Otto Rank (1884-1939)

Otto Rank

Otto Rank was an early 20th century psychologist and psychoanalyst and a close colleague of Sigmund Freud. 

Professional Life

Otto Rank was born on April 22, 1884 in Vienna. When he was 21, Rank met Sigmund Freud, after Freud had read a manuscript written by Rank. Freud subsequently appointed Rank to act as secretary of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1906. The two became friends and were close confidants, with Rank acting as Freud’s assistant for nearly two decades. Freud encouraged Rank to study at the University of Vienna, where Rank earned his PhD in 1912.

Rank and Freud worked together to expand Freud’s theories, and Rank was a co-founder of the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1910. Rank was a prolific psychoanalytic writer, second only to Freud, and served as the resident expert on philosophy and literature in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.

Rank visited the United States in 1924, the same year that he published The Trauma of Birth, in which Rank revealed his claim that neurosis resulted from the trauma an infant experiences at being separated from the mother. Rank’s theories began to depart from Freud’s, and traditional Freudians distanced themselves from Rank. Rank used the term psychotherapy, rather than Freud’s psychoanalysis, and he focused on choices, responsibilities, conscious experiences, and the present, instead of drives, determinism, the unconscious, and the past. Freud and Rank’s relationship was severed in 1926.

Contribution to Psychology

Rank was a prolific writer, publishing numerous books dedicated to psychology, creativity, and dream analysis. He believed that therapy was a learning process, and that clients could unlearn maladaptive behaviors with creativity and guidance. Rank is recognized for his influence on client-centered therapy, and his post-Freudian lectures impacted the work of many other great psychologists of the time, including Carl Rogers and Rollo May.

Rank was among the first psychotherapists to try dramatic therapies, and he argued in his book Will Therapy that the emotional life of each person exists in the present tense—a phenomenon he termed the here-and-now. Other significant contributions include:

  • Using short-term therapy with his clients, and aiming for a more egalitarian relationship in therapy than Freud had traditionally advised. 
  • Advocating psychoanalytic training for homosexuals.
  • Emphasizing the role the early mother-child relationship plays in subsequent life developments; Rank was among the first psychologists to study attachment
  • Interpreting literature and mythology. In his book, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, for example, Rank analyzes how myths—particularly about heroic figures—can serve as repositories for cultural norms and values. 
  • Analyzing artistic creativity. Rank even used a person's approach to creativity to analyze his or her personality, arguing that adapted types learn to desire what they've been forced into. Neurotic types have strong wills, but are distracted by the struggle against domination by others. Productive types accept themselves and foster creativity, often becoming artists. 
  • Arguing that people have both life and death instincts. The life instinct encourages people to become competent, independent individuals, while the death instinct pushes people to become members of a collective or community. 

Unlike Freud, Rank believed that emotion was a necessary element for treatment, both for the therapist and the client. He strongly believed that denial of emotions was far more psychologically damaging than simply experiencing them. Although Rank continued to preach and practice his views of emotional here-and-now therapy, he had little support at the time. Rank’s theories were not fully embraced until decades later.

Selected Works by Otto Rank

  • The Artist (1907)
  • The Interpretation of Dreams (1914)
  • Truth and Reality (1929)
  • The Trauma of Birth (1929)
  • Psychology and the Soul (1930)
  • Modern Education (1933)
  • Will Therapy (1936)


  1. Lieberman, E. J. (2003). Otto rank, 1884-1939. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 160(1), 32. Retrieved from
  2. Lieberman, E. J. (2005). Otto Rank. International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Retrieved from
  3. Otto Rank. (1998). Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved from

Last Update: 08-12-2013

Advanced Search
Subscribe to's Email Newsletter

Free Student Membership

Are you a college or university student? Sign up here for a free student membership with