Rollo May – Existential Psychology

Existential Psychology

One psychoanalyst contracted tuberculosis during his late 30s, and his fight against this formidable illness proved to be a turning point in his life. At that time, effective medication had not yet been developed. So Rollo May waited hour by hour and day by day in an upstate New York sanitarium for the verdict that would spell either a return to health, lifelong invalidism, or death. May spent much of this suspenseful time reading, and he made a surprising discovery: his own profound anxiety had far more to do with the dread of nonbeing, as described by such existentialists as Kierkegaard, than with the mechanical and metaphysical construct of libido.

Fortunately, May recovered from his illness. But his psychoanalytic orientation did not, and his subsequent professional life has been devoted to an existential approach to personality.


  • To devise a theory of personality based on existentialism, a philosophy of human nature that emphasizes the science of being (ontology).

  • To show that anxiety about death and non-being has a powerful (albeit often unconscious) influence on our behavior.

  • To emphasize the importance of courageously asserting our existence in the world and choos- ing a course in life that fulfills our own unique potentials, despite the ultimate nothingness that awaits us all.

  • To argue that we have both benign and malignant innate potentials, and we must accept and learn to control our dark side.

  • To adopt a holistic approach that does not divide personality into separate parts and does not regard intrapsychic conflicts as important.

  • To retain Freud’s emphasis on unconscious processes, but to do so in a holistic way: when we hide important truths about ourselves from ourselves, it is because we lack courage.

  • To show that psychopathology involves symptoms of an existential nature: losing one’s sense of purpose in life (intentionality), and failing to fulfill one or more of the essential aspects of being (physiological, psychological, and social).

  • To devise a method of psychotherapy that helps patients regain their courage to exist in the world, recapture their lost intentionality, and make choices that fulfill their unique potentials.


Rollo Reese May was born on April 21, 1909, in Ada, Ohio, but spent most of his childhood in Marine City, Michigan. May received his bachelor of arts degree from Oberlin College in 1930, after which he pursued an Eriksonian course by touring Europe as an itinerant artist and teacher. During this time he attended the summer school of Alfred Adler, whose work he admired but regarded as somewhat oversiplified. (See May, 1975, p. 37; Reeves, 1977, pp. 251–263.)

May returned to the United States to earn a divinity degree from the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1938, where he first encountered existential thought, and later served in a parish in Montclair, New Jersey. But he became more interested in psychology and underwent training in psychoanalysis at the William Alanson White Institute, where he met and was influenced by Fromm and Sullivan. May opened his own private practice in 1946, and received the first Ph.D. in clinical psychology ever awarded by Columbia University in 1949. At about this time he underwent the aforementioned traumatic bout with tuberculosis, which did considerably more to influence him toward existentialism than his formal education. May married Florence deFrees in 1938, a union that was to produce one son and two daughters, and was married to Georgia Johnson at the time of his death.‌

May’s published works include some dozen books, notably the bestselling Love and Will (1969c), and numerous articles. In addition to his work as a practicing psychotherapist, he lectured at such institutions as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Vassar, Oberlin, New York University, and the New School for Social Research. Rollo May died of congestive heart failure at his home in Tiburon, California, on October 22, 1994.


Being-in-the-World (Dasein)

Each of us has an inherent need to exist in the world into which we are born, and to achieve a conscious and unconscious sense of ourselves as an autonomous and distinct entity. The stronger this being- in-the-worldor Dasein (sein = to exist, or be alive; da = there), the healthier the personality.

To fulfill one’s own innate potentials (that is, to develop Dasein) requires constant effort and courage. The only way to enjoy a meaningful life is by affirming and asserting our being-in-the-world—even (if need be) in the face of social pressures to conform, misguided parental standards, and the threat of death itself:

The hallmark of courage in our age of conformity is the capacity to stand on one’s own convictions—not obstinately or defiantly (these are expressions of defensiveness, not courage) nor as a gesture of retaliation, but simply because these are what one believes. It is as though one were saying through one’s actions, “This is my self, my being.” … [Thus it is through self-assertion and] will that the human being experiences his identity. “I” is the “I” of “I can.” (May, 1969c, p. 243; 1953/1973, p. 236. See also May, 1958/1967b, pp. 37, 41–47, 55–61; 1958/1967c, pp. 31–32; 1969a, pp. 13, 19, 45; 1972, pp. 40–41; 1977b, pp. 303–304.)

No one else can tell an individual how or what to be-in-the-world. Each of us must discover our own potentials and values, and the best way to do so is by experiencing each moment actively and spontaneously. Even such basic human drives as sexuality and aggression are of secondary importance to Dasein. Drives are an abstraction, and perceiving ourselves as “having” them is dehumanizing. We are our hun- ger, thirst, sexuality, feelings, and ideas, and it is this experiencing that is truly and distinctively human. (See May, 1958/1967b, pp. 42–44; 1969a, p. 14; 1969b, pp. 73, 78.)

Modes of Being-in-the-WorldOur being-in-the-world comprises three simultaneous and interrelated modes (or “regions”): the world of internal and external objects, which forms our physiological and physical environment (Umwelt; literally, “world around”); the social world of other people (Mitwelt; literally, “with-world”); and the psychological world of one’s self, potentials, and values (Eigenwelt; literally, “own-world”). Whereas some personality theorists prefer to concentrate on only one of these modes, existential psychology holds that all three must be accorded equal emphasis in order to achieve a true understanding of the human personality. (See May, 1958/1967b, pp. 61–65.)

The Umwelt is the mode that so concerned Freud. In addition to our physical surroundings, it includes the state of need into which every person is cast by birth: hunger, thirst, sleep, and so forth. The conditions into which we are born, such as having instinctual needs, a genetically predetermined height, and a culture with certain expectations, represent the few aspects of existence that we cannot control through our own choices. This circumstance is sometimes referred to as thrownness, or facticity.

The Mitwelt involves our inherent need to form personal relationships for their own sake, rather than to sublimate some instinctual drive. No one can achieve a meaningful existence in isolation, as stressed by such theorists as Adler, Fromm, Horney, and Sullivan.

The Eigenwelt is the uniquely human world of self-awareness (as in Rogerian theory), or knowing that we are the center of our existence and recognizing our own particular potentials. This mode is evident when we judge accurately what we do or do not like or need, or personally evaluate an experience. Conversely, feelings of emptiness and self-estrangement reflect some distortion of Eigenwelt. (See May, 1958/1967b, p. 63; 1967d; 1981.)

In contrast to Erikson’s construct of identity, Eigenwelt and Dasein do not depend on the opinions and expectations of other people. “If your self-esteem must rest in the long run on social validation, you have, not self-esteem, but a more sophisticated form of social conformity” (May, 1958/1967b, p. 45; see also pp. 46–47, 79).

Nonbeing and Anxiety

Although the subjective and objective aspects of personality are inextricably intertwined, there is one absolute fact about being-in-the-world: death, which none of us ever escapes. Our tenuous existence may be terminated at any moment by such vagaries of fate as an automobile accident, a criminal’s bullet, an earthquake, or a heart attack. The awareness of an eventual end to our being, and the impending psycho- logical destruction posed by rejections and insults, evoke the painful emotion of anxiety:

Anxiety is the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value that the individual holds essential to his existence as a personality.… [It] is the subjective state of the individual’s becoming aware that his existence can become destroyed, that he can lose himself and his world, that he can become “nothing.” (May, 1958/1967b, p. 50; 1977a, p. 205. See also May, 1953/1973, pp. 34–80; 1977a, pp. 204–239; Reeves, 1977, pp. 66–99, 176.)

Anxiety differs from fear in that it is ontological, or related to human existence. For example, sup- pose that a professor whom you know and respect passes by on the street without speaking. This snub may strike at the core of your self-esteem (“Am I not worth noticing? Am I nobody—nothing?”), thereby evoking anxiety that haunts you long after the event. Or if you conclude that survival is impossible without the love of a certain person (or a particular job, or some status symbol), the prospective loss of that love (or job, or symbol) will occasion considerable anxiety. In contrast, the fear caused by sitting in a dentist’s chair does not attack Dasein—and is therefore soon forgotten once the incident is over. “Anxiety is onto- logical, fear is not.… Anxiety can be understood only as a threat to Dasein” (May, 1958/1967b, p. 51; 1977a, p. 205). Thus May attributes anxiety not to some divisive intrapsychic conflict or external danger, but to the fundamental clash between being and the threat of nonbeing. A certain amount of anxiety is therefore a normal, and inevitable, aspect of every personality.

Ontological anxiety confronts each of us with a major challenge. This unpleasant emotion intensifies whenever we choose to assert our Dasein and strive to fulfill our innate potentials, for emphatically affirming that we exist also brings a reminder that someday we will not. It is all too tempting to repress or intellectualize our understanding of death, deny our Dasein, and opt for the apparent safety of social conformity and apathy. That is, we may try to deprive nonbeing of its sting by (consciously or unconsciously) treating our being-in-the-world as meaningless. “The awareness of death is widely repressed in our day.… [In fact,] the ways we repress death and its symbolism are amazingly like the ways the Victorians repressed sex” (May, 1969c, p. 106). Nevertheless, the healthy course is to accept nonbeing as an inseparable part of being. This will enable us to live what life we have to the fullest:

To grasp what it means to exist, one needs to grasp the fact that he might not exist, that he treads at every moment on the sharp edge of possible annihilation and can never escape the fact that death will arrive at some unknown moment in the future.… Without this awareness of nonbeing … existence is vapid [and] unreal.… But with the confrontation of nonbeing, existence takes on vitality and immediacy, and the individual experiences a heightened consciousness of himself, his world, and others around him.… [Thus] the confronting of death gives the most positive reality to life itself. (May, 1958/1967b, pp. 47–49. See also Becker, 1973; May, 1969a, p. 30.)

Fallibility and Guilt

No one ever deals perfectly with the three modes of being-in-the-world. Try as we may, our choices fail to fulfill at least some of our innate potentials (a denial of Eigenwelt). Perfect empathy is impossible, so even the best intentioned person sometimes relates to others in ways that are biased and dissatisfying (a denial of Mitwelt). And it is easy to overlook our communion with nature and the environment, and misperceive ourselves as separate and distinct from Umwelt.

Such inevitable failures evoke ontological guilt, another normal and necessary aspect of every personality. As with anxiety, the ideal course is to accept and use our guilt for constructive purposes—as by developing a healthy humility concerning the possibility of our own errors, and a readiness to forgive others their mistakes. (See May, 1958/1967b, pp. 52–55.)

Intentionality and Significance

In contrast to Freud, May attributes considerable importance to both psychic determinism and teleology. We are all to some extent impelled by forces from infancy and childhood, especially those of us who are more neurotic. Yet we also have the freedom, and the responsibility, to strive toward those goals that we select. Psychologically healthy people can readily imagine some desirable future state and then prepare

to move in this direction, a capacity May refers to as will or intentionality.3 (See May, 1939/1967a, pp. 45–53; 1958/1967b, pp. 41, 65–71; 1969c, pp. 92–94, 223–272; Reeves, 1977, pp. 147–221.)

According to May, a conscious and unconscious sense of purpose pervades all aspects of our existence—perceptions, memories, and so forth. For example, suppose that an individual perceives a house in the mountains. A prospective renter will look to see if it is well constructed and gets enough sun, a real-estate speculator will regard it primarily in terms of probable profit or loss, and a person who encounters unpleasant hosts will more readily observe its flaws. In each case the house is the same, but the experience depends on the viewer’s intentions. Also, as in Adlerian theory, our goals and plans for the future affect our memories of childhood. (See May, 1958/1967b, p. 69; 1969c, p. 232.)

To May, the loss of intentionality represents the major psychopathology of our time. “The central core of modern man’s ‘neurosis’ … is the undermining of his experience of himself as responsible, the sapping of his will and ability to make decisions” (May, 1969c, p. 184). May also concludes that the related feel- ings of intense powerlessness are likely to result in violence, a last-ditch attempt to prove that the sufferer can still affect someone significantly. Whereas Freud stressed psychic determinism in order to shatter the Victorian misconception that personality is wholly free of childhood influences and irrationalities, May argues that we now must emphasize intentionality in order to remedy our current self-estrangement and apathy:

Everyone has a need for … significance; and if we can’t make that possible, or even probable, in our society, then it will be obtained in destructive ways. The challenge before us is to find [healthy] ways that people can achieve significance and recognition.… For no human being can stand the perpetually numbing experience of his own powerlessness. (May, 1969c, p. 14; 1972, p. 179. See also May, 1939/1967a, p. 216; 1969c, pp. 16, 31, 162, 182–183; 1972, pp. 21–23, 243.)


One constructive way of affirming Dasein is through love, another important ontological characteristic. “[Love is] a delight in the presence of the other person, and an affirming of his value and development as much as one’s own” (May, 1953/1973, p. 241; see also May, 1953/1973, pp. 227, 238–246; 1958/1967b, pp. 64–65, 75; 1969c, pp. 37–38, 72–79, 289–293, 302, 317–319; Reeves, 1977, pp. 100–146).

Love always involves a blending of four components, albeit in varying proportions. As in Freudian theory, our need for sex is satisfied through drive reduction and physical release. Another particularly important aspect of love is eros, a striving for fulfillment through union with significant others. In contrast to sex, eros includes such pleasurable tension increases as thinking of and yearning for the loved one. One noted example is the passion and vitality of Romeo, who compares his Juliet to rare jewels and the stars in heaven. The other two characteristics of love (to which May devotes considerably less attention) are friendship and liking (philia), as with the Sullivanian chum, and a nonpossessive devotion to the welfare of the other person (agapé), like Maslow’s construct of B-love. Thus love is a rich experience that encompasses all three modes of being-in-the-world: biological drives (Umwelt), relationship to others (Mitwelt), and the affirmation of one’s self and values (Eigenwelt).

Not all aspects of love are pleasant. Love may also lead to increased anxiety, since it can bring disas- ter as well as joy—as one may well discover on becoming a parent for the first time, and realizing that the beloved child is all too vulnerable to potential nonbeing and the whims of fate. Therefore, the ability to love requires a strong being-in-the-world. Conversely, the widespread loss of Dasein and intentionality in our society has resulted in an inability to experience and express genuine love. We have repressed eros, and replaced it with an emphasis on the mechanical and depersonalized aspects of sex:

There is nothing less sexy than sheer nakedness, as a random hour at any nudist camp will prove. It requires the infusion of the imagination (which I … call intentionality) to transmute physiology and anatomy into [passion and eros].… [Yet today,] elaborate accounting and ledger-book lists—how often this week have we made love? did he (or she) pay the right amount of attention to me during the evening? was the foreplay long enough?—[hover] … in the stage wings of the drama of love-making the way Freud said one’s parents used to … [and result in] alienation, feelings of loneliness, and depersonalization.… [In fact, whereas] the Victorian nice man or woman was guilty if he or she did experience sex, now we are guilty if we don’t. (May, 1969c, pp. 40, 43–44; see also pp. 13–15, 30–33, 37–72, 102, 107, 111.)

The solution to our inability to love is to rediscover our Dasein and will, and reunite sex with eros and passion.

The Daimonic

According to May, our motives include innate urges that are both benign and illicit. Among the former are sex, passion and eros, and procreation; whereas the latter include hostility, rage, cruelty, and the quest for power. Any of these aspects has the potential to dominate one’s personality. May refers to them as the daimonic, after an ancient Greek word for both the divine and diabolical. (See M. H. Hall, 1967b, p. 29; May, 1969c, pp. 122–177; 1977b, pp. 304–306.)

To achieve psychological health, we must consciously accept and attempt to control the daimonic. Yet this is no easy task, for it is all too tempting to deal only with our virtues and repress the dark side of our personality. Such a denial of the daimonic produces a naive innocence that often has disastrous con- sequences, like the failure to understand and check a Hitler until it is too late, or the misguided belief that one can walk safely through an armed confrontation like Kent State; to be unaware of evil is to be readily destroyed by it. Or a daimonic that is allowed to remain unconscious may be projected onto members of other countries or ethnic groups, resulting in violence, assassination, and war.


Since we are our Dasein, anxiety, guilt, and love, it would be misleading—and depersonalizing—to attribute these ontological characteristics to abstract structural constructs. Therefore, existential psychol- ogy adopts a holistic approach to personality. May does accept the importance of unconscious processes, however, and of such defense mechanisms as repression, intellectualization, projection, and reaction formation:

The great contribution of Freud was his carrying of the Socratic injunction “know thyself” into new depths that comprise, in effect, a new continent, the continent of repressed, unconscious motives.… He uncovered the vast areas in which motives and behavior—whether in bringing up children, or making love, or running a business, or planning a war—are determined by unconscious urges [and] anxieties.… (May, 1969c, pp. 51, 182. See also May, 1958/1967c, pp. 22–23, 28; 1958/1967b, pp. 68, 79, 88–91; 1969a, p. 19; 1969c, pp. 132–133, 158, 174, 199, 205–206, 241, 260; 1953/1973, p. 52.)

When we repress anxiety, eros, or the daimonic (as we all too often do), it is not because one part of a fragmented personality is at war with some other part. It is the whole individual who lacks courage, chooses not to experience such threatening human characteristics, and (as in Fromm’s theory) escapes from the freedom to know and be oneself—a misguided decision that inevitably results in the loss of Dasein.


The development of a healthy personality may be impeded by various pathogenic parental behaviors. Rejection causes the child to deny Mitwelt and shy away from other people, especially when it is hypo- critically disguised as loving concern. Stifling the child’s natural expressions of will tends to result in a neurotic quest for safety, wherein Dasein is sacrificed in an attempt to become obedient and angelic. Catering to children’s every whim prevents them from establishing their individuality by rebelling against parental authority, with such pampering particularly likely in the case of the only child (as in Adlerian theory):

There is great temptation to overprotect the [only child]. When he calls, the parents run; when he whim- pers, they are abashed; when he is sick, they are guilty; when he doesn’t sleep, they look as though they are going to have nervous breakdowns. The infant becomes a little dictator by virtue of the situation he is born into.… [Yet] all this attention actually amounts to a considerable curtailing of the child’s freedom, and he must, like a prince born into a royal family, carry a weight for which children were never made. (May, 1969c, p. 120. See also May, 1969a, pp. 17–18; 1969c, pp. 119, 140, 278; 1972, pp. 113–114, 123–126, 144, 159, 176; 1953/1973, pp. 195–196; 1975, pp. 56–58.)


Dream Interpretation

Since intentionality and Dasein involve unconscious as well as conscious aspects, May often turns to dreams for information about an individual’s being-in-the-world. Every dreamer uses personal symbols in order to express particular ideas, so free association may be needed to unravel the meaning of this private language. But since May views personality as a unified whole, he rejects the idea of a Freudian dream- censoring component. Therefore, May’s approach to dream interpretation tends to be more straightforward than Freud’s.

An impotent patient dreamed of having a metal pipe inserted in his head by his therapist, the end of which emerged below as an erect penis. This passive solution reflected his loss of Dasein and pathological dependence on other people, together with his misguided view of himself as a brainy but heartless sex machine. A college student who participated in violent protest movements proved to be compensating for unconscious feelings of intense powerlessness, as shown by recurrent nightmares wherein his parents and cousins did not know him and he disappeared, unmourned, into the Pacific Ocean. Another young man, who was just beginning to discover and accept his strength and Dasein, revealed this improvement through various dreams. In one of these he was a rabbit, chased by wolves, who turned on and attacked his pursuers. In another, he climbed a ladder with weak rungs by holding the sides together.

Some dreams cannot occur until the individual has made an appropriate decision in waking life. A dream that reveals the domineering nature of an employer (or a parent) may be possible only after the dreamer has decided to quit the job in question (or to leave home). Thus dreams, like perceptions and memories, are a function of intentionality. (See May, 1958/1967b, pp. 77, 88; 1960; 1969b, p. 80; 1969c, pp. 56–57; 1972, pp. 36, 50, 133, 139; 1975, pp. 125ff; May & Caligor, 1968.)


Like Erikson and Maslow, May cautions that a complete theory of personality cannot be derived solely from the study of psychopathology. Yet clinical data are invaluable because they transcend our everyday defenses, and reveal vital aspects of human nature:

It is one thing to discuss the hypothesis of aggression as resulting from frustration, but quite another to see the tenseness of a patient, his eyes flashing in anger or hatred, his posture clenched into paralysis, and to hear his half-stifled gasps of pain from reliving the time a score of years ago when his father whipped him because, through no fault of his own, his bicycle was stolen.… Such data are empirical in the deepest meaning of the term. (May, 1969c, p. 19.)

Psychopathology as Constricted Dasein. The healthy individual enjoys a strong Dasein, and lives actively and purposefully in UmweltMitwelt, and Eigenwelt. In contrast, psychopathology involves a loss of will and the subjugation of one mode of being-in-the-world to another.

For example, the sufferer may reject interpersonal relationships (Mitwelt) as irreconcilable with his or her own needs and values (Eigenwelt). Or Eigenwelt may be sacrificed to Mitwelt, with the individual becoming a social chameleon and constantly trying to adapt to the wishes of others. Or the sufferer may deny Umwelt, and an important drive like sexuality, in order to conform to parental demands. Whatever the form, such a constriction or loss of Dasein results in self-estrangement, apathy, and an inability to experience one’s existence as real. “The fundamental neurotic process in our day is the repression of the ontological sense, the loss of [one’s] sense of being” (May, 1958/1967b, p. 86; see also May, 1969b, p. 75; 1969c, pp. 111, 212–218, 244).

Causes of Psychopathology. To May, as to Freud, psychopathology may be caused by trauma that occurs early in life. For example, the child’s love, trust, and will may be shattered by such pathogenic parental behaviors as overprotectiveness, overpermissiveness, domination, rejection, and hypocrisy. Yet since May’s goal is to free personality theory from the shackles of psychic determinism, he prefers to stress the teleological aspects of psychopathology.

According to May, the sufferer’s inability to accept ontological anxiety and guilt leads to an extremely poor choice: namely, to neutralize the dread of nonbeing by sacrificing Dasein. But abandoning one’s true innate potentials by attempting to be what others want, by denying Mitwelt and living as a recluse, or by rejecting one’s own biological drives is always to be on the verge of loneliness or frustration. Paradoxically, therefore, the sufferer’s all-out quest for safety results in an existence so limited as to be all the more easily destroyed, and causes even greater anxiety and guilt. (Conversely, the healthy person who asserts Dasein and readily accepts all three modes of being-in-the-world is far less vulnerable to threats in any one of them). Thus May, like most theorists, regards psychopathology as a difference in degree rather than in kind. (See May, 1969c, pp. 16, 20–21, 25–26; Reeves, 1977, pp. 69–71, 87, 119.)

Varieties of Psychopathology. Existential psychologists look with disfavor on the standard psychiatric nomenclature, which they regard as yet another depersonalizing abstraction. May himself is not totally opposed to the use of diagnostic terminology, so long as it does not become dogma and preclude a true understanding of the patient. He characterizes the majority of modern patients as suffering from obsessive-compulsive neurosis, and concludes that this typically represents a misguided effort to achieve some measure of personal significance.

One young man suffered through a highly pathogenic childhood that included a pampering and seductive mother, a rejecting father who would hold grudges for weeks over trivial incidents, and belittle- ment by his peers. To survive in this virulent emotional climate, he denied his power to choose and

became totally submissive. As a result, his assertive potentials emerged in an indirect and tortuous form: a daily compulsive ritual wherein he had to lift the bedsheets exactly the proper distance before arising, put his clothes on in precisely the right order, eat breakfast in a rigid and predetermined manner, and so on, or else something terrible would happen to a member of his family. “What strikes us immediately in this complex system is the tremendous power it gives him. Any chance deed of his could decide whether someone lived or died” (May, 1972, p. 130; see also May, 1969a, pp. 22–23; 1969c, pp. 27, 196; 1972, pp. 126–137).


Theoretical FoundationThe goal of existential psychotherapy is to help patients recover their repressed Dasein, integrate their daimonic into consciousness, recapture their lost will, take responsibility for their lives, and make choices that lead to the fulfillment of their own innate potentials. “The aim of therapy is that the patient experience his existence as real … which includes becoming aware of his potentialities, and becoming able to act on the basis of them” (May, 1958/1967b, p. 85; see also pp. 37, 80, 86).

Although May retains the Freudian term patient, he shares Kelly’s belief that it is misleadingly pas- sive; changing one’s personality requires considerable effort and courage. May also agrees that the thera- pist must be sufficiently flexible to understand and use each patient’s constructs and language, rather than seeking to impose a single theoretical framework on all humanity. “The existential analysis movement is a protest against the tendency to see the patient in forms tailored to [the therapist’s] own preconceptions” (May, 1958/1967c, p. 8; see also May, 1969a, pp. 22–23; 1969c, pp. 196–197).

Therapeutic ProceduresThe existential psychotherapist strives to develop a genuine and empathic relationship with the patient, as in Rogerian psychotherapy. A variety of therapeutic procedures may be used, including face-to-face interviews and Rogerian unconditional positive regard, deducing vital information from the patient’s bodily movements (as in Adlerian theory), and/or the Freudian couch and free association. Regardless of the specific methods, the therapist’s primary goal is to engage the patient’s will and capacity to choose. “[If] the intentionality of the patient is not reached, he … never fully commits himself, is never fully in the analysis” (May, 1969c, p. 248; see also May, 1958/1967b, pp. 45, 78, 84, 87; 1958/1967c, pp. 5, 27; 1969a, p. 21; 1969b, p. 76; 1969c, pp. 91, 231–232, 235, 241, 246–272).

According to May, the main purpose of free association is to reveal the patient’s conscious and unconscious intentions. Other ways to raise the issue of intentionality include direct questions, such as “What do you wish from me today?” or “Why did you come today?” And any fledgling expressions of will by the patient, such as “perhaps I can try to do thus-and-so,” are always focused upon by the therapist.

Resistance and TransferenceTo a person who has surrendered Dasein and intentionality, the prospect of assuming responsibility and choosing a course in life is highly threatening. It is these fears, rather than some illicit instinct, that evoke the resistances described by Freud. However, May does accept Freud’s contention that paying for one’s therapy helps to overcome such difficulties. “The whole meaning of resistance and repression testifies to the anxiety and pain accompanying [the] disclosures about one’s self. That is one reason why it is good that the patient pay for his sessions; if he won’t take too much when he pays for it, he will take scarcely a thing given him gratis!” (May, 1969c, p. 165; see also May, 1958/1967b, p. 79).

May regards transference as one of Freud’s great contributions, and agrees that patients often unconsciously displace feelings and behaviors from previous significant others (such as the parents) to the therapist. But here again, he cautions that an excessive emphasis on the past can only erode the patient’s sense of responsibility. Transference involves forces from the present as well, for the typical patient is so

emotionally immature as to seek a beloved and omnipotent savior, and the therapist becomes a natural target for these current wishes and feelings. (See May, 1958/1967b, pp. 83–85, 89; 1969a, pp. 16–17.)

Psychotherapy and Social Reform. Like Fromm, May argues that our society is in many ways pathogenic. He contends that technology and technique have overwhelmed eros and passion, so that we are more concerned with functioning like well-oiled machines than with caring and loving. May is very critical of such inhuman behaviors as the Vietnam War, interracial strife, the cacophonous din and faceless hordes of the rush-hour subway, the assembly-line impersonality of giant corporations and universities, professors who write pointless books because they are more concerned with augmenting their list of publications than with pursuing exciting truths, television advertising that uses subtle lies to sell various products, and government officials who show their contempt for us by “explaining” national policy in evasions and double-talk. Finally, looming above us all is the hideous prospect of nuclear war. (See May, 1969c, pp. 31, 96, 185; 1972, pp. 29–31, 53–54, 68–71, 243.)

May does not share Fromm’s inclination to propose a radical remodeling of society. However, he does emphasize that we must achieve a more equitable distribution of authority and responsibility.

Literature and Art

The relatively small number of people who enter psychotherapy are, for the most part, unusually sensitive and gifted. They suffer from conflicts that the average person has managed to repress or rationalize, but that typically become major social issues in subsequent years. Literature and art also represent communications from the unconscious of a person living on the psychological frontier of society, and illuminate vital human conflicts that have not as yet gained widespread recognition.

For example, novels like Camus’s The Stranger and Kafka’s The Castle offer a compelling picture of a man’s estrangement from the world and from those he pretends to love. Playwrights such as Beckett, Pinter, Genêt, and Ionesco have dramatized our profound alienation and inability to communicate with one another on a truly human level. Melville’s Billy Budd depicts the dangers of innocence, with the title character ultimately destroyed because of his blindness to the evil nature of a shipmate. Innocence is also a theme of the popular movie The Last Picture Show, wherein women deprived of any economic or political power resort to a guise of purity and devious sexual machinations in an effort to achieve some measure of personal significance. The cruelty of the daimonic is vividly portrayed by the mutual emotional butchery of the leading characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And artists like Cézanne, Picasso, and van Gogh express our depersonalization visually, as by painting people who are literally in fragments. (See May, 1958/1967b, p. 57; 1958/1967c, pp. 16–17; 1969c, pp. 21–24, 110–111, 128, 148–149; 1972,

pp. 49–50, 68, 116, 205–211, 253; 1953/1973, pp. 17–18, 58–59; 1985.)


Criticisms and Controversies

Confusions and Contradictions. All too often, May fails to define and/or interrelate his constructs with sufficient clarity. For example, intentionality is used in four different ways. The opposite of apathy is sometimes defined as love, and sometimes as care. And neurosis is variously equated with the repression of one’s ontological sense, and with a conflict between two different ways of not fulfilling oneself (May, 1969c, pp. 29, 89, 247; Reeves, 1977, pp. 57–60, 63, 135–136, 209–210).

Major constructs disappear completely from one of May’s books to the next, leaving considerable doubt as to those that are essential to his theory. Even a fundamental concept like Dasein is virtually ignored in two of his major works, Love and Will (1969c) and Power and Innocence (1972). May’s discussion of the causes and dynamics of neurosis appears vague in comparison with the theories of other humanistically oriented psychologists, such as Horney and Rogers.

Lack of OriginalityMay has been criticized for presenting intentionality as a radically new addition to psychological thought in 1969, some 10 to 50 years after the teleologically oriented theories of Adler, Jung, and Allport. May’s treatment of power and innocence bears a marked similarity to the Adlerian concepts of striving for superiority and inferiority complex. Sacrificing Mitwelt to Eigenwelt (or vice versa), and the resulting increase in anxiety, is similar to Horney’s conception of moving away from (or toward) people and the resulting vicious circle. (See Figure 5.1.)

Lack of Scientific Rigor. The existential approach to science tends to rule out quantification and statistical analysis, a viewpoint most modern psychologists would reject. May makes sweeping statements (e.g., most Americans lack mercy) without any supporting data (1972, p. 53), giving his writing a distinctly sermonic, Frommian tone.

Empirical Research

Some existential psychologists have chosen to devise objective personality measures, and there exist inventories designed to measure such constructs as meaninglessness or “existential vacuum” (Crumbaugh, 1968) and existential morale and identity (Thorne & Pishkin, 1973). Other researchers have tried to deter- mine whether we are motivated by powerful unconscious fears of death, as the existentialists claim. Unfortunately, this area is beset by methodological difficulties. It is not easy to study unobservable, unconscious processes in the research laboratory. Furthermore, the fear of death is a complicated and multidimensional variable: It is partly conscious and partly unconscious, and the fear of nonbeing is only one of several reasons for fearing death. (Others include the fear of physical suffering, fears about the psychological and economic impact that death will have on loved ones, and being unable to achieve important goals.) Thus the results have been too equivocal for any definitive conclusions to be drawn. (See Schulz & Ewen, 1993, pp. 390–397.) In general, however, existential psychology has not generated much empirical research.


To some psychologists, concepts such as being-in-the-world offer a useful new way of conceptualizing the human personality. The work of May and others led some clinicians to add a new category to the diagnostic list, “existential neurosis,” which refers to chronic feelings of alienation and the belief that life is meaning- less. May has made interesting and significant points about our repressed fear of death, and the difficulty of asserting our true values and Dasein in a dangerous and unpredictable world. Love and Will (1969c) focused on such important issues as intentionality and personal responsibility, and became a national best- seller. And May’s writings represent the thoughts of a compassionate and insightful psychotherapist.

As a commentary on our time, May’s books include ideas of interest and importance. But as a theory of personality, his approach appears too flawed to stand on its own as a viable entity. Given these deficiencies, and the conceptual abstruseness of the major alternative approaches (Binswanger, Boss), existential psychology seems destined to occupy a secondary position to the similarly humanistic theories discussed in the preceding chapters.

Suggested Reading

May’s existentialist constructs are most comprehensively presented in four articles (1958/1967b, 1958/1967c, 1969a, 1969b), and his readable and provocative books include Man’s Search for Himself (1953/1973), Love and Will (1969c), Power and Innocence (1972), and The Meaning of Anxiety (1977a). Also useful is a comprehensive, if at times difficult, analysis of May’s theory by Reeves (1977).


Existential psychology is a philosophy of human nature that seeks to explain such modern forms of psychopathology as apathy and depersonalization. A leading exponent of this approach is Rollo May.

  1. The basic nature of human beings. Being-in-the-world (Dasein): Each of us has an inherent need to exist in the world into which we are born, and to achieve a conscious and unconscious sense of ourselves as an autonomous and distinct entity. This being-in-the-world (Dasein) comprises three simultaneous and interrelated modes: our physical and physiological surroundings (Umwelt), the social world of other people (Mitwelt), and the psychological world of one’s self, values, and potentials (Eigenwelt). Asserting Dasein is a task that requires constant effort, courage, and a willingness to accept the freedom and responsibility to choose one’s own course in life. Nonbeing and Anxiety: Death is one aspect of being-in-the-world that none of us ever escapes, and it may terminate our existence at any moment. The prospect of eventual nonbeing evokes anxiety, a certain amount of which is a normal and inevitable aspect of every personality. Guilt: No one ever fulfills all of his or her innate potentials, or deals perfectly with the three modes of being-in-the-world. These failures evoke guilt, a certain amount of which is also a normal and inevitable aspect of every personality. Intentionality: We are our choices, and our plans for the future pervade all aspects of our personality—perceptions, memories, dreams, and so forth. To May, the main symptom of modern neurosis is the loss of will and personal responsibility. Love: Love always involves a blending of four components, albeit in varying proportions: sex, eros, philia, and agapé. Modern neurosis typically involves the repression of eros and passion, resulting in a mechanical and unsatisfactory sexuality. The Daimonic: Although human destructiveness is due in large part to the powerlessness resulting from the loss of Dasein, we also have potentially powerful innate urges that are both benign and illicit. To achieve psychological health, we must consciously accept and attempt to control the daimonic.

  2. The structure of personalityMay adopts a holistic approach to personality and rejects the use of specific structural constructs. He does accept the importance of the unconscious, however, and of repression and other Freudian defense mechanisms.

  3. The development of personality. May warns that such damaging parental errors as overprotection, overpermissiveness, domination, rejection, and hypocrisy are likely to shatter the child’s independence and Dasein. For the most part, however, he devotes little attention to personality development.
  4. Further applications. Dream Interpretation: Since intentionality and Dasein involve unconscious as well as conscious aspects, May often turns to dreams for information about a person’s being-in-the-world. Since he regards personality as a unified whole, he rejects the idea of a dream-censoring component in favor of a more commonsense approach to dream interpretation. Psychopathology: Neurosis is typified by an inability to accept ontological anxiety and guilt, which causes the sufferer to try and neutralize the dread of non-being by sacrificing Dasein. One mode of being-in-the-world may be subjugated to another, as by rejecting inter- personal relationships in an attempt to preserve one’s own needs and values (sacrificing Mitwelt

    to Eigenwelt). This abandonment of one’s true needs and potentials results in a loss of intentionality and Dasein, increased anxiety, and an inability to experience one’s existence as real. Psychotherapy: The goal of existential psychotherapy is to help patients recover their repressed Dasein, integrate their daimonic into consciousness, recapture their lost will, take responsibil- ity for their own lives, and make choices that lead to the fulfillment of their own innate potentials. The therapist is procedurally eclectic, and may use various techniques (e.g., Freudian, Rogerian). Literature and Art: May finds many important examples of existential thought in literature and art, and refers to these sources frequently in his writings.

  5. EvaluationMay has been criticized for theoretical confusions and contradictions, failing to adhere to a consistent set of constructs, an inadequate explanation of the causes and dynamics of neurosis, a lack of originality, and a lack of scientific rigor. His contributions include an emphasis on such important issues as intentionality, personal responsibility, anxiety, and our repressed fear of death, useful criticisms and insights concerning our present society, and books that have achieved widespread popularity.