Sometimes, popular clichés just don't cut it when it comes to mental health. Regarding depression, individuals can grapple with deep philosophical questions that can't be resolved with trite truisms. In these moments, Rollo May's quotes can help by reconciling existential psychology and the individual human experience.
Early Life And Influences
Rollo Reese May was born in 1909. He had a difficult childhood, which would later influence the important psychological developments he’s now credited with. Not only did his parents divorce, but his sister suffered from schizophrenia and psychosis. These early experiences played a defining role in what would eventually become his view on human behavior.
May’s educational path evolved with him, as he moved through different life experiences. For example, he began at Michigan State University, earning a bachelor's degree in English, which he later completed at Oberlin College. Then, he taught English for three years in Greece where he developed an interest in theology.
Faith And Illness
Upon his return to the United States and in search of a new life, he was ordained as a minister and worked in the church for several years. It was around this time that May 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 May's interest in philosophy and psychology. In fact, it was after the time spent in the sanatorium, that May developed a strong interest in anxiety since he had had an opportunity to observe it firsthand, not only with his own experience of anxiety, but with those around him.
Achievements And Relevance
Once he fully recovered, May returned to the academic world and furthered his educational career by earning 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 many seminal books, which are still considered relevant today.
Rollo May is considered "the father of existential psychotherapy" in the US, but what exactly is existential psychotherapy or psychology? Understanding this may make Rollo May’s quotes much more meaningful.
What Is Existential Psychology?
To best understand existential psychology, it's helpful to know what existentialism is and the social context from which it came.
Leading up to the 20th century, psychology had embraced science and all its objectivity, and in so doing, had rejected philosophy almost entirely. May recognized how science essentially isolated facts and observed: "them from an allegedly detached base." This included mental illness.
For example, Freud and his followers "sought to bring a scientific methodology to the study of the mind and mental processes, including psychological disorders and psychotherapy”. History would later prove that his methods and theories (many of which heavily influenced society at that time) were not at all scientific. As Sartre noted, psychology in a strict Freudian sense didn't go further than "describing mere patterns of desires and tendencies". According to May, Western thought had been dominated by the split between subject and object ever since the Renaissance, and this seeped into everything from industrialism and urbanism to medicine.
Existential Philosophy Sees The Human Person As An Entire Being
For May, existentialist philosophy is a resistance to rationalism and idealism that reduces a person to just another object to be scrutinized: someone who can be controlled, calculated, dissected and divided into disparate parts.
To May, the human being wasn't merely a sum of their parts, but a being that was constantly in the state of becoming and always existing. This was a big step away from earlier psychological practices, and it returned humanity and empathy to the individual.
May’s existentialism offered a much-needed bridge between the scientifically abstract and the reality for people seeking treatment through psychotherapy.
Is There A Place For Existential Philosophy In Scientific Psychology And Psychotherapy?
Some academics opposed the introduction of philosophy into psychology because they feared it would make this science less concrete. However, May believed that philosophy and science should go hand-in-hand.
In an age where science had become fixated on analyzing, codifying, and treating conditions, May saw that it served the field of science, but not necessarily the individual. According to May, psychology and psychotherapy should put the individual first.
To May, the goal of psychoanalysis 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. And while this can push someone out of their comfort zone, May thought it better and healthier than doing the opposite.
For example, he worried that forcing an individual to live according to society's boundaries and expectations doesn’t always allow them to live an authentic life. Instead, he thought, it's a sure way to repression and self-censorship. In fact, May said, "Every human being must have a point at which he stands against culture, where he says, 'This is me and the world be damned!'"
How Does Existential Philosophy Enrich Psychoanalysis?
May promoted the idea that psychoanalysis and existentialism can be used together to observe the individual in his social context, rather than viewing the person (and their mental illness) as a detached object, unaffected by their world.
In a way, existentialism arose at a critical time in history, when personhood was being fragmented, and when Western culture was at the peak of separating and dehumanizing. Rollo May's theory, along with other leading philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, Franz Kafka, and Jean-Paul Sartre, offered an escape from this fracture by replacing it with wholeness, through existentialism.
In today's day and age, it's easy to take this holistic mindset for granted. Buddhism, Hinduism, Ayurvedic practices, yoga, and Eastern spirituality abound. In the early 20th century, though, these were new and revolutionary belief systems, making May a man ahead of his time.
As you can see, Rollo May isn't merely an inspirational writer. Instead, his quotes illustrate the belief that the human person and his own unique human experience should be front and center of any healing.
You and your deepest concerns are at the heart of his teachings, and they are what drove him to alter psychotherapy to better support individuals who seek answers in times of depression and suffering.
Before May, psychoanalysis leaned more on the apathetic side, making it easy to objectify individuals with mental illness. But this wasn't good enough for May. He believed it was crucial for people to rediscover how to care for one another.
Normally, we think of anxiety as a negative experience to treat and overcome. But Rollo May saw it as an entryway into true personal freedom. For him, "anxiety is essential to an individual's growth …this is a way that humans enact their freedom to live a life of dignity…to live life to the fullest".
In fact, May believed that the only way to become fully human was to make free choices and then commit to them. He saw psychotherapy as playing a vital role in empowering individuals to do just that.
Rollo May Quotes Provide Insight Into Life's Pressing Questions
The individual, and their own unique experiences of suffering, depression, and anxiety are invaluable in the healing and recovery process. Rollo May's many notable works have repeated these beliefs again and again.
The following selection of Rollo May quotes highlights his theory and can serve as a reminder that an individual's own unique experience is both valid and valuable. Instead of offering commentary on each quote, we'd like to encourage the reader to reflect on them and to draw own conclusions. May you find inspiration and powerful food for thought in the words of this seminal thinker.
May's 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."
May's 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."
Rollo May Quotes On Suffering
"One does not become fully human."
"Suffering is nature's way of indicating a mistaken attitude or way of behavior, and to the nonegocentric 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."
Rollo May was a scholar, therapist, author and above all, a man who believed in the potential of every human being. According to May, no matter what mental conditions an individual struggles with, there is always courage and strength within to begin again and experience freedom.
Whether suffering is truly meaningful or just a symptom of a larger mental health condition, talking to a therapist can help. Individuals experiencing depression or anxiety can have trouble keeping appointments with mental health professionals, though, especially in-person. Online counseling is a more convenient alternative for seeking help during difficult times.
During the recent Covid-19 crisis, the demand for internet-based counseling increased dramatically. This has given researchers an unprecedented opportunity to study its effects. One study pointed to the effectiveness of remote cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The experienced counselors at BetterHelp are professionally trained in CBT and other proven therapeutic methods. Most people are matched with a therapist within 24 to 48 hours of signing up, and you can talk to your counselor from the comfort of your own home.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
What Did Rollo May Believe?
Rollo May is the person who introduced existentialism to American clinical psychologists and the psychological association of America. To this day, he is still the most notable influence of existentialism in the world. His belief in existentialism means that his beliefs centered around existence and freedom of human nature. May believed that a person wants freedom of the mind and body and that an existentialist approach could help a person understand the whole version of themselves. Rather than focusing solely on specific issues, existentialism examines the entire person much like humanistic psychologists do.
He also described several stages of human development and how they come to influence a person to become an “authentic adult:”
Innocence: the pre self-conscious stage when a small child doesn’t yet distinguishes between good and bad.
Rebellion: the stage where a person starts to develop their ego, typically during late childhood and adolescence. According to May, a rebellious person in this stage wants freedom but is still not fully aware of the responsibilities that come with it.
Ordinary: after the “dust” has settled and the person enters a more stable phase of their life. In this stage, the person seeks refuge in things like routine, conformity, and traditional values.
Creativity: once the authentic adult has reached this stage they are beyond ego and self-actualization. They face their fate, destiny, and reality with bravery and acceptance.
What Is The Existential Theory Of Personality?
The existentialist approach considers human nature to be open-ended and that the human dilemma can span over many different experiences. Under this form of thinking in the American Psychological Association, a person is in a constant process of becoming and there is no essential definition to one person or their capabilities. This approach is not quite as strict Freudian as other approaches, but existential psychology and existential psychotherapy have been known to be beneficial.
What Is The Main Goal Of Existential Therapy?
The main purpose of existential psychology and existential psychotherapy is to allow clients to explore their experiences in an open and honest manner. As a whole, existential psychology is about reducing anxiety and guilt over experiences by communicating in a collaborative process of discovery. As with other types of therapy, the bottom-line goal is to help clients understand the meaning of anxiety as well as help them to recover from any mental health challenges. Existential therapy can be individual therapy or group therapy, but it is centered around building a normal adult ego.
What Are The Key Concepts Of Existential Therapy?
There are four primary givens of existential therapy: freedom of choice, isolation, the inevitability of death, and meaninglessness. Rather than focusing on the human dilemma in modern society, the key concepts of existential therapy are used to help a client develop an appreciation for things in life, no matter how small. An understanding of the responsibility that comes with true freedom, as well as understanding societal norms, are built into these key concepts. American psychological associations continuously research existential psychology and existential psychotherapy in order to test the effectiveness of this approach in helping clients find the meaning of anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges.
What Are Yalom's Four Main Existential Concerns?
According to Irvin D. Yalom, the human dilemma has four concerns within existential psychology: death, freedom, isolation, and meaningless. These are also the same key concepts of existential psychology as well. Yalom, as with other researchers such as Karen Horney and Alfred Adler, had views on psychology that differ from a traditional Freudian view. Existential psychology focuses on freedom and destiny in regard to searching for the meaning of anxiety in a patient. This is done by taking into account the four main existential concerns as possible causes for the meaning of anxiety, depression, or other issues. These issues, as those of isolation presented by Alfred Adler, get at the egoic pre self conscious aspect of the human brain where these issues are believed to grow subconsciously. Addressing these four concerns, with behavior therapy or talk therapy, can help a patient come to terms with their behaviors and feelings.
What Are Existential Concerns?
Existential concerns, often outlined in literature such as a radical student magazine, are burdens of life that typically a person does not have control over. Factors such as death and mortality, the burdens of freedom, uncertainty regarding one’s identity, isolation, and an indeterminate meaning in life are all examples under the American psychological association. Anxiety and guilt, in some cases, are believed to stem from existential concerns regarding freedom and destiny, with existentialists believing anxiety is the dizziness of the dark side of the mind pondering existential concerns. The meaning of anxiety in an existentialist perspective focuses more on a person trying to come to grips with challenging ideas. For an adult the existential stage and concepts such as freedom and destiny can be overwhelming, leading many to develop anxiety or concerns.
What Is Altruism In Group Therapy?
Whether it is helping a person find the meaning of anxiety in their case or coming to terms with freedom and destiny, altruism is a source of self-esteem and increases in self-worth stemming from the action of helping others.
What is the meaning of love according to Rollo May?
Rollo May defined love as the pleasure or joy a person feels when being with someone else. Of being in a relationship, he said:
“The two persons, longing, as all individuals do, to overcome the separateness and isolation to which we all are heir as individuals, can participate in a relationship that, for the moment, is not made up of two isolated, individual experiences, but a genuine union.”
Is Rollo May still alive?
No, Rollo May passed away at the age of 85 from congestive heart failure in 1994. His most notable and influential pieces of work include The Meaning of Anxiety (1950, revised in 1977), which seeks to understand anxiety and how to overcome it, Man’s Search for Himself (1953), which touches on the subjects of loneliness and emptiness, and Love and Will (1969), where he discusses love, theories and observations about why human beings seek sexual relationships and sexual freedom in the wake of what he considered a sexual revolution in the Western world, in the beginning of the 1970s. Love and Will also explores themes of creative living and depression towards the end of the book.
What is Rollo May anxiety?
In his book The Meaning of Anxiety (1950, revised in 1977), Rollo May proposed that anxiety, which was once meant to ensure the survival of cavemen, had shifted from an evolutionary need to an existential ailment influenced by many of the traditional values that push people to behave in ways that are “socially acceptable.” He defined anxiety as the “apprehension cued off by a threat to some value which the individual holds essential to his existence as a self” and
Nowadays the occasions for anxiety are very different - we are afraid of losing out in the competition, feeling unwanted, isolated, and ostracized. This normal anxiety of life cannot be avoided except at the price of apathy or the numbing of one's sensibilities and imagination.”