A Brief Comparison of Psychologies: Part 2

In this two-part special series we explore what different schools of psychology and counselling modalities tell us about how to help change happen. For the purpose of the series, we’ve divided the world of psychological therapies into 4 main classes: Cognitive and/or behavioural; Psychoanalysis/ psychodynamic/ analytical; Humanistic and; Transpersonal. 

In Part 1 we explored Cognitive and/or behavioural and Psychoanalysis/ psychodynamic/ analytical approaches. In this article we’ll explore humanistic approaches and transpersonal modalities.

Humanistic/Person-centred/Existential/Transactional Analysis

Under the umbrella of humanistic modalities, we’ll discuss:

  • Person-centred (Carl Rogers)
  • Existential (Rollo May; Irvin Yalom)
  • Transactional Analysis (Eric Berne)

What kind of a therapy might we as mental health professionals come up with if we believed that, not only do human beings all have an actualising tendency – a tendency to move toward realisation of full potential – but also, this actualising tendency is part of a formative tendency: the observable movement toward greater order, complexity, and interrelatedness that can be seen in stars, crystals, and microorganisms as well as in human beings?

In 1940 the answer to that question became Carl Rogers’ development of person-centred (also called client-centred) therapy. Rather than feeling the need to direct clients in how to change their behaviour or language and rather than believing that they must dig up and process most significant material from their unconscious, the humanistic therapies began a revolution by positing that self-directed growth could and would occur if only the client were able to access a particular kind of relationship: one characterised by genuineness, non-judgmental caring, and empathy. Thus, rather than perfect their techniques, therapists who desired excellence needed to enhance their beingness, such that they could convey congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy.

Humanistic psychologies generally assume that the paternalistic, authoritarian attitude taken by psychoanalytical therapists has a negative influence on outcomes. In person-centred therapy, rather, the warm, accepting attitude of the therapist helps establish rapport, allowing the client to feel and be in control. Unlike in cognitive/behavioural and psychoanalytical approaches, the therapist is non-directive and only helps the client by listening and responding in a positive way, reflecting words and feelings, prompting responses when the client falters, and clarifying. Above all, the therapist is warmly there for the client.

The therapist’s congruence, believed Rogers, allows the client to feel safe. If the rapport between therapist and client is essential for treatment, the passive stance of the therapist is the treatment. Because person-centred therapy is mostly about being in a relationship, it is well-suited to issues of relationship improvement, skills development, self-understanding, self-awareness, and mind/body awareness and integration. Such therapy is designed to nurture the client’s growth, resulting in personal empowerment and fulfilment of the client’s potentials. While these positive outcomes would all contribute to a person’s wholeness, even Rogers believed that, as a sole treatment, person-centred therapy was insufficient to allow the client to make permanent behaviour change without other, more directive therapies.

It is possible that another humanistic psychology, that associated with existentialists Rollo May and Irvin Yalom, would also not, in itself, achieve change. Existentialism arose in the 1940s and 1950s as a reaction to the then-current psychotherapies. People understood about Freudian drives, behavioural conditioning, and Jungian archetypes, but longed to know: where was the actual immediate person to whom these things were happening? Existential psychology thus developed, not as a specific technical approach with its own rules, but as a way of asking deep questions about the nature of the human being and the nature of anxiety, despair, grief, loneliness, isolation, and anomie.

Distinguishing between normal and neurotic anxiety and guilt, the existential model of personality was founded on a different view of inner conflict. It assumed that the basic conflict is not with suppressed instinctual drives or with significant adults in the person’s early life. Rather, it is between the individual and the “givens” of existence: that is, the ultimate concerns of human beings, which it names as death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Confronting these constitutes the content of the individual’s inner conflict from an existential frame of reference.

Existentialists also believe that individuals have deep, powerful beliefs in their own “specialness” (that is: personal inviolability and invulnerability) and in an ultimate rescuer. Where Freudians believed that people had drives which gave rise to anxiety and against which they formed defences, the existentialists saw that it was awareness of the ultimate concerns which gave rise to anxiety, against which defence mechanisms were created.

Another modality seen as humanistic is Transactional Analysis (TA), founded by Eric Berne. Seeing all people as born “OK”, individual, and responsible, TA is more directive and more dynamic than Rogerian therapy. Linking intrapsychic dynamics with interpersonal behaviours within a humanistic framework, it is seen as an integrated approach drawing from various schools of psychoanalysis to enable an individual to effect change. TA tries to find a “fix” for maladaptive client behaviours by involving the client and the therapist in a contract to change the way the client is acting.

Some of the basic concepts revolve around the “ego states” that a client could have. The “Parent” is holding sway when the client is controlling, bossy, and nurturing. The “Adult” is the problem-solver and storer of information. And the “Child” is dominating when the client is either thinking, feeling, or behaving like the child we all once were. TA clients come to recognise where their attitudes originate, and how they are productive or destructive. By bringing to awareness unconscious “scripts” that they may have been enacting, clients can facilitate their own change.

While the humanistic modalities have led people to the edges of their body/mind/emotional growth – even showing the way to self-actualisation – they have stopped at the threshold of self-realisation. That is the job of the transpersonal therapies.

Transpersonal modalities

In this section we include discussion of:

  • Psychosynthesis (Roberto Assagioli)
  • Asian Psychotherapies such as yoga and meditation

(Just a note here: Jung may be fairly counted as a transpersonal therapist as well, but because of the analytical emphasis of his work, we have chosen to talk about Jungian thought in the context of psychoanalytical approaches).

In the early 20th century, Roberto Assagioli, similarly to Carl Jung and Melanie Klein, was a disciple of Freud. Like the others, Assagioli, broke away, critiquing the Freudian assumption that most, if not all, symptoms could be traced back to thwarted pleasure (libidinal) impulses and/or repressed material from the unconscious. Freudian psychology, to Assagioli, did not sufficiently acknowledge the spiritual dimension, altruistic motivation, and experiences of the sublime as integral to human being. Understanding that symptoms of some clients occurred not because they were dysfunctional but because they were seeking expression of greater wholeness, Assagioli founded Psychosynthesis in 1910. It did not, however, become popular until later in the century, when the rise of humanistic psychologies would validate a focus on healthy people – as opposed to pathology – in order to better understand human beings.

Psychosynthesis is a psychology of self-realisation, in which the basic understanding is that all people – whether they know it or not – seek to integrate, or synthesise, all parts of themselves into a whole, thus connecting with the Self, or soul. Beyond that, Assagioli claimed, self-realisation allowed connection to what Jung had called the collective unconscious, or what Assagioli called the superconscious, the transpersonal.

An early explorer of transpersonal psychology, Assagioli recognised spirituality as an essential foundation of psychological health and healing. Some of the signature concepts of Psychosynthesis were those of the will and subpersonalities. He explained that will is the function closest to the self (that is: closer than thinking, emotion, sensation, impulse/desire, imagination, and intuition), and that it is always present somewhere with a person. Tracking a client’s will, therefore, could help the therapist to understand the deeper motivations and needs of a client.

Naturally, in many situations a client is conflicted, with part of their personality moving toward one goal and another part moving toward a different, often opposing, goal. To deal with this, Assagioli posited the concept of subpersonalities: “mini-selves” or parts of a person’s self which constellated in order to help a client meet needs which had been chronically unmet, or which the client was defending against having met. Synthesising the various parts (subpersonalities) into the greater whole (thus achieving self-realisation) was the goal not only of therapy, said Assagioli, but all of life.

As we’ve noted throughout this series, psychotherapies address three major levels of health and development: pathological, existential, and transpersonal. Most mental health helpers would acknowledge how Western psychologists have devised sophisticated techniques for alleviating pathology. Most Westerners, however, readily concede that merely relieving pathology does not guarantee a happy, growth-oriented life. Even without pathology, there can be loss of meaning and purpose, a sense of isolation, and/or issues with freedom (for example). Existentialists often regard these issues as incapable of being resolved and suggest that we must just endure them with courage and authenticity.

Transpersonal psychologists would agree with the prescription for courage and authenticity, but would also claim that whole-of-life issues such as meaninglessness or lack of clarity of purpose are helped by a transformation of one’s consciousness and sense of identity such as can occur through meditation. Techniques such as meditation were traditionally thought of as religious, but have come – through the rise in popularity of transpersonal study – to be understood for their psychological benefits.

The Asian psychotherapies, which we’ll call yoga and meditation, focus primarily on existential and transpersonal levels rather than pathological ones. Their detailed maps of states of consciousness, developmental levels, and stages of enlightenment go far beyond traditional Western psychological maps.

When refer to “meditation” in this context, we are referring to a family of practices which trains attention in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control. The greater control gained is then used to cultivate specific mental qualities, such as awareness, concentration, joy, love, and compassion. The aim of such practices is to deepen insight into the nature of consciousness, and to be able to more greatly identify with optimal states of psychological wellbeing and consciousness. When we refer to “yoga”, we refer to the family of practices with the same aims as meditation. However, yogas, such as Hatha Yoga, are disciplines encompassing ethics, lifestyle, body postures, breath control, and intellectual study in addition to meditation.

Whether it is called yoga, meditation, or something else, the aim of most Asian approaches (whether they get to be called “therapies” or not) is the ideal of ultimate health through enlightenment or liberation, rather than mere adjustment to life situations or psychodynamic factors. The means to attaining enlightenment includes the reduction of pathogenic factors of addiction, aversion, and ignorance. Additionally, the Asian mode defines mental health in positive terms.

One Buddhist model names seven factors leading to enlightenment. Attaining the first, mindfulness, assists the individual by helping him or her to create the Observer (known in Psychosynthesis as a disidentified stance) from which one can observe his or her “ego”.

The remaining six factors divide into two groups: the arousing factors of effort (energy), investigation (exploration of experience), and rapture (delight in awareness); and the calming factors of concentration (ability to maintain attention on a specific object), calm (freedom from anxiety and agitation), and equanimity (capacity to experience stimuli without disturbance). Optimal health is said to occur when all seven factors are cultivated in a balanced manner.


We began this whirlwind tour of the main schools of psychology by pondering what it means to be a human being, because the answer to that has consequences for how that human being might be helped to achieve desired change. We explored some of the chief streams of thought in the behavioural/cognitive psychologies, the psychoanalytical/psychodynamic traditions, the humanistic approaches, and the transpersonal psychologies. And nowadays there are also many emergent psychologies, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which combine elements of several schools.

We’ve seen how behavioural/cognitive proponents understand that human beings do not tend to change their behaviour until they change the thinking patterns that motivate that behaviour. Thus, for them, a human being is an actor and a thinker. They gained popularity in reaction to the psychoanalysts who came before them, proclaiming that human beings are so because of unconscious drives, impulses, and archetypal tendencies. For psychodynamic therapists, helping people change involves making the unconscious conscious.

The advocates of person-centred and other humanistic psychologies, meanwhile, understand a human being as an aggregate of ultimate concerns that affect all human beings. Thus, to heal a person, we must – with congruence, authenticity, and empathy – meet the person: accepting him unconditionally where he is right now in the present, with all of his attendant anxieties and neuroses.

The transpersonal psychologies, finally, understand that a human being is a soul, and that, as such, he or she requires for optimal wellbeing a set of integrative understandings and practices (some of them spiritual) that will allow him or her to move from identification with the body, the mind, and the emotions, to connection with the superconscious Self, the sublime source of infinite potential and bliss.

Which psychology is “right”? Which has more potential benefits and greater capacity for wellbeing and ultimate happiness to offer us in our role as “consumers” or clients? Research has shown how all approaches have both served and limited those who use them. All schools have their proponents and practitioners, and also their detractors. Perhaps the wisest conclusion we can come to is that, as human beings in the most inclusive sense of the word, we have myriad levels of need and endless life lessons to absorb in the pursuit of wisdom and happiness. Thus, we may be grateful for the input of each psychology we meet along the road to fulfilment.

And as practitioners working within any of the frameworks, it is just possible that the greatest gift we offer our clients is not the techniques, nor even the understandings, of the framework within which we work. Indeed, eclecticism is enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity, so we increasingly need to know techniques from many schools. Rather, what may ultimately offer the greatest healing gift to our clients is our humble willingness to, as the saying goes, be the doctor who stands by while the patient heals himself – or translated to mental health helping – be the empathetically, authentically present being who opens to genuine meeting with another being.

Additional reading: AIPC’s Five Therapies e-Book (PDF)