Rollo May was a 20th century psychologist who played central roles both in developing and popularizing existential psychology. 

Professional Life

Rollo May was born in 1909 in Ada, Ohio. May attributed his interest in psychology to his troubled family life and the discordant relationship of his parents. As an undergraduate, May studied English at Michigan State and earned his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in Ohio. After graduation, May taught English in Salonika, Greece, and while there, he traveled to attend seminars presented by Alfred Adler. Back in the states, May earned a bachelor’s degree in divinity in 1938, and served briefly as a minister before enrolling at Columbia College to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.

May served as a counselor, faculty member, and fellow, respectively, at the William Alanson White Institute in New York City beginning in 1943 and he started his own practice in 1946. From 1955–1975, May taught at the New School for Social Research, and in 1975 he relocated to California. He is well known for many of his books, including Man’s Search for Himself, Love and Will, The Meaning of Anxiety, and The Courage to Create.

Contribution to Psychology

May helped to introduce existential psychology in 1958, when he collaborated with Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger to edit the book Existence. May was heavily influenced by other philosophical theories, such as humanism. His primary aim was to understand the underlying mechanisms and reality behind human suffering and crises; he did this by combining elements of humanism with existentialism in his approach to therapy.

Like other psychologists of his time, May argued that development proceeded through specific stages during which a person must deal with a specific crisis or challenge. These include:

  • Innocence: an infant has few drives other than the will to live. 
  • Rebellion: a developing child seeks freedom but cannot properly care for herself. 
  • Decision: a transitional stage during which a teenager or young adult makes decisions about his or her life, while seeking further independence from her parents. 
  • Ordinary: the stage of adulthood. Overwhelmed by its demands, young adults tend to seek protection in conformity and tradition. 
  • Creative: this marks a point of productive, creative self-actualization during which a person moves past egotism and self-involvement. 

Although the stages are related to stages of child and adult development, any person at any age can enter these stages. Some people skip stages or repeatedly return to a particular stage. May also placed a strong emphasis on anxiety, arguing that anxiety is actually a major catalyst in human life enabling people to make courageous decisions. Anxiety can also help people avoid danger while empowering them to find ways to remain safe.


  1. Pace, E. (1994, Oct 24). Dr. Rollo May is Dead at 85; Was Innovator in Psychology. New York Times. Retrieved from
  2. Jackson, Kenneth T. (Ed.), Karen Markoe (Ed.), and Arnold Markoe May (Ed.). Rollo Reece. (2001). The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives Vol. 4: 1994-1996. Retrieved from