MAY: EXISTENTIAL PSYCHOLOGY
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 saw people as living in the world of present experiences and ultimately being responsible for who they become. However, most people surrender their freedom and run away from assuming responsibility. On the other hand, some people are able to challenge their destiny, cherish their freedom, and live authentically with other people and with themselves.
II. Biography of Rollo May
May was born in 1909, in Ada, Ohio, the oldest son and second born of six
children. May, who was not close to either parent, spent his childhood in
Michigan, where he claimed to have learned more from the St. Clair River than
from school. 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, where he met and became friends with Paul Tillich. After receiving a
Master of Divinity degree, he served for two years as a pastor, but quit in
order to pursue a career in psychology. He received a Ph.D. 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. He
died in 1994 at
III. Background of Existentialism
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. Since Kierkegaard, existentialists have
applied their ideas to art, literature,
A. What Is Existentialism?
Existentialist have a wide variety of beliefs, but 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 anti-theoretical position, believing that theories tend to objectify people.
B. Basic Concepts
Existentialism rests on two basic concepts: being-in-the-world and nonbeing.
People live in a world that can best be understood from their own perspective. Thus, a basic unity exists between them and their environment, a unity expressed by the term Dasein, or being-in-the-world. Three simultaneous modes of the world characterize people in their Dasein: Umwelt, or the environment around them; Mitwelt, or their world with other people; and Eigenwelt, or people’s relationship with themselves.
If people can be aware of themselves as living beings, then they can also be 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. People attempt to escape the dread of nonbeing by constricting their existence, compulsively using alcohol and other drugs, or engaging in promiscuous sexual behaviors.
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 and destructive.
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. Ontological guilt can stem from (1) Umwelt, when people become separated from nature; (2) Mitwelt, when people fail to anticipate the needs of others; and (3) Eigenwelt, when people deny their own potentialities or fail to fulfill them.
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
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. During the past century or so, we have gone from an overly repressive attitude toward sex to an over-concern with having as many sexual escapades as possible.
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. Eros can lead to the psychological growth of both partners.
Philia is an intimate nonsexual friendship between two people. It takes time to develop and is not contingent 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 both 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: freedom of doing, which he called existential freedom, and freedom of being, or essential freedom.
1. Existential Freedom
Existential freedom is the freedom of action, as exemplified by the ability to move from place to place, to voice one’s opinions, to change jobs, and so forth.
2. Essential Freedom
Essential freedom is the freedom of being, an inner freedom, a type of liberty that is only achieved if we face our destiny and recognize our mortality.
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
May believed that the people of Western civilization have an urgent need for myths and, because they have lost many of their traditional myths, they turn to religious cults, drugs, and popular culture to fill the vacuum. May compared myths to the structural beams of a house—not easily visible but the strength that holds the house together. The Oedipus myth, for example, 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.
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. Existential psychotherapy de-emphasizes techniques while stressing the personal qualities of the therapist, who is both a friend and an interpreter of the client’s private meanings.
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 colleagues (Goldenberg et al., 2000; Greenberg et al., 1994; Greenberg et al., 1992; McGregor et al., 1998; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000; Schimel et al., 1999) have investigated the concept of terror management, which is based on the notion of existential anxiety. In general, the findings of Greenberg and his colleagues are consistent with May’s definition of existential anxiety, but they can also be explained by other psychological theories.
XIV. Critique of May
psychology has been legitimately criticized as being anti-theoretical and
unjustly criticized as being anti-intellectual. May’s anti-theoretical approach
calls for a new kind of science—one that considers uniqueness and personal
freedom. However, according to the criteria of present science, May’s theory
rates low on most standards. Currently, his theory is very low on its ability
to generate research 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
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.