Rollo May

Rollo May (April 21, 1909October 22, 1994) was an American existential psychologist. He authored the influential book Love and Will in 1969.

Although he is often associated with humanistic psychology, he differs from other humanistic psychologists such as Virginia Satir, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers in emphasizing the tragic dimensions of human existence; unlike them, he built his thinking around the tenets of existentialist philosophy. May was a close friend of the theologian Paul Tillich. His works include Love and Will and The Courage to Create, the latter title honoring Tillich's The Courage to Be.


May was born in Ada, Ohio in 1909. He experienced a difficult childhood, with his parents divorcing and his sister suffering a mental breakdown. His educational career took him to Michigan State College and Oberlin College for a bachelor's degree, teaching for a time in Greece, to Union Theological Seminary for a BD in 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 closing years of his life in Tiburon on the San Francisco Bay, where he died in October 1994.


May was influenced by American humanism, and interested in reconciling existential psychology with other approaches, especially Freud's.

May uses some traditional existential terms in a slightly different fashion than others, and he invents new words for traditional existentialist concepts. Destiny, for example, could be "thrownness" combined with "fallenness"— the part of our lives that is determined for us, for the purpose of creating our lives. He also used the word "courage" to signify authenticity in facing one’s anxiety and rising above it.

He saw certain "stages" of development:

  • Innocence – the pre-egoic, pre-self-conscious stage of the infant. The 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.
  • Rebellion – the rebellious person wants freedom, but has yet no full understanding of the responsibility that goes with it.
  • Decision- The person is in a transition stage in their life where they need to break away from their parents and settle into the ordinary stage. In this stage they must decide what path their life will take, along with fulfilling rebellious needs from the rebellious stage.
  • Ordinary – the normal adult ego learned responsibility, but finds it too demanding, and so seeks refuge in conformity and traditional values.
  • Creative – the authentic adult, the existential stage, beyond ego and self-actualizing. This is the person who, accepting destiny, faces anxiety with courage.

These are not stages in the traditional sense. A child may certainly be innocent, ordinary or creative at times; an adult may be rebellious. The only attachment to certain ages is in terms of salience: rebelliousness stands out in the two year old and the teenager.

May perceived the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as commercialization of sex and pornography, as having influenced society and planted the idea in the minds of adults that love and sex are no longer directly associated. According to May, emotion has become separated from reason, making it socially acceptable to seek sexual relationships and avoid the natural drive to relate to another person and create new life. May believed the awakening of sexual freedoms can lead modern society to dodge awakenings at higher levels. May suggests that the only way to turn around the cynical ideas that characterize our generation is to rediscover the importance of caring for another, which May describes as the opposite of apathy.

His first book, The Meaning of Anxiety, was based on his doctoral dissertation, which in turn was based on his reading of the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. His definition of anxiety is "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". In 1956, he edited the book Existence with Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger. Existence helped introduce existential psychology to the US.


  • The Meaning of Anxiety (1950), W W Norton 1996 revised edition: ISBN 0-393-31456-1
  • Man’s Search for Himself (1953), Delta 1973 reprint: ISBN 0-385-28617-1
  • Existence (1956), Jason Aronson 1994 reprint: ISBN 1-56821-271-2
  • The Art of Counseling (1965), Gardner Press 1989 rev. edition: ISBN 0-89876-156-5
  • Psychology and the Human Dilemma (1967), W W Norton 1996 reprint: ISBN 0-393-31455-3
  • Love and Will (1969), W W Norton ISBN 0-393-01080-5, Delta 1989 reprint: ISBN 0-385-28590-6
  • Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (1972), W W Norton 1998 reprint ISBN 0-393-31703-X
  • The Courage to Create (1975), W W Norton 1994 reprint: ISBN 0-393-31106-6
  • Freedom and Destiny (1981), W W Norton 1999 edition: ISBN 0-393-31842-7
  • The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology (1983), W W Norton 1994 reprint: ISBN 0-393-31240-2
  • My Quest for Beauty (1985), Saybrook Publishing ISBN 0-933071-01-9
  • The Cry for Myth (1991), Delta 1992 reprint: ISBN 0-385-30685-7


See also

External links

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