Existential therapy, person-centered therapy, and gestalt therapy all fall under the rubric of humanistic psychology. They share a considerable amount of theory, philosophy, and practice. Yet each of these practices is stemmed in its own theoretical framework; therefore, existential, person-centered, and gestalt therapies differ in key ways. Recent scholarship on existential, person-centered, and gestalt therapies builds on the rich canon of literature in these three core humanistic traditions, but is more than just summative. The following review of literature shows how existential therapy, person-centered therapy, and gestalt therapy are practiced in the 21st century, and in so doing, reveals the similarities and differences between these three humanistic psychological frameworks.
Existential therapy has been called "a way of thinking rather than…a particular style of practicing," (Corey, 2008, p. 216). Corey (2008) claims that existential therapy is "not a separate school or a neatly defined, systematic model with specific therapeutic techniques," (p. 216). Instead, there are several existential therapies that can be loosely grouped together due to their common concerns with existential themes. These themes eschew behaviorism and emphasize personal freedom of choice (Corey, 2008). The four ultimate focal points of existential therapy are death, freedom, existential isolation, and meaninglessness (Corey, 2008). The universal themes addressed in existential therapy are therefore applicable to a modern counseling scenario in which the client population will be from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, possessing different political points-of-view, and having different life experiences (Schneider & Krug, 2010). Emphasis on diversity in therapy is a relatively new trend in existential therapy (Schneider & Krug, 2010).
Because of its emphasis on personal freedom and free will, existential therapists will emphasize personal responsibility when working with clients. An existential therapist will shun even the word "victim," and instead asks the client to choose his or her reality (Corey, 2008). The therapist will also coach the client to explore various alternatives, especially those that had not before been considered.
The search for meaning is primary to existential therapy. Existential therapists can integrate spiritual and transpersonal issues into practice (Schneider & Krug, 2010). The therapist will help the client explore deep-rooted values and beliefs that can help or hinder growth. The therapist also encourages self-insight and honest self-awareness. Finding a purpose in life can be a primary goal of existential therapy, which is why it can be interfaced well with life coaching (Corey, 2008). Therapy from an existential viewpoint is classified as a "journey," (Corey, 2008, p. 217). The therapist is expected to travel the journey with the client, in a way, not remaining detached as is suggested in other therapeutic frameworks. Instead, "existential therapists ar personally engaged in their work and are willing to be affected by their clients' experiences in therapy," (Corey, 2008, p. 217). This means that the therapist is encouraged and even expected to grow and change through the course of helping others (Corey, 2008). Geller (2003) points out that in existential therapy, self-disclosure " is the product of a fluctuating matrix of interpersonal and intrapsychic variables," (p. 541).
Existentialism is a philosophical framework that gave shape to existential therapy. The philosophical framework acknowledges the inevitability of human suffering, while simultaneously celebrating the capacity of human beings for choice, change, and thriving. Rollo May is credited with the first translation of existential philosophy into psychotherapeutic practice (Corey, 2008). James Bugenthal, Irvin Yalom, Kirk Schneider, Emmy van Deurzen, Orah Krug, and Laing & Cooper have all contributed significantly to the evolution of existential psychotherapies (Corey, 2008; Schneider & Krug, 2010).
According to Corey (2008), "the existential perspective focuses on understanding the person's subjective view of the world," and as such, "is a phenomenological approach," (p. 217). The existential therapies do not view the client as being "ill" in any way, and does not offer clients a cut-and-dry system by which to achieve wholeness. Instead, the therapist helps the client to "come to terms with life in all its contradictions," (p. 218). This entails emphasis on acceptance, responsibility, and personal choice in the therapeutic process. Existential therapy can be honed as a private or one-on-one therapy or as a group therapy. In a group context, the individual clients have the opportunity to learn from other members.
Person-centered therapy "implies a form of therapy whereby the therapist takes the backseat and allows the client to play the major role during the counseling session," (Ceil, 2012, p. 1). The role of the therapist is more passive in person-centered therapy than it is in existential therapy. Ceil (2012) points out that person-centered therapy is also called client-centered, and it is a "non-directive method of counseling as it does not involve any prominent role of the therapist who only assists the client," (p. 1). The origin of person-centered therapy is traced to Carl Rogers, whose theory of personality development informs practice (Williams, 2007). For this reason, person-centered therapy is occasionally dubbed Rogerian therapy.
Some of the core tenets of person-centered therapy include a view of the person as "inherently trustworthy," with a "vast potential for self-understanding," and possessing a "self-directed capability to resolve their difficulties if they have a genuine, accepting, and empathetic environment," (Luke, 2010, p. 157). Thus, the framework of person-centered therapy is similarly humanistic in tone to existential therapy.
Person-centered therapy is similar to existential therapy in that both stress personal empowerment. Rogers' theory "postulates that all people have within themselves the desire and the capacity to evolve into fully functioning, self-actualized individuals," and can "guide their lives," (p 223). However, person-centered therapy differs from existential therapy in two main ways. First, the role of the therapist in the therapeutic relationship is radically different. In person-centered therapy, the therapist is passive while actively listening. In existential therapy, the therapist is more actively engaged in the process of learning that occurs during therapy. Second, the focal point of person-centered therapy is self-actualization, not the search and discovery of existential meaning.
There are other differences between existential and person-centered therapy. For example, existential therapy might incidentally address issues related to the past and childhood. As Williams (2007) points out, person-centered therapy often encourages reflection on the past. The goal of self-reflection and reflection on the past is to understand the evolution of the self-concept. Existential therapy is not as concerned about self-concept as person-centered therapy, as the name suggests. Person-centered therapy also believes in the efficacy of psychopathology, positing that psychological maladies and conditions can be traced to ineffective self-concepts. "Psychological maladjustment is a result of incongruence between what individuals experience firsthand…and how they want to believe they are in the world," (Williams, 2007, p. 224). A goal of person-centered therapy is total transformation: "the ultimate restructuring of his or her personality," (Williams, 2007, p. 225). As with existential therapy, the client is empowered to take responsibility for his or her own choices, attitudes, and beliefs. There is no formal program or set of recommendations; and the concept of victimhood is avoided too.
Therapeutic relationship is based on passive interaction but also on "unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence," (Williams, 2007, p. 225). The concern with empathy places person-centered therapy much closer with existential therapy. Both existential and person-centered therapies are humanistic, emphasizing personal responsibility and self-empowerment.
The theoretical framework of gestalt therapy is, of course, gestalt psychology. The underlying philosophy of gestalt therapy is holistic in nature. Gestalt therapy is non-reductionistic and non-deterministic, just as are existential and person-centered therapies. According to Parlett & Lee (2005), gestalt therapy is based on the assumption that "human perception and thinking are structured and patterned and should not be 'reduced' in an atomistic way into component parts," (p. 43). Like existential theory and therapy, gestalt therapy prefers to avoid designations of psychopathology. In fact, existential, person-centered, and gestalt therapies eschew frameworks that reduce a patient's symptoms into DSM classifications.
Whereas existential therapy stresses the client's search for meaning, and whereas person-centered therapy stresses the client's potential for change and self-actualization, gestalt therapy emphasizes the understanding of patterns, relationships, and holism. Each aspect of a patient's life is placed within the greater context of the whole being, and there is no irrelevant part.
Like existential theory and therapy, gestalt therapy is phenomenological. In fact, there is significant crossover between existentialism and gestalt with regards to the importance of the search for meaning. After all, there can be no apprehension of pattern or wholeness without an understanding of the purpose or meaning behind the individual events or issues that comprise the whole. Existential questions are critical, because to probe for meaning means to find the greater pattern. "Human beings cannot tolerate meaninglessness and will impose meaning upon all experiences," even if those impositions of meaning are inaccurate (Crocker & Philippson, 2005, p. 66). Like both existential and person-centered therapies, spirituality can play a significant role in helping the client (Ingersoll & O'Neill, 2005).
Gestalt therapy is more concerned with methodology than either existential therapy or person-centered therapy. However, of these three therapeutic methods, existential therapy is the loosest…