Toward a deep diversity in humanistic psychology: Facing our challenges, embracing our opportunities
By Louis Hoffman, PhD
I feel a bit of an odd reverence in writing my first newsletter column as president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology (SHP). Coming from mainstream psychology by education, I discovered existential and humanistic psychology just a little over 12 years ago. As I began voraciously reading Rollo May, Victor Frankl, Irvin Yalom and others, it immediately felt like home. For many years, my only colleagues in existential psychology were the books I had read and the students I was teaching who were drawn to existential psychology. I knew that existential and humanistic psychology felt like home, but it also felt like a very lonely place.
In August, when last year’s president David Elkins passed me the oil can entrusted each year to the SHP president, I was humbled and excited to hold this precious symbol. I have looked through the names many times since, proud to be part of this historic lineage. Many of the names on this can were the same names on the books that were my only colleagues when I first began joining humanistic psychology.
Just over 6 years ago, I began developing my first colleagues and friends in humanistic psychology through my involvement with SHP. In my career thus far, nothing has had as much of a positive impact on my professional development and career opportunities as becoming involved with SHP. It is also a place where I have developed some of the deepest and most important friendships in my life. When I was first asked if I would be open to being nominated for president of SHP, I was hesitant. Yet, when I reflect upon what SHP has meant in my life, there was no hesitation. It is a blessing to serve and give back to an organization that has given so much to me.
The oddity in reverence
Yet, I said that it was an “odd reverence” in writing my first newsletter column as president. Given what SHP has meant to me, why is it odd? The first humanistic conference I attended I brought with me about 10 graduate students who were becoming very excited about existential and humanistic psychology. The conference was a wonderful experience, but at the end, several noted to me that nearly all the presenters were older, White males. Disappointed in this, many of these students questioned whether humanistic psychology could be the right fit for them.
Not long after this experience at the humanistic conference, I had a conversation with a Latina colleague who began her career in humanistic psychology. She told me that the more involved she became, the more she questioned whether there was really a place for her in humanistic psychology. It did not speak to her interests in diversity or identity as a Latina and, furthermore, did not seem to make a place for her to speak about these.
Prior to these experiences, I had begun teaching and writing on diversity issues in humanistic psychology, but these experiences helped me recognized how much humanistic psychology needed diversity. As I began presenting more on the need for diversity in humanistic psychology and advocating for it, I encountered resistance. It was not uncommon for me to have people asking angry questions, cornering me after presentations expressing their frustration with me for speaking on this topic, or even sending me angry emails about my presentations. The common message in these encounters was always, “We don’t need to talk about this.” Others were concerned that I was stirring up unnecessary tension or trying to change humanistic psychology.
What finally helped me overcome my hesitancy about running for president was the recognition that I would have the opportunity to focus on addressing issues of diversity through this role. Thus, my first item of business as president was to appoint a diversity task force. The oddity in my reverence is that I ran with a deep love and commitment to SHP and humanistic psychology, but with the intention to change it.
Diversity and language: What does it mean?
One of my biggest struggles with diversity is language. There are many sensitivities and controversies about language. I have been involved in what seems like countless discussions about what language should be used relevant to diversity in papers, titles, advertising and so many other settings. As I have moved around the country, I have found regional differences on preferences and sensitivities with language as well as hearing various experts provide different opinions. These debates include what descriptors are most appropriate (i.e., African American or Black, multiculturalism or diversity, etc.) as well as what is meant by diversity itself. Language, indeed, is very important. Unfortunately, the fear of the language has led many to become afraid of engaging in the discussion lest they use the “wrong language” and be criticized for it.
Language can be so inclusive as to water down diversity, or so narrow to exclude important aspects of diversity. For example, I have seen affirmation of the diversity of thought as sufficient to address the need for diversity. This is often used to justify the lack of cultural diversity in organizations. At other times, I have seen diversity defined narrowly by race or ethnicity, which does not address disability, gender, sexual orientation, religious diversity, or many other important forms of diversity. One of the challenges with language is to balance being inclusive enough to encompass various forms of diversity while not be so inclusive that diversity becomes almost meaningless.
My concern with diversity began with the recognition, pointed out to me largely by students, that most of the conference attendees, presenters, authors, award recipients and elected leaders of humanistic psychology were White males. However, as I hope this article demonstrates, I am concerned about much more than demographics. I am not advocating that humanistic psychology needs to become more diverse because it looks better, but rather because of what diversity can offer humanistic psychology. Additionally, I am confident that if humanistic psychology can actualize its valuing of diversity, it will have much to offer diversity scholarship and initiatives. As humanistic psychology becomes more diverse it will be forced to confront some basic assumptions that may not fit with various cultural backgrounds. Hopefully this will lead to change in humanistic psychology, including change as deep as some of our core values or how we interpret them. Yet, as Lu Xun (1925/1961) stated, “a people not able to reform will not be able to preserve its old culture either” (p. 138).
Common humanistic microaggressions
Nathaniel Granger has become an important leading voice on diversity in humanistic psychology. He addresses microaggressions, which can be understood as subtle, often unintentional racial slights or forms of racism (see Granger’s article in this issue). Microaggressions can also be intentional and direct, but typically contain some ambiguity leaving the individual unclear whether the statement, attitude, or behavior really was racist. I think it is important for humanistic psychology to consider if there are some uniquely humanistic microaggressions, or microaggressions common in the humanistic psychology community.
I maintain that there are some common microaggressions in humanistic psychology. In stating this, it is important to emphasize that microaggressions are often unintentional and can come from people with the best of intentions. While it is important to increase our awareness of the racial microaggressions, we ought not be too harsh on ourselves or others who occasionally engage in these, especially if they are of the unintentional variety. Yet, let me suggest a few microaggressions that are common in humanistic psychology:
- The belief that we adequately address diversity, thus do not need to discuss this issue.
- Discounting collectivism and the experience of those from collectivist cultures through our excessive focus and assumptions toward individualism.
- Not recognizing the contributions from the multicultural literature relevant to, or even parallel to, humanistic psychology. Theopia Jackson, in her presentation on collectivism at the 2012 Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference, delineated the similar history and many shared ideas between the Association of Black Psychologists and Humanistic Psychology. Yet, humanistic psychology has been referenced in the multicultural literature much more than the multicultural literature has been referenced by humanistic psychology.
These are just three of what I suggest are common microaggressions perpetuated in humanistic psychology. If we want to truly address diversity issues in humanistic psychology, we need to take an honest look for other common micoraggressions and work to correct these.
Indigenous psychology: A success
Although I have been hard in my critique of humanistic psychology at points in this article, it is not to discount many positives regarding humanistic psychology and diversity. One of the great successes of humanistic psychology and diversity is the Task Force on Indigenous Psychology begun by Louise Sundararajan during her year as president of SHP. This group has grown to be inclusive of many leading scholars on indigenous psychology from around the world. This task force has played an essential role in making humanistic psychology global in a culturally sensitive way.
Similarly, Kirk Schneider’s book "Existential Integrative Psychotherapy: Guideposts for the Core of Practice," included six chapters that explicitly integrated diversity into an existential integrative approach. The annual conference of the Society for Humanistic Psychology has increasingly featured diversity as a central theme of the conferences while being intentional about increasing diversity among the presenters. There is an increasing international dialogue about existential and humanistic psychology in various parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.
Humanistic psychology ought to be proud of what it has accomplished, but not rest contently with what has been done.
Deep diversity and humanistic psychology: An opportunity
As noted above, it is important that our commitment to diversity within humanistic psychology is more than about numbers. It is common for organizations to seek to improve diversity in demographics but not make the environment more hospitable for, or open to, diverse ways of being, knowing, and expressing oneself. Scott Churchill (2012) has been a powerful advocate for the need for epistemological diversity as part of the cultural diversity conversation. To become more diverse in numbers without being open to epistemological diversity does not address the deeper problem.
To illustrate, humanistic psychology has long been in dialogue with many varieties of Eastern thought. This is a natural convergence given the many similarities in values and epistemologies. However, this dialogue has too often avoided some of the more challenging issues, such as individualism and collectivism. Collectivism has implications beyond just our social relationships, but also our ways of knowing and ways of being. If humanistic psychology only focuses on the points of convergence with Eastern thought without addressing the points of conflict, it is not really embracing diversity at a deep level.
Humanistic psychology has looked for value in various forms of expression, yet still privileges certain forms of communicating. For example, humanistic psychology has often looked to the humanities, myth, and the arts as important contributions to understanding what it means to be human. To do this seriously, we must remain cognizant that various forms of professional expression should be given equal value. Within some cultural groups, practice-based communication (i.e., clinical practice, social activism, training, etc.) is given greater value in comparison to traditional scholarship of the peer-reviewed books and journal articles. Similarly, collectivist cultures may place greater emphasis on the collective ownership of ideas as opposed to individual ownership, therefore may give greater appreciation for multiple authored works as opposed valuing the first author or solo authored works. If we truly value diversity, we should advocate for considering these contributions equal to traditional scholarship when considering fellow status, awards, faculty rank, tenure and other recognition of accomplishment.
Similarly, humanistic psychology should recognize different styles of scholarship. For instance, African American culture often places a higher value on the oral tradition, which does not always translate well into the typical format or style expected for journal articles or conference presentations. If we are to embrace diversity, we must also be willing to push our comfort zones in presentation styles and format in our scholarship.
Many of the struggles identified in this section are struggles well beyond humanistic psychology; they are also problems with the broader academy and mainstream psychology. Humanistic psychology, by addressing these issues, can become a leader in new frontiers of diversity. We are particularly well poised to do this with the issue of epistemological diversity, as various humanistic scholars have been advocating for this for some time. Yet, we need to make clear the connection between epistemological and other forms of diversity, and we cannot allow for the embracing of epistemological diversity to ever be an excuse to not address other forms of diversity.
Appointment of SHP’s Diversity Task Force
As noted earlier, my first task as president of SHP included the appointment of a Diversity Task Force that can help advance humanistic psychology. Three important leaders in diversity, particularly within humanistic psychology, have agreed to co-chair the task force: Nathaniel Granger, Theopia Jackson, and David St. John. The other committee members include Abraham Lopez, Demetrius Ford, Shelly Harrell, Heatherlyn Hoffman, Jake Glazier, Mark Yang, and Sara Bridges. I hope the SHP membership will feel open to sharing its thoughts on diversity with this task force as well as remaining open to what we, as a humanistic community, can learn from them.
In this article, I have done my best to provide a brief critique of humanistic psychology and diversity while, at the same time, providing a vision for how humanistic psychology can become leading force in diversity. Certainly, this vision needs to be further shaped through dialogue with people who have much greater expertise than I do on many of these issues. I am confident in the abilities of the diversity task force to take on this task. Yet, if we can face our challenges and embrace our opportunities we can advance an important agenda to transform humanistic psychology while enabling it to become a strong advocate for a deep diversity throughout the field of psychology and the academy at large.
Churchill, S. (2012). Humanistic psychology and STEM disciplines: Strange bedfellows? The Humanistic Psychologist, 40, 221-223.
Granger, N., Jr., (2012, September). Microaggressions and their effects on the therapeutic process. Society for Humanistic Psychology Newsletter.
Lu Xun (1961). Sudden notions. In Y. Xianyi & G. Yang (Eds. & Trans.) Lu Xun Selected Works (Vol. 1). Beijing, China: Foreign Language Press. (Original work published in 1925)
Schneider, K. J. (Ed.) (2009). Existential-integrative psychotherapy: Guideposts to the core of practice. New York, NY: Routledge.