Rollo May is regarded as a leader of existential philosophy in American psychotherapy. When it comes to depression, individuals can struggle with deep philosophical questions that can’t be resolved with trite truisms. It is in such moments that one may find Rollo May’s quotes to be particularly meaningful with the powerful insights they offer.
To fully appreciate Rollo May quotes, it’s helpful to know a bit more about this seminal thinker as well as his social context. That is what this article is setting out to do, so, keep reading to learn about this influential man and draw inspiration from his work.

Who was Rollo May?

Rollo Reese May was born in 1909, and after 85 years of life, died in 1994. Being the oldest son with five younger siblings, May was burdened with a lot of responsibility from a very young age; with parents divorced and his sister living with schizophrenia.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in English, he taught the language for three years in Greece, where he developed an interest in theology.
He was ordained as a minister and worked in the church for several years upon his return to the United States. 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, not only his own experience of anxiety, but also those around him, who were dealing with anxiety, isolation, fear, depersonalization, and even death itself.
May returned to the academic world upon his full recovery 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 many seminal books, which are still considered relevant today – not only to psychologists and fellow researchers but to regular persons just like you and I.
In the United States, Rollo May is considered “the father of existential psychotherapy” , but what exactly is existential psychotherapy or psychology? Understanding this will make the Rollo May quotes much more relevant.

What Is Existential Psychology?

In order to 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, psychology had rejected philosophy almost entirely.
Leading up to the 20th century, 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.” As Sartre noted, they didn’t go further than “describing mere patterns of desires and tendencies.”
While our natural reaction might be to condemn Freud and his disciples, it’s important to realize that this was only a natural evolution of what had already begun hundreds of years prior.
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, urbanism, and medicine.
Existentialism was, for May, a way to heal that divide and to see a man not as a collection of separate parts, but as a whole being.

How existential philosophy enriches psychoanalysis

May promoted the idea that psychoanalysis and existentialism can be used together to observe the individual in his social context, rather than see the person (and his other mental illness) as a detached object, unaffected by his or her world.
In a way, existentialism arose at a critical time in history, when personhood was being dehumanized and 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 fraction, by replacing it with wholeness, through existentialism. Existentialism shared significant similarities with ancient Zen Buddhism and Taoist philosophies hailing from the East.
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, these were new and revolutionary belief systems, making May a man ahead of his time.
Rollo May’s approach reveals how valuable the individual and their experiences are. To learn more about this subject, read this article on

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This article on existential theory is part of a series is developing to educate the public about mental health and therapy.
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