Home » Rollo May – Existentialism

Rollo May – Existentialism


What Is Existentialism?

Existentialism:  The philosophy that focuses on people’s attempts to make sense of their existence.  People assign meaning to life and take responsibility for their actions as they try to live in accordance with their chosen values.

Dasein: A person exists in a particular place at a particular time, this person can be conscious of, and responsible for, his or her existence, and can therefore choose the direction his or her life will take.

Being: developmental process whereby the individual seeks to realize his or her unique set of potentials

  • Ontology: branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the nature of being

May disapproved of the existentialists’ use of the term “being”  because it connotes a substance that is static and unchanging.  He preferred the term becoming: the process in which we ourselves are the source of change, as we struggle as individuals to realize our potential.

Existentialism and Psychoanalysis:

Existential-analytic perspective: theoretical approach to understanding human personality that combines elements of existential philosophy with Freudian concepts

Three modes of being-in-the-world:

  • Umwelt: biological or natural environment in which human beings exist
  • Mitwelt: world of interrelationships
  • Eigenwelt: unique presence in human beings of self-awareness and self-relatedness

The Loss of Our Moral Compass:

May suggested that we live in an age of transition, in which our values and goals are continually being called into question.  A central value of the 19th century was healthy individualism: self-reliance, competitiveness, and assertiveness.  Unhealthy individualism: drives people to see themselves as separate from and superior to others. This creates serious mental health problems for people because it leaves them with no sense of community.

Why We Experience Value Disintegration:

Many people have acquired an exploitative competitiveness  termed hypercompetitiveness.  They relentlessly pursue personal success and material possessions, people experience loss of our sense of dignity and self-worth, loss of our sense of relatedness to nature, and the loss of our ability to relate to each other in a mature, loving way.

The Consequence of Disintegration:

  • Feelings of emptiness and isolation from others
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Unhealthy communal orientation: others should be used to further one’s own ends and to satisfy only one’s personal goals
  • Healthy communal orientation: other people should be treated with dignity and respect and helped when they are in need

The Emergence of Anxiety:

Feelings of anxiety stem from loneliness and emptiness, anxiety signals an internal conflict.

  • Normal anxiety: painful feeling that emanates from a realistic threat to our established values
  • Neurotic anxiety: painful feeling that is produced by an excessive reaction to a threat to our values

The Expansion of Consciousness:

The more conscious of our being we are, the more spontaneous and creative we will be.  Consciousness allows us to be more capable of choosing our plans and reaching our goals.

Personality Development:

Development process centers on the physical and psychological ties between us and our parents and parental substitutes.  We must assume responsibility for our actions or to let others make our decisions for us.

Evolution of our consciousness as we break these ties:

  • Innocence: no consciousness of self
  • Rebellion: we seek to establish our inner strength
  • Ordinary consciousness of self: some awareness of prejudices and limitations
  • Creative consciousness of self: transcendence of the usual or ordinary limits of consciousness

Assessment Techniques:

No primary focus on techniques; focus instead on the person’s attitudes, the special meanings of his or her existence.

Theory’s Implications for Therapy:

Goal of therapy:

  • To make lonely and empty people more aware of themselves and their potential for growth through an expansion of consciousness
  • To understand the person as a being-in-the-world

Evaluative Comments:

  • Comprehensiveness: broad in scope when compared to other humanistic positions
  • Precision and testability: imprecise and very difficult to test adequately
  • Parsimony: fails to meet the parsimony criterion; too many redundant concepts
  • Empirical validity: little empirical support
  • Heuristic value: theory is proving to be stimulating to scholars in the humanistic psychology movement and to members of the public, but not to researchers within mainstream psychology
  • Applied value: considerable influence on professionals in areas such as education, pastoral counseling, family life, and religion



Bernstein, D.A. & Nash, P.W. (2008). Essentials of psychology (4th ed.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Feldman, R. (2013). Essentials of understanding psychology (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Friedman, H.S. & Schustack, M.W. (2012), Personality: classic theories and modern research (5th ed). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Ryckman, R. M. (2013). Theories of personality (10th ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

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