Key Figures in Existential Psychotherapy

The First Generation of Existential Psychologists

While many people helped shape the early existential psychology movement, these three figures stand out as the primary leaders, particularly in America. While many others, including prominent humanistic theorists, deserve some recognition for their contributions, for now I will focus on these three figures. These theorists played a prominent role in developing, defining, and promoting existential theory and psychotherapy. Without their leadership, it is doubtful that existentialism would be where it is today.

Please keep in mind that this is a brief overview of the theorists to help the reader understand where existentialism came from. There has been a great deal which has been written about each of these theorists in current and forthcoming biographies which provide a much more extensive coverage of their lives and contributions. Readers may also be interested in reading about Second Generation Key Figures and the Philosophical Forerunners.

Rollo May

Rollo May has consistently been referred to as the father of American Existential Psychology. The beginnings of May's contributions began with his doctoral thesis which was published in 1950 under the title The Meaning of Anxiety. This book, while not the most exciting of his books, remains a significant work. In this book, May reclaimed anxiety as an integral part of being human. In doing so, he made several important distinctions regarding anxiety, such as the distinction between neurotic and existential anxiety (discussed in the Emotions & Experience section).

The book simply titled Existence, which May edited with Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger in 1958, is often seen as the formal beginning of the existential movement in American psychology. Following the publication of this book, May published a flurry of books over the next 33-years including The Art of Counseling, The Courage to Create, The Discovery of Being, Love and Will, Freedom and Destiny, The Cry for Myth, and Paulus.

The approach to therapy which May developed, while remaining uniquely existential, was highly influenced by psychoanalytic, humanistic, and Jungian approaches. In reading his case histories, May's grasp of psychoanalytic theory and technique is evident. Throughout his career he retained a respect for much of the analytic approach, while departing from it in other significant areas. Yet his theory was far more human than the analytic approaches of his time. Some of this was due to his affinity for humanistic psychology.

May's conception of the daimon was another important development in existential thought. The daimon, for May, was a reworking of Jung's idea of the shadow. While there are many similarities to Jung's concept, there are also some significant differences. Diamond (1996) provides an excellent overview of the similarities and differences (See Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic review).

On top of being a brilliant psychologist, May is also a very talented writer. This multifaceted talent greatly helped him to promote existential theory. It's hard to go wrong with May's writings, although I wouldn't recommend beginning with The Meaning of Anxiety. It's a wonderful book, but not the most enjoyable read of his books (possibly because it began as a dissertation). The three top books I would recommend are 1) Love and Will, 2) The Cry for Myth, and 3) Paulus (a tribute to Paul Tillich). Additionally, there is an entire issues of the Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry devoted to the contributions of Rollo May. While these articles don't replace the actual writings of Rollo May, this is an excellent resource on his life and work.

James Bugental

Bugental's influence maybe isn't as well known as that of Rollo May and Viktor Frankl, but it is no less significant. Bugental, himself, was influenced greatly by May. In fact, it was May's influence that led Bugental to what he calls and existential humanistic approach to therapy. While Bugental contributed some significant writing and theory development to existential thought, more important is the video tapes on which Bugental is featured. These videos provide excellent therapy illustrations of what this approach to therapy looks like.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to have the personal experience of meeting James Bugental. This opportunity was approximately one-year after he suffered a stroke that has impacted much of his life, including some of his cognitive abilities. However, Bugental still was involved in the training process, largely through offering therapy demonstrations and interviews. In many ways, this provided the ideal situation to demonstrate the incredible power of his approach to therapy. Because of the stroke, he could not be overly cognitive, but rather had to stay in the moment. Bugental's presence, attentiveness, and concern was the therapy. What occurred to me was that Bugental is more effective as a therapist through his non-verbals, which display his compassion and attentiveness, than many therapists are with their entire arsenals of therapeutic technique.

This example embodies the metaphor of Carl Rogers (1980) that therapy is about "A Way of Being." While many therapists decrease their effectiveness by trying too hard or becoming overly focused on technique, Bugental is able to display that the best therapy is just about a way of being with people that is healing. While much of this seems more humanistic or Rogerian in perspective, part of what distinguishes it is the frame of reference.

In recent times, theory, especially abstract theory, has come under attack. The question often emerges as to 'what is the purpose of it?' and 'How does it help anything?' These are an important questions. Surely, if there is no benefit to abstraction it is best disregarded. Based on this critique, instructors are commonly now urged to make sure their teaching is practical and involves direct application. However, this is a rather naive position. Abstraction, often because it is better able to stimulate the emotions, impacts our way of being and our way of perceiving. The rather disheartening changes in our field which devalue abstract thought narrow our perception  and understanding of the human experience.

Bugental is the existential thinker who best embodies this. When watching his therapy demonstrations it is amazing how simple it often appears. Yet, for any well-schooled therapist, it is evident that his approach is far from simple. It is the broader awareness, which has guided his way of being, which helps for him to be so effective in a seemingly simplistic manner. A therapist who merely tries to mimic this approach without the foundation of understanding would not be nearly as affective of a therapist.

In getting to know Bugental's approach, his books are very helpful. However, to truly understand Bugental's approach I'd recommend saving up to purchase one of his therapy videos or finding a place where you may be able to check out a video to watch. Many university libraries may have some of these videos and allow for you to watch them in the library.

I've added two links to interviews of Jim Bugental that I think may be of interest. The first is an interview in AHP Perspectives March, 2003. This was one of the last interviews with Jim Bugental before his stroke and discusses his views on death along with his reflections on his career. Click here to read. Second, it an interview by Viktor Yalom on This interview took place shortly after the release of his book, Psychotherapy Isn't What You Think, Bugental's last book of his career. Click here to read.

Viktor Frankl

The character of Viktor Frankl alone makes his an incredible contribution to existential theory. Frankl was trained as an analyst prior to World War II in Germany. As Hitler rose in power and WWII neared, Frankl was placed in a concentration camp for the duration of the war. It is from these experiences that Frankl wrote his most significant contribution, Man's Search for Meaning (1984). The first part of this book gives a first hand account of his experience in the concentration camps and his interpretation of these events. No summary of this can even begin to touch its power, so I will not even attempt to do so. Many times I've heard people suggest that this is a book which should be read each decade of a person's life for it will bring a different level of meaning at each stage. I full-heartedly agree with this recommendation.

The second half of Man's Search for Meaning is an introduction to Frankl's (1984) logotherapy. Literally, logotherapy means "meaning therapy." In a later book, The Will to Meaning, Frankl (1988) further discusses his belief that the striving for meaning is the fundamental component of the human motivational system.  It is Frankl's belief that meaning is what is able to sustain us through life's great tragedies and challenges. Without meaning we are left to be like the prisoner's running into the machine gun fire unable to tolerate the cruelties of life (Frankl, 1984). Fortunately, most of us are protected from personally experiencing tragedy as great as the concentration camps, so we may not be driven as far as ending our physical lives, but in many ways individuals today commit parallel type of emotional suicide. In this, individuals live without ever really living.

What is lacking in Frankl's contribution is a good, well-organized written work providing an overview of his theory. This does not exist. Most of Frankl's books are collections of essays which often feel rather disjointed instead of unified. This can be particularly frustrating to some who is just being introduced to Frankl's thought. In getting familiar with Frankl's work, my recommendation would be to begin with Man's Search for Meaning (and then return to it later). After this, Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning (Frankl, 2000) provides the best organized of Frankl's contributions. This makes it more reader friendly and prepares the reader to journey into his other writings.

Continue to The Second Generation of Key Figures in Existential Psychology

Continue to The Philosophical Forerunners of Existential Psychology

Original Version added 2004. Never been updated.


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