Biography of Rollo May

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American psychiatrist
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Rollo May
Rollo May USD Alcalá 1977.jpg
May speaking in 1977
Born(1909-04-21)April 21, 1909
Ada, Ohio, U.S.
DiedOctober 22, 1994(1994-10-22) (aged 85)
Tiburon, California, U.S.
  • Teachers College, Columbia University
    (PhD, clinical psychology)
  • Union Theological Seminary (BD)
  • Oberlin College
  • Michigan State University
  • Psychologist
  • Author
Known forLove and Will (1969)

Rollo Reece 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 and existentialist philosophy, and alongside Viktor Frankl, was a major proponent of existential psychotherapy. The philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich was a close friend who had a significant influence on his work.

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


May was born in Ada, Ohio, on April 21, 1909. He experienced a difficult childhood when his parents divorced and his sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was the first son of a family with six children. His mother often left the children to care for themselves, and with his sister suffering from schizophrenia, he bore a great deal of responsibility. 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. He later spent three years teaching in Greece at Anatolia College. During this time, he studied with doctor and psychotherapist Alfred Adler, with whom his later work shares theoretical similarities. He became ordained as a minister shortly after coming back to the United States, but left the ministry after several years to pursue a degree in psychology. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1942 and spent 18 months in a sanatorium. He later attended Union Theological Seminary for a BD during 1938, and finally to Teachers College, Columbia University for a PhD in clinical psychology in 1949. May was a founder and faculty member of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in San Francisco.

He spent the final years of his life in Tiburon on San Francisco Bay. May died due to congestive heart failure at the age of 85. He was attended in the end by his wife, Georgia, and friends.

May's books

The Art of Counseling (1939)

May's first book, was used by May to talk about his experience of counselling. Some of the topics he looks at are empathy, religion, personality problems and mental health. May also gives his perspective on these and also discusses how to handle those particular types of issues should a counselor encounter them (May, 1965).

The Springs of Creative Living: A Study of Human Nature and God (1940)

Here May presents a personality theory influenced by critiquing the work of others, including Freud and Adler, claiming that personality is deeper than they presented. This is also where May introduces his own meaning for different terms such as libido from Freudian Psychology. May then goes on to talk about the theoretical such as god and humanity (May, 1940).

The Meaning of Anxiety (1950)

This book explores anxiety and how it can affect mental health. May also discusses how he believes that experiencing anxiety can aid development and how dealing with it appropriately can lead to having a healthy personality.

Man’s Search for Himself (1953)

In this book May talks about his experience with his patients and the recurring problems they had in common such as loneliness and emptiness. May looks deeper into this and discusses how humans have an innate need for a sense of value and also how life can often present an overwhelming sense of anxiety. As the cover suggests, May also gives signposts on how to act during these periods. (May, 1953)

Existence (1958)

Not entirely written by May but his part of this book examines where the roots of Existential Psychology may have begun and why Existential Psychology is important in understanding a gap that lies in human beings. He also talks about the Existential Psychotherapy and the contributions it has made. (May, Ernest, Ellenberger & Aronson, 1958)

Psychology and the Human Dilemma (1967)

May uses this book to reflect on a lot of both his ideas so far and those of other thinkers and also mentions some contemporary ideas despite the book's publication date. May also expands on some of his previous perspectives such as anxiety and people's feelings of insignificance (May, 1967).

Love and Will (1969)

One of May's most influential books. He talks about his perspective on love and the Daimonic; how it is part of nature and not the superego. May also discusses how love and sex are in conflict with each other and how they are two different things. May also discusses depression and creativity towards the end. Some of the views in this book are the ones that May is best known for (May, 1969).

Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (1972)

May uses this book to start some new ideas and also define words according to his way of thinking; such as power and physical courage and how power holds the potential for both human goodness and human evil. Another idea May explores is civilisation stemming out of rebellion (May, 1972).

Paulus: Reminiscence of a Friendship (1973)

May identified Paul Tillich as one of his biggest influences and in this book May episodically recalls Tillich's life trying to focus just on the key moments over the eight chapters, taking a psychoanalytic approach to the tale (May, 1973)

The Courage to Create (1975)

Listening to our ideas and helping form the structure of our world is what our creative courage can come from; this is the main direction of May in this book. May encourages that people break the pattern in their life and face their fears to reach their full potential (May, 1975).

Freedom and Destiny (1981)

As the title suggests, May focuses on the area of Freedom and Destiny in this book. He examines what freedom might offer and also, comparatively, how destiny is imposing limitations on us, but also how the two have an interdependence. May draws on artists and poets and others to invoke what he is saying (May, 1981).

The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology (1983)

May draws on others' perspectives, including Freud's, to go into more detail on existential psychotherapy. Another topic May examines is how Psychoanalyses and Existentialism may have come from similar areas of thinking. There is attention paid to searching for stability with strong feelings of anxiety (May, 1983).

My Quest for Beauty (1985)

Serving as a type of memoir, May discusses his own opinions on the power of beauty. He also states his belief that beauty must be both understood and also valued in the world (May, 1985).

The Cry for Myth (1991)

Argued in this book is May's belief that humans can use myths to help them make sense of their lives, based on cases studies May uses from his patients. May discusses how this could be particularly useful to those who need direction in a confusing world (May, 1991).

The Psychology of Existence (1995)

Two days before May's death, he edited an advanced copy of this book. It was co-authored by Kirk Schneider and was intended to bring some life back into Existential Psychology. Like some previous books, this talks of existential psychotherapy and targets scholars (May & Schneider, 1995).


  • In 1970, May's most popular work, Love and Will (1969), won the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for humane scholarship and became a best-seller.
  • In 1971, May won the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Contribution to Science and Profession of Clinical Psychology award.
  • In 1972, the New York Society of Clinical Psychologists presented him with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Award for his book Power and Innocence (1972).
  • In 1987, he received the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Contributions to Professional Psychology.

Influences and psychological background

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.

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

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

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).[citation needed]



Anxiety is a major focus of 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. 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”. 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.


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 that 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.

May particularly investigated and criticized the "Sexual Revolution" in the 1960s, in which many individuals were exploring their sexuality. "Free sex" was replacing the ideology of free love. May explains that love is intentionally willed by an individual, whereas sexual desire is the complete opposite. Love is real human instinct reflected upon deliberation and consideration,which is part of his construct and system for motivation which he called the Daimonic.[clarification needed] May then shows that to give in to these impulses does not actually make one free, but to resist these impulses is the meaning of being free. May perceived the Hippie subculture and sexual mores of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as commercialization of sex and pornography, as having influenced society such that people believed that love and sex are no longer associated directly. According to May, emotion has become separated from reason, making it acceptable socially to seek sexual relationships and avoid the natural drive to relate to another person and create new life. May believed that sexual freedom can cause modern society to neglect more important psychological developments. May suggests that the only way to remedy the cynical ideas that characterize our times is to rediscover the importance of caring for another, which May describes as the opposite of apathy.


According to May, guilt occurs when people deny their potentialities, fail to perceive the needs of others or are unaware of their dependency on the world. Both anxiety and guilt include issues dealing with one's existence in the world. May mentioned they were ontological, meaning that they both refer to the nature of being and not to the feelings coming from situations. (Feist & Feist, 2008)

Feist and Feist (2008) outline May's three forms of ontological guilt. Each form relates to one of the three modes of being, which are Umwelt, Mitwelt and Eigenwelt. Umwelt's form of guilt comes from a lack of awareness of one's existence in the world, which May believed to take place when the world becomes more technologically advanced, and people are less concerned about nature and become removed from nature.

Mitwelt's form of guilt comes from failure to see things from other's point of view. Because we cannot understand the need of others accurately, we feel inadequate in our relations with them.

Eigenwelt's form of guilt is connected with the denial of our own potentialities or failure to fulfil them. This guilt is based in our relationship with the self. This form of guilt is universal because no one can completely fulfil their potentialities.

Criticism of modern psychotherapy

May believed that psychotherapists towards the end of the 20th century 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.


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 .noitalic{font-style:normal}b 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).

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