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Gendlin, E.T. (1992). Celebrations and problems of humanistic psychology. Humanistic Psychologist, 20 (2-3), 447-460. From

Celebrations and Problems of Humanistic Psychology

Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D.
University of Chicago

ABSTRACT: This paper celebrates the history and victories of Humanistic Psychology, and it also considers the tasks ahead, especially the problem that Humanistic Psychology may not be reproducing itself into the next generation.

I remember the day in the 1950's, when Abe Maslow had just presented his paper on Peak Experiences. As a young student, I came up afterwards to talk to him. I expressed my enthusiasm and admiration for what he had said. He responded by saying: "Isn't it a shame that this paper will never be published?" Surprised, I asked why not. He said "It can't be published. Nothing like it can be published." He explained that things like this did not fit the prejudices of all the journals and the whole field.

Here we celebrate how wrong his prediction was. The paper (1957) is now a classic, reprinted countless times. But whether we have changed the underlying conditions that so discouraged him, remains to be seen.

Humanistic Psychology began in a separate room and meeting-time just before the APA convention each year. In those years there were just enough such psychologists to fill one medium-sized room. The group eventually grew to put on its own convention, sometimes larger than the APA's—but still before APA and separate from it. Why always still separate? It is part of the problem I want to discuss. Humanistic Psychology and its experiential outlook are still very much separated from the rest of the field of psychology and psychotherapy.

I pressed into Maslow's hand the purple ditto of a paper of my own about something similar: times late in therapy when there is suddenly a clearer perception. The world seems poignant and sharply etched; it is as if the windows had just been washed—one sees the same things as before, but what a difference! I wrote that "at such times experience is vastly better than all the meanings in one's perceptual set."

It seemed to me (and it still does) that what really matters is not the content, and not the forms and definitions, but the manner and quality of the ongoing experiencing.

I got to know Abe Maslow later on, but others writing in this volume knew him better. Humanistic Psychology had many sources. I can add something about two of them: Carl Rogers, and Encounter Groups.

Carl Rogers

I was trained by Carl Rogers and his group (John Shlien, Jack Butler, Don Grummond and others). Then I worked closely with him for eleven years. Rogers thought that optimal health was the absence of blockage, the seamless functioning of every aspect of experience in relation to every other. During the fifties he wrote a paper on "The Fully Functioning Person." It was accepted for publication but then the editor insisted on adding a paragraph of his own in front, explaining his disagreement. Rogers withdrew the article. This and other experiences led me to begin a new journal, Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice in 1963. I published Rogers' paper in our first issue.

Rogers went against almost everything that seemed known in the field of therapy. He changed the role of the therapist. They were not to impose their interpretations. (Anyone can think of two or more interpretations of most any human thing.) No longer did "well" therapists look down on "sick" patients. The patient was no longer to be a passive object of "treatment." Rogers changed the very name of "patient" to "client." He eliminated the medical model and took the new term from the field of law. The lawyer is an expert and advocate but not a decision-maker concerning the client's life. Clients were invited to go deeply into their own experience. The therapist was to listen and share every nuance of the patient's experience. I will say more about how different it is to understand and accompany someone in this way. Rogers eliminated the couch. So unusual was this, that one textbook of those years devoted one its few pictures to a photograph of two people sitting across a desk from each other. It was a picture of Client-Centered Therapy! He eliminated diagnosis, the patient's history, note-taking, clinical distance, and all the old frost-bitten attitudes. A graduate from his program was a new kind of psychologist. Rogers made a completely fresh start. It took immense courage.

Early on I didn't know the field very well. I didn't know how entirely different Rogers' starting point was, and what a long-lasting barrier to communication this difference is in our field. I want to emphasize how drastically Rogers' basic assumptions differed from the usual assumptions. Most theories in our field assume that all reason and all values come to human beings from the outside, from society and culture. Animals have quite complex interactions with each other, but this is said to be due to (little understood) "instincts." Since human beings are supposed to lack those, all meanings and values must be imposed on us from outside. These are still the underlying assumptions that are built into most theoretical concepts.

Rogers assumed instead that a human being's organismic experience is an internal source of life-direction, of making sense, and of values.

It made for endless misunderstandings of Rogers: He emphasized listening, but why listen to confused clients? Didn't they come to therapy because there is something wrong with them? Rogers said that the value-direction develops from inside, but other therapists thought they could not proceed without deciding on some goal in advance.

I agreed with Rogers' assumptions, but I was a philosophy student. I had to articulate how and why those assumptions are right. I could not be satisfied with the mere assertion of a self-actualization "principle." I wanted to show it. Isn't every living organism "adaptive," and doesn't that mean that it holds itself together and maintains its living? If it did not, it would tend to disintegrate, I argued then, and now.

Or, take the positive social tendencies that Rogers saw in everyone. Those could sound like mere optimism. But a human being isn't possible except in interaction with others. If its living arises from inside, and its living is interaction, then of course it has "social" tendencies for interaction originating from inside. That is a very different sense of "social" than that all values and ways of living have to be imposed "by society" on the individual.

The Need for New Concepts

But to articulate our assumptions so that others can grasp them requires changing what we mean by all the main words. For example, if there is organismic knowing and internal evaluating, then the word "body" cannot any longer mean just a machine; it must mean something inherently interactional that projects its actions from inside. If the body is reconceived as inherently interaction, as consisting of ongoing living interaction, when such a body senses itself, of course it contains (it is) a lot of information about its situation. Our experiential knowing is not a mysterious reception of something from outside. We know the world not mainly through the five external senses, but much more basically through the body's self-sensing, because the body is interaction with its environment.

To redefine the words, to turn words from being obstacles to being bridges so that the new understanding from one area can enter and change other areas—that is precisely the function of theory. The practice of most therapists has changed greatly in our direction. The Humanistic movement has also been one factor in levening the whole society so that today it is immensely more open to direct experience than it was in those days. But Humanistic Psychology has not succeeded in communicating its theoretical and philosophical basics to the rest of psychology and to other intellectuals in the social sciences and other disciplines that promulgate the basic assumptions of the society. After fifty years the old assumptions are still built into most theoretical concepts in the social sciences (Gendlin, 1987)

The lack of theoretical and philosophical communication might be due to the fact that it takes a long time and many people to develop and communicate an entirely new vocabulary. There has been insufficient appreciation of the size of this task, and not enough attention and training for theory among us. Certainly it is a different kind of theory we need, one that brings and uses live experience along with the concepts (Gendlin, 1961, 1963, & 1992) In such a theory the concepts should not even make sense unless they also generate the relevant experiences in the reader.

It lies in the nature of the Humanistic approach that it depends first on experience, and only then on thinking further—from the experiences. Since experiential knowing comes first, we can live and work with that alone, so that theory can seem unnecessary. Is that why not so many Humanistic psychologists have gone on to develop theory? Perhaps that is one reason I have felt rather lonely in my theoretical work, whereas I have gotten a great deal of attention on focusing and the practice of therapy.

What Rogers discovered could be observed by anyone, he said, if one simply tried out responding to people with the reflective listening that he taught. He asked people to adopt his method only as an "operational hypothesis," as he phrased it. You didn't need to agree with him; you didn't need to believe these assumptions. You needed only to try out responding to someone by listening and saying back the crux of what that person intended to communicate. If you did just only this, you would soon find all the rest for yourself. That is so. If you only listen, if you impose nothing, then what people open before you is very intricate and very beautiful. It is also always new, unique, an intricate mesh of their livings and meanings. These are not on the surface. They lie always a few steps further in from the more tritely formed feelings and meanings that the person has mostly thought and felt. When this intricacy and these deeper meanings open, they are new and fresh not only the therapist, but also to the person.

A person says something; one responds by saying back its crux. The person hears it said back. It isn't quite what the person intended. The person corrects it. The therapist accepts the correction (of course, since it is the client's meaning that is to be grasped here). The client hears it. Yes, now that is mostly right, but there is still a little wrinkle that wasn't heard. That too is said, heard, and said back. Then the client says the next thing, and again it is said back and the saying-back is corrected, until the client feels heard. There may be another message and another, but quite soon that flow ends. Now it seems there is no more to say. A silence comes.

What the client had there, waiting to be said, has now been said. Where that had lain, stuck, waiting, trying to be said, there is now a space. Of course there is more to say; the problem is not solved. One, feels the unresolved discomfort, but there are no ready words, no items from the problem ready and waiting. The client feels (knows. has, is,) the inner silent edge of more.

From silently attending to that edge, the next thing to say will arise. It is into this space that the next thing rises—something from deeper, something that the person never heard or felt before. As step after step comes from the depths, one discovers one's own intricacy, one's own errors and one's own good sense. Without this process it is obvious that people remain mostly unknown to themselves—and certainly to us.. "Are you angry to cover up the fear? Or are you afraid of the anger because it seems so big? Or how is it?" Without going inside to that edge, without actually finding it so or so, or more intricate yet, how can we possibly find out? Once we have seen this process of steps from the edge, how could we possibly want to impose some set of simplistic generality-concepts and judgments on a person instead?

When one of my early clients, a Lesbian woman, terminated after two years of very successful therapy, she kissed me on the cheek and said something about how unusual it was to find someone who could understand and not misconstrue a Lesbian person. At the time that did not seem special to me because I did not think of it in terms of prejudices toward a specific group. Rogers' training had made it obvious to me that I knew very little about any other person's sexuality and life-meanings, unless they explored it from inside. To do therapy I have to let any next person teach me their intricate mesh, their world, their step-by-step revelation of how it is. That seemed just obvious to me (and it still does). Isn't it obvious?

Someone trained by Rogers needed no special insight or ideology to listen and try to follow a gay person, or a member of any other special group, because it was obvious that every individual must teach the therapist. And no person's inner life can be known, not even by the people themselves, without entering into those little steps that come from the depth, from that edge where at first one doesn't know how to go on. It seems so obvious, that it has taken me many years to recognize how missing this insight still is in most of our field.

Reflective listening was promulgated as an easily-learned technique, and as a complete method of therapy, all one needs. A deep therapy process does indeed arise just from active listening, when genuine. But it isn't a complete method alone.

More than half the clients did not know where in themselves they could find organismic knowing and internal evaluating. Fred Zimring and I collected what we called "dimensions of experiencing" (Gendlin and Zimring, 1955), which became Rogers' "Process Scale" and later the "Experiencing Scale" (Psychiatric Institute, University of Wisconsin). These scales led to the finding that the successful clients were able to contact experiencing directly already at the start of therapy, while those with failure outcomes never achieved it. Since therapy did not show clients how to contact organismic experiencing in themselves, I developed what we now call "Focusing:" a systematic teachable way to help people discover this in themselves (Gendlin, 1981).

Most therapists quite rightly use not only listening and focusing, but also every other helpful kind of response. (Whatever else one does, one should quickly listen again right afterwards.) It is not as an exclusive method that I feature it here. Rather, it is a door to the Humanistic basics—not as beliefs to have in advance—but as direct happenings which we can then think further about. Let us think a little further about those happenings now.

By saying-back one keeps a person company with each step, and with the silences between so that next steps can come. It is not up to the therapist to decide whether the client's feelings and perceptions are valid. Rather, their validity rests on the inner discovery that each little step that comes is meaningful. With such steps something stirs and comes alive in the client, more and more. After a string of such steps early in therapy, one client, inwardly moved, felt the tears coming as she said: "Oh.... I do make sense."

There is also a gradually discovered honesty and sincerity that comes there. The worst experiences feel richer and better than blocking and fearful pretense. One can breathe and feel continuous inside. Truth comes to be valued very directly, strange as that assertion might seem in general. The client says: "That is how it is—whew, (breath, relief)—that feels true; it's straight; it's clean."

Inside every human body is an "I" who looks at you from behind the eyes. That "I" struggles with all the stuff of life, struggles to find something of value, and it wants to expand into caring for others. If we have any other project, other than to serve that "I" in there, what could such an other project be? To sell the person a car? To get them to join some ideological group to which we belong? To shape them to fit some social performance? Sometimes we want those things but not if it is therapy. For therapy I cannot imagine any other project than to see that "I" in there, to respond to that "I", to keep that person company, to follow each of that person's efforts to make/find something positive that is continuous from inside. And indeed, if that inner edge and the little steps are pursued, what is continuous from inside always turns out to be deeply positive, even if it begins as a shoddy project.

We need to show our colleagues this "I," this edge, the steps from inside, and this inner intricacy. We cannot do it in terms of the current concepts of mechanical bodies and socially constructed persons. But we can re-conceive the basic concepts of nature and living bodies. I did some of this (Gendlin, 1962, 1973, 1979, 1991, & 1992). We can use a new new kind of concept to think about truer and wider observations of the human person.

Encounter Groups

The Encounter Group Movement went beyond therapy and did much to bring all this into the fabric of society. I observed some of the history of this movement.

Experiments in group process were pioneered for many years in at the National Training Laboratories (NTL) at Bethel, Maine, and at Tavistock in England. Certain seeming "laws" of group process had been discovered there. Some of those still held when we conducted groups with our new assumptions and attitudes; others did not. With our new approach a very different and quite explosive group process arose.

In Wisconsin between 1959 and 1962, I and some others went to various towns in the State, and offered something odd, and at that time quite undefined: a group whose membership was quite open and which continued for many hours or days. The excitement generated by it was sometimes reported in the newspapers. We had created/discovered the Encounter Group. Later I found that many others had been doing the same sort of thing at about the same time all over the country.

The Encounter Movement and all that led to it undoubtedly changed our society. Today one hears ordinary people talk of interior experience and inter-personal relations in ways that only psychologists and clients near the end of therapy ever talked of before. Multitudes of people came to be in touch with feelings, who had never known what that was like. It has made many other changes possible.

The Need for New Institutions

After some years we all noticed that such groups had no real way to continue: It is now well known that each new group goes through an explosive discovery of inward richness. People find that their inward experience is not at all only what the common categories and shared phrases say. It is vastly more, very much their own from inside, and it opens a new world of human complexity. After that, one wants and needs to live differently. But now what?

The Encounter Group Movement slowed and died around our failure to build social institutional patterns in which one could continue to live in and with this new world of inner human complexity. People would come to each subsequent group hoping to continue the intensity of the previous time. They needed to live some more at the level of intensity they developed in another group the previous weekend. Instead, with new people one had to begin afresh. People came again and again seeking some sort of continuation, a new life, now that this inner break-through had occurred. But each group would start again at the beginning. Some people—those new to the process—would have the usual break-through. But those who had often had this already could only pretend to be doing it now. After many such efforts they were frustrated.

The Encounter Group Movement fed on ever new people, but it developed no continuation, no patterns of meeting or association that could become part of the social fabric.

In those years I was (and still am) full of half-shaped ideas for new social institutions in which one could live with and after this now well-known break-through to one's inner intricacy. How could institutions change so as to give room to intricate personal experience, even give it an essential role in our routines? Marriage and women's patterns have changed in this way, but business, schools, and hospitals have not. Business wants your experiential openness for creativity, but only within the limits of hierarchical control. Doctors treat your leg and ignore the fact that you are attached to it. This year there is a two million dollar project in one hospital to find out if healing proceeds better when patients have the right to make themselves a cup of coffee! Innovations arise, but they are soon suppressed. Experimental wings in mental hospitals last about a year. Innovative schools such as the universities without walls find that their graduates are rejected by the licensing boards. I will have more to say about licensing. Let me first mention our own institutional innovations.

In 1967 we developed CHANGES, a group that has continued now for some twenty five years and has numerous branches. People engage in any helpful psychological process we know, or any that someone present can teach us. Ongoing training in these processes enables them to be engaged in successfully by anyone that comes. While other networks practice only one skill, we welcome them all. CHANGES also rests on two organizational discoveries we made early on, concerning the destructive kind of group process.

It is vital that the business meeting happen in a different room and at a different time than our main content which are the personal processes. With this separation a small motivated group very smoothly does all the business of the organization. Others are welcome to join the business meetings but do not usually do so unless they have something special to take up. In this way the kind of group process that has torn up most experientially open organizations does not arise.

The other innovation is that in our main personal meeting there is only support. We do not engage in the mutually hurtful kind of group process in which people dump raw emotions on each other. In another room two people in conflict may get a neutral person to listen slowly first to one person and then the other. Some conflicts stay unresolved but the group-space is always safe. There is always someone who undertakes to listen carefully and reflectively to anyone who is not being heard by the group. We listen to individuals one at a time.

Very recently we have again become interested in group process, but we are learning how many preconditions must be in place before a positive group process can happen.

Later on we developed PARTNERSHIP (two people splitting time in half, taking turns being client and listener). During CHANGES meetings this happened all the time, but now we are arranging a more or less regular partner for everyone, quite apart from any meetings. Partners divide two hours or whatever time they have. In one's own time one does whatever one feels might be helpful. To make this possible, one teaches any skill one knows to the partner. Listening, focusing, and other psychological processes are usual, but one might want to show one's partner photographs or talk about any topic. No one tells us how to use our own time.

These two social-institutional patterns have gone far enough and lasted long enough to be hopeful today. Both were built around listening and focusing, but they have always included every other helpful method and way of working that any one of the participants can bring in (Gendlin, 1981 and 1987). The Focusing Institute in Chicago has more information on both.

The lack of new social patterns clouds the future of Humanistic Psychology today. Along with its lack of theory to communicate with the wider intellectual community,, the lack of embodiment in the social institutions is a second strand of the problem we face.

The Lack of Humanistic Training Settings

If by "Humanistic" we mean third-camp therapists (neither psychoanalytic nor behaviorist) then we are now 80 or 90 percent of all psychotherapists in the country. Of course there are many narrower definitions, but we had a lot to do with the size of the third camp, and that is surely something to celebrate on our anniversary.

On the other hand, younger graduates now tend to be more rigid. Third-camp attitudes are not what clinical programs teach. There are very few humanistically oriented training and internship settings. Humanistic psychologists seem not to have wanted to organize and build. We need to know and help expand those training settings that do exist, and to set up many more where we can.

Currently, most clinical students who are humanistically inclined must endure training programs that are inimical to their basic commitments. They live as underground persons. Many do not last until graduation. The more humanly sensitive their attitudes, the less are they likely to last. They have no problem mastering all the irrelevant material. They can also learn much from the psychoanalytic and behavioral approaches. The problem consists in the attitudes inherent in most training programs. Usually it is dangerous to show one's feelings (one can be thrown out for being "unstable"). Clinical distance is required. Human beings are treated as subjects upon whom the student is required to impose alien patterns. Few can pretend to be doing this well. The sort of student who would become a Humanistic psychologist, if admitted at all, now frequently drops out.

We Are Not Reproducing Ourselves

Training is the main way for a group of professionals to reproduce their type into the next generation. Since so much official training is designed by others with an inimical outlook, it is doubtful whether Humanistic Psychology can continue into future generations. The-relative lack of official training programs is the third strand of the problem to which I am pointing.

Innovation and Diversity in Therapy is Being Made Illegal

There is now also a new trend which drastically changes the conditions for practicing that obtained until now. I mean the licensing of psychotherapists. Already in many states, new laws prohibit new discoveries and new attitudes in clinical training. Psychology, social work, counseling, and family practice are being legally required to rigidify their training and limit it to the old contents and the old attitudes that are embodied in those contents. I experience it most painfully when I participate in discussing and redesigning clinical programs. Years ago we argued about what would best train a therapist. Today the discussion begins with the requirements for licensing, and they are the main concern at every turn. If our program does not look orthodox, our graduates won't be allowed to practice.

The State licensing board requires a long list of traditional psychology-contents, and does not specify how much of each it wants. Could three courses cover all those topics, or will they want to see a course in each? That would leave no open slots at all. We sit down to design a new program, but we find that we can design only two or three electives. Almost the whole program must consist of the old (largely irrelevant) content of orthodox psychology. The whole therapy literature must be covered in one survey course. Anything more, and certainly any innovative training increases the risk that our graduates won't be legally permitted to practice.

I served on the Licensing Board of my State for some years, and fought hard for specificity. How many courses for this old irrelevant stuff? Five? Seven? Nine? But such a board likes its undefined power to approve or disapprove programs. Since the number of years they can be on the Board is also unlimited, they become identified with its power.

They do sincerely attempt to be neutral as to orientation. If Humanistic Psychology could formulate itself, then—in principle—its requirements could be included. In principle, but not actually, because: What would our course-requirements be? We would want to include a philosophical capacity to question established concepts and to formulate new ones. We would include discussions of therapy attitudes and issues, as well as literature, poetry, and other creations of sensitive people. We would lead students to practice and come to know therapeutic processes inside themselves, and to become more sensitive people. Many clients are already more sensitive and well-suffered than their therapists. It is absurd that the law will require therapists to be boorish about the human spirit, personally defended, hidden, unknown to themselves, legally forced to treat people entirely in terms of mechanistic attitudes and diagnostic vocabularies (which, moreover don't stand up to simple research). But the courses we would want would not be recognized as psychology by my Board.

But something even more important is being outlawed, something we cannot yet even see and may never see. It is what innovative psychologists of any kind would discover and formulate in future years (which my Board would then perhaps respect and accept), which will never emerge and will never be formulated, because the field of psychotherapy will have become uniform, and will march off as a humanly uneducated profession, as so many other specialized fields have already become. Then new approaches cannot be promulgated. We won't get the chance to formulate a more specific humanistic vocabulary relevant to our practice.

Of course there should be sanctions against unethical practices, and that is a proper sphere for law. We need simple laws against unethical practices, not a straightjacket for everyone. And even if everyone must be licensed, one need not mix educational requirements into ethical sanctions. The frequency of unethical practice is the same at the Ph.D. and M.A. levels. It is not a reason to give control of the whole of our education over to a government body.

Behind this licensing is the irresistible force of money. Insurance payments are now essential to most of our clients. Psychiatry is fighting to get a slice of every reimbursement. Psychologists want to be strong and look strong in this battle with psychiatrists. Those concerned with this battle have little time to think about our need for innovative service and education. If we could get them to think about it, these needs would not be hard to reconcile. We can at least demand a limit on the number of courses of which the law determines the content. That would leave the rest of a program free.

In a democracy it seems hardly right to determine everyone's education by the judgment of six or seven government appointees. Indeed it is probably unconstitutional. Court challenges are coming. But courts feel that they must leave education to the professionals in each field. So long as licensing laws are uniformly the wish of the APA, and so long as the APA is nearly the only official voice in the field, court challenges to licensing must fail. We can hope to stop the trend only if we can organize a group within APA to defend educational diversity and innovation, and to show that professionals are not of one mind on this. Then the court would overturn these laws.

The trend is not only toward licensing but far worse: toward outlawing unlicensed practitioners altogether. That is what the APA vociferously advocates in every state. Such a law which makes even unpaid clinical practices illegal without the license did already pass both state houses in Illinois. It was stopped only by our Governor's veto.

In the future, people like Rogers and Maslow will not be able to train psychologists in a new way, because the law will prohibit such graduates from practicing. That is a great change in our field. If it is not reversed, the continuation of Humanistic Psychology is doubtful.

We need to appreciate how much we have achieved, and that at the moment we are still in a good position to safeguard the future.


Gendlin, E. T. and Zimring, F. (1955). The qualities or dimensions of experiencing, and their change. Counseling Center Discussion Papers. Chicago: University of Chicago Library.

Gendlin, E. T. (1962). Experiencing and the creation of meaning. New York: The Free Press, Macmillan.

Gendlin, E. T. (1973). Experiential phenomenology. In M. Natanson (Ed.), Phenomenology and the social sciences. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Gendlin, E. T. (1979). A process model. Unpublished manuscript.

Gendlin, E. T. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.

Gendlin, E. T. (1987). A Philosophical critique of the concept of narcissism. In D. M. Levin, (Ed.), Pathologies of the modern self. New York: NYU Press.

Gendlin, E. T. (1987). Partnerships. Focusing Folio (Vol. No. 6, 2).

Gendlin, E. T. (1990). On emotion in therapy. Focusing Folio (Vol. 9, 1). Also in: Safran, J. D. and Greenberg, L. S., (Eds.), (1991). Emotions, Psychotherapy, and Change. New York: Guilford.

Gendlin, E. T. (1992). Thinking beyond patterns: Body, language, and situations. In B. den Ouden & M. Moen (Eds.), The presence of feeling in thought. New York: Peter Lang.

Maslow, A. H. (1957). Cognition of being in the peak experience. Counseling Center Discussion Papers. Chicago: University of Chicago Library. (Rogers "published" the paper for our group.)

Rogers, C. R. (1958). A tentative scale for the measurement of process in psychotherapy. In E. Rubinstein & M. Parloff (Eds.), Research in Psychotherapy. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

Rogers, C. R. (1963). The concept of the fully functioning person. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 1 (1).

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