Rollo May: A Great Existential Psychologist

If you’re interested in psychology, you’ve probably heard of Rollo May. He was a hugely influential existential psychologist who wrote extensively on topics such as human nature, love, and death. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of his most famous ideas, and discuss why he’s considered one of the greatest psychologists of all time.

What is existential psychology?

Existential psychology is a type of psychological study that focuses on the existence of humans and their unique experiences. This approach focuses on the individual rather than society, and emphasizes the importance of a free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Existential psychologists believe that humans must confront death, freedom, and meaninglessness in order to find purpose in life. In spite of the challenges involved in existential exploration, this field of study offers valuable insights into what it means to be human.

rollo may
rollo may: a great existential psychologist 2

Rollo May’s Early Life:

Rollo May was born in Ada, Ohio, on April 21, 1909. When his parents divorced and his sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia, he grew up under a lot of stress. He was the first son of a family with six children. His mother typically left him and his siblings to look after themselves, and because his sister was schizophrenic, he had a lot of authority. 

After being kicked out of Michigan State University for his involvement in a revolutionary student journal, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College. Following this, he taught for three years at Anatolia College in Greece. During this time, he studied with Dr. and psychotherapist Alfred Adler, whom his later work shared theoretical parallels with. After coming back to the United States, he was ordained as a pastor shortly thereafter, but he left ministry after several years to obtain a doctorate in psychology. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1942 and spent 18 months at a sanatorium.

Following his graduation from Union Theological Seminary in 1938 with a bachelor’s degree, he went to Teachers College, Columbia University for a doctorate in clinical psychology in 1949. Rollo May was the founder and first president of Saybrook College and Research Center in San Francisco.

He died in Tiburon on San Francisco Bay after spending the final years of his life there. Rollo May died of heart failure at the age of 85. His wife, Georgia, and friends were with him at the end.

Rollo May’s Contributions to Psychology:

Stages of Development:

May, like Freud, distinguished “stages of development.” These stages are looser than Freud’s psychosexual phases; instead of representing a specific sequence of developmental problems, they represent a group of major concerns in each person’s life.

  1. Innocence – The pre-egoic, pre-self-aware stage of the infant: An innocent is simply carrying out what he or she must. An innocent, on the other hand, does possess a will in the sense that he or she has a desire to meet requirements.
  2. Rebellion – Someone who is rebellious may desire freedom, but they do not yet have a solid grasp of the responsibilities that come with it.
  3. Ordinary – When the normal adult ego learned responsibility, it found it too hard, so it fled to conformity and conventional values.
  4. Creative – The authentic adult, the existential stage, self-actualizing, and transcending simple egocentrism are terms used to describe this.

Rollo May’s stages of development are not laid out in the same way as traditional phases (not in the strict Freudian sense) i.e. children and adults can at any stage show characteristics from these stages.

The World’s Elements

World aspects had a significant impact on Rollo May’s developmental theories. There are three aspects in total:

  1. Umwelt
  2. Mitwelt
  3. Eigenwelt

The first, Umwelt, refers to the “world around us.” This describes a person’s biological or genetic background, which is non-conscious. As a result, lessons on fate and destiny are taught by Umwelt. 

The Mitwelt, in turn, is the world. This encompasses the actual physical environment in which significance is derived from constantly changing interactions. When we learn to dominate others and are taught about the responsibilities of being a person, this portion of the world begins to impact us as youngsters. 

Finally, the Eigenwelt refers to our “own realm.” This alludes to the psychological realm where people are concerned with themselves. This is when self-exploration, self-awareness, and self-reflection first begin. This aspect of the universe is aware and teaches us about our own existence. These features collaborate to form our particular perspective on the world and its surroundings.


In May’s The Meaning of Anxiety, he defined anxiety as “the awareness cued by a danger to one’s valued existence as a self”. Kierkegaard is credited with the statement, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” While receiving treatment for tuberculosis at a sanatorium, Rollo May was particularly affected by anxiety. He observed individuals with fear and anxiety who appeared to be linked to depersonalization and isolation while there.

May learned that anxiety is critical for personal development from his experience. It’s something we can’t get away from, so it’s a good thing we use it to grow our humanity and live freely.

In his view, humans’ feelings of danger and powerlessness brought on by anxiety motivated them to fight for their freedom rather than accept the comforts of modern existence. Anxiety, in the end, created the possibility for people to live life to the fullest. Rollo May also suggested that internalizing anxiety as terror might lower overall anxiety since “anxiety strives to become fear.” Avoiding a feared object or removing the fear of the object, according to him, converted anxiety into a dread.


Rollo May’s thoughts on love are recorded in his book Love and Will, which addressed love and sex in human behavior. He felt that when society divided love and sex into two separate ideologies, they should be regarded as one. May identified five types of love:

  • Libido: It means a kind of biological function that can be satisfied by having sexual intercourse or some other means of releasing sexual tension.
  • Eros: This is a desire for bonding and procreation, often with a loved one, that manifests itself in humans.
  • Philia: Intimate non-sexual friendships between two people.
  • Agape: A sense of pride for oneself, a care for others’ well-being that is greater than any possible material gain, disinterested love, generally the love of God for mankind.
  • Manic: Urgent, emotional love. Feelings are very intense hot and cold. The connection changes from good to terrible before returning to ideal.

When individuals began to explore their sexuality in the 1960s, May investigated and criticized the “Sexual Revolution.” The idea of free love was replaced with the ideology of free sex. May argued that love is intentionally willed by an individual; it reflects human instinct for deliberation and consideration. Then he was told that giving in to sexual desires did not really liberate anybody; freedom came from resisting such urges.

May, unsurprisingly, felt that the Hippie counterculture and commercialization of sex and pornography had influenced society to perceive a disconnect between love and sex. It was socially acceptable to seek sexual relationships while avoiding the natural drive to interact with another person and procreate, according to Rollo May. According to his theory, modern society neglected important psychological developments such as the value of caring because of sexual freedom.


Guilt is defined as “a feeling of responsibility or wrongdoing for something bad that has happened or is about to happen.” According Rollo May, guilt occurs when people ignore their potentialities, fail to recognize the needs of others, or are oblivious to their dependence on the world. Both anxiety and guilt have to do with one’s place in the world. Rollo May said that they were “ontological,” implying a discussion of being rather than emotions from events.

The first form of Rollo May’s ontological guilt, Feist and Feist argue, is “the feeling that one has done wrong.” The term “umwelt” refers to the world experienced by a person. Mitwelt refers to people in the same situation as oneself; eigenwelt refers to oneself. Guilt as an emotion is triggered by a sense of disconnection from one’s environment, according to May, which arises when the world becomes more technologically advanced and people are less concerned about nature.

For Mitwelt, guilt is the product of failing to consider others’ perspectives. Because we are unable to comprehend another person’s desire accurately, we feel inadequate in our interactions with them.

Eigenwelt’s guilt is a result of our denial of our own potentialities or failure to do so. This guilt is rooted in our connection with ourselves. Because no one can ever fully realize their potentialities, this kind of guilt is global.

Last Updated on October 25, 2022 by Lucas Berg


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *