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Rollo May (1909-1994) was an American existential psychologist and a co-founder of humanistic psychology. He was influenced by existentialist philosophy, especially by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Camus, and by his friend, the theologian Paul Tillich. He wrote several influential books on topics such as anxiety, choice, responsibility, creativity, and love (Goodreads, n.d.; New World Encyclopaedia, n.d.).

May and Rogers contrasted

May’s approach to psychology differed from that of Carl Rogers (1902-1987), another co-founder of humanistic psychology, who developed person-centred therapy. Rogers emphasized the clients’ capacity for self-direction, empathy, and acceptance, and believed that humans have an innate tendency toward growth and actualization. May, on the other hand, acknowledged the tragic aspects of human existence, the reality and origins of human evil, and the role of anxiety and conflict in human development. He argued that humans have to face their existential dilemmas and make authentic choices to create meaning and value in their lives (APA, 2002; May et al., 1958; Passion of Heart, n.d.).

Rollo May criticized Carl Rogers, for being naïve about evil and ignoring its presence in human nature. May (1982) wrote an open letter to Rogers, challenging his positive view of human nature and his client-centred approach. May argued that Rogers’ position was superficial, unrealistic and pernicious, as it avoided confronting the aggressive or hateful feelings that clients may have. He also accused Rogers of fostering narcissism and self-indulgence in his clients, by emphasizing their Self-actualization without considering their social responsibility or moral values. May believed that evil was not a result of cultural influences, as Rogers suggested, but a reflection of the daemonic aspect of human nature, which is the source of both creativity and destructiveness. May proposed that humanistic psychology should acknowledge and affirm the daemonic, and help clients integrate it into their personality, rather than deny or repress it.

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Rogers (1983) replied to May’s letter, defending his position and his therapy. Rogers contested May’s argument that humanistic psychology fosters narcissism, and claimed that his approach does recognize and respond to hostility in clients. He also outlined his belief that human nature is essentially constructive, but damaged by experience. He argued that evil behaviour is not inherent in human nature, but a result of incongruence between one’s self and one’s experience. Rogers suggested that humanistic psychology should foster congruence, acceptance and empathy, and help clients achieve a more authentic and harmonious way of being.

The exchange between May and Rogers illustrates the division in thinking between existential and humanistic psychology on the problem of evil. While both perspectives share a common interest in human potential and growth, they differ in their assumptions about human nature and their methods of therapy. The debate between May and Rogers also raises important questions about the role of psychology in addressing the moral and social issues of our time.

To illustrate their different perspectives, here are some quotes from May and Rogers:

  • “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice… it is conformity.” (May, n.d.)
  • “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” (Rogers, n.d.)

May and Rogers did, however, share some common ground, on the idea of the self-actualizing tendency. Both psychologists believed that humans have an innate drive to grow, develop, and fulfil their potential (LibreTexts, 2019a; Cooper, 2019).

When Rollo May said,” The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually into destructive activities.” (May, 1983, p. 11), he seemed to agree with Rogers’ concept of the self-actualising tendency, which is the continuous lifelong process of maintaining and enhancing one’s self-concept through reflection and reinterpretation of various experiences (Rogers, 1951).

However, these two views of self-actualisation and the human natural tendency for it are not identical. May criticized humanistic psychology for its emphasis on fulfilling self-actualisation as a moral perfection, while ignoring the recognition that humans are not perfect and have both good and evil within them (LibreTexts, 2020).

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Rogers, on the other hand, argued that people always have a tendency to work towards being their ideal self, but they need the help and support of others to do so (Online Learning College, 2022). He also believed that self-actualisation occurs when a person’s ideal self is congruent with their actual behaviour (Simply Psychology, n.d.). Some quotes that illustrate these different perspectives are:

  • “Freedom is man’s capacity to take a hand in his own development. It is our capacity to mold ourselves.” (May, 1983, p. 9)
  • “The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain and enhance the experiencing organism.” (Rogers, 1951, p. 487)
  • “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” (Rogers, 1961, p. 186)

May believed that human beings have a fundamental need for meaning and purpose in their lives. He argued that emptiness, or the lack of meaning, is a source of anxiety and despair that can lead to destructive behaviours.

He defined emptiness as “the state of being where one has no clear sense of what one is living for, what one’s purpose is, what one’s values are, what one’s identity is” (May, 1983, p. 15). Furthermore, he contrasted emptiness with fullness, which he described as “the state of being where one has a clear sense of what one is living for, what one’s purpose is, what one’s values are, what one’s identity is” (May, 1983, p. 15).

May suggested that emptiness can result from various factors, such as conformity, alienation, loss of faith, or loss of creativity. He believed that these factors can prevent individuals from expressing their authentic selves and pursuing their true potentials. He wrote, “When we are not in touch with our own being, we are not in touch with reality; we are living in a world of illusions and delusions” (May, 1975, p. 18). Furthermore, he also warned that emptiness can lead to violence, aggression, addiction, or suicide, as individuals try to fill the void or escape the pain of their existence.

However, May also recognized that emptiness can be a catalyst for growth and Self-actualization, if individuals are willing to face their existential anxiety and seek meaning in their lives. He argued that human beings have the freedom and responsibility to create their own values and goals, and to find fulfilment in their choices and actions.

He wrote, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as one is; not as a stick figure with a fixed smile on its face but as a full human being with both positive and negative potentials” (May, 1953, p. 20). Furthermore, he also advocated for the development of creativity, love, and will as essential aspects of human existence.

Rollo May viewed emptiness as a common and serious psychological problem that can have negative or positive consequences depending on how individuals respond to it. He challenged individuals to overcome their emptiness by finding meaning and purpose in their lives through authentic self-expression and courageous action.

One possible way to understand the difference in viewpoint between May and Rogers is to consider their respective emphases. May focused on the significant impact of negative life experiences, such as anxiety, guilt, and despair, on human existence (May, 1969). Rogers, on the other hand, emphasized the natural human drive towards self-actualisation, or the fulfilment of one’s potential (Rogers, 1959). However, this does not mean that they were completely opposed to each other. We can infer, for example, from Rogers’ work that the tendency towards self-actualisation is diminished if the individual is not in an environment that offers acceptance, empathy, and unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 1951). Similarly, we can infer from May’s work that this tendency would be stifled if the individual’s environment was even more challenging, such as facing oppression, violence, or existential threats (May, 1975). Moreover, we can compare their childhood experiences and suggest that they may have influenced their emphasis in thought. May had a difficult childhood, marked by parental divorce, tuberculosis, and isolation (Schneider et al., 2015). Rogers had a more supportive childhood, with loving parents and a positive self-concept (Kirschenbaum, 2007). These contrasting backgrounds may have shaped their views on human nature and potential.

May’s concept of human nature

Rollo May’s concept of human nature is based on the idea that humans are not merely objects that exist, but subjects that create meaning and purpose in their lives. He believed that humans have the capacity to transcend their biological and social conditions, and to exercise their freedom and responsibility in choosing their values and actions. He also recognized that humans face existential dilemmas, such as death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness, and that these dilemmas cause anxiety and conflict. However, he viewed anxiety as an inevitable and essential aspect of human existence, as it motivates us to search for our true self and to face our challenges. He argued that the aim of therapy is to help clients become aware of their freedom and responsibility, and to foster their self-acceptance and authenticity. He also emphasized the importance of connecting with others and with nature, as a way of enriching our experience and expressing our creativity.

A possible therapeutic approach based on Rollo May’s concept of human nature is to help clients explore their subjective experience of themselves and the world, and to foster their self-acceptance and authenticity. May believed that humans are not merely objects that exist, but subjects that create meaning and purpose in their lives (SpringerLink, n.d.). He also argued that anxiety is an inevitable and essential aspect of human existence, as it motivates us to search for our true-self and to face our existential dilemmas (De Montfort University, n.d.).

Therefore, a therapist following May’s perspective would not try to eliminate or reduce anxiety, but rather to help clients understand its source and meaning, and to use it as a catalyst for growth and change. A therapist would also encourage clients to express their feelings, values, and choices freely, without being constrained by social norms or expectations. By doing so, clients would develop a stronger sense of selfhood and agency, and would be able to connect more authentically with others and with nature. As May (1975) wrote, “The aim of therapy is to aid the patient to become aware of his or her own freedom – and thus of his or her responsibility” (p. 134).

May’s concept of human development

May’s concept of human development is based on the idea that people have the potential and the right to expand their choices and opportunities in life. According to May, human development is not only about economic growth or social services, but also about political freedom, human rights, and self-respect (Alkire & Deneulin, 2009).

May’s concept is influenced by Sen’s work on human capabilities, which are the abilities and functioning’s that people value and have reason to pursue (Sen, 1999). May argues that human development should aim at enhancing people’s capabilities and enabling them to achieve their desired outcomes (HDRO, 1990). His concept of human development is a holistic and multidimensional approach that recognizes the diversity and complexity of human beings and their aspirations.

May’s concept of human development covers all aspects of development, such as economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental dimensions (UNDP, 2015). His concept of human development differs from other concepts of human development that focus on specific stages or domains of development, such as cognitive, physical, or psychosocial development (Britannica, 2021; Lumen Learning, 2021).

May’s concept of human development has been adopted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as the basis for its annual Human Development Reports since 1990. The UNDP uses the Human Development Index (HDI) as a measure of human development that combines indicators of life expectancy, education, and income (UNDP, 2015).

May’s four stages of human development

May’s four stages of human development are based on his theory of life structure development in adulthood, which he proposed in 1981. According to May, life structure is the underlying pattern or design of a person’s life at a given time, which is influenced by their social and physical environment, their relationships, their work, and their personal situation. May suggested that adults go through four stages of life structure development, each lasting about 25 years and involving a different set of tasks and challenges.

The first stage is the Novice Phase (ages 17-33), which is characterized by exploration, experimentation, and learning. In this stage, adults try out different roles, careers, and lifestyles, and seek to establish their identity and autonomy. They also form intimate relationships and start families. The main task of this stage is to develop a sense of direction and purpose in life.

The second stage is the Creative Phase (ages 33-59), which is marked by achievement, productivity, and responsibility. In this stage, adults consolidate their identity and career, and strive to make a contribution to society. They also nurture their relationships and families, and cope with the demands of midlife. The main task of this stage is to balance the needs of self and others, and to find meaning and fulfilment in life.

The third stage is the Re-evaluation Phase (ages 59-85), which involves reflection, evaluation, and transformation. In this stage, adults review their life structure and assess their accomplishments and regrets. They also face the challenges of ageing, retirement, and loss. The main task of this stage is to accept the past and present, and to prepare for the future.

The fourth stage is the Legacy Phase (ages 85+), which is characterized by integration, wisdom, and legacy. In this stage, adults integrate their life experiences and values into a coherent whole, and share their wisdom with others. They also leave behind a legacy for future generations, such as memories, stories, or contributions. The main task of this stage is to achieve a sense of integrity and completion in life.

May’s theory of life structure development in adulthood is one of the many perspectives on human development that have been proposed by different psychologists over the years. Some of the most influential theories include Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, Bronfenbrenner’s theory of ecological systems, and Bowlby’s theory of attachment. Each theory offers a different way of understanding how humans grow and change throughout their lifespan.

Some famous quotations

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.”

“Depression is the inability to construct a future.”

“Every human being must have a point at which he stands against the culture, where he says, this is me and the damned world can go to hell.”

“Fortunately, however, we no longer have to argue that self-love is not only necessary and good, but that it also is a prerequisite for loving others.”

“If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.”

“Intimacy requires courage because risk is inescapable. We cannot know at the outset how the relationship will affect us. Like a chemical mixture, if one of us is changed, both of us will be. Will we grow in Self-actualization, or will it destroy us? The one thing we can be certain of is that if we let ourselves fully into the relationship for good or evil, we will not come out unaffected.”

“Love is generally confused with dependence; but in point of fact, you can love only in proportion to your capacity for independence.”

“Many people suffer from the fear of finding oneself alone, and so they don’t find themselves at all.”

“People only change when it becomes too dangerous to stay the way they are.”

“The ultimate error is the refusal to look evil in the face.”

“Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.”


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