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Theories of Personality

May: Existential

Chapter 12


Overview of Existential Psychology

Biography of Rollo May
Background of Existentialism
The Case of Philip
Care, Love, and Will

Freedom and Destiny
Power of Myth
Related Research
Critique of May
Concept of Humanity

Overview of Existential
Rooted in European Existential Philosophy
Based in Clinical Experience
People live in the Present and are Responsible
for Experiences
People lack Courage to Face Destiny and Flee
from Freedom
Healthy People Challenge Destiny and Live

Biography of May
Born in Ada, Ohio in 1909
B.A. from Oberlin College in 1930
Lived as an itinerant artist in Europe for
three years after college, where he
heard Adler speak
Returns to the U.S. in 1933
Graduates from Union Theological
Seminary with Master of Divinity in

Biography (contd)
Serves as a pastor for two years, then quits
and begins to study psychoanalysis
Received his PhD in clinical psychology from
Columbia University in 1949
Published The Meaning of Anxiety in 1950
Served as visiting professor at institutions
including Harvard and Princeton
Died in Tiburon, California in 1994

Background of Existentialism
What Is Existentialism?
Existence takes precedence over essence
There is no split between subject and
People search for some meaning in their
Each of us is responsible for who we are
and what we become
Basically Antitheoretical

Basic Concepts

Alienation: The illness of our time
Seperation from nature
Lack of meaningful interpersonal
Alienation from ones authentic self

Modes of being-in-the-world
Umwelt - the environement around us
Mitwelt - relationship with other people
Eigenwelt our relationship with our self

Nonbeing or Nothingness

Fear of death
Living defensively
Not making active choices
Expressed in the various forms

Human Behavior Is Motivated by Sense of
Dread and Anxiety
Normal Anxiety
That which is proportionate to the threat, does not
involve repression, and can be confronted
constructively on the conscious level (May, 1967)

Neurotic Anxiety
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 of activity and awareness (May, 1967)


Guilt Arises when:

People deny their potentialities

Fail to accurately perceive the needs of
Remain oblivious to their dependence on the
natural world

Anxiety and Guilt are Ontological

Three forms of Ontological Guilt:


Intentionality is the structure that
gives meaning to experience and
allows people to make decisions
about the future
Bridges the gap between subject
and object
Can be unconscious

Care, Love, and Will

Union of Love and Will
Forms of Love
Sex a biological process
Eros psychological
Philia intimate nonsexual friendship
Agape respect for others, alturistic love

Freedom and Destiny

Freedom Defined
Forms of Freedom
Existential Freedom
Freedom of doing/action

Essential Freedom
Freedom of being

What is Destiny?
Philips Destiny

The Power of Myth

Myths have powerful effects on individuals and
Believed that Westerners have an urgent need
for myths
Because they have lost many of their
traditional myths, they turn to religious cults,
drugs, and popular culture to fill the vacuum
People communicate on two levels:
Rationalistic language

Apathy and emptiness as the malaise of
modern times
People have become alienated from the
natural world (Umwelt), from other people
(Mitwelt), and from themselves (Eigenwelt)
Symptoms can be temporary or permanent
Psychopathology is a lack of communication
Inability to know others and to share
oneself with them

The goal of Mays psychotherapy was to
make people more fully human (e.g.,
expand their consciousness)
The purpose of psychotherapy is to set
people free
Existential psychotherapy de-emphasizes
techniques while stressing the personal
qualities of the therapist
Must establish one-to-one relationship

Related Research
Existential Anxiety Has Been Researched

An existential approach to the study of terror and death has

carried over into terror management, a modern experimental
offshoot of existential psychology

Mortality Salience and Denial of Our Animal Nature

Goldenberg et al. (2001)

People distance themselves from animals because they remind us of

our physical body and death
Cultures differ in their denial of animal nature

Cox et al. (2007)

Goldenbergs findings extended specifically to breast feeding

Mortality salience increases disgust at breast feeding as at other
creaturely behaviors

Fitness as a Defense Against Mortality Awareness

Arndt, Schimel, & Goldenberg (2003)

Different levels of defense against mortality awareness

People are motivated to fight against death and disease when their
own mortality is made salient
Terror management bolsters the fundamental principle of existential
psychology that existential anxiety drives much of human behavior

Critique of May
Mays Theory Is:
Moderate on Organizing
Knowledge and Parsimony
Low on Internal Consistency
Very Low on Generating
Research, Falsifiability, and
Guiding Action

Concept of Humanity

Free Choice over Determinism

Optimism over Pessimism
Teleology over Causality
Equal emphasis on Conscious and
Unconscious and Social Influence and
Uniqueness over Similarity