Chapter 25: May – Existential Psychology

Part 3: Integration and the Human Dilemma

In the preface to Man’s Search for Himself (May, 1953), May presents the existential philosophy that there is meaning to be found in challenges and suffering, and that psychologists in particular may find a special opportunity in such circumstances:

When our society, in its time of upheaval in standards and values, can give us no clear picture of “what we are and what we ought to be,”…we are thrown back on the search for ourselves.  The painful insecurity on all sides gives us new incentive to ask, Is there perhaps some important source of guidance and strength we have overlooked?…How can anyone undertake the long development toward self-realization in a time when practically nothing is certain, either in the present or the future?…The psychotherapist has no magic answers…But there is something in addition to his technical training and his own self-understanding…This something is the wisdom the psychotherapist gains in working with people who are striving to overcome their problems.  He has the extraordinary, if often taxing, privilege of accompanying persons through their intimate and profound struggles to gain new integration. (pg. 7; May, 1953)

Integration, according to May, is similar to Heidegger’s concept of Dasein (being-in-the-world).  As conscious, free, and responsible beings, our goal should be to separate ourselves from the conformist, automaton masses (the en-soi, according to Sartre) and progressively integrate with others in freely chosen love and creative work (May, 1953), or as Clement Reeves puts it:  “To understand and elucidate the specific, distinguishing characteristics of the human being, and to grasp what it is to achieve courageous, decisive, integrated response to the challenge inherent in existence…” (Reeves, 1977). The process of integration is lifelong, and should be appropriate for whatever age each one of us happens to be right now.  May suggests that a healthy child of eight, who is fulfilling his capacity of self-conscious choice for a child of eight years old, is more of a person than a neurotic adult who is 30 years old. Likewise, a person who can face death courageously at the age of thirty is more mature than someone 80 years old who “cringes and begs still to be shielded from reality” (May, 1953).  Thus, it is important to live each moment with freedom, honesty, and responsibility. If each of us lives within the present moment, working to fulfill our potential, being true to whom we are and the situations within which we live, May proposes that we will experience joy and gratification.

One of the challenges to living an integrated life is seen in what May described as the human dilemma (May, 1967).  Are we the subject of our lives, or are we an object in our world?  When we become absorbed in the details of our responsibilities and actions, when we allow ourselves to be controlled and directed in order to accomplish our assigned tasks, when we become slaves to the clock, doing this and that, going here and there, as others expect us to, we are viewing ourselves as objects.  This is reminiscent of what Karen Horney called the tyranny of the should. On the other hand, when we consider our feelings, wishes, and desires, when we are true to ourselves, or living authentically, then we are viewing ourselves as subjects, as active participants in our own lives. According to May (1967), the human dilemma arises out of our capacity to experience ourselves as both subject and object at the same time.  But how can opposite poles of the human experience both be true?  It is in the process between the two poles that development of human consciousness develops, both deepening and widening that consciousness.  This is essentially the same idea, though in different form, used by Heidegger and Sartre in describing the unique nature of human beings. For Heidegger, this nothingness was the undefined distinction between Being and beings, for Sartre it was the shell that surrounded the pour-soi.

May believed that existential psychology occupied a space somewhere between the two extremes that existed, and continue to exist, in psychology: behaviorism vs. humanism.  May rejected Skinner’s arguments that all human behavior can be understood in terms of stimuli and responses, declaring that there is ample evidence in both clinical practice and everyday life of people being active participants in their view of, actions, and reactions to their world.  He was equally critical of Carl Rogers, believing that humanistic psychologists no longer recognized very real irrational behavior, as well as aggression and hostility (May, 1967). He believed that psychology had become trapped in a misguided desire to define everything scientifically, and according to rules that then determined each psychologist’s view of the world and their patients.  As a caution to those psychologists who cannot see beyond their theories, May wrote:

Now I am certainly aware, if I may say so without sounding patronizing, that the compelling need for honesty is one of the motives which leads psychologists to seek quantitative measures…I am also aware that research in our day has to be carefully set up so that the results are teachable and can be built upon by others.  The compelling drive to get at the truth is what improves us all as psychologists, and is part and parcel of intellectual integrity. But I do urge that we not let the drive for honesty put blinders on us and cut off our range of vision so that we miss the very thing we set out to understand – namely, the living human being.  (pg. 14; May, 1967)

May suggested that we need to separate ourselves from the conformist masses, and then integrate ourselves with others in free and responsible ways.  Are you a follower, or a leader? Either way, do you consciously choose the role you play, thereby living an authentic life?

Supplemental Materials

Rollo May: The Human Dilemma

This video [4:41] is an excerpt from the full 90-minute film featuring Rollo May talking about his belief that genuine growth comes from confronting the pain of existence rather than escaping into banal pleasures or shallow, positive thinking. Genuine joy, he says, can emerge from an appreciation of life’s agonies.



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

ThinkingAllowedTV.  (2010, August 21). Rollo May: The human dilemma – A thinking allowed DVD w/ Jeffrey Mishlove.  [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.