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Anxiety in Rollo May 1

Anxiety in Rollo May

Rollo May challenges us to truly experience the depths of our existence through

understanding being, which he calls at one point “our pattern of potentialities” (1994, p. 17), and

to make meaning and discover ourselves through acting out these potentialities. He admonishes

us with conviction to take responsibility for ourselves not as islands, but as acting and aware

individuals inseparable from and responsible to the world around us. To do as Rollo May

advocates takes incredible courage, a consciousness that involves the oscillation between

existing as both a subject and object (May, 1967), and not avoiding the anxiety that can help us

“become aware of gaps between expectations and reality” (May, 1950, p. 390). Though there are

many concepts integral to May’s understanding of the human being, this paper explores his

concepts of anxiety. His perspective of anxiety is refreshing, as he suggests that anxiety is

essential to the development and actualization of the self. When not destructive or neurotic,

anxiety can be a challenge that motivates and inspires creativity.

According to May, anxiety is an intrinsic part of existence involving what he calls the

paradoxical “human dilemma”, which “arises out of man’s capacity to experience himself as

both as subject and object at the same time” (May, 1967, p. 8). As a subject, we experience

subjectively as a creator, a maker of meaning, a “valuator” (May, 1950). In the awareness as

subject, we act out our own will, fears, needs, and desires. In the subjective moments, a human

is not determined by the objective world; his subjective existence empowers and engenders a

distinct awareness of self. Subjective experience implies an inner experience, a reaction to

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which can be from the past as well as the present; it is an interpretation in terms of a person’s

own symbols, desire, and fears.

On the other hand, we can also look at ourselves from the outside; we objectify our frame

of focus, whether it is ourselves or the environment. In these moments, we become aware that

objects, including ourselves, are determined and limited by laws of nature, perceptual,

intellectual, and physical abilities, and other deterministic forces. In this mode, we are “the one

to whom these experiences happen” (May, 1960, p.689), and can only react to the outside

stimuli. Limitations to our subjective potentialities thus exist due to the fact that we exist in the

realm of the physical world with its uncontrollable powers. From the objective perspective, we

also exist within this physical world as a multitude of individuals bound by a necessary

relationship, and are also therefore limited by the influence of culture.

This human dilemma is essential to experiencing consciousness. May argues vehemently

against doctrines that reject either pole of the dichotomy, one which is often expressed in

materialistic objectivism, and the other in extreme relativistic subjectivism. In Psychology and

the Human Dilemma, May affirms that being “purely free” or “purely determined” undermines

the fate of our dilemma and ignores our potentiality as humans. He says that consciousness is “a

process of oscillation between the two” and that this oscillation is what gives rise to human

potentiality – one can choose to throw one’s weight to one side or the other. In other words,

freedom is “one’s capacity to experience both modes” (1967, p. 9). Through our experience of

this amazing dichotomy we are subjectively aware of our being in relation to what we value as

important, and objectively aware of our being in relation to things external to ourselves. Because

we can see opposite poles, we become aware of our being but also of the opposite, which is non-

being. Therefore, it is through the combination of these two modes that we can know or

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experience the threat of non-being. Consciousness and the accompanying freedom give rise to

continued tension and the painful experience of anxiety as a reaction to this existence. In other

words, “consciousness is not simply my awareness of threat from the world, but my capacity to

know myself as the one being threatened, my experience of myself as the subject who has a

world” (May, 1960, p. 691).

When one experiences anxiety, as we all have, we experience a painful feeling of

helplessness and powerlessness. May defines anxiety as “a state of being or an ontological

characteristic of life” as well as a “diffuse apprehension…unspecific, vague, and objectless in the

face of danger” (1950, pp. 204-205 & 1982, p. 16). This vagueness makes it even more painful

because it can’t be objectified and distinguished from our being, and hence it cannot truly be

escaped. In a moment of anxiety, May says the distinction between subject and object blurs, and

we cannot imagine existence outside of it, which creates an experience of panic (1982). The

reaction to this experience is often destructive, so it is not surprising why most people, including

those in psychology, have always viewed anxiety as destructive and paralyzing. Indeed, May

doesn’t deny the destructive expressions of it, but rather creatively distinguishes destructive or

‘neurotic’ anxiety from constructive or ‘normal anxiety.

Anxiety becomes neurotic when it is avoided or repressed, and when people become

compulsive and rigid in their thinking. Actions taken to allay the tension of anxiety become

compulsive because one feels pushed by the need to stop this tension rather than any desire to

actually act. Addictions to sex, alcohol, and even compulsive working are examples of defensive

actions taken to allay anxiety. The rigidity of thinking involved with trying to escape anxiety is

expressed as dogma, or a formulaic way of looking at the world. This does provide some

momentary security, but at the price of one’s creativity. May offers a solid definition of

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neurotic anxiety by saying it “is a reaction which is disproportionate to the threat, involves

repression and other forms of intrapsychic conflict, and is managed by various kinds of blocking-

off of activity and awareness” (1967, p. 80). Because it is repressed, destructive or neurotic

anxiety becomes an inability to cope with experiences of anxiety from the past. These forms of

anxiety are what most view as anxiety in general, but May went beyond this way of thinking to

show how this is just a distorted outcropping from what he calls normal anxiety.

Anxiety can, and as May argued, should be constructive for it to service the integration

and development of the self. This can only happen when we are conscious of our anxiety

without trying to escape it. Instead, it is a challenge to resolve the underlying conflict and re-

evaluate what is important to us, what he calls our values and our goals. Hence anxiety is

intimately related to values. For this reason, May expands his definition of anxiety as “the

apprehension cued off by a threat to some value that the individual holds essential to his

existence as a personality” (1950, p. 205). It is important for our sense of self and our

preservation of identity to experience threat. But May suggests that what is threatened is the best

way to understand the nature of anxiety: “The threat must be to something in the “core” or

essence” of the personality” (May, 1950, p. 205). When anxiety is constructively experienced,

we confront it by being sure that the values we gain in moving forward are greater than by those

we gain in trying to escape. In other words, we have a “cause” or a value that is greater than the

threat so we move forward despite the pain and the danger we face.

By nature, man is a valuing creature who makes meaning by creatively seeking what is

important. Values do not exist without a person to do the valuing and make the commitment to

it. Hence, deCavarvalho clarifies this connection of values to our identity or personality by

saying that “the process of valuing and thus also becoming a person is a process of centering

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oneself around self-chosen values…[it is] an ongoing process of centering around core values

that serve as psychological centers of integration and unity” (1992, p. 11). The valuing process

roots us, and when we assert ourselves in spite of the dangers, our identity is experienced. May

states that this process is essential when cultures view individuals as a cog in the wheel, and

when there are no consistent cultural values with which the individual may identify. Since May

characterizes normal anxiety as the reaction to something we value and with which we identify,

overcoming the anxiety is proportional to the strength of our values and convictions.

(deCarvalho, 1996). Therefore, normal anxiety compels us to discover, elucidate, and identify

with the values that construct and preserve our identity. Since values are changeable and are not

unassailable, normal anxiety is inevitable. This normal anxiety can turn into the neurotic type

when it is repressed, at which point one loses one’s sense of identity in conformity or dogmatic


Anxiety is essential to self-development and facilitates its ongoing realization (Kiser,

2007). But it is so painful because it does strike at the core of one’s identity and it arises in

moments of potential choices demanding our freedom and courage. We cannot see outside of

anxiety, and in that moment there is a blurring of subject and object, of time itself, and we are

forced to confront the gap between expectation and reality. “Anxiety occurs at the point where

there is some new emergent potentiality of possibility that faces one, some new possibility of

fulfilling one’s existence” (May, 1982, p. 18). The blurring and the confusion of these moments

might be similar to looking down from the edge of a deep chasm while feeling the need to get to

the other side. The gaps of expectation and reality experienced via the oscillation of

consciousness provide us with the moment to act; but just before that actualization or choice, the

potential occasions that painful tension that is anxiety. Our freedom to act, then, is intimately

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tied to anxiety. But it is these moments that must be tolerated because they provide the

opportunity to actualize the expectations inherent in one’s values. The paradox is that when

there is a threat to one mode of existence involving our values and identity, instead of trying to

stay put there or fleeing, we must confront the threat and re-evaluate in order to become a fuller

being (Kiser, 2007). This process of dealing with anxiety constructively is a creative process

that essentially liberates the individual’s capacities and potentialities. This is why May states

that neurosis is a “negating of possibilities; it is the shrinking up of one’s world” (1950, p. 381).

With these motivating concepts in mind, Rollo May’s focus of therapy is on the

empowerment of the individual by helping one to experience anxiety consciously, and to seek

out clarification of one’s inner values that build a more developed sense of self. For May, this

process of centering oneself around self-chosen values requires attentiveness to one’s body,

feelings, and intentions as well as choice, freedom with responsibility, and the constructive

confrontation of anxiety (deCarvalho, 1992). Neurotic behaviors accompany neurotic anxiety as

seen with addicts whose defensive behaviors are a compulsive reaction to their neurotic anxiety.

Often the first step to help addicts is to accept and not repress the fact that there is a problem in

the first place. Hence for therapists, anxiety and the behaviors associated with it can provide a

useful clue to issues needing resolution.

Existence implies emerging and growth. Without the continued change and uprooting of

our own values, which implies anxiety as defined by May, we will not be able to exist and

actualize our fullest potential. As Rollo May makes clear, anxiety is an essential part of the

human life, and without it we’d become stagnant and insensitive, and would live without the

necessary tension that preserves our existence.

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May R.R. (1950). The meaning of anxiety. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

May R.R. (1960). Existential bases of psychology. Existential Psychology, 30, 685-695

May R.R. (1967). Psychology and the human condition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,


May R.R. (1982). Stress and anxiety. Journal unknown (was a transcribed speech), 8, 13-21.

New York: Hemisphere Pub. Corp distributed by Haleted Press.

May R.R. (1994). The discovery of being: Writings in existential psychology. (2nd ed.). New

York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

deCarvalho, R.J. (1996). Rollo R. May (1909-1994): A biographical sketch. Journal of

Humanistic Psychology, 36 (2), 8-16.

deCarvalho, R.J. (1992). The humanistic ethics of Rollo May. Journal of Humanistic

Psychology, 32 (1), 7-16.

Kiser S. (2007). Sacred dialectic; The centrality of paradox in the worldview of Rollo May. The

Humanistic Psychologist; bulletin of the Division of Humanistic Psychology, 35 (2), 191-


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