I. 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.
II. 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 three years roaming throughout eastern
and southern Europe as an itinerant artist. 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 two years as a pastor, but quit in order
to pursue a career in psychology. He received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology
from Columbia in 1949 at the 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.
A. What Is Existentialism?
The first tenet of existentialism is that existence take 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 take an antitheoretical position, believing that theories tend to
B. 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.
IV. The Case of Philip
Rollo May helped illustrate his notion of existentialism with 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.
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
A. 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.
B. 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.
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.
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
enables them to see that their intentions are a function of both themselves
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.
A. Union of Love and Will
May believed 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.
B. Forms of Love
May identified four kinds of love in Western tradition: sex, eros, philia, and
agape. May 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.
A. 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.
B. 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.
C. 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.
D. 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.
X. 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,
May saw apathy and emptiness-not anxiety and guilt-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.
The goal of May's psychotherapy was not to cure patients of any specific disorder,
but to make them more fully human. May said that the purpose of psychotherapy
is to set people free, to allow them to make choices and to assume responsibility
for those choices.
XIII. Related Research
May's theory of personality does not lend itself to easily testable hypotheses,
and, therefore, it has not generated much research. Nevertheless, Jeff Greenberg
and his colleagues have investigated the concept of terror management, which
is based on the notion of existential anxiety. In general, Greenberg's findings
are consistent with May's definition of existential anxiety as an apprehension
of threats to one's existence. However, this research can also be explained
by other psychological theories.
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. Currently, his theory is very low
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.
XV. 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.