Feature Article

A presidential address: The state of humanistic psychology

This column is based on the presidential address from Donna Rockwell, PsyD, at the APA's 2017 Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 4, 2017, to Div. 32 (Society for Humanistic Psychology).

By Donna Rockwell, PsyD

Dear Society Members,

Donna-RockwellIt was wonderful being at APA's Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., this past August and receiving the passing down of the Oil Can from former President Shawn Rubin, who has done so much this past year to bring social justice to the fore of humanistic psychology. Looking at all those names engraved on the oil can — all that history — was a keen reminder of the values that hold us together and the work we need to do.

Humanistic psychology is a mission for most all Div. 32 members who feel called to represent the spirit of humanistic foundations in our professional, personal and community work, and I know how deeply we believe our approach to being with one another — empathic understanding, genuine regard and self-responsibility — speak to a time that calls out for more relational ways of being-with ourselves, being-with others and being in the world.


Humanistic psychology is more than a method or an approach to psychology and psychotherapy. Humanistic ways of being comprise a philosophy, an approach to life and a way to understand and contextualize the existential thrownness in which we find ourselves. In other words, humanistic psychology helps clients discern healthy paths to a mindful engagement with their lives.

During this coming year, I intend to highlight mindfulness in healthcare, reclaiming it as a humanistic approach to being in the world, an approach to coping with one's particular thrownness, as well as a way of not only being with ourselves but being with clients in the therapy room. My presidential initiatives are summed up in the theme of “One Love,” springing from my teen years growing up in Barbados, witnessing a rich Caribbean sense of inclusive “One Love” community there and a seemingly natural mindful and contemplative culture, with which I see clear parallels in humanistic psychology's edict of unconditional presence in being with clients and others in our world.

These themes are reflected in Div. 32's 2018 APA convention call for submissions: "Humanistic Psychology: How One Love Informs Psychotherapy, Inclusive Community and Multicultural Innovation."

The 11th Annual Society for Humanistic Psychology (SHP) Conference, to be held at Naropa University, March 22-25, 2018, similarly emphasizes the theme of love in its title: "Liberation through Wisdom and Love: Humanistic Psychology, Social Justice and Contemplative Practice."

We look forward to impassioned attendance at these 2018 SHP events with rich and rewarding experiences, encouraging scholarship, collegiality, collaboration, diversity, unique and collective creative expression, humanistic applications of social justice and dedication to a person-centered, multicultural psychology.

In these times of great divide amid and amongst people, there is value in humanistic approaches to community and recognition of universal human considerations, like love and self-responsibility. With an awareness of the great suffering in the world, my emphasis this year will be on humanistic approaches of compassionate inclusion, where an integration of varied multicultural contributions to psychology and psychotherapy are promoted and nourished.

Additionally, as the next technological step for our division, we should capitalize on the phenomenon of rapidly emerging media platforms through which to share our humanistic worldview, as the internet age invites us to do. As representatives of the Society of Humanistic Psychology, we can use the power and expansive reach of social media to share love and an embrace — to quote Abraham Maslow — of the farther reaches of human nature.

If we examine ever so briefly the history of world philosophy, we find ourselves contemporarily better able to articulate where we are today. Through such an examination, we can construct a collective foundation for development of the next iteration of humanistic psychology.

History leading to humanistic psychology

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and his notions of mind-body duality providing a subsequent foundation for the medical model we know today is a fallacy refuted even by its earliest supporters. In truth, “I think; therefore, I am,” can be replace quite simply with “I am.” The mind-body disconnect “fails to explain the mutual dependence of mind and body and their coincidence in space and time” ( The New York Times Essential Guide to Knowledge , 2004, St. Martin's Press).

When Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), having less ties to the earlier Christian imperative requiring the inclusion of God in philosophy, declared, “God as one and the same as nature and all existing matter,” he saw all of life as sacred and divine and described mind and body as two perspectives of one dynamic, interactive thing.

Once the Enlightenment period of human history struck in the 1700s, the empiricists were forced, in the same vein, to make room for Immanuel Kant and the other existentialists who laid the basic scaffolding for the birth of humanistic psychology. Standing apart from a religious and medical model, bent on reducing “the human in the human experience” to an object acted upon by an external world, humanistic psychology offered something more relational, highlighting unconditional regard, self-responsibility and interdependence, experiential learning and building of holistic communities among people and nations of the world. It became vogue to see existence in its naked entirety. In that zeitgeist, with a heightened compassion for “the shared human predicament,” humanistic psychology was born.

Considerations for contemporary humanistic psychology

While Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a protocol-based intervention, even strict CBT adherents are now seeing the wisdom and efficacy in humanistic approaches to psychology. In 2016, I attended an APA session titled “Holistic CBT.” In it, presenters revealed an apparent “new awareness” CBT practitioners had of a heretofore neglected consideration of the “whole person” in psychotherapeutic treatment, introducing an updated version of CBT and calling it “Holistic CBT.” The PowerPoint slides paid homage to the research of humanistic psychology founder Carl Rogers and his unconditional positive regard, and they described ways for mental health providers to “be-with” the client during sessions, focusing on “the relationship,” as opposed to reinforcing an admittedly unhealthy doctor-patient power differential. These are the ideas humanistic psychology has espoused all along.

It is important to see that our humanistic movement and the philosophy that underwrites our mission is strong today with a growing body of academic scholarship and psychological praxis. I hope this pedagogic posture can be infused with an even brighter inspirational, uplifted energy and an inner driven self-confidence that continues to define Div. 32 and the greater field of mental health delivery.

There are so many scholars among us who emulate this energy:

  • Fred Wertz and his brilliant and provocative writings on qualitative inquiry and eidetic ways of understanding human experience. 
  • Scott Churchill and his deeply moving interpretation of the historicity and contemporary application of Heideggerian philosophy and psychology and his position as editor of our division journal.
  • Eleanor Criswell Hanna for decades leading the way for the incorporation of somatic awareness and understanding of the body's role in emotional healing and optimal wellness.
  • Ilene Serlin emphasizing and integrating movement arts and dance in psychotherapy and community building at home and in foreign lands. 
  • Shawn Rubin applying the heart of humanistic psychology and heuristic process to his work with lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer (LGBTQ) youth who are looking for acceptance, understanding and love and find it in Shawn's therapy room, as well as Shawn's curated, special issues of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and along with Kevin Keenan and David Cain, updating The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology .
  • Louis Hoffman opening our world in the most important way possible, with the printing press, through his University Professors Press, the one platform that has always been a vehicle of change and an arbiter for social justice in the worlds' societies, as well as promoting poetry and the arts as portals to humanistic ways of knowing and healing.
  • Nathaniel Granger , so adeptly represents our future, with his scholarship in diversity and human dignity in his ministerial work, community organization and teaching, as well as in his writings on the human condition in existential poetry and social justice.
  • Kirk Schneider , who keeps us grounded in awe and its path to awakened awareness in his prolific writing and creative community engagements and dialogues, as well as the continually reminding APA of the import of humanistic education in clinical training.
  • Brent Robbins and his scholarly prose on an expansive range of humanistic and existential topics of importance, as well as his strong program at Point Park University, shepherding students with fundamental humanistic foundations into our field.
  • Sarah Kamens and her work highlighting peace among the peoples of warring nations, as well as her pivotal role in Div. 32's sharp stand against the medicalization and pathologizing of human experience, writing with Brent Robbins the online petition that catapulted our strategic media campaign internationally and her work against inequity and prejudice with her Div. 32 Hate Crime Task Force.
  • Ed Mendelowitz has come to represent the face of the arts in humanistic psychology, with literary, visual and the musical arts being a pivotal and critical aspect of our movement from its inception to today. and I hope, by Ed's example, they will be even more deeply and widely endorsed in our future.

There are too many scholars and humanistic-existential thought leaders in our field to list them all here. Though please feel free to send me their names and the work they are doing.

It is most important to acknowledge our young SHP members who are planting seeds of their own self-discovery and applications of humanistic psychology for the next generation. In the name of generativity, we hold a space for this evolution, passing the baton to the next relay member — our students — seeking more profound and clearer understanding of what it means to be human today. How do we help people struggling with the same existential questions with which we all struggle? Martin Buber's I-thou is our mantra.

As a movement, however, we face a formidable challenge presenting our philosophy to generations growing up in a seismically-altered digital landscape in a highly competitive age. Together, perhaps we can co-create language and culturally aware dialogue, discourse, scholarship and practice to which all people can relate. Are there ways of integrating humanistic ideas into all levels of media that will result in successful — dare I say? — brand identification in the marketplace that showcases humanistic psychology as instructive across many aspects of human interaction and so needed in these challenging times?

Mindfulness and humanistic psychology

In this regard, mindfulness is not the end, but rather a means to understanding core concepts of humanistic psychology. Mindfulness may act as a portal to freedom from negative mental ruminative habits, allowing access to inner joy and meaning. I have found a natural synergy between humanistic psychology and the new role mindfulness is playing in psychotherapy practice, the roots of which find their source in humanistic psychology's very founders — for example stories of Maslow's love of the Dhammapada and Carl Rogers carrying a Buddhist quote in his wallet. Clear theoretical parallels between the two approaches belie a certain kinship.

This mindfulness is not a quick fix or emotional bypass, but rather a humanistic-existential mindfulness filled with the full spectrum of human experience. Mindfulness and its underpinnings are gaining popularity and traction in mainstream healthcare, mostly by Cognitive Behavioral therapists and their decades of research studies showcased in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I intend to use my presidency to reframe mindfulness as a humanistic, existentially-oriented psychotherapy.

I am also excited to support an SHP initiative to celebrate and honor the women of humanistic psychology, who have thus far been unrecognized for their contributions to our field, through the creation of a Women in Humanistic Psychology SHP Heritage Award. A Washington Post column by Petula Dvorak on women in American history brings the point of the unrecognized woman home. The headline reads, “History's ‘Unknown Woman:' Few Cared Who She Was or What She Accomplished.” The article goes on to describe the women in U.S. history who were identified in photographs simply as “Unknown Woman.” By acknowledging women for their accomplishments, this SHP award will make sure that women of humanistic psychology are never relegated to “Unknown Woman” status.

Finally, I also reiterate and recast my call to action to use the media on all its platforms to promote our approach. Humanistic modes of interaction and engagement can make huge differences in the quality of life for so many.

I suggest that humanistic psychologists consider becoming mental health experts and commentators at local radio and TV stations, write op-ed pieces for local or national newspapers, create blog posts for online media forums, like Medium among others, make personal websites and on those websites post insights and short pieces exploring humanistic ideas of lived experience and places that stymie us. People around the world are hungering for our humanistic and existential knowledge and skill set.


Life is often like a pendulum, swinging between extremes. So with roots many decades old, humanistic psychology would be best served by staying true to our person-centered and holistic foundation, while at the same time fluidly engaging in heuristic explorations of what it means to be alive in the here and now, moving organically, just as the pendulum seeks its own balance. As a movement, we can search for fresh and innovative ways to describe our philosophical outlook, using words our peers, the general public and upcoming generations can make sense of. People are eager to escape mental suffering and fulfill Maslowian needs, including awareness of our self-actualizing potential and the self-transcendent nature of generativity.

The world is in need of tenderness and care and as the pendulum swings, is resonating with our message of humanistic understanding, mutuality, engagement, compassion, inclusivity, healing and love.

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