treats the symptoms, but not the problem itself.

Humanistic counselling

Humanism, the counselling theory I study and practise, is about recognising an individual’s autonomy, subjective reality and capacity for growth. The term humanism covers a broad number of different therapeutic philosophies (person-centred counselling, existentialism, gestalt and transactional analysis to name but a few). Broadly speaking all these different strands have certain core ideas in common:

The relationship as vehicle for therapeutic change.

As human beings, we exist in relation to those around us. Using the model of the relationship we can see how the client acts in the world outside the therapeutic room and model change using the relationship as catalyst.

Individual as expert on their inner world.

Humanists believe that it is the client subjective experience which guides therapy, not the therapist’s expertise. Only the client knows what hurts and how that pain can be alleviated.

Non directive.

Following on from this, the therapist attempts to bracket off assumptions and instead of leading or pushing the client, follows the client wherever they wish to go as a companion rather than a guide.

Focus on the here and now.

Instead of exacavating the past, the therapist stays with the current lived-in experience of the client. As people are constantly changing the focus is on what the client brings into the room and where to go next giving a forward direction to therapy.

Treat the whole.

Instead of emphasising parts of the person (id or thoughts over feelings) humanistic counsellor try to work with the person as a whole. This means avoiding diagnosis but accepting the person and their lived-in experiences


It our greatest gift and simultaneously our greatest tragedy that we are free within certain finite constraints (time, ageing and death) to choose. This is often the concept, that most newbie counsellors struggle. Yes, sometimes tragedy falls from the sky, uncontrolled or motivated by ourselves but it is how we react to the hand we are dealt, how we frame that experience that we can control.

In practise

I’ve tried to give a brief overview of humanistic counselling theory, but it’s only when you see the theory in action that you can understand how it works. In practise as as a humanistic therapist: you are warm and accepting, you are present, you go where the client leads constantly checking your understanding, you are genuine not hiding behind the role of expert. If you are interested in humanism then let me leave you with the late, great Carl Roger’s in action. Filmed in the 1960’s the concerns Gloria talks about to Rogers are still relevant today:


  1. December 7, 2011 / 2:52 pm

    Nice post, and something I can relate to.
    “So what’s your thesis on?”
    “Oh, you know, portmanteau-words …”
    “Er … What?”
    Hope the studying is going well, Rowan!

    • December 7, 2011 / 4:28 pm

      Heh, I’m glad not the only one that has trouble with that question. In future I think I’m just going to go surreal ‘What are you studying?’ ‘HUMANITY!’. I’m absolutely loving the studying, it’s exhausting but in a very satisfying way, if that makes sense? Hope HK is treating you right

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