The extential psychologist, Rollo May was born on in Ada, Ohio on April 21, 1909. Unfortunately, May did not experience a very happy childhood. Never getting along, his parents got divorced and his sister suffered a psychotic breakdown.
Rollo May studied English at Michigan State and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College after which he went to Greece and taught English for three years at Anatolia College. During this time, May spent some time as an itinerant artist studying briefly with Alfred Adler. Upon returning to the US, May entered a seminary where he made friends with Paul Tillich, an existentialist theologian who heavily influenced May’s thinking. In 1938, May received his BD.
May’s health declined significantly when he suffered tuberculosis due to which he had to spend three years in a sanatorium. Facing the possibility of death, this period was a turning point in May’s life. He spent most of his time during these days reading various pieces of literature. Among the authors he read was Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish religious writer. Kierkegaard’s work heavily inspired the extential movement and also became the basis of inspiration for Rollo May’s theory.
May eventually completed his education in 1949 at Columbia University earning a PhD in clinical psychology from Teachers College. May’s PhD was the first that Columbia University awarded in clinical psychology. After becoming a PhD doctor, May set out to teach at some of the top schools in the country. In 1958, along with Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger, May edited the book Existence. This book is known to introduce extential psychology to the United States.
Rollo May very rightly established the fact that a person develops through stages. According to him, all individuals experience a number of stages throughout their lifetimes. He identified these stages as Innocence, the stage of pre-self-consciousness, Rebellion, when a person believe in their free will without understanding the responsibilities that accompany freedom. This is followed by the stage of Decision, where a person grasps his/her independence from one’s parents and makes decisions about what to do with his/her life. Next comes the Ordinary stage where individuals experience a developed sense of ego and responsibility. During this point in life, people feel overwhelmed when they are unable to meet responsibilities. This is when they give in to socially acceptable norms and values. Finally, an
individual identifies their authentic self in Extential or Creative stage where he/she experiences self actualization. May’s stages do not necessarily come one after the other. Different people can experience these stages at different times in their lives.
Although May was an extential psychologist, he was also highly under the influence of other philosophical theories and humanism. He often studied the works of Freud and also believed Otto Rank to be a genius. May’s own contributions to extential psychology are many. He founded the Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in San Francisco and also published numerous articles. Some of his best works include The Courage to Create and Love & Will. Spending the last years of his life in Tiburon, California, Rollo May passed away in the October of 1994.