As a client, you may hear counsellors and therapists talk about a ‘person-centred approach’ in therapy. This may seem a little odd – as surely all counselling relationships involve people at the centre? The answer is yes – and no. Person-centred therapy has its origins in a theoretical perspective that emerged in the 1940’s. Prior to this time, the two dominant forms of therapy were the psychoanalytic, and the behavioural. You’d know of the psychoanalytic school as deriving from Freud and his contemporaries – more about that theory shortly.

The behavioural school emerged almost in reaction to the psychoanalytic, which was seen by the science fraternity as too mysterious, too interior, and not based on hard science or evidence. Behaviouralists believed that any condition of mind was a reaction to some kind of observable external conditioning and therefore could be re-programmed with the right incentives or deterrents. Much of the research to prove Behaviouralist theory was done on animals – you remember Pavlov and his salivating dog – and ignored the un-observable complexity of the human mind, and the unknowable subconscious that Freud was so convinced drove our observable behaviours.

The problem with behaviouralism when you’re person-centric is that it is centred around behaviour, not around the individual, effectively treating an observable symptom, say addiction, without treating the underlying ‘invisible’ problem that the addiction is masking.

Psychodynamic theory, on the other hand, holds that a person’s issues lie in childhood events and experiences, and that these experiences may be buried in the subconscious, leading to behaviours and defences that are unconscious in their origin (McLeod, 2013). In a counselling situation using psychodynamic approaches, the root causes can be sought out, examined, and in some situations transferred onto the safe container of the therapist.

This transference means that the therapist becomes the person for whom you need to examine your feelings and relationships for the purpose of the session, and the counsellor is trained to recognise that and work with it and you. The evidence-base for unconscious stored childhood trauma and shame as the root of many mental health conditions is unequivocal and widely accepted, jumping the therapy couch into mainstream language and culture through the work of shame researchers and authors like Dr Brené Brown, whose famous TEDtalk on vulnerability and shame created a global discussion on a previously taboo subject.

As all humans have both birth and childhoods, it is a short bow to draw that many of us, across all demographics and cultures, will have suffered trauma that at some point will emerge with cause to be examined. Many counsellors and therapists choose to adopt a pluralist approach, and working with the client, look for the best solution to their unique situations. This can be widely applied to clients with a range of presentations including depression, addiction, anxiety, and trauma.

Humanism is the heart of person-centred therapy, and is more of a movement than simply a psychological theory. Humanism draws from a broad range of ideas and theories, embracing existentialism, counselling, philosophy, literature, and education.  Humanism put simply is therapy with the whole human at the centre in all their potential, rather than as flawed, disordered or damaged as proposed by the Behaviouralists (Rogers, 1951). It approaches the wholeness of humans, allowing the client to know, articulate and self-direct their needs with support, rather than direction, from the therapist (Clay 2002).

The strength of the combination of psychodynamic and humanism is that as a combination of strategies for self-enquiry, the counsellor and client/s are together able to try different approaches to deal with what is present and troubling them, as well as investigate deeper roots of trauma to be excavated and integrated.

It is a relationship of two people, with equal merit.  As counsellors we are present in the room/session as our own identities, complete with our own conscious and unconscious biases (although hopefully as counsellors we are actively working on our own process of discovery).

We do and must acknowledge this bias and be transparent about it and our world view with clients as part of that essential development of trust. These factors of us as a counsellor, a safe container, a transference object and a subject in process are part of our therapeutic offering to you as a client, and why it is important that you have a resonance with us and our stories.

The pluralist approach with a psychodynamic and humanistic lens means we aspire to work with clients who are, like us, seeking a way to be joyful and complete, who self-direct in their therapeutic explorations, and embrace both the evidence-based and the numinous as a valid approach for their specific and unique experience of life. We want to work with second order change processes that transform, resulting in core shifts for new ways of being rather than symptom reduction into a binary of nature and nurture, reward and punishment.

If a client self-selects counselling as their therapeutic modality, the suitability of using a psychodynamic/humanistic approach has its strongest application (to appropriate conditions or in combination with pharmacological intervention) when tailored to the client’s needs and lived experience. The choice and efficacy of any of the myriad contemporary counselling and therapy modalities available, however, is secondary to the strength of the relationship developed between the client and the counsellor (Rogers, 1947).

No matter what the style of delivery of the counselling service may be, the therapist/client relationship is the primary safe container to build the psychological safety and trust that is needed to self-explore, along with the client’s willingness to try a variety of methods in concert with the counsellor to see which has the greatest lasting impacts on their quality of life. As Ram Dass would say, in the counselling journey, we are all just walking each other home.


Clay, R. A. (2002, September). A renaissance for humanistic psychology. Monitor on Psychology33(8).

Cooper, M. & McLeod, J. (2011).  Pluralistic Counselling and Psychotherapy. Sage.

Rogers, C.R. (1949). The attitude and orientation of the counsellor in client-centered therapy. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 13(2), 82 – 94.

Rogers, C.R. (1951). Client-centered therapy, its current practice, implications, and theory. Houghton Mifflin.

van der Kolk, B. (2000). Posttraumatic stress disorder and the nature of trauma. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience2(1), 7–22.

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

This image makes me feel calm and balanced. It seems to be alive and all of the elements appear connected to each other. The woman, the canoe, the water, and the sunlight. I like the way the oars are suspended above the water, effortless. The water holds the canoe, the canoe holds the woman. It must feel good to be connected, held and supported in this way. 

Disclaimer: This article contains the views of the author and is not a replacement for therapeutic support. Please reach out to a registered therapist if you are experiencing distress and require assistance.