Rollo May’s Existential Psychology

Overview of May’s Existential Theory

Existential psychology began in Europe shortly after World War II and spread to the United States, where Rollo May played a large part in popularizing it.  A clinical psychologist by training, May took the view that modern people frequently run away both from making choices and from assuming responsibility.


  1. Biography of Rollo May

Rollo May was born in Ohio in 1909, but grew up in Michigan.  After graduating from Oberlin College in 1930, he spent 3 years as an itinerant artist roaming throughout eastern and southern Europe.  When he returned to the United States, he entered the Union Theological Seminary, from which he received a Master of Divinity degree.  He then served for 2 years as a pastor, but quit in order to pursue a career in psychology.  He received a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia in 1949 at the relatively advanced age of 40.  During his professional career, he served as lecturer or visiting professor at a number of universities, conducted a private practice as a psychotherapist, and wrote a number of popular books on the human condition.  May died in 1994 at age 85.


III.       Background of Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, is usually considered to be the founder of modern existentialism.  Like later existentialists, he emphasized a balance between freedom and responsibility.  People acquire freedom of action by expanding their self-awareness and by assuming responsibility for their actions.  However, this acquisition of freedom and responsibility is achieved at the expense of anxiety and dread.

  1. What Is Existentialism?

The first tenet of existentialism is that existence takes precedence over essence, meaning that process and growth are more important than product and stagnation.  Second, existentialists oppose the artificial split between subject and object.  Third, they stress people’s search for meaning in their lives.  Fourth, they insist that each of us is responsible for who we are and what we will become.  Fifth, most existentialists take an antitheoretical position, believing that theories tend to objectify people.

  1. Basic Concepts

According to existentialists, a basic unity exists between people and their environments, a unity expressed by the term Dasein, or being-in-the-world. Three simultaneous modes of the world characterize us in our Dasein:  Umwelt, or the environment around us;  Mitwelt, or our world with other people; and Eigenwelt, or our relationship with our self. People are both aware of themselves as living beings and also aware of the possibility of nonbeing or nothingness.  Death is the most obvious form of nonbeing, which can also be experienced as retreat from life’s experiences.


  1. The Case of Philip

Rollo May helped illustrate his concepts of existential theory and therapy by the case of Philip, a successful architect in his mid-50s.  Despite his apparent success, Philip experienced severe anxiety when his relationship with Nicole (a writer in her mid-40s) took a puzzling turn.  Uncertain of his future and suffering from low self-esteem, Philip went into therapy with Rollo May.  Eventually, Philip was able to understand that his difficulties with women were related to his early experiences with a mother who was unpredictable and an older sister who suffered from severe mental disorders.  However, he began to recover only after he accepted that his “need” to take care of unpredictable Nicole was merely part of his personal history with unstable women.


  1. Anxiety

People experience anxiety when they become aware that their existence or something identified with it might be destroyed.  The acquisition of freedom inevitably leads to anxiety, which can be either pleasurable and constructive or painful and destructive.

  1. Normal Anxiety

Growth produces normal anxiety, defined as that which is proportionate to the threat, does not involve repression, and can be handled on a conscious level.

  1. Neurotic Anxiety

Neurotic anxiety is a reaction that is disproportionate to the threat and that leads to repression and defensive behaviors.  It is felt whenever one’s values are transformed into dogma.  Neurotic anxiety blocks growth and productive action.


  1. Guilt

Guilt arises whenever people deny their potentialities, fail to accurately perceive the needs of others, or remain blind to their dependence on the natural world.  Both anxiety and guilt are ontological; that is, they refer to the nature of being and not to feelings arising from specific situations.


VII.     Intentionality

The structure that gives meaning to experience and allows people to make decisions about the future is called intentionality.  May believed that intentionality permits people to overcome the dichotomy between subject and object because it enables them to see that their intentions are a function of both themselves and their environment.


VIII.    Care, Love, and Will

Care is an active process that suggests that things matter.  Love means to care, to delight in the presence of another person, and to affirm that person’s value as much as one’s own.  Care is also an important ingredient in will, defined as a conscious commitment to action.

  1. Union of Love and Will

May believe that our modern society has lost sight of the true nature of love and will, equating love with sex and will with will power. He further held that psychologically healthy people are able to combine love and will because both imply care, choice, action, and responsibility.

  1. Forms of Love

May identified four kinds of love in Western tradition—sex, eros, philia, and agape. He believed that Americans no longer view sex as a natural biological function, but have become preoccupied with it to the point of trivialization.   Eros is a psychological desire that seeks an enduring union with a loved one.  It may include sex, but it is built on care and tenderness.  Philia, an intimate nonsexual friendship between two people, takes time to develop and does not depend on the actions of the other person.  Agape is an altruistic or spiritual love that carries with it the risk of playing God.  Agape is undeserved and unconditional.


IX        Freedom and Destiny

Psychologically healthy individuals are comfortable with freedom, able to assume responsibility for their choices, and willing to face their destiny.

  1. Freedom Defined

Freedom comes from an understanding of our destiny.  We are free when we recognize that death is a possibility at any moment and when we are willing to experience changes even in the face of not knowing what those changes will bring.

  1. Forms of Freedom

May recognized two forms of freedom: (1) freedom of doing or freedom of action, which he called existential freedom, and (2) freedom of being or an inner freedom, which he called essential freedom.

  1. Destiny Defined

May defined destiny as “the design of the universe speaking through the design of each one of us.”  In other words, our destiny includes the limitations of our environment and our personal qualities, including our mortality, gender, and genetic predispositions.  Freedom and destiny constitute a paradox because freedom gains vitality from destiny, and destiny gains significance from freedom.

  1. Philip’s Destiny

After some time in therapy, Philip was able to stop blaming his mother for not doing what he thought she should have done.  The objective facts of his childhood had not changed, but Philip’s subjective perceptions had.  As he came to terms with his destiny, Philip began to be able to express his anger, to feel less trapped in his relationship with Nicole, and to become more aware of his possibilities.  In other words, he gained his freedom of being.


  1. The Power of Myth

According to May, the people of contemporary Western civilization have an urgent need for myths.  Because they have lost many of their traditional myths, they turn to religious cults, drugs, and popular culture to fill the vacuum.  The Oedipus myth has had a powerful effect on our culture because it deals with such common existential crises as birth, separation from parents, sexual union with one parent and hostility toward the other, independence in one’s search for identity, and finally death.


  1. Psychopathology

May saw apathy and emptiness—not anxiety or depression—as the chief existential disorders of our time.  People have become alienated from the natural world (Umwelt), from other people (Mitwelt) and from themselves (Eigenwelt).  Psychopathology is a lack of connectedness and an inability to fulfill one’s destiny.


XII.     Psychotherapy

The goal of May’s psychotherapy was not to cure patients of any specific disorder, but rather to make them more fully human.  May said that the purpose of psychotherapy is to set people free, that is, to allow them to make choices and to assume responsibility for those choices.


XIII.    Related Research

May’s theory of personality does not easily lend itself to direct empirical research.  Nevertheless, some researchers have investigated the concept of terror management, which is based on more readily testable hypotheses.  Rollo May’s existential theory has not generated much objective, scientific research, a situation that May would have approved.  Nevertheless, one existential topic to receive some empirical attention has been existential anxiety and terror management.  Ernest Becker, an American psychiatrist inspired by Kierkegaard and Otto Rank, has presented research that has been a major source of inspiration for terror management theorists.

  1. Mortality Salience and Denial of Our Animal Nature

Also, Jamie Goldenberg and colleagues found that cultural worldviews (religion, politics, and social norms) and self-esteem function to defend people against thoughts of death, so that when death becomes salient through disasters, death of a loved one, or images of death, people respond by clinging more closely to cultural worldviews and bolstering their self-esteem. They predicted that mortality salience would increase feelings of disgust, and their experiment found this prediction to be true.  Goldenberg and colleagues found that their results supported the basic terror management assumption that people distance themselves from animals because animals remind us of our own physical mortality.  Cathy Cox and colleagues recently extended Goldenberg’s findings by investigating disgust reactions to breast feeding (Cox, Greenberg, Arndt, & Pyszczynski, 2007; Cox, Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, & Weise, 2007).  Their findings supported the conclusions of a growing body of research that when mortality is made more salient, people are increasingly disgusted by human features that remind us of our animal nature.  This body of work points to the general conclusion that disgust serves the function of defending us against the existential threat posed by our inevitable death.

  1. Fitness as a Defense against Mortality Awareness

If thoughts of death are highly anxiety provoking, then people should protect themselves against thoughts of death (terror-management) by doing things that can decrease their likelihood of dying, such as exercising and performing other healthy behaviors.  Jamie Arndt and colleagues investigated this issue and found support for the hypothesis that, for people who value health and fitness, thoughts of death are related to greater interest in health-related behaviors.  They also confirmed the importance of distinguishing between proximal or conscious and distal or unconscious defenses against death.  In summary, terror management seems to be a powerful force behind much of human behavior.


XIV. Critique of May

May’s psychology has been legitimately criticized as being antitheoretical and unjustly criticized as being anti-intellectual.  May’s antitheoretical approach calls for a new kind of science—one that considers uniqueness and personal freedom as crucial concepts.  However, according to the criteria of present science, May’s theory rates low on most standards.  More specifically, we give it a very low rating on its ability to generate research, to be falsified, and to guide action; low on internal consistency (because it lacks operationally defined terms), average on parsimony, and high on its organizational powers, due to its consideration of a broad scope of the human condition.


  1. Concept of Humanity

May viewed people as complex beings, capable of both tremendous good and immense evil.  People have become alienated from the world, from other people, and, most of all, from themselves.  On the dimensions of a concept of humanity, May rates high on free choice, teleology, social influences, and uniqueness.  On the issue of conscious or unconscious forces, his theory takes a middle position.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s