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Rollo May’s Personality Theory Constructs


Several philosophers as well as psychologists have conducted researches in the quest to understand human beings and be able to explain their behaviors. The 19th and 20th centuries were characterized by increased findings particularly in the field of human personality. Among the many schools of thought that emerged, especially in Europe and American, existentialism and humanistic approaches were the most strongly advocated (Solomon, 2005). Humanistic approaches consider all human beings as being inherently good and have the potential of achieving the best they can be. Existentialism as a philosophy, on the other hand, emphasize on the existence, freedom as well as choice that an individual can be able to make (Cooper, 1999). Despite the significantly varying opinions that different proponents of existentialism have put forward, they share some common bases which have been classified under the existential philosophy. They all share the proposition that human beings exist and that due to the existence, they seek to determine their individual essence in the world using subjective methods. In the process, individuals wander between choice, freedom, and existential anguish (Solomon, 2005). The paper seeks to critically elaborate Rollo May’s existential theory of personality. It will briefly introduce the existential philosophy before narrowing to May’s ideas on death anxiety, freedom and responsibility, and meaninglessness. The similarities and differences in relation to Yalom’s theory will also be discussed.

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The existential philosophy was first coined by a Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard who lived between 1813 and 1855. His development of existentialism was triggered by the rational philosophy’s emphasize on abstract rationalism which he did not agree with (Luper, 2000). He was posthumously recognized as the father of existentialism because many of his theological and philosophical writings were to provide a foundation for the existentialists of the 20th century like Rollo May, Gabriel Marcel, Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. The movement grew rapidly at the dawn of the 20th century in Europe. During the infamous WW II, existentialism spread even more following the emergence of two prominent French philosophers, Sartre and Albert Camus (Luper, 2000).

Existentialism recognizes that the greatest challenge for human beings is the knowledge of the fact of their temporary existence in the world. Another challenge is that of perceiving life as having no inherent meaning where meaning was to be constructed and impacted by individuals. According to existentialists, human beings are regarded as being authentic if they have the courage to encounter the futility of existence and still move on to give meaning to their individual lives (Solomon, 2005). Most advocates of existentialism focused on the philosophical doctrine which was interested in understanding human experiences using subjective considerations as opposed to objective reality (Cooper, 1999). It is from these basic ideas of existentialism that Rollo May developed his theory of personality. Some of the areas that he studied include; death anxiety, freedom and responsibility, and meaninglessness.

Rollo May is a renowned American existential psychologist since he was the first person to introduce the concept of existentialism in the United States of America. He lived between April 1909 and October 1994. Many associated him with the humanistic movement but most of his work was greatly influenced by existentialists like Paul Tillich, a theology philosopher, and Kierkegaard’s work. He authored influential books which include; The Meaning of Anxiety, Love and Will (1969), and The Courage to Create. He held a bachelor’s degree in English (major) and in 1949 he obtained a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University (Cooper, 1999). May, in his quest to explore existentialism used the existing terms in the field in a different way and he also formulated other new terms. Instead of the traditional fallenness, May used the term destiny to imply that part of human beings’ lives that is predetermined and upon which men ought to shape their future individual beings (Luper, 2000). In general, May’s psychotherapy advocates that human beings have the potential of shaping their own future/destiny.

The central issue in existential psychology, according to May is the fact that all existence in the world ultimately ends in death. This results in anxiety since human beings have to choose either to retreat into nothingness or face the challenge and resolve to BE. From May’s perspective, the main objective of existential psychotherapy, therefore, is to enable human beings to be what they can become and to help them still to embrace the responsibility for their individual lives such that they are aware of the fact that their actions have consequences (Solomon, 2005). With the reality of death raising anxiety, May used the term courage to imply the determination to face and resist anxiety.

May focused on the development of psychopathology in three particular areas; death anxiety, freedom and will, and meaninglessness. From May’s perspective of personality, anxiety can be defined as the fear prompted by a given form of threat to some value/belief system which an individual considers as being essential for his or her existence as an individual (Luper, 2000). Kierkegaard defined anxiety as the dizziness of human freedom. From May’s personality consideration, man is always faced by the challenge of death as the sure end of existence. Death, therefore, according to May, causes significant anxiety in an individual which results in different forms of reactions. Man experiences anguish on realizing that one cannot avoid death by any means. Human beings can decide to either view life as being full of nothingness or rise up to face the challenge with a resolution to BE regardless of the fact of death (Solomon, 2005). On the other hand, anxiety can lead to intense withdrawal from the world. May observed that neurotic manifestations indicate the struggle with reality that man experiences as a result of inauthentic life. He also pointed out that suicide is the extreme consequence of man retreating into nothingness. Abnormality in behavior, according to May, is a form of defense of oneself from danger. He encouraged the use of any means to allow one to live an authentic life and relate well with other people. May believed that the role of the pathology ought to be to help human beings overcome anxiety, particularly that which is associated with a feeling of inadequacy and guilt.

The next concept is freedom and responsibility as far as personality is concerned. May noted that human beings need freedom to make choices in life in order to give meaning to their existence. He, however, established some stages of development in relation to freedom and responsibility (Cooper, 1999). The first stage is that of innocence where a child acts and behaves how it should, depending on the driving force to meet needs as outlined by humanists. The second is the rebellious stage which is characterized by a person’s need for freedom although the associated responsibilities are not yet clear the individual. This is mostly dominant among adolescents. The third is the decision making stage where a person seeks independence from parents and move on to an ‘ordinary stage’. Here, the individual must meet the rebellious requirements and decide what to do with their individual lives. The ordinary stage is marked by maturity and the full understanding of one’s actions. The person can take full responsibility of choices and decisions made in life albeit with some difficulty, hence resorting to conform and being conventional. The last is the creative stage which is characterized by authentic living with no egocentric personality manifestations. May concluded that man must seek freedom and accept the accompanying consequences if his or her existence is to be considered authentic (Solomon, 2005).

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On meaninglessness, May sought to understand why people loose faith in the values in life and the related consequences. May noted that the consequences of loosing commitment to some sets of value systems include loneliness and emptiness which makes an individual to view life as worthless (Solomon, 2005). It is this crisis that May referred to as meaninglessness. He proposed that human beings must take responsibility of all actions and give meaning to existence (Solomon, 2005). This is quite similar to Yalom’s view of isolation and its consequences. Yalom explored three types of isolation; interpersonal, intrapersonal and existential isolation. He concluded that man can be considered as being incapable of eliminating isolation in life (Bartz, 2009). While attending to their clients, May argues that the therapists must help them find meaning in their lives rather than imposing pre-determined solutions to people’s problems.

Just like May’s perspective of anxiety, Yalom noted that this fact of inevitable isolation raises anxiety among people. As a result, one may fail to accept this fact and become neurotic or dependent. If a man accepts the fact, he or she would be able to relate deeply with others (Bartz, 2009). Irvin D. Yalom was May’s mentee and hence most of their existential theories of personality do not have many, if any, differences.

May, just like other theorists received different criticisms concerning his pathological view of human beings especially due to his existentialist perspective. May claimed that his perspective has some concepts from psychoanalytic theorists but in an improved form which is less deterministic. He also defended himself from being seen as a positivist by arguing that existentialism is scientific in nature.


The paper has discussed existentialism in a broad sense, with emphasize on May’s perspective of human personality. It has elaborated Rollo May’s view of psychopathological development of human beings in three areas; death anxiety, freedom and responsibility, and meaninglessness. It has also highlighted the similarities with Yalom’s existential theory of personality. We can therefore conclude that May’s contribution brought a great change in how people viewed existentialism due to his skillful reconciliation of humanistic, Freudian and existential approaches of explaining personality.


Bartz, J. D. (2009). Existential psychotherapy: Yalom’s perspective. American Psychological Association. Vol. 2(3), 23-78

Cooper, D. E. (1999). Existential Thought: A Reconstruction (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Luper, S. (ed.) (2000). Existence: An Introduction to Existential Philosophy. Mountain View, California: Mayfield.

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Solomon, R. C. (ed.) (2005). Understanding Existentialism (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

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