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Existentialism - the Choice of Life

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Existentialism the Choice of Life

Leann Brekke

PSY 6501 Psychology of Personality

Instructor Polina Bryson

February 13, 2011


This is an in depth look at existentialism, and the theory of Rollo May. I have included some thoughts on the theory of Victor Frankl and his ideas of the meaning of suffering in an existentialist view. I also have commentary on the how behaviorism is linked to the process of choice and the reasons why automaticity and behaviorism are important factors in understanding the human psyche.

The human mind is a very complex part of the human anatomy. Almost from the beginning of time people have tried to understand it and understand the reasons why people think and behave the way they do. Freud the forefather of psychoanalysis brought the underlying psyche into view. Right or wrong his concepts influenced many within the field of psychology. Some followed closely in his ideas; others went beyond them and came into the psychological field with new and more complete ideas. Some of these ideas were accepted, and have been proven through research and others have not. Rollo May, and Victor Frankel among others, impart on the world their ideas of the existential mind. Existentialism is an invaluable contribution to the science of psychology.

Existentialism defined by the Thorndike Barnhart World Book Dictionary (1995) is "a philosophy holding that reality consists of living, and that man makes himself what he is, and is responsible personally only to himself for what he is, and for what he makes himself." (pg. 745, vol. 1, A-K). Rollo May describes the term existentialism as a "much-maligned term". Be that as it may, the idea is that there is meaning in even the most harsh of experiences, and the person experiencing it is ultimately responsible for the personal impact that it has on his or her own life. Within his theory, there is a rise of conflict between these two underlying principalities. In other words, we know the truth of what we are, and we know what we want to be, and the distance between these two things can be a great source of conflict.

In Rollo Mays paper Existential Bases of Psychotherapy (1960) he names this conflict anxiety, and lays out a convincing argument that anxiety is the very struggle between the self that one is, and the self that one thinks one ought to be. He says that it comes about through the internal struggle between one's potential and the fear of rising to that potential. This is brought about because one might fear that what is expected by the world, and within the person, may be in a state of conflict, and that state of conflict might destroy the self, so it causes anxiety.

The potential that May (1960) speaks of is derived by six principal characteristics.

"One; every existing person is centered in him or herself. Two; every existing person has the character of Self-affirmation, the need to preserve its centeredness. Three; all existing persons have the need and possibility of going out from there centeredness to participate in other beings. Four; the subjective side of centeredness is awareness. Five; the uniquely human form of awareness is self-consciousness. Six; anxiety. Anxiety is the state of the human being in the struggle against what would destroy his being."

First, "every existing person is centered in himself" (May, 1960). We can all relate to this. We all see what happens in the world and see how it affects us personally. We are ever concerned with not only our lives but also our own existence. This can be seen in many ways, but most explicitly, at a time when our mortal lives are threatened. We will fight to the death to stay alive when under attack, regardless of how we feel in the moment about other factors like depression, feelings of unworthiness, or the like, and less explicitly, when we fight for our existence as we know it. In other words, when we feel threatened we fight to maintain our center, our self. Our livelihood, our health (e.g. fighting a disease), or fighting to maintain the integrity of our families. These come into play in that all of these things affect the self-center of our personal world.

This brings me to number two; "every existing person has the character of self-affirmation, the need to preserve its centeredness" (May, 1960). We fight for the things that sustain us or support us because when we feel a sense of centeredness we feel secure. This is directly in line with Maslow's hierarchy of needs - security (Maslow, 1954). Whether this feeling of security is real in the sense of no imminent threat to self, or is more abstract in the sense of feeling security in the abatement of loss, we all have a need to feel a sense of centeredness in our lives. This centeredness according to May (1960) is a product of the courage to make choices that preserve that centeredness, and we do that by self -affirmation. For those of us who have felt it in both senses, centered and un-centered, it is as if centeredness is a relief. As if we are plumb with the gravitational forces of the earth. May is correct in his idea that it takes courage to get there. Only when we assert ourselves and affirm that we are worthy to be honest and right with the world can we feel this relief of alignment.

This brings me to number three. "All existing persons have the need and possibility of going out from there centeredness to participate in other beings" (May, 1960). Barring maladaptive mental status, we all have a need to interact with others in the world. Some have this need more than others. We all must interact with the outside world, albeit for the need to make a living, or to obtain food, or socialize with other individuals. This can be a very precarious undertaking. Whether one has to interact with an overbearing family or participate in work or social events, there is always the threat of unbalancing the centeredness that one has achieved. So, we make choices as to the extent of our interactions. We risk our very selves because with every interaction we may be hurt emotionally, physically, or, in a maladaptive sense, risk hiding our true selves from the very people we interact with.

This gives way to number five, "the uniquely human form of awareness is self-consciousness." (May, 1960). We are aware our interactions and the reactions of others to ourselves. As little children we learn that if we don't conform to the status quo, we can experience a loss,



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