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Rollo May and Existentialism

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Rollo May
Rollo May

Rollo May (1909-94) is the best known American existential psychologist. He got his PhD in clinical psychology in 1949, and helped introduce existential psychology to the United States. May was influenced by American humanism, and is often associated with humanistic psychology, although he shows a sharper awareness of the tragic dimensions of human existence than many others in that camp. The bottom line is he builds his thinking around European tenets of existential philosophy.

In 1956, he edited the book Existence with Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger. Their translation helped introduce existential psychology to Americans.

May sees certain "stages" of development, but they are rather main life issues than stages in the traditional sense:

  • Decision - The person is in a transition stage in their life where they need to break away from their parents and settle into the ordinary stage.
  • Ordinary - refuge in conformity and traditional values.
  • Authentic adult - the person who among other things faces anxiety with some measure of courage.

This means May draws attention to sides to deciding; being ruled over by conformism; and being authentic. May further observes it has become socially acceptable to seek sexual relationships cynically and avoid the natural drive to relate to another person and create new life, caring for another.

Further ideas by Rollo May - a sample

Rationalisation is a defence mechanism where you "invent" an acceptable motive [Cf May 1971:150]

The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it's conformity.

The ability to get aware of one's own being makes man differ from the other beings. [Cf May 1971:67]

The splitting of the culture and repression go hand in hand. Or just as well: the surrounding culture may cause splits and suppression. [Cf. May 1971:42]

The deepest human experiences happen in Time, in that dimension. [May 1971:99]

Defenses against the truth are wound so tightly around us. But as art chips away at our defenses. [My Quest for Beauty]

The Western soul disease of alienation leads to neurotic dissolution inside and utter despair. [Cf May 1971:42-43]

Courage is . . . the foundations that underlies . . . personal values. [The Courage to Create]

It is dangerous to know, but it is more dangerous not to know. [Love and Will, 1969]

Now it is no longer a matter of deciding what to do, but of deciding how to decide.

Freud was in error when he held that religion is per se a compulsion neurosis. Some religion is and some is not.

Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt but in spite of [mature] doubt.

Lincoln . . . openly admitted his doubts and as openly preserved his commitment.

Some patients are guilty because they have locked up within themselves some of their essential possiblilites. [Cf May 1971:83]

Creativity is not merely the innocent spontaneity of our youth and childhood.

The creative process [may represent] the highest degree of emotional health [of] normal people in the act of actualizing themselves.

We "forget to be" by omitting to bring forth and carry ourselves - and sustain, hold, convey, direct ourselves - by being swallowed in "das Man", that is, conform anonymity. We fail to the degree this has happened. [Cf May 1971:83]

The chief problem of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness.

[A goal:] Live each moment.

Often when one works at a hard question . . . nothing is found, and then all of a sudden [some] idea presents itself to the mind.

If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.

Joy is the emotion which accompanies our fulfilling our natures as human beings. It is based on . . . worth and dignity.

Those who are essential failures can dissolve what was to be good in happenings. Guard against that by the company you keep, and do not be taken in by anyone else, at least.

Existential Issues of May

Rollo May defines the self as the "I" as experienced by an individual. May's self-approach is existential: he conceives the self as a dynamic entity, alive with potentiality.

May represents a holistic approach in seeking to understand man below the surfaces. One main aim is to grasp the reality and essence of his being. Man is thought of as being and becoming, as a dynamic process, as a complex organism in relation to the universe [Shertzer and Stone 1974:225]. However, if an insight or perception is too hard to handle at the moment, it may be repressed afterwards, and may very well do havoc for that reason, May considers.


Suppressed guilt may fuel neurotic and persecutional fears, even being haunted by the urge to seek out unwelcome places that may contain punishing agents.

Insights or knowledge that is turned to no good use, may not be too bad to carry. However, insight that is too painful to see and live up to, may evoke defence maneuvres in the subconscious. They are for protection, but may make things worse, in that they may become unbending and unfit. They also cost a lot of mental drive to be kept intact, these "walls". Many somatic symptoms - including stiffness or tenseness - can emerge due to them, according to psychoanalytic thought. But if the defence maneuvres in turn become really bad, and not just neurotic, several mental disorders may be regarded as the effect of drowning one's highest or better knowledge.

Thus it can be held that "drowning" one's knowledge or conscience may be maddening in turn. It can take much time, though. Intensity, exposure frequency and gravity count in such a defilement process.

Applying Rollo May's Wisdom with Tact is Necessary

In the realm of learning, some implications may be hard to tackle. For example, psychoanalysis thinks that various repressed or suppressed problems or problem areas may emerge if someone is willing to act as a sort of midwife. And after the problem has been seen without explaining-away, nursing may be good too. Dealing with emerged, old problems may be long due, and the process may take lots of time. A relaxed, welcoming atmosphere is good for psychoanalytic talk and thriving alike. A simile or suggestion may help some, and those who cannot take insights "relayed" by such means, are free not to take it personally, not to look deeper, and hence not need to bulwark by defence works that day.

All this goes to suggest that wisdom may or may not be masked, and that figurative, loose wisdom may be better received than direct statements of unpleasant facts. "No one likes a grumbler" is shown by how the alcoholic who is told by his doctor to stop drinking, turns away from the doctor from it.

In folk education there are various ways to tackle or get around the defence work. Proverbs are rich in metaphors, similes and allegories may serve to introduce unwelcome material too. And as it is said, culture is carried on by stories. Stories may contain unwelcome, but needed lessons to some.

Here we have gone far, in step with an insight passed on by Rollo May: The great lesson may be too hard to handle, and by not welcoming it some seem to foster unhealthy, mental defences like blocks and shields. There is a way round: indirect telling. Proverbs at times used in such a way, and can work like magic if they are to the point too.

Those who lack imagination, may be neurotic behind a thick varnish of common-looking adaptations.


Proverbs, stories, imagery, figurative presentations of essentials are there to avoid id scrapping. Simple language, such as Plain English, can help too, and foster better conditions. There should be little doubt about that. Eloquence could also help in a tight spot, but not all of them. In all this you could detect the contours of a pedagogical program much fit for humanistic mediation. It may serve healthy living and culture too, indirectly, even though more is needed that words of wisdom in that domain. For fairness, example, and handling rides on top of salient points and learning. [Culler 1997;]

If you would like to learn more about defence maneuvres, here is a good list: [LINK]



Existentialism: Salient Points

Existentialism holds that humans are free and responsible for their own actions in a world "without meaning". If the world is meaningless, so is existentialism, which is "in the world and of the world". Some do not consider too well . . . And to be "free and responsible", must we be free from responsibilities too, we may wonder.

"On a poor foundation, a faulty edifice, no matter how impressive-looking at first glance." But hopefully the location is not too mean there, and some of the view is nice.

Nicola Abbagnano on Existentialism

Dr Rollo May is an Existentialist. There are many kinds of it. Existential thinkers keep the emphasis on the individual, but differ on other issues. Yet it is central for Existentialists to reassert human authenticity, dignity, individuality and freedom degrees, along with sensibility as to what "the system" of society wants. It is likewise concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Existentialism takes into account such as: the more or less free will; life choices; life struggle; decisions; non-rational sides to living; discipline; the quite unnatural society and its often arbitrary and religious rules. It also react against acting arbitrarily.

Below are some theses on Existentialism. Not all aspects are covered, and the array may not be completely free from bias. For the sake of simplicity I have largely paraphrased from an exposition of Existentialism by the Italian existential philosopher Nicola Abbagnano (1901-90). Little has been added.


INTRODUCTION: Existentialism is a philosophical movement. It embraces diverse doctrines but centres on analysis of individual existence. Many of the doctrines focus on man's plight too. In the Existentialist universe the individual is to assume responsibility for his acts without knowing for sure what is solidly right or wrong or great or bad. We may add: Blessed is he who knows for sure what is what and what is not. He cannot be an Existentialist who does not know what is true or not, but goes on proposing this and that as if with mouth diarrhoea caused by his dirty hands (Sartre).

LoTo clarify one's thinking is of the individual

HOW DIFFERENT Existentialists solve the problem of freedom differs.

There is to be authenticity of existence. A human life is a project where one has to try to remove inauthenticity and alienation. [With Sartre]

Karl Jaspers took to rational clarification of existence.

Possibility is a key issue in Existentialism. In art, the analogues of Existentialism may be Surrealism, Expressionism, and schools that view the work of art not as the reflection of a reality external to man but as an immediate expression of human reality.

Existentialism has drawn on a diversity of sources, including St. Augustine and Nietzsche. Contemporary Existentialism reproduces such ideas among others, and combines them in more or less coherent ways.

Martin Heidegger dropped 'consciousness' for the term Dasein to designate human reality in its totality. His Dasein is always particular and individual.

And Kierkegaard interpreted existence in terms of possibility.

Existentialism holds that man is free to choose. And Being is understood as mystery by Marcel. He felt free to choose that spin on it. ◊

LoInterlinked structures and bosses determine the single person's coping, his ways and means of success

All possibilities do not look nice and cogent at first glance. - TK

Human expressions structure human existence, and not always in neat and good enough ways. - TK

Interdisciplinary ones can feel free to talk of Being, considering the illumination and revelation Marcel talks of. - TK ◊

Human existence opens possibilities. - TK

LoTranscending Revelations is a pot of gold among opportunities, at least to some . . .

EXISTENTIALISM can lead toward the quest for a more direct relationship of existence with Being, so that Being reveals itself, at least partly. (5)

Not all analyses have to look coherent in their presentation. - TK

Humanistic Existentialism has recognized the positive and more or less determining function that man may have. It has insisted, as in Merleau-Ponty, on man's duty to assume responsibility of effective action to transform the society and the world we live in.

Existence is interpreted in terms of possibilities. Possibilities can be both acted on, extended and deepened. Many existentialists have focused on phenomena that are negative or baffling as belonging to the essential features of human reality, but also on possibilities. One is to act in the world with calculated risks.

Existentialism does not think man is alone in the universe, does not hold the view that "I alone exist", and religious forms of Existentialism insist on transcendence, considering it to be the property of Being.

For Heidegger, Being is interpreted better through the etymology of those words that designate the most common things of daily life than through the analysis of existential possibilities. Existentialism can also hold that human existence, posing itself as a problem, projects itself with absolute freedom. (6)

Existentialism could well benefit from a more attentive consideration of science. Science offers today the example of an extensive and coherent use of the concept of the possible in the key notions that it employs, especially in those branches that are interdisciplinary—among them such notions as indeterminacy, chance, probability, field, model, project, structure, and conditionality.

According to Marcel, a Christian Existentialist philosopher and dramatist, the method of philosophy depends upon a recognition of the mystery of Being. Philosophy should lead man up to the point of illumination of Revelation, says he.

It is not always easy: Sartre says, "Since I am free, I project my total possible, but I thereby posit that I am free and that I can always nihilate this first project and make it past."

However, Sartre also affirms: "We said that freedom is not free not to be free and that it is not free not to exist." And "The possible is—so to speak—an option on being, and if it is true that the possible can come into the world . . . this implies for human reality the necessity of being its being in the form of an option on its being". He also says, "The possible is the something which the For-itself lacks in order to be itself".

There are various forms of Existentialism, including theological ones. Some forms focus on man's authentic existence.

Many of the theses that Existentialists defend or illustrate in their analyses are drawn from the wider philosophical tradition. (7)

Existentialism can present itself as a humanism and much else out of personal choices. "Moral choice is comparable to the construction of a work of art," says Sartre. [Kearney 1976:57]


  1. To clarify one's thinking is of the individual, or die Seele.
  2. Inter-structures and bosses also determine the single person's coping, his ways and means of success.
  3. Transcending Revelations is a pot of gold among opportunities, at least to some . . . and many equivocal and unequivocal utterances exceed those of Jean Paul Sartre.

IN NUCE The individual learns to inspect and clarify findings about mom and dad and other bosses, and later learns to transcend opportunities like those, for the sake of being one's own and on one's own, carrying oneself to get a mate and home, and things like that.

"It all leads up to":

  • To be is to do. - Søren Kierkegaard, in "Fear and Trembling" (or Socrates, or Kant, even Voltaire). Cf. "I am what I do." - Martin Buber
  • To do is to be. - Jean-Paul Sartre, in "Les mains sales (The Dirty Hands)"
  • To be do be do. - Frank Sinatra, in "Strangers in the Night"
  • Doh! - Homer Simpson

" Humour . . . symbolizes a truth that has not said its last word." - Jacques Lacan (1901-81) [In Kearney 1986:279]


Rollo May, Existentialism, Literature  

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

EB: Encyclopaedia Britannica Online / Yearly DVD Suite.

Kearney, Richard. Modern Movements in European Philosophy. Manchester: Manchester University, 1986.

May, Rollo, red. Eksistensiell psykologi. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1971. (Existential Psychology, New York: Random House, 1961).

May, Rollo. Freedom and Destiny. New York: Delta / Dell, 1981.

May, Rollo. Love and Will. New York: Delta/Dell, 1969.

May, Rollo. Menneskets dilemma i vår tid. Oslo: Aschehoug, 1971.

May, Rollo. Myter og identitet: Behovet for myter i vår tid. Oslo: Aventura, 1992.

May, Rollo. Symbolism in Religion and Literature. New York: George Braziller, 1961.

May, Rollo. The Art of Counceling. Nashville: Abingdon, 1967..

Mogk, Peter R. M. The Human Condition in the Thought of Rollo May. Montreal: McGill University, MA-thesis, Autumn 1972.

Shertzer, Bruce, and Shelley Stone. Fundamentals of Counseling. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1974.

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