Rollo May

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated June 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Depression is a serious mental health condition that typically doesn’t resolve without treatment. However, in tandem with help from a qualified professional, there may be other steps you can take to experience some comfort when things seem bleak or overwhelming. Rollo May was an American psychologist and writer, who wrote on existential psychology and American Humanism. Those experiencing mental health challenges might find reading some of his most famous quotes about depression and other aspects of the human experience to be soothing, inspiring, or a source of a helpful new perspective for facing one’s anxiety or depression.

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Can existential theory help you find meaning?

Who was Rollo May?

Rollo Reese May was an American existential psychologist born in 1909. He had a difficult childhood, which would later influence the important psychological developments he’s now credited with. His parents went through a divorce, and his sister experienced schizophrenia and psychosis. These early experiences played a defining role in what would eventually become his views on human behavior. 

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College, he taught English in Greece for three years where he developed an interest in theology. Upon his return to the United States, he was ordained as a minister and worked in the church for several years. It was around this time that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. As was the custom at that time, May recovered at a sanatorium over the course of 18 months. This life-threatening illness and the long recovery process strengthened his interest in philosophy and psychology and led to him pursuing a new life. In fact, it was after the time spent in the sanatorium that he developed a strong interest in the topic of anxiety, since he had had an opportunity to observe it firsthand in himself and fellow patients there.

Achievements and impact

Once he fully recovered, May returned to the academic world, completed his educational career, and earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1949. May went on to found both Saybrook University and a research center in San Francisco. He also taught at many top schools throughout the United States and wrote several seminal books, which still hold relevance today. 

What is existential psychology?

For May, the existential theory which is similar to humanistic psychology, is a resistance to rationalism, which reduces a person to just another object to be scrutinized: someone who can be controlled, calculated, dissected, and divided into disparate parts. To May, for an existential psychologist, a human isn’t merely a sum of their parts, but a dynamic and complex being that is constantly in a state of becoming. This view represented a significant step away from earlier psychological practices, and it returned humanity and empathy to the individual. 

While many draw parallels between Zen Buddhism and existential psychology, he did not believe the two were the same. The main difference to May is that in Zen Buddhism, problems like anxiety, loss, guilt, and other existential problems needed to be met and confronted, not bypassed. In doing so, he believed that we could make a meaningful life.

Some academics opposed the introduction of philosophy into psychology because they feared it would make this science less concrete. However, he believed that philosophy and science should go hand in hand. In this age, science had become fixated on analyzing, codifying, and treating conditions, which he saw served the field but not necessarily the individual, especially for psychology in the strict Freudian sense. According to May, psychology and psychotherapy should put the individual first.

A focus on the individual

To him, the goal of psychoanalysis, in traditional existential terms, is to help the individual become the best version of themselves and to pursue authenticity and freedom—even if that meant going against society's standards, self-actualizing was most important. For example, he worried that forcing a person to live according to society's often-rigid expectations won’t allow them to live an authentic life. Instead, he thought, it's a surefire way to cause repression and self-censorship, which impeded an individual from accepting destiny in the long run.

May’s quotes illustrate his belief that a person’s own unique experience should be front and center when it comes to their healing, developing a sense of self-awareness. An individual’s deepest concerns are at the heart of his teachings, and they’re what drove him to alter his view of psychotherapy to better support those who seek answers in times of depression and suffering.

He believed that the only way to become fully human was to make free choices and then commit to them, and he saw psychotherapy as playing a vital role in empowering individuals to do just that.

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His most impactful quotes on depression, suffering, and creativity

The following selection of May's quotes highlights his theory and can serve as a reminder that an individual's own unique experience is both valid and valuable. The following quotes from this seminal thinker may provide you with comfort, inspiration, and food for thought.

Quotes on depression

  • "Depression is the inability to construct a future."
  • "We are more apt to feel depressed by the perpetually smiling individual than the one who is honestly sad. If we admit our depression openly and freely, those around us get from it an experience of freedom rather than the depression itself."
  • "Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is."
Quotes on suffering
  • "One does not become fully human painlessly."
  • "Suffering is nature's way of indicating a mistaken attitude or way of behavior, and to the non-egocentric person, every moment of suffering is the opportunity for growth. People should rejoice in suffering, strange as it sounds, for this is a sign of the availability of energy to transform their characters."
  • “Many people suffer from the fear of finding oneself alone, and so they don't find themselves at all."
Quotes on creativity
  • "Freedom is man's capacity to take a hand in his development. We can mold ourselves."
  • "The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice; it is conformity."
  • "If you do not express your original ideas, if you do not listen to your being, you will have betrayed yourself."
  • "Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem."

While May wrote many books on existential therapy and psychotherapy, he also served as a co-writer in other books such as Existence where Rollo partnered Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger. 

Can existential theory help you find meaning?

Seeking support for mental health challenges

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression affects 3.8% of the population worldwide. It may be characterized by a persistent sense of hopelessness or worthlessness, low energy and fatigue, a lack of interest in things once enjoyed, and significant changes in sleeping or eating patterns. It can occur in episodes at certain ages or chronically over time, and symptoms may range from mild to severe. Depression typically doesn’t resolve without treatment, which typically consists of psychotherapy, sometimes in combination with medication. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or another mental health condition, you deserve to seek help.

For those experiencing severe symptoms or who simply prefer an in-person treatment format in the traditional sense, it may be best to seek the support of a qualified therapist in your local area. For those with mild to moderate symptoms and who would prefer meeting with a therapist from the comfort of their own home, online therapy is an option. Research suggests that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can effectively reduce symptoms of depression. If this type of treatment sounds like it may be a good fit for you, consider an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. You can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing.


Rollo May was a scholar, psychologist, and author who believed in the potential of every human being and the value of their unique experiences. Taking some of his most famous quotes to heart may provide comfort to those facing mental health challenges. Remember, professional treatment for mental health conditions like depression is available and recommended.
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