Chapter 24: Frankl: Logotherapy

Part 2: The Theoretical Basis for Logotherapy

While Frankl was in medical school, he considered specializing in dermatology or obstetrics.  A fellow student who was aware of Frankl’s wide-ranging interests, however, introduced Frankl to the works of Kierkegaard.  This friend had been reminded of Kierkegaard’s emphasis on living an authentic life, and he urged Frankl to pursue his interest in psychiatry.  While still in medical school, Frankl delivered a lecture to the Academic Society for Medical Psychology, of which Frankl was the founding vice-president, and used the term logotherapy for the first time (a few years later he first used the alternative term existential analysis; Frankl, 1995/2000).  The word logos is Greek for “meaning,” and this third Viennese school of psychotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence and man’s search for such a meaning. Logotherapy, therefore, focuses on man’s will-to-meaning, in contrast to Freud’s will-to-pleasure (the drive to satisfy the desires of the id, the pleasure principle) or Adler’s will-to-power (the drive to overcome inferiority and attain superiority; adopted from Nietzsche) (Frankl, 1946/1986, 1946/1992).

The will-to-meaning is, according to Frankl, the primary source of one’s motivation in life.  It is not a secondary rationalization of the instinctual drives, and meaning and values are not simply defense mechanisms.  As Frankl eloquently points out:

…as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.”  Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values! (pg. 105; Frankl, 1946/1992)

Unfortunately, one’s search for meaning can be frustrated.  This existential frustration can lead to what Frankl identified as a noogenic neurosis (a neurosis of the mind or, in other words, the specifically human dimension).  Frankl suggested that when neuroses arise from an individual’s inability to find meaning in their life, what they need is logotherapy, not psychotherapy.  More specifically, they need help to find some meaning in their life, some reason to be. When reading Frankl’s examples of how he helps such people, and Frankl offers many of these examples in his writings, it seems so simple.  But it must be remembered that it takes a great deal of experience, knowledge, and maturity, as well as an ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, in order to creatively think of how another person can find meaning in their life.  It would be safe to say that many of us find it difficult to find meaning in our own lives, and research has indeed shown that the will-to-meaning is a significant concern throughout the world (Frankl, 1946/1992). In order to make sense of this problem, Frankl has suggested that we should not ask what we expect from life, but rather, we should understand that life expects something from us:

A colleague, an aged general practitioner, turned to me because he could not come to terms with the loss of his wife, who had died two years before.  His marriage had been very happy, and he was now extremely depressed. I asked him quite simply: “Tell me what would have happened if you had died first and your wife had survived you?”  “That would have been terrible,” he said. “How my wife would have suffered?” “Well, you see,” I answered, “your wife has been spared that, and it was you who spared her, though of course you must now pay by surviving and mourning her.”  In that very moment his mourning had been given a meaning – the meaning of a sacrifice. (pg. xx; Frankl, 1946/1986)

The latter point brings us back to Frankl’s discussion of how one can find meaning in life: through creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone, particularly when love is involved; or by choosing one’s attitude toward unavoidable suffering.  Those of us who have lost someone dear know how easily it leads to deep suffering. Frankl had already written the first version of The Doctor and the Soul when he entered the Theresienstadt concentration camp, so his views on how one should choose their attitude toward unavoidable suffering were put to a test that no research protocol could ever hope to achieve.  His observations form the basis for much of Man’s Search for Meaning.  Both his observations of others and his own reactions in this unimaginably horrible and tragic situation are quite fascinating:

…as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of was thinking his wife…my mind clung to my wife’s image…Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun…A thought transfixed me:  for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. (pp. 48-49; Frankl, 1946/1992)

…One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset.  Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red…Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”  (pg. 51; Frankl, 1946/1992)

…The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.  There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.  (pp. 74-75; Frankl, 1946/1992)

Frankl considered the most important aspect of survival to be the ability to find meaning in one’s life.  Have you found meaning in your life? Are there goals you have that you believe might add meaning to your life?  Do you know anyone personally whose life seems to be filled with meaning, and if so, how does it appear to affect them?

Logotherapy as a Technique

Unfortunately, as noted by Frankl, not everyone can successfully accomplish the will-to-meaning.  Those who rapidly declined toward death itself had lost the ability to have faith in the future; they could not identify any goal that provided meaning for their future.  Such individual’s exist in what Frankl called an existential vacuum. We have no instincts that tell us what we have to do, fewer and fewer traditions that tell us what we should do, and we often don’t even know what we want to do.  Therein lays the need for logotherapy. As a technique, logotherapy relies primarily on paradoxical intention and dereflection (Frankl, 1946/1986, 1946/1992).  Paradoxical intention is based on a simple trap in which neurotic individuals often find themselves.  When a person thinks about or approaches a situation that provokes a neurotic symptom, such as fear, the person experiences anticipatory anxiety.  This anticipatory anxiety takes the form of the symptom, which reinforces their anxiety, and so on.  In order to help people break out of this negative cycle, Frankl recommends having them focus intently on the very thing that evokes their symptoms, even trying to exhibit their symptoms more severely than ever before.  As a result, the patient is able to separate themselves from their own neurosis, and eventually the neurosis loses its potency.

Similar to anticipatory anxiety, people often experience a compulsive inclination to observe themselves, resulting in hyper-reflection.  For example, people who suffer from insomnia focus on their efforts to sleep, or people who cannot enjoy a sexual relationship often focus on their physical, sexual responses.  Because of this intense focus on sleep or having an orgasm, these very things are unattainable. In dereflection, patients are taught not to pay attention to what they desire. A person who cannot sleep might read in bed, and they will eventually fall asleep.  A person who cannot enjoy intimate sexuality could focus on their partner, and as a result, they should experience satisfaction that they did not expect. In essence, whereas paradoxical intention teaches the patient to ridicule their symptoms, dereflection teaches the patient to ignore his or her symptoms (Frankl, 1946/1986).

Logotherapy relies on paradoxical intention and dereflection to break the anticipatory anxiety that often leads to failure (and then, more anxiety).  Are there situations where you find yourself getting anxious or nervous even before the situation begins? What steps, if any, have you taken to break out of that pattern?

Supplemental Materials

Viktor Frankl: Logotherapy and Man’s Search for Meaning

This video [6:46] explores the school of thought founded by Viktor Frankl called logotherapy, which claims that the primary motivation of humans is to actualize meaning in their life. This video explores his famous work titled, Man’s Search for Meaning.



Viktor Frankl-Why Self-Actualization is Nonsense

This video [11:42] features Viktor Frankl in one of his final television interviews.  In this video, Dr. Frankl explains how Logotherapy’s concepts of meaning and self-transcendence contrast the deterministic views of modern psychotherapy.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Academy of Ideas.  (2016, July 26). Viktor Frankl: Logotherapy and man’s search for meaning.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Noetic Films.  (2019, September 2).  Viktor Frankl: Why self-actualization is nonsense.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.