Creating diversity in the home of humanistic psychology

The president-elect of Division 32 discusses how humanistic psychology's general stance in regard to diversity has evolved over the past several years

By Louis Hoffman, PhD

Humanistic psychology's general stance in regard to diversity has evolved over the past several years. When I first began submitting papers on diversity it was common for me to receive a response indicating that humanistic psychology did not need to address this issue. The rationale was largely twofold. First, it was purported that humanistic psychology had always valued diversity, so this was a problem or issue that did not need to be addressed. Second, it was noted that because humanistic psychology looked at the individual experience, it would naturally deal with each individual's own experience relevant to diversity, thus not needing to address diversity issues through other mediums. Yet, humanistic psychology remained notably lacking in diversity. The question remained that if humanistic psychology was so good at diversity, why were diverse individuals not drawn to humanistic psychology?

Given the evident need, bringing diversity to humanistic psychology, despite the resistance, became a passion for a number of people, including Brent Robbins, Nathaniel Granger and myself. Gradually, this effort has begun to evidence some progress. At the Second Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference there was one presentation on diversity. Expecting a crowd, it was placed in the largest of the breakout rooms, yet it yielded a crowd of less than ten people. The next year, with intentional work to promote diversity, another symposium on diversity was planned and drew one of the largest crowds of the conference. Each subsequent year witnessed an increasing number of presentations and posters on diversity to larger crowds with increased enthusiasm.

Despite the success, many challenges remained. It was common for others and myself to encounter strong resistance when presenting about diversity and, at times, I received some very angry comments, questions, and Emails following presentations from people who felt we should not be talking about this topic. Additionally, many of the presentations focused on the need for diversity, but did not always engage diversity issues on a level of great depth. Yet, there was a growing recognition of the need to engage diversity issues in humanistic psychology.

At the Society for Humanistic Psychology conference in Pittsburgh earlier in 2012 there seemed to be a transition to the next level of development. A significant portion of the programming focused on diversity and the presentations began engaging in diversity with greater depth. For instance, a presentation examining individualism and collectivism challenged humanistic psychology's tendency to be biased toward individualism while neglecting the collectivist, social, and community needs and ways of being. This included a discussion of implications for theory development and clinical practice.

A highlight of the 2012 conference for many was programming that focused on the relevance of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy for humanistic psychology. Nathaniel Granger gave a powerful enactment of the "I Have a Dream" speech that drew a standing ovation and left many in tears. In another symposium Granger chaired on African Americans in humanistic psychology, he was asked what humanistic psychology could do to become more diverse. In his answer, he stated that it was well and good to invite him and others to speak at our conference, shake his hand, and talk about theory and practice; however, if we wanted him to become a part of humanistic psychology, we ought to invite him to our home.

As is hopefully evident, Granger was not looking for dinner invitations, but he was also not speaking to a superficial metaphor of home being just where we come together. He was using this metaphor to represent the type of interactions and, more importantly, the types of relationships we need to build in order to create a home for diversity in humanistic psychology. Many attempts to become more diverse result in tokenism: inviting people of color to be part of our community out of concern for generating the appearance of being more diverse. This approach to becoming diverse, even though sometimes utilized by people with good intentions, frequently causes more harm than benefit. 

The home Granger was speaking to is a metaphoric home that signifies a relationship of deep respect and mutuality. When you invite someone in your home, you are opening yourself up to your guest. If humanistic psychology wants to become more diverse, we need to truly value diversity and the people that represent diversity. Furthermore, if humanistic psychology wants to become more diverse, we must open ourselves up to being deeply impacted by the guests who are being invited to become part of our community, and part of our home.

This point of opening oneself up to being impacted by diversity is where resistance is often encountered. There is always risk for preciously held beliefs when one opens oneself, or one’s group, to someone representing difference. What happens if, as we become more diverse and engage on issues of diversity on a deeper level, one of our core values or the interpretation of it is challenged? Do we cling to our values, or do we open ourselves to consider change?

Personally, this is was part of my story in becoming interested in individualism and collectivism. I grew up in a German, stoic culture heavily rooted in individualism. After marrying a woman from a collectivist culture, I became increasingly aware of my individualism. However, when I started traveling regularly to China, my individualism really began to show. Many of my favorite presentations and lectures strongly challenged conformity and implicitly promoted individualism on many levels. Although intellectually interested in collectivism and what it meant for psychology and psychotherapy, I remained personally resistant. I wanted to find a way to intellectually reconcile these discrepancies instead of engaging them on a deeper level that might challenge my own comfortable individualism. It did not feel comfortable to me. Yet, I realized that if I wanted to be a culturally sensitive therapist and teacher, I needed to give greater consideration to this issue.

Over time, it was the not the intellectual reconciliation of individualism and collectivism that mattered, but the personal and emotional. I could not avoid embracing this challenge on a deeper level, and it led to greater recognition of the implications for theory and practice.

Another resistance, of sorts, of humanistic psychology when discussing diversity is focusing on what we can offer diversity, not recognizing what diversity will teach us. Enmeshed in this resistance are power issues in which we cling to a status of superiority, wanting to change those who represent various forms of diversity while remaining closed to considering any change of our own. This stands in opposition to basic humanistic values of dialogue and exchange. It is imperative that we accept that humanistic psychology will change, and must change, if we are going to become diverse beyond the surface level.

Humanistic psychology will change if it is not just our conferences that become more diversity, but our home.

This is my hope for the future of humanistic psychology. I am thankful for the work that has been done. I am grateful to Kirk Schneider, whose book Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy provided some of the first efforts to invite diverse perspectives on existential therapy. I am appreciative of the work of Brent Robbins in creating space and developing programming at our annual conference that focus on diversity. I am deeply thankful for the many voices who pioneered diversity presentations at our conferences and programming at APA conventions, even when this was not a popular topic. It is noteworthy, too, that many of these voices were students who demonstrated that they were true leaders and visionaries of the future of humanistic psychology. And I am excited about the emergence of Nathaniel Granger, Theopia Jackson, Mark Yang, Sara Bridges, and many others who bring a fresh perspective and exciting leadership to diversity initiatives in humanistic psychology.

In closing, I want to share a few thoughts about the future. I am honored that next year I get to serve the Society for Humanistic Psychology as president of the division. My commitment is to use this year to focus on addressing the diversity challenges and opportunities in humanistic psychology. My first action will be to appoint a diversity task force, which I am excited that Nathaniel Granger, Theopia Jackson, and David St. John have agreed to co-chair. I have great confidence that these individuals will provide the leadership that will help us identify the challenges and opportunities ahead of us. I hope within the next few years the home of humanistic psychology will become much more diverse than it is today.