Rollo May

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Rollo May
Born (1909-04-21)April 21, 1909
Ada, Ohio, U.S.
Died October 22, 1994(1994-10-22) (aged 85)
Tiburon, California, U.S.
Nationality American
  • Psychologist
  • Author
Known for Love and Will (1969)

Rollo Reese May (April 21, 1909 – October 22, 1994) was an American existential psychologist and author of the influential book Love and Will (1969). He is often associated with humanistic psychology, existentialist philosophy and, alongside Viktor Frankl, was a major proponent of existential psychotherapy.[1] The philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich was a close friend who had a significant influence on his work.[2][3]

As well as Love and Will, May's works also include The Meaning of Anxiety (1950, revised 1977) and, titled in honor of Tillich's The Courage to Be, The Courage to Create (1975).


Early life[edit]

May was born in Ada, Ohio, on April 21, 1909, the first son of the six children of Earl Tittle May and Mattie Boughton May . He was the first son of a family with six children. Neither parent was well-educated, and a middle-American anti-intellectual attitude prevailed among them. In fact, when his elder sister experienced a psychotic breakdown, his father commented that it was due to "too much education". May felt that the comment was "inhumane and destructive" and came to hate the attitude of anti-intellectualism.[4] At an early age, May moved with his family to Marine City, Michigan, where he spent most of his childhood. As a young boy, May was not particularly close to either of his parents, who frequently argued among each other and eventually separated. May attributed his own two failed marriages to his mother's unpredictable behaviour and to his older sister's psychotic episode.[5] His mother often left the children to care for themselves, and with his sister suffering from schizophrenia, he bore a great deal of responsibility.[6] As a youth, he acquired an interest in art and literature, interests that never left him. His educational career took him to Michigan State University, where he pursued a major in English, but he was expelled due to his involvement in a radical student magazine. After being asked to leave, he attended Oberlin College and received a bachelor's degree in English in 1930. For the next three years, he roamed throughout eastern and southern Europe as an artist, painting pictures and studying native art. He tutored English in Greece at Anatolia College. This job provided him to work as an artist in Turkey, Poland and other countries. By the second year, he was beginning to become lonely, for which he poured himself into his work as a teacher. In the spring of that year, he experienced a nervous breakdown. He realised the importance of finding purposes of living and began to listen to his own inner voice. Later he wrote in his book, My Quest for Beauty, "It seems it had taken a collapse of my whole former way of life for this voice to make itself heard." [7] In 1932, May attended Adler's summer seminars at a resort in the mountains above Vienna. May greatly admired Alfred Adler and learned much about human behaviour at that time.[8]

Career in Psychology[edit]

Shortly after coming back to the United States,he became ordained as a minister at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he met Paul Tillich, who remained his friend for more than 30 years. But he left the ministry after several years to pursue a degree in psychology. He studied psychoanalysis at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry. There, he met Harry Stack Sullivan, president and co founder of William Alanson White Institute and Erich Fromm, who at that time was a faculty member of the institute. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1942 and spent 18 months in at the Saranac Sanitarium in upstate New York. He did not know whether he would live or die, as no medication was available for tuberculosis at that time. He felt helpless and had little to do, which made him grow an insight, that healing is active, not a passive process.[9] In 1946, May opened his own private practice and, two years later, joined the faculty of Wiliam Alanson White Institute. In 1949, at the age of 40, he earned PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University. May was a founder and faculty member of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in San Francisco.[10]


  • After recovering from illness, May wrote his dissertation on the subject of anxiety and the next year(1950) published it under the title "The Meaning of Anxiety".
  • Three years later, May wrote Man's Search for Himself(1953), the book that gained him some recognition in not only professional circles but among other educated people as well.
  • In 1958, he collaborated with Ernest Angel and Henry Ellenberger to publish Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology. This book introduced American psychotherapists to the concepts of existential therapy and continued the popularity of existential movement.
  • In 1969, May published his best-known work, Love and Will, which became a national best-seller and won him the 1970 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for humane scholarship.
  • In 1971, May won the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Contribution to the Science and Clinical Psychology Award.
  • In 1972, he published his book Power and Innocence. The New York Society of Clinical Psychologists presented him with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for this book.
  • In 1987, May received the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Contributions to Professional Psychology.

During his career, May was a visiting professor at both Harvard and Princeton and lectured at institutions like Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Vassar, Oberlin and the New School for Social Research. In addition, he was an adjunct professor at New York University, chairman for the Council for the Association of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, president of the New York Psychological Association, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Foundation for Mental Health.[5]

Later life[edit]

In 1969, May and his first wife, Florence Defrees, were divorced after 30 years of marriage. He later married Ingrid Kepler Scholl, but that too ended in divorce. He then married Georgia Lee Miller Johnson, a psychoanalyst. He spent the final years of his life in Tiburon, California, where he lived since 1975. A victim of declining health for two years, on October 22, 1994, May died due to congestive heart failure at the age of 85.[11] He was survived by his wife, Georgia; son, Robert; and twin daughters, Allegra and Carolyn.

Influences and psychological background[edit]

May was influenced by North American humanism, and interested in reconciling existential psychology with other philosophies, especially Freud's. May considered Otto Rank (1884–1939) to be the most important precursor of existential therapy. Shortly before his death, May wrote the foreword to Robert Kramer's edited collection of Rank's American lectures. "I have long considered Otto Rank to be the great unacknowledged genius in Freud's circle", wrote May.[12] May is often grouped with humanists, for example Abraham Maslow, who provided a good base for May's studies and theories as an existentialist. May delves further into the awareness of the serious dimensions of a human's life than Maslow did. Erich Fromm had many ideas with which May agreed relating to May's existential ideals. Fromm studied the ways people avoid anxiety by conforming to societal norms rather than doing what they please. Fromm also focused on self-expression and free will, on all of which May based many of his studies.

Stages of development[edit]

Like Freud, May defined certain "stages" of development. These stages are not as strict as Freud's psychosexual stages, rather they signify a sequence of major issues in each individual's life:

  1. Innocence – the pre-egoic, pre-self-conscious stage of the infant: An innocent is only doing what he or she must do. However, an innocent does have a degree of will in the sense of a drive to fulfill needs.
  2. Rebellion – the rebellious person wants freedom, but does not yet have a good understanding of the responsibility that goes with it.
  3. Ordinary – the normal adult ego learned responsibility, but finds it too demanding, so seeks refuge in conformity and traditional values.
  4. Creative – the authentic adult, the existential stage, self-actualizing and transcending simple egocentrism.

These stages signify a sequence of major issues in each individual’s life (Boeree, 2006). The stages of development that Rollo May set out are not stages in the conventional sense (not in the strict Freudian sense) i.e. a child may be innocent, ordinary or creative at any given time. An adult can also be rebellious as the expression "mid-life crisis" suggests (Ellis & Abrams,2009).[13]



Anxiety is a major focus of Rollo May and is the subject of his work "The Meaning of Anxiety". He defines it as "the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value which the individual holds essential to his existence as a self" (1967, p. 72). He also quotes Kierkegaard: "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom". May's interest in isolation and anxiety developed strongly after his time in the sanatorium when he had tuberculosis. His own feelings of depersonalization and isolation as well as watching others deal with fear and anxiety gave him important insight into the subject. He concluded that anxiety is essential to an individual's growth and in fact contributes to what it means to be human. This is a way that humans enact their freedom to live a life of dignity. He is adamant in the importance of anxiety and feelings of threat and powerlessness because it gives humans the freedom to act courageously as opposed to conforming to be comfortable ((8)). This struggle gives humans the opportunity to live life to the fullest (Friedman). One way in which Rollo proposes to fight anxiety is by displacing anxiety to fear as he believes that “anxiety seeks to become fear”.[14] He claims that by shifting anxiety to a fear, one can therefore discover incentives to either avoid the feared object or find the means to remove this fear of it.[14] According to May, anxiety can be either normal or neurotic.

Normal Anxiety[edit]

May defined Normal Anxiety as that "which is proportionate to the threat, does not involve repression, and can be confronted constructively on the conscious level".[15] As people grow from infancy to old age, their values change, and with each step, they experience normal anxiety. "All growth consists of the anxiety-creating surrender of past values."[15]

Neurotic Anxiety[edit]

May defined neurotic anxiety as "a reaction which is disproportionate to the threat, involves repression and other forms of intrapsychic conflict , and is managed by various kinds of blocking-off activity and awareness".[15] Whereas normal anxiety is felt whenever values are threatened, neurotic anxiety is experienced whenever values become transformed into dogma. To be absolutely right in one's beliefs provides temporary security, but it is security "bought at the price of surrendering (one's) opportunity for fresh learning and new growth".[15]


May's thoughts on love are documented mainly by Love and Will, which focuses on love and sex in human behavior and in which he specifies five particular types of love. He believes that they should not be separate, but that society has separated love and sex into two different ideologies.

  • Libido : Biological function that can be satisfied through sexual intercourse or some other release of sexual tension.
  • Eros : Psychological desire the seeks procreation or creation through an enduring union with a loved one.
  • Philia : intimate non-sexual friendship between two people.
  • Agape: esteem for the other, the concern for the other’s welfare beyond any gain that one can get out of it, disinterested love, typically, the love of God for man.
  • Manic : Impulsive, emotionally driven love. Feelings are very hot and cold. The relationship transitions between thriving and perfect, or bitter and ugly.

According to May, care is an active process, the opposite of apathy. "Care is a state in which something does matter."[16] Care is not the same as love, but it is the source of love. May defined love as a "delight in the presence of the other person and an affirming of (that person's) value and development as much as one's own[16]".

Criticism of modern psychotherapy[edit]

May believed that psychotherapists in the late 1900s had fractured away from the Jungian, Freudian and other influencing psychoanalytic thought and started creating their own 'gimmicks' causing a crisis within the world of psychotherapy. These gimmicks were said to put too much stock into the self where the real focus needed to be looking at 'man in the world'. To accomplish this, May pushed for the use of existential therapy over individually created techniques for psychotherapy.[17]


Year Title Published by ISBN
1940 The Springs of Creative Living Whitmore & Stone unknown
1950a The Meaning of Anxiety W W Norton (1996 revised edition) 0-393-31456-1
1953 Man's Search for Himself Delta (1973 reprint) 0-385-28617-1
1956 Existence Jason Aronson (1994 reprint) 1-56821-271-2
1965 The Art of Counseling Gardner Press (1989 revised edition) 0-89876-156-5
1967 Psychology and the Human Dilemma W W Norton (1996 reprint) 0-393-31455-3
1969 Love and Will W W Norton / Delta (1989 reprint) 0-393-01080-5 / 0-385-28590-6
1972 Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence W W Norton (1998 reprint) 0-393-31703-X
1973 Paulus: A personal portrait of Paul Tillich Harper & Row 0-00-211689-8
1975 The Courage to Create W W Norton (1994 reprint) 0-393-31106-6
1981 Freedom and Destiny W W Norton (1999 edition) 0-393-31842-7
1983 The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology W W Norton (1994 reprint) 0-393-31240-2
1985 My Quest for Beauty Saybrook Publishing 0-933071-01-9
1991 The Cry for Myth Delta (1992 reprint) 0-385-30685-7
1995 The Psychology of Existenceb McGraw-Hill 0-07-041017-8

a revised 1977.
b with Kirk Schneider.

  • "Humanity's dark side: Evil, destructive experience, and psychotherapy", Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2013.
  • "Existential psychology East-West", Colorado Springs, Colorado: University of the Rockies Press, 2009.
  • "Rollo May on the Courage to Create" in Media and Methods 10 (1974), 9:14-16.
  • De Castro, Alberto, "An integration of the existential understanding of anxiety in the writings of Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, and Kirk Schneider", ProQuest Information & Learning, 2011 (AAI3423854).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Austin, Leonard (1999). Counseling Primer. Taylor & Francis. p. 53. ISBN 1-56032-697-2 – via Google Books. 
  2. ^ "Paul Tillich as Hero: An Interview with Rollo May". Retrieved 2012-10-21. 
  3. ^ "Paul Tillich Resources". Retrieved 2012-10-21. 
  4. ^ Engler, Barbara. Personality Theories. Jon-David Hgue. p. 352 – via Google Books. 
  5. ^ a b Feist, Jess; Feist, Gregory. Theories of Personality (PDF). McGraw-Hill. p. 345. 
  6. ^ "American Psychologist (April 1996), 51 (4), pg. 418-419". Retrieved 2012-10-21. 
  7. ^ May, Rollo (1987). My Quest for Beauty. p. 13. 
  8. ^ "Rollo May: A Man of Meaning and Myth". Journal of Counselling and Development. 67. 1989. 
  9. ^ May, Rollo (1972). Power and Innocence. W. W. Norton. p. 14. 
  10. ^ [1] Archived May 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ Pace, Eric, "Dr. Rollo May Is Dead at 85; Was Innovator of Psychology", "The New York Times", October 4, 1994
  12. ^ (Rank, 1996, p. xi).
  13. ^ "Stages of Development". 
  14. ^ a b Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. United States of America: Basic Books. 
  15. ^ a b c d May, Rollo (1967). Psychology and the Human Dilemma. W. W. Norton. p. 80. 
  16. ^ a b May, Rollo (1969). Love and Will. p. 289. 
  17. ^ May, Rollo. (October 2009) Rollo May on Existential Therapy. Volume 49 Number 4. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 419-434.

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Rank, Otto, A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures [talks given 1924–1938; edited and with an introductory essay by Robert Kramer], Princeton University Press 1996 (ISBN 0-691-04470-8).
  • Friedman, Howard S. and Miriam W. Schustack, Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research, Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2012 (ISBN 9780205050178).

External links[edit]

Primary sources
Secondary sources