Chapter 11 May: Existential Psychology Learning Objectives

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Chapter 11 May: Existential Psychology

Chapter 11

May: Existential Psychology

Learning Objectives
After reading Chapter 11, you should be able to:
1. List the common assumptions found among most existential thinkers.
2. Define being-in-the-world and nonbeing.
3. Distinguish between normal and neurotic anxiety.
4. Discuss the interrelationship between care, love, and will.
5. List and give examples of the four forms of love.
6. Discuss May's concept of myth and explain why the Oedipal myth is important in today's world.
7. Describe the relationship between freedom and destiny.
8. Define existential freedom and essential freedom.
9. Discuss research on terror management theory and explain how it relates to Rollo May's concept of anxiety.
10. Explain how physical fitness can be a defense against mortality awareness.

Summary Outline
I. Overview of May's Existential Theory

Existential psychology began in Europe shortly after World War II and spread to the United States, where Rollo May played a large part in popularizing it. A clinical psychologist by training, May took the view that modern people frequently run away both from making choices and from assuming responsibility.

II. Biography of Rollo May

Rollo May was born in Ohio in 1909, but grew up in Michigan. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1930, he spent 3 years as an itinerant artist roaming throughout eastern and southern Europe. When he returned to the United States, he entered the Union Theological Seminary, from which he received a Master of Divinity degree. He then served for 2 years as a pastor, but quit in order to pursue a career in psychology. He received a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia in 1949 at the relatively advanced age of 40. During his professional career, he served as lecturer or visiting professor at a number of universities, conducted a private practice as a psychotherapist, and wrote a number of popular books on the human condition. May died in 1994 at age 85.

III. Background of Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, is usually considered to be the founder of modern existentialism. Like later existentialists, he emphasized a balance between freedom and responsibility. People acquire freedom of action by expanding their self-awareness and by assuming responsibility for their actions. However, this acquisition of freedom and responsibility is achieved at the expense of anxiety and dread.

A. What Is Existentialism?

The first tenet of existentialism is that existence takes precedence over essence, meaning that process and growth are more important than product and stagnation. Second, existentialists oppose the artificial split between subject and object. Third, they stress people's search for meaning in their lives. Fourth, they insist that each of us is responsible for who we are and what we will become. Fifth, most existentialists take an antitheoretical position, believing that theories tend to objectify people.

B. Basic Concepts

According to existentialists, a basic unity exists between people and their environments, a unity expressed by the term Dasein, or being-in-the-world. Three simultaneous modes of the world characterize us in our Dasein: Umwelt, or the environment around us; Mitwelt, or our world with other people; and Eigenwelt, or our relationship with our self. People are both aware of themselves as living beings and also aware of the possibility of nonbeing or nothingness. Death is the most obvious form of nonbeing, which can also be experienced as retreat from life's experiences.

IV. The Case of Philip

Rollo May helped illustrate his concepts of existential theory and therapy by the case of Philip, a successful architect in his mid-50s. Despite his apparent success, Philip experienced severe anxiety when his relationship with Nicole (a writer in her mid-40s) took a puzzling turn. Uncertain of his future and suffering from low self-esteem, Philip went into therapy with Rollo May. Eventually, Philip was able to understand that his difficulties with women were related to his early experiences with a mother who was unpredictable and an older sister who suffered from severe mental disorders. However, he began to recover only after he accepted that his "need" to take care of unpredictable Nicole was merely part of his personal history with unstable women.

V. Anxiety

People experience anxiety when they become aware that their existence or something identified with it might be destroyed. The acquisition of freedom inevitably leads to anxiety, which can be either pleasurable and constructive or painful and destructive.

A. Normal Anxiety

Growth produces normal anxiety, defined as that which is proportionate to the threat, does not involve repression, and can be handled on a conscious level.

B. Neurotic Anxiety

Neurotic anxiety is a reaction that is disproportionate to the threat and that leads to repression and defensive behaviors. It is felt whenever one's values are transformed into dogma. Neurotic anxiety blocks growth and productive action.

VI. Guilt

Guilt arises whenever people deny their potentialities, fail to accurately perceive the needs of others, or remain blind to their dependence on the natural world. Both anxiety and guilt are ontological; that is, they refer to the nature of being and not to feelings arising from specific situations.

VII. Intentionality

The structure that gives meaning to experience and allows people to make decisions about the future is called intentionality. May believed that intentionality permits people to overcome the dichotomy between subject and object because it enables them to see that their intentions are a function of both themselves and their environment.

VIII. Care, Love, and Will

Care is an active process that suggests that things matter. Love means to care, to delight in the presence of another person, and to affirm that person's value as much as one's own. Care is also an important ingredient in will, defined as a conscious commitment to action.

A. Union of Love and Will

May believe that our modern society has lost sight of the true nature of love and will, equating love with sex and will with will power. He further held that psychologically healthy people are able to combine love and will because both imply care, choice, action, and responsibility.

B. Forms of Love

May identified four kinds of love in Western tradition—sex, eros, philia, and agape. He believed that Americans no longer view sex as a natural biological function, but have become preoccupied with it to the point of trivialization. Eros is a psychological desire that seeks an enduring union with a loved one. It may include sex, but it is built on care and tenderness. Philia, an intimate nonsexual friendship between two people, takes time to develop and does not depend on the actions of the other person. Agape is an altruistic or spiritual love that carries with it the risk of playing God. Agape is undeserved and unconditional.

IX Freedom and Destiny

Psychologically healthy individuals are comfortable with freedom, able to assume responsibility for their choices, and willing to face their destiny.

A. Freedom Defined

Freedom comes from an understanding of our destiny. We are free when we recognize that death is a possibility at any moment and when we are willing to experience changes even in the face of not knowing what those changes will bring.

B. Forms of Freedom

May recognized two forms of freedom: (1) freedom of doing or freedom of action, which he called existential freedom, and (2) freedom of being or an inner freedom, which he called essential freedom.

C. Destiny Defined

May defined destiny as "the design of the universe speaking through the design of each one of us." In other words, our destiny includes the limitations of our environment and our personal qualities, including our mortality, gender, and genetic predispositions. Freedom and destiny constitute a paradox because freedom gains vitality from destiny, and destiny gains significance from freedom.

D. Philip's Destiny

After some time in therapy, Philip was able to stop blaming his mother for not doing what he thought she should have done. The objective facts of his childhood had not changed, but Philip's subjective perceptions had. As he came to terms with his destiny, Philip began to be able to express his anger, to feel less trapped in his relationship with Nicole, and to become more aware of his possibilities. In other words, he gained his freedom of being.

X. The Power of Myth

According to May, the people of contemporary Western civilization have an urgent need for myths. Because they have lost many of their traditional myths, they turn to religious cults, drugs, and popular culture to fill the vacuum. The Oedipus myth has had a powerful effect on our culture because it deals with such common existential crises as birth, separation from parents, sexual union with one parent and hostility toward the other, independence in one's search for identity, and finally death.

XI. Psychopathology

May saw apathy and emptiness—not anxiety or depression—as the chief existential disorders of our time. People have become alienated from the natural world (Umwelt), from other people (Mitwelt) and from themselves (Eigenwelt). Psychopathology is a lack of connectedness and an inability to fulfill one's destiny.

XII. Psychotherapy

The goal of May's psychotherapy was not to cure patients of any specific disorder, but rather to make them more fully human. May said that the purpose of psychotherapy is to set people free, that is, to allow them to make choices and to assume responsibility for those choices.

XIII. Related Research

May's theory of personality does not easily lend itself to direct empirical research. Nevertheless, some researchers have investigated the concept of terror management, which is based on more readily testable hypotheses. Rollo May's existential theory has not generated much objective, scientific research, a situation that May would have approved. Nevertheless, one existential topic to receive some empirical attention has been existential anxiety and terror management. Ernest Becker, an American psychiatrist inspired by Kierkegaard and Otto Rank, has presented research that has been a major source of inspiration for terror management theorists.

A. Mortality Salience and Denial of Our Animal Nature

Also, Jamie Goldenberg and colleagues found that cultural worldviews (religion, politics, and social norms) and self-esteem function to defend people against thoughts of death, so that when death becomes salient through disasters, death of a loved one, or images of death, people respond by clinging more closely to cultural worldviews and bolstering their self-esteem. They predicted that mortality salience would increase feelings of disgust, and their experiment found this prediction to be true. Goldenberg and colleagues found that their results supported the basic terror management assumption that people distance themselves from animals because animals remind us of our own physical mortality. Cathy Cox and colleagues recently extended Goldenberg’s findings by investigating disgust reactions to breast feeding (Cox, Greenberg, Arndt, & Pyszczynski, 2007; Cox, Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, & Weise, 2007). Their findings supported the conclusions of a growing body of research that when mortality is made more salient, people are increasingly disgusted by human features that remind us of our animal nature. This body of work points to the general conclusion that disgust serves the function of defending us against the existential threat posed by our inevitable death.

B. Fitness as a Defense against Mortality Awareness

If thoughts of death are highly anxiety provoking, then people should protect themselves against thoughts of death (terror-management) by doing things that can decrease their likelihood of dying, such as exercising and performing other healthy behaviors. Jamie Arndt and colleagues investigated this issue and found support for the hypothesis that, for people who value health and fitness, thoughts of death are related to greater interest in health-related behaviors. They also confirmed the importance of distinguishing between proximal or conscious and distal or unconscious defenses against death. In summary, terror management seems to be a powerful force behind much of human behavior.

XIV. Critique of May

May's psychology has been legitimately criticized as being antitheoretical and unjustly criticized as being anti-intellectual. May's antitheoretical approach calls for a new kind of science—one that considers uniqueness and personal freedom as crucial concepts. However, according to the criteria of present science, May's theory rates low on most standards. More specifically, we give it a very low rating on its ability to generate research, to be falsified, and to guide action; low on internal consistency (because it lacks operationally defined terms), average on parsimony, and high on its organizational powers, due to its consideration of a broad scope of the human condition.

XV. Concept of Humanity

May viewed people as complex beings, capable of both tremendous good and immense evil. People have become alienated from the world, from other people, and, most of all, from themselves. On the dimensions of a concept of humanity, May rates high on free choice, teleology, social influences, and uniqueness. On the issue of conscious or unconscious forces, his theory takes a middle position.

Test Items
1. The Danish philosopher and theologian ____________________ is usually credited with being the first modern existentialist.
2. Existentialists hold that existence precedes ____________________.
3. Rollo May spent part of his youth as a wandering ___________________, traveling through Europe, just as Erik Erikson had done a few years earlier.
4. Existentialists emphasize the balance between _________________ and responsibility.
5. Being-in-the-world, or ______________________, means to exist in the world or to be at one with the world.
6. Our relation with the world of things and objects is called _____________________.
7. The most obvious avenue of _____________________ is death.
8. Eigenwelt refers to our relationship with ______________________.
9. Our relationship to the world of people is termed ________________.
10. People experience _____________________ when they become aware that their existence might be destroyed.
11. Guilt and anxiety are __________________________ in the sense that they refer to the nature of being and not to specific situations.
12. Intentionality and _____________________ are inseparable.
13. May defined ______________________ as "a state in which something does matter."
14. May suggested a union between love and ______________________.
15. ___________________ is a nonsexual love between two people, for example, a sister and brother.
16. Healthy people are able to face their ________________________ and to assume their freedom.
17. May defined _______________________ as "the individual's capacity to know that he [she] is the determined one."
18. Freedom comes from understanding our ______________________.
19. May believed that _______________________ are conscious and unconscious belief systems that provide explanations for personal and social problems.
20. According to May, apathy and ______________________ are the spiritual illnesses of our time.

______1. Existentialism began with the work of A. H. Maslow.
______2. Rollo May had an unpredictable mother and an older sister who experienced a psychotic breakdown.
______3. During his lifetime, Kierkegaard's ideas had little effect on philosophical thought.
______4. Existentialists advocate a split between subject and object.
______5. Most existentialists suggest that people be studied from an objective frame of reference.
______6. The acquisition of freedom should be matched by the acquisition of responsibility.
______7. Neurotic anxiety, May said, is disproportionate to the threat and involves intrapsychic conflict.
______8. Ontological guilt associated with Mitwelt arises from our separation from the natural world.
______9. For May, intentionality is always conscious.
_____10. Care is the source of love and will.
_____11. Rollo May believed that love and will should be separate.
_____12. May considered sex to be the salvation of eros.
_____13. May believed that our ultimate destiny was death.
_____14. May suggested that healthy relationships blend all four forms of love.
_____15. Eros is a psychological desire to seek creation through an enduring union with a loved one.
_____16. Agape is an altruistic love that does not depend on the behavior of the loved person.
_____17. According to May, anxiety and guilt are the malaise of our time.
_____18. The goal of May's therapy is to set people free.
_____19. May believed that the Oedipus story lost its power when psychoanalysts popularized it and thus trivialized it.
_____20. May believed that humans are capable of doing both tremendous good and immense evil.
_____21. May's existential psychology has generated extensive research.

Multiple Choice
______1. Although Rollo May's writings were somewhat philosophical in tone, his views originated from his experience as a

a. lawyer.

b. physician.

c. scientific researcher.

d. soldier in World War II.

e. psychotherapist.

______2. May said that healthy people

a. retreat from their destiny.

b. deny their freedom.

c. challenge their destiny.

d. deny death.
______3. Kierkegaard, like most existentialists, suggested a balance between

a. life and death.

b. freedom and responsibility.

c. hope and despair.

d. consciousness and unconsciousness.

e. Yin and Yang.

______4. May believed that people acquire freedom of action, in part, by

a. expanding their self-awareness.

b. relying on other people.

c. using the tools and technology of modern society.

d. denying nonbeing.

e. becoming self-actualizing.

______5. May would accept the statement that

a. essence precedes existence.

b. subject and object operate as a single entity.

c. responsibility precedes freedom.

d. freedom takes precedence over responsibility.
_____ 6. The term Dasein expresses

a. the ultimate form of love.

b. the world of things or objects.

c. the essential unity of person and environment.

d. nonbeing.
______7. The terms Umwelt, Mitwelt, and Eigenwelt refer to

a. existential dread.

b. mechanisms of escaping from freedom.

c. mechanism of escaping from responsibility.

d. a person's being-in-the-world.
______8. The personality theories of Sullivan, Maslow, Rogers, and others that emphasize interpersonal relations deal mostly with ______.

a. Umwelt

b. Mitwelt

c. Eigenwelt

d. Dasein
______9. Our relationship to self and our ability to grasp who we are best describes ______.

a. Umwelt

b. Mitwelt

c. Eigenwelt

d. nonbeing
_____10. Various compulsive behaviors and addictions can be seen as manifestations of

a. Mitwelt.

b. nonbeing.

c. normal anxiety.

d. neurotic anxiety.

e. destiny.

_____11. May defined anxiety as

a. a feeling of separation from the natural world.

b. an awareness that our existence or some value identified with it may be destroyed.

c. the imaginative playing with the possibility of some act or state occurring.

d. a fear of nonbeing and an attraction to nothingness or death.
_____12. The guilt that arises from our inability to accurately perceive the world of others is associated with ______.

a. Umwelt

b. Mitwelt

c. Eigenwelt

d. neurotic anxiety

e. intentionality

_____13. May defined intentionality as

a. the desire to achieve self-fulfillment.

b. the feeling of threat that leads to a realization of Dasein.

c. the acceptance of ontological guilt.

d. the structure that gives meaning to our experience and allows us to make decisions about the future.
_____14. May regarded care as the source of

a. love and will.

d. eros and philia.

c. philia and agape.

d. Dasein and nothingness.
_____15. May defined love as:

a. "a delight in the presence of the other person and an affirmation of his value and development as much as one's own"

b. "the capacity to organize oneself toward a prized partner"

c. "the imaginative playing with the idea that another is an object of affection"

d. "agape minus eros"

e. "philia minus eros"

_____16. According to May, an authentic person must unite love with

a. sex.

b. imagination.

c. wish.

d. agape.

e. will.
_____17. Philia is defined as

a. love without care.

b. care without love.

c. will without wish.

d. an intimate, nonsexual friendship.

e. a sexual, nonintimate relationship.
_____18. May believed that freedom grows from an understanding of one's

a. authenticity.

b. will.

c. intentionality.

d. responsibility.

e. destiny.

_____19. According to May, a denial of destiny leads to

a. nonbeing.

b. psychopathology.

c. freedom.

d. freedom and responsibility.

e. guilt and shame.

_____20. May contended that contemporary people of Western civilization have an urgent need for

a. religion.

b. peace.

c. unity.

d. individuality.

e. myths.

_____21. People use myths to

a. transcend the immediate situation.

b. expand self-awareness.

c. search for identity.

d. all of these.
_____22. In The Cry for Myth, May suggested that one myth is powerful today because it contains elements of existential crises common to all of us. This is the story of ______.

a. Oedipus

b. Moses

c. Hercules

d. Job

e. Jonah

Short Answer
1. List five common elements of existentialism.

2. Distinguish between normal anxiety and neurotic anxiety, as described by May.

3. Explain May's concept of three forms of guilt.

4. List and define four kinds of love.

5. Differentiate between existential freedom and essential freedom.

6. Discuss May's concept of destiny.

7. Trace May's discussion of the Oedipus myth.

8. Summarize the findings of terror management theorists, and explain how these findings relate to Rollo May's existential theory of personality.

Fill-in-the-Blanks True-False Multiple Choice

1. Kierkegaard 1. F 1. e

2. essence 2. T 2. c

3. artist 3. T 3. b

4. freedom 4. F 4. a

5. Dasein 5. F 5. b

6. Umwelt 6. T 6. c

7. nonbeing 7. T 7. d

8. self 8. F 8. b

9. Mitwelt 9. F 9. c

10. anxiety 10. T 10. b

11. ontological 11. F 11. b

12. action 12. F 12. b

13. care 13. T 13. d

14. will 14. T 14. a

15. Philia 15. T 15. a

16. destiny 16. T 16. e

17. freedom 17. F 17. d

18. destiny 18. T 18. e

19. myths 19. F 19. b

20. emptiness 20. T 20. e

21. F 21. d

22. a

Feist, Theories of Personality, 8e Student Study Guide-11 |

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