Chapter 25: May – Existential Psychology

Part 5: The Daimonic: Source of Violence and Creativity

The daimonic, according to May, is “any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person” (May, 1969).  It can be either destructive or creative, and is often both. In this way it is similar to Jung’s concept of the shadow, and May himself made that comparison (May, 1991; see also Diamond, 1996, Reeves, 1977).  In fact, it is the mixture of good and evil in the daimonic that protects us from the dangers of excess, whether excess good or the passivity of feeling powerless. When May did not know whether he would live or die from tuberculosis, he realized that his feelings of helplessness were turning into passivity, and that this was sure to lead to his death (as he had seen with others).  He described this experience as the product of his innocence, and that because he was innocent, he allowed the bacteria infecting his body to do violence to him. However, when he chose to fight the disease, when he asserted his will to live, he began to make steady progress and, indeed, he recovered. In this sense, May had chosen to allow the daimonic to take over his self in the interest of self preservation.  In each instance, how one allows the daimonic to take over is influenced by personal responsibility (Reeves, 1977).

When the daimonic takes over without one having made a responsible choice, however, it can lead to violence toward others.  Our lives often involve conflict between those who have power and those who do not. When a person feels powerless, helpless, or insignificant, they can lash out under the control of the daimonic.  According to May, violence is bred in impotence and apathy (May, 1972). This can be particularly important for those who have little or no advantage in our society. In Power and Innocence (May, 1972), May described a patient who was a young, Black woman.  Being both Black and female, born before the civil rights movement, she was about as powerless as one could be in America.  Her stepfather had forced her to serve as a prostitute for years. Although quite intelligent, and successful in school and college, she felt so helpless that May described her as having “no active belief that she deserved to be helped.”  An important aspect of therapy for this patient was to get in touch with her anger, to get in touch with the violence that had been done to her and that she wished to do to others.

In considering the case of this young woman, May concluded that we must not simply condemn all violence and try to eliminate even the possibility of it.  To do so would be to take away a part of full humanity. In this context, May criticizes humanistic psychology and its emphasis on fulfilling self-actualization, an emphasis that May felt moved toward greater moral perfection.  However, the recognition that we are not perfect, that each of us has good and evil within, prohibits us from moral arrogance. Recognizing this leads to the restraint necessary for making forgiveness possible.

Our ability to achieve good is dependent on who we are, and who we are is based partly on our own creativity.  Since humans are not simply driven by instinct and fixed action patterns, in contrast to every other creature on earth, we must create ourselves.  This creation must take place within the world that exists around us, and must take into account all of the emotions and predispositions that we carry with us as biological organisms.

Art, and creative activities of all kinds, can provide comparatively healthy outlets for the constructive expression of anger and rage.  Creativity cannot, however, always substitute for psychotherapy. Nevertheless, creativity is at the very core of the psychotherapeutic project: The patient is encouraged to become more creative in psychologically restructuring his or her inner world, and then to continue this creative process in the outer world, not only by accepting and adjusting to reality, but, whenever possible, by reshaping it.

Pursuing this creativity is not easy, however.  We live in a world that is rapidly changing. Since May’s death in 1994, change in the world has probably even accelerated.  May asked whether we would withdraw in anxiety and panic as our foundations were shaken, or would we actively choose to participate in forming the future (May, 1975).  Choosing to live in the future requires leaping into the unknown, going where others have not been, and therefore cannot guide us. It involves what existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness (May, 1975).  Making this bold choice requires courage.  One of the reasons we need to be courageous is that we must fully commit ourselves to pursuing a responsible creation of the future, but at the same time we must recognize that sometimes we will be wrong.  Those who claim they are absolutely right can be dangerous, since such an attitude can lead to dogmatism, or worse, fanaticism (May, 1975).

Finally, not only must we accept that we might make bad choices, we must also recognize that our creativity is limited.  In The Courage to Create (May, 1975), May described having attended a conference where the introductory speaker declared that there is no limit to the possibilities of the human being.  Following this statement, the discussion at the conference was a flop. May realized that if there is no limit to what we can accomplish, then there really aren’t any problems any more, we only need to wait until our potentiality catches up with our situation and the problem solves itself.  May offered a rather amusing example to clarify this point:

…it is like putting someone into a canoe and pushing him out into the Atlantic toward England with the cheery comment, “The sky’s the limit.”  The canoer is only too aware of the fact that an inescapably real limit is also the bottom of the ocean. (pg. 113, May, 1975)

Another inescapable limit is our death.  There is no creative act that can change the fact that we will die someday, and that we cannot know when or how it will happen.  May believed, however, that these limits are valuable, and that creativity itself needs limits. He proposed that consciousness arises from our awareness of these limits, and from the struggle against these limits.  May compared this concept to Adler’s theory that much of what we as individuals, and also society as a whole, are arises from our efforts to compensate for inferiority. Thus, our limits lead to what May called a passion for form.  In its passion for form, the mind is actively forming and reforming the world in which we live (May, 1975).

May believed that creatively taking charge of your life required courage.  Have you ever had to make a really difficult decision? Did you take the easy way out, or the safe path, or did you make a bold decision that offered great opportunity?

The Cry for Myth

As a practicing psychoanalyst, I find that contemporary therapy is almost entirely concerned, when all is surveyed, with the problems of the individual’s search for myths.  The fact that Western society has all but lost its myths was the main reason for the birth and development of psychoanalysis in the first place. (pg. 9; May, 1991)

The preceding quote is how May began The Cry for Myth, the last book of his career (May, 1991).  According to May, the definition of a myth is quite simple:  it “is a way of making sense in a senseless world.”  In addition, myths give substance to our existence. In a healthy society, the myths provide relief from neurotic guilt and excessive anxiety, and so a compassionate therapist will not discourage them.  In the twentieth century, especially in Western culture, we have lost our myths, and with them we have lost our sense of existence and our direction or purpose in life. The danger in this is that people are then susceptible to cults, drugs, superstition, etc., in a vain effort to replace that purpose (May, 1991).

As we pass through the experiences of our lives, our memory is dependent mainly upon myth.  It is well accepted today that human memory is constructive and influenced by our expectations of memory.  As May describes it, the formation of a memory, regardless of whether it is real or fantasy, is molded like clay.  We then retain it as a myth, and rely on that myth for future guidance in similar situations. For example, an infant is fed three times a day and put to bed 365 days a year, and yet they remember only one or two of these events from their years of early childhood.  For whatever reason, good or bad, these specific events take on mythic proportions and greatly influence the course of our lives. May acknowledges the contribution of Alfred Adler in recognizing the value of these early memories, describing Adler as “a perceptive and humble man, he was gifted with unusual sensitivity for children” (May, 1991).  As we have seen, Adler considered the basis for neurosis to be a lack of social interest. In therapy, Adler focused on the “guiding fiction” of a child’s life, something May considered to be synonymous with a “myth.” Since “memory is the mother of creativity,” and memory depends upon myth, May believed that the myths that form the identity of our culture are essential for the formation of our self.

May ends his final book with a chapter entitled, The Great Circle of Love.  Having covered a variety of famous myths in the book, including Dante’s Divine Comedy, Marlow’s Faust, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, and Poe’s The Raven, May concludes:

In each of these dramas the liberation of both woman and man is possible only when each achieves a new myth of the other sex, leading to a new significant psychological relationship.  They are both then liberated from their previous empty and lonely existence. The woman and the man find their true selves only when they are fully present to each other. They find they both need each other, not only physically but psychologically and spiritually as well.  (pg. 288; May, 1991)


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


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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.