Rollo May and Existentialism in Psychology

Rollo May and Existentialism in Psychology

Rollo May is one of those figures of psychologywhich represent an interesting nuance of different currents. He was sometimes associated with humanistic psychology, and even with psychoanalysis. His main contribution was, in fact, to lay the foundations of existentialist psychology. This is a very remarkable approach in which philosophy and psychology combine.

Rollo May was born in Ohio (United States) in 1909 and died in San Francisco in 1994. His family was middle class. He lived in an environment that self-defined as anti-intellectualist. They opposed academics and science. His parents separated when he was in high school.His sister had a nervous breakdown and Rollo May had to interrupt his studies and return home to take care of his mother, his sister and his younger brother.

” It's an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when they have lost the way. “

-Rollo May-

All this left a mark deepin the psyche of Rollo May. He fell several times, throughout his life, into deep depressions. He traveled to Greece when he finished his studies. It was then that he allowed himself to be impregnated by the philosophical spirit, so that philosophy had since made his major concerns.

The academic training of Rollo May

Returning from Greece, and immersed in one of his depressive phases, he entered the Theological Seminary of the Union in New York. His goal was not really to be a priest. He simply considered that it wasa good place to think about the problems that were disturbing him. Especially suicide, despair and anxiety. At that time, psychology did not pay much attention to these problems.

There he met theologian Paul Tillich, with whom he established a friendship that lasted all his life.He had the misfortune to contract tuberculosis, so he interrupted his studies and was transferred to a sanatoriumwhere he stayed more than three years.

He had the opportunity, during his convalescence, to read some books that marked him forever. The work of Freud, first of all, and especially the books of Soren Kierkegaard, father of existentialism. Although he appreciated the contributions of psychoanalysis, he came to the conclusion that existentialism better expresses what human beings in crisis experienced.

A new direction

A new Rollo May emerged from this long convalescence due to tuberculosis. When he was cured, he left the sanatorium and returned to New York to complete his theological studies in 1938. He then decided to study psychoanalysis and later obtained a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University.

Rollo May was also interested in humanist psychologists.He succeeded in structuring, based on his reading and his reflections, what would become existentialist psychology.It was essentially based on four pillars:

  • Man is inhabited by antagonistic forces.This causes anxiety, which is also a motor of his life.
  • The meaning that each person gives to his life is materialized in decision and commitment.
  • The human being does not have to be in such and such a wayEveryone is, becomes and gets done.
  • Psychotherapy helps to look beyond the obvious, to interpret the signs that appear in an individual's life.

The theory of Rollo May

As an existentialist psychologist,Rollo May's central theme was the meaning of existence and freedom. He says that the human being is constantly confronted with the dilemma of being both object and subject. Purpose, because the actions of others fall on him. Subject, because he is also an active agent in the face of his reality.

He also considers that conflict is the very essence of life. The simple fact of existing already raises a series of conflicts that are never resolved completely. These are not something external, but are in us. Neither are they negative, they are a condition of existence itself.

The existential psychotherapy proposed by Rollo May is a process in which we question the existence of this individual who asks for help.The main concerns that afflict it are sought and analyzed through dialogue. The aim is therefore to identify prejudices and to detect ways of doing things that generate negative effects. This psychotherapy does not necessarily lead to well-being, but rather to a more rational way of coping with life.


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