Existential vs. Humanistic Theories: Comparing Two Major Theories in Psychotherapy

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  • 0:07 Humanistic and…
  • 1:28 Similarities
  • 3:52 Differences
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

The humanistic and existential theories of psychology are often confused. In this lesson, we'll look at the similarities of and differences between the two theories and their related therapies.

Humanistic & Existential Theories

Amelia has a problem. She can't make any decisions. She has a great fiancé who loves her very much, but she's so terrified that she's making the wrong choice that she keeps fantasizing about running off and leaving him at the altar. She loves him, but her fear is holding her back.

On the surface, everything looks good for Amelia: she's in love with someone who loves her back, and they're engaged to be married. She's young and has her whole life in front of her. So what's causing Amelia's fears? And more importantly, how can she get past them to live a happy life?

There are many approaches to abnormal psychology and many ways to view Amelia's problem. Some people might say that Amelia has a chemical imbalance in her brain that's causing her anxiety. Some would say that she has a problem with her subconscious.

Two theories that are often confused in psychology are humanistic and existential theories of psychology. The humanistic theory of psychology says that humans are constantly striving to become the best version of themselves that they can be. The existential theory of psychology says that humans are searching for the meaning of life. Let's look closer at the similarities and differences in the humanistic and existential theories and treatments in psychology.


As we mentioned, humanistic psychology says that people strive to be the best versions of themselves, while existential psychology says that people are searching for the meaning of life. They are very similar, though, in the way that people achieve those ends - through personal responsibility and free will. Essentially, both humanistic and existential psychologists value the ability of humans to make their own choices and lead their own lives.

So imagine that you're a psychologist and Amelia comes to see you. She's scared and feeling very anxious, even though she's deeply in love with her fiancé. Whether you are a humanistic or existential psychologist, you're likely to work hard to help Amelia see that she's got the opportunity to make her own decisions and follow her own path. Maybe that means that Amelia decides to leave her fiancé. Or maybe it means that she's able to walk down the aisle calmly, knowing that she's making a choice and not just being swept away by the current of her life.

A large part of therapy for both existential and humanistic psychologists involves looking at the individual experiences and views of the patient. From the outside, Amelia looks like she has it all: she's young, she's healthy, and she and her fiancé are very much in love.

But Amelia herself is feeling scared and anxious and isn't sure whether she wants to marry her fiancé or not. At the end of the day, what matters is Amelia's perspective, not anyone else's. As such, humanistic and existential psychologists place a very high importance on the individual's experiences and subjective view.

One final similarity between the existential and humanistic theories is that they both stress the positive sides of human nature. Many theories of psychology focus on what's lacking in the individual: this person has a chemical imbalance, which means he lacks some element in his brain; that person is guided by unresolved issues in her subconscious.

But existential and humanistic psychology views people as whole and complete. It does not look at Amelia, for example, and say that her problems are because she's a weak, incomplete person. Instead, they look at Amelia as a person with great positive potential, and therapy is meant to help her realize that potential.


Despite the similarities, though, there are some key differences in humanistic and existential psychology. The biggest difference lies in the underlying view of human nature. The humanistic theory of psychology assumes that people are good and that society causes them to do bad or evil things. For example, humanistic psychology sees Amelia as a good person without any evil in her. But because of the pressures of society, perhaps Amelia has an affair with a man other than her fiancé. It's not that she's evil; it's that society has acted on her, and she reacted.

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