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Psychotherapy: Humanistic & Cognitive Approaches

Psychotherapy: Humanistic & Cognitive Approaches

Author: Erick Taggart

Identify the various approaches to psychotherapy.

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Hello, class. So in this lesson, we're going to be looking at two other approaches to psychotherapy, and they're ones that you're probably familiar with, because again, these are theories that we've covered in previous lessons. But these are humanistic theory and cognitive theory.

So let's start with humanistic. Now if you recall, humanistic theory is a theory that's very much focused on the human experience. It's looking at the point of view of people specifically. It's also focused on human potential-- what people can do-- so it's very much a positive view of humans and of psychology. Humanistic theory is focused on conscious thought, as opposed to psychodynamic theory, which is focused on unconscious thought.

Another difference in humanistic theory is that humanistic theory is client-centered therapy. Unlike psychodynamic theory, which is very much guided by the therapist themself, in humanistic approaches, the client is at the center of the therapy, and the agent of effective change. They're the ones that actually help themselves to get better under this.

The client in a therapy session would determine what's being talked about. They would set the tone and talk about whatever is on their mind at the time. It's very non-directed approach, and it's based on the insights of the patient themselves. The therapist might guide the person along, asking questions that are open-ended to help reflect what they might want to talk about, or any kinds of problems that are in the back of their minds that might want to be brought to the front.

So if you recall from our previous discussion of humanistic theory, one of the important figures was Carl Rogers. Rogers was an American psychologist and therapist in the mid-1900s, and he laid out four conditions for effective therapy, in humanistic theory, or really, in any theory in general. So let's take a look at those.

Number one on this list is unconditional positive regard, which is to say that the therapist should have a total acceptance of the client, and they shouldn't express any kind of shock, dismay, or disapproval at anything that the client might say. The underlying belief is that the therapist thinks the client is inherently good, and so they treat them as such. And this leads the client to have an acceptance of themself, whereas previously, they might not have thought of themselves as being an inherently good person. Through the reflection of the therapist themself, they come to accept their different sorts of faults.

The second condition is empathy, which is to say that the therapist should try to see and feel through the client's eyes. They should try to understand them not just on an intellectual level, but at a very base, sort of emotional level as well. The third condition is authenticity, which goes along with empathy. That's to say that the therapist should be genuine and honest. They don't hide behind their professional role like in other therapies, which is to say they shouldn't be secretive, or they shouldn't disclose information about themselves. They should try to share it, and in this way, the client doesn't feel like they're being held at an arm's distance, and they're more likely to build a positive relationship with the therapist themself.

The fourth condition is reflection, which is to say, kind of like what we talked about with client-centered therapy. The therapist doesn't try to interpret or propose advice or solutions for the client. Instead, the therapist acts as a sort of mirror, so the client can try to see themselves more clearly through the conversations that they're having, and come to an understanding of their own thoughts and feelings. Again, remember, the client is supposed to be the agent of their own change, in trying to help themselves out. And so these are where those open-ended questions-- just asking, well, what do you think about that, and turning it back to the client-- helps them to come to understanding and acceptance.

So the second approach we're going to be looking at today is the cognitive approach to therapy. And kind of like with the cognitive theory, it tends to be a very blanket umbrella, under which a lot of different ideas and theories fit. But at its basis, cognitive therapy is trying to recognize what people think, feel, and behave, their internal mental processes.

So the heart of cognitive therapy is to try to understand how you perceive an event, and how that can be just as important as the event itself. This is very much in keeping with some of those self-help books that you might see, where it's the idea of the power of the mind over the body, and how you can think things into existence. That's the sort of idea we have under cognitive theory. So the goal of cognitive theory is to help clients to change their thinking patterns that might lead to some sorts of troublesome emotions or behaviors that they have in their lives.

One example of cognitive theory is rational-emotive therapy, and this is a therapy developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s, and it's very much influenced by psychodynamic theory, as you'll see. Rational-emotive therapy makes use of the ABC model, which is to say, A, there's some kind of Activating event which leads to our different thoughts and feelings. And that leads to B, which is the client's Belief about the event, and C, the emotional Consequence of that belief about the event.

So the idea is to help the client realize that the problem is not the A, the event itself that's happening, but rather B, their belief or interpretation of that event, which is causing them to have any kind of adverse reaction to it. And so the therapist's goal is to help them understand the underlying irrational thought patterns and beliefs-- which generally take the form of some kind of absolute, like I should, or I must do this, when I'm reacting to this kind of event-- then to challenge those kinds of irrational beliefs, and help them realize that this isn't the way that they should be thinking about the event. So they gain insight into the event, and then hopefully, they can recognize these patterns in irrational thought, so they can help to avoid these kinds of loops in the future. So this is one example of cognitive theory, and we'll develop a bit more about this in subsequent lessons.

Terms to Know

Therapist must respond to the client in a genuine way.

Client-Centered Therapy

Humanist therapy developed by Carl Rogers, emphasizes accepting one’s true self by exploring their growth potential. Based on four cores principles: empathy, authenticity, unconditional positive regard, and reflection.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy that emphasizes changing the client's internal mental processes by identifying and changing irrational beliefs.


Feeling with someone; attempting to understand the feelings of the client.

Humanistic Therapy

Style of therapy that is non-directive and focuses on the client’s growth; the client has free will.

Rational Emotive Therapy

Cognitive therapy that emphasizes changing the client's internal dialogue by focusing on the ABC's (activating event, beliefs, emotional consequence).


Therapist does not interpret the clients’ statements, but repeats them back for the client to hear and judge.


An approach to psychology that attempts to empower the individual to solve their own mental or behavioral problems.

Unconditional Positive Regard

A sense of caring that is not dependent on the client’s actions; respect and caring toward the client.