James Bugental’s Existential-Humanistic Therapy



Note from the author. This blog post was originally an essay written as an assignment whilst I was completing my Master of Counselling & Psychotherapy course. Now that I have completed the course, I am going through some of my favourite essays and am going to re-write them and reproduce them here. This essay on James Bugental will kick things off. James Bugental was an American existential-humanist therapist who very much championed the importance of the individual and felt that our journey towards authenticity was the most profound and healthiest things we could hope to achieve in life. He wrote several books including one called The Search for Authenticity. He is not so talked about these days but he was a big influence on my development as a therapist. Hope you enjoy.


James Bugental on Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy


In the 1960s in California a new type of therapy was born: Existential Humanistic therapy, heralded by James Bugental, a psychology professor who thought that being human meant becoming an authentic individual. Unlike his contemporary, Irvin Yalom, Bugental’s writings and practice did not focus as much on the existential facts of life, the limitations or what Yalom refers to as the “givens” or ultimate concerns of existence, (Yalom, 1980) but more on the problem of self-alienation. Bugental saw growth as an individual responsibility, and that we make our own choices and are responsible for much of our own sense of happiness. This is a directly opposite view to much current day thinking, which emphasises social factors, such as patriarchal oppression, identity factors such as race or gender, and which generally encourages a wounded mind-set. Existential humanism places the individual at the centre of well-being, rather than external, social or environmental factors. For James Bugental, however, the core issue which hindered the individual’s natural inclination to develop fully was self-alienation.

To be self-alienated is living without an awareness of one’s own inner nature and true essence. It is like being essentially split off from your true self. In other words, you are a stranger to your self. But, more than that, Bugental believed that living with the split-self was like living with a tyrannical boss. One who constantly watches, micro-manages and critiques your every move, (Bugental, 1978). This creates anxiety, depression, and in extreme cases schizophrenia and splits us off from our authentic selves. Bugental believed that until we turn towards our selves and begin the process of getting to know who we really are, we will continue to live less meaningful, fruitful and fulfilling lives.

Bugental understood the self as process and in progress towards becoming a fully functioning human being, with all the resources required to do so on board. This is not dissimilar to what Rogers referred to as a person’s “tendency to self actualize” (Tudor &Worrall, 2006). Bugental’s conceptualization of the self could be summarised as, “subjective awareness continually in process” (Bugental 1976, as quoted in Krug, 2009). He has also said that the human essence is essentially no thing, or nothing.  Existential therapist Bazzano (2010) also talks about the concept of being a true person of “no-status”, which is a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism. In this context, “No status indicates the uncertainty and transient nature of life and its groundlessness”.  In other words, we are pure awareness, everything else is illusory. Not that we will ever truly achieve this transcendental state while we are embodied in human form, but it is necessary to understand this if we are to achieve anything close to happiness in this life.

Bugental saw the therapist’s work as helping a person become aware of this phenomenon (of self construction) and ultimately aware of the way in which we continuously construct our world, moment by moment. And of how we unconsciously block our progress by “avoidant or distortive” actions (Krug, 2009).  With this awareness though comes freedom to choose and with freedom, responsibility.

Of course, one cannot speak of choice, freedom and responsibility without mentioning the seminal work of Jean Paul Sartre, and what some have called the “bible of existentialism,” Being and Nothingness, (Daigle, 2005). In this heavy work, originally published in 1943, Sartre investigates the concepts of being and consciousness, freedom and responsibility, authenticity, “bad faith” and finally the relationship with others. These are all themes which Bugental as well as other existential humanistic therapists aim to explore. However, it is Bugental’s focus on present moment awareness and experience which stands out as his intervention of choice. He aims to chip at the layers of self construction in order to extrapolate that underlying essence.

Bugental’s focus on process and what is happening in the room and in the “now” during therapy evokes Sartre’s position on I am vs. I become statements. To state that “I am” is in Sartre’s worldview an act of “bad faith,” for we are only ever playing at being authentic. Bugental understands this notion and sees the psychotherapist’s role as helping the client to attend to his or her own acts of bad faith, as they occur, and in doing so attempt to acheive internal wholeness and Sartre’s state of authenticity.  Of course, Sartre is never clear on what a state of authenticity would actually look like. No doubt this imposing question was in Bugental’s mind when he wrote his first book, The Search for Authenticity (1965).

For Bugental, existential humanistic therapy aims to make the split parts of the alienated self into a whole. In his own words, it is to help the client discover their sense of “I-ness,” (Bugental, 1976). Some writers have questioned existential humanism therapy’s focus on authenticity (self-actualization or wholeness) altogether,  perhaps because of its quasi religious overtones, claiming that it has “relied for too long on Heidegger’s idea of authenticity, a notion which reinstates idealist philosophy and monistic notions of ‘Truth'”, (Bazzano, 2010, p.51). Perhaps it is simply necessary to have something to strive for in therapy and the notion of authenticity/wholeness/gestalt fits this purpose perfectly. Perhaps, the warm, free thinking west coast of the USA in the 1960s was a time when notions of authenticity, individuality or a yearning to be “truly alive” (Bugental, 2005) actually seemed possible.

In Yalom’s classic text Existential Psychotherapy, he gives a brief history of existential psychotherapy and lists James Bugental as a member of the “flashy American cousins” branch of the “extended existential family” (Yalom, 1980). Yalom insightfully points to the difference in schools as being rooted in the “zeitgeist” from which they arose. Humanistic existentialists arose in a relatively new continent, during a time of cultural and economic expansion, America in the 1960s. As opposed to previous European existentialists from the ‘old country’ or continent, which has experienced more history, more conflict and more exposure to the limiting realities of existence; war, famine and the like.

With this in mind it is hardly surprising that when Bugental was made president of the newly established (1961) American Association of Humanistic Psychology he wrote the existential humanistic manifesto, of sorts, and came up with five basic postulates of existential humanistic psychotherapy practice in the 1963 article, Humanistic psychology: A new breakthrough, which I shall summarise very briefly (replacing the word “man” for the word human in line with gender neutral language):

  1. Humans are more than the sum of their parts
  2. Humans exist in context with other humans
  3. Humans are self aware
  4. Humans have choice
  5. Humans are intentional and look for meaning, purpose and value in life

The five postulates above clearly articulate the existential humanistic world view in context of 1960s American idealism – a much more positive stance that allows for hope, optimism and the freedom to ‘be what you want to be’ vibe that is so evocative of the sixties. Perhaps the biggest contribution of the humanistic existential approach to psychotherapy is the sense of hope, purpose and the mystery of humanity that it allows for.

To an existential humanist like James Bugental, human beings are not a just a set of cause and effect actions and reactions that can be reduced to a formulaic, mechanistic set of interventions which can be administered with clinical precision based on a set of diagnosable presentations, which much modern evidence based psychology purports to be. Perhaps this is why, as quoted in Bradford (2009) Bugental declares, “Psychotherapy is not a learning to adjust; it is a facing of infinite unadjustability,” (p.325).  For Bugental, this involves continually attending to our present moment inner experience, thus enhancing our “inner guidance system” which points us in the direction of authenticity.  In session you see Bugental continue to steer his client in this direction, from thinking to experiencing, intellectualizing to feeling, from narrative to presence. Cooper (2003) acknowledges Bugental’s contribution to psychotherapy as bringing attention to “here and now” awareness within the counselling session as a primary therapeutic tool, “the purpose of which is to illuminate here and now processes within the therapeutic encounter,” (Krug, 2009).

Bugental aims to bring his clients’ self-awareness or inner awareness out by bringing clients awareness back to the now, as he does with Marie in his Existential Psychotherapy in Action demonstration video.  It is in-fact, the very first thing he says to her after she offers up some narrative; “How is it with you right now?” and once again after she explains the anxiety that she is feeling in relation to her father’s illness, “And it’s there now?” In fact, in almost every interaction with Marie, Bugental attempts again and again to bring her back to the present, using the word “now” or phrase “right now” over 20 times. This reflects Bugental’s philosophy of present moment awareness being the doorway to effecting personal change. That Bugental is only partially successful in getting his client to be present to her moment by moment experience is obvious to anyone watching this encounter. Marie appears carefully and meticulously dressed and sits quite stiffly throughout the session. Her carefully constructed veneer of control is barely scratched by Bugental’s gentle insistence in asking her, time and again, but how is that for you, now.

However, as he noted in the pre-session commentary, this was not your typical therapy session which would involve just two people. Present in the room were cameramen and a quite a few observers. It would be difficult to allow oneself to truly ‘let go’ in such circumstances. Bugental acknowledges this and also mentions that in a real therapy session he might not be as insistent or as pushy, and he specifically mentions being conscious of trying to balance the purpose of the video as demonstration with respecting the needs of his client.

In my own practice I have found the existential humanistic practice of using the here and now in session as a way to help clients access their own inner experience and get in touch with what is happening for them, right now very helpful. In conjunction with mindfulness and ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy), existential humanistic philosophy gives me a foundation from which to return time and again in sessions with my clients, many of whom have never had another person engage with them in such a way before. I use a lot of mindfulness-based interventions in my own counselling practice. However, over and above the use of apps, handouts or psycho-education tools, a central feature of my approach is to incorporate mindfulness practice as a way to help manage anxiety and mood. This approach models in-session presence by bringing my clients attention to what they are feeling or experiencing in the here and now, as they are talking about something that happened to them then. I have found that this is the most useful way I can demonstrate a mindfulness stance to my clients.

It is my experience that existential therapy and mindfulness work very well together. Existential therapy’s focus on self as process is similar to the mindfulness concept of acceptance of the “transitory, fragile and contradictory nature of existence,” (Claessens, 2009, p.114). Acceptance forms the basis of the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism from which the practice of mindfulness has been borrowed.  The connections and similarities between existential humanistic therapy and mindfulness are beyond the scope and purpose of this article. However for the purposes of reflection, I have noted them time and again, as have other practitioners, (Claeseens, 2009). I have used both quite successfully in my own practice, and they seem to me to be a natural fit.

Bugental’s version of existential humanistic therapy and his optimistic human centred philosophy of believing in each and every person’s “potential for richness and fullness of living” (Bugental, 2005) reminds me of how important it is to be present during sessions with clients, and to remember to see them as completely and utterly individual human beings. Not as a set of symptoms, behaviours or diagnoses. It also functions as a reminder to myself, as I go about the business of constructing my own moment by moment experience and facing my own journey towards authenticity.










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            The  Society For Existential Analysis20(1), 109-119.


Daigle, C. (2005) Sartre’s Being & Nothingness: The Bible of Existentialism? Philosophy            Now. Retrieved from,             https://philosophynow.org/issues/53/Sartres_Being_and_Nothingness_The_Bible_of_      Existentialism

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Krug, Orah T. (2009). James Bugental and Irvin Yalom: Two masters of existential therapy         cultuivate presence in the therapeutic encounter.(Report). The Journal of Humanistic         Psychology, 49(3), 329-354.

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            Ontology. Trans. Barnes, H.E. New York: Washington Square Press.

Tudor, K., & Worrall, M. (2006). Person-centred therapy: A clinical philosophy. London/New York: Routledge.

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