Category Archives: Louis Hoffman

Privilege, Existential Guilt, and Responsibility

Nanjing Masacre Museum. Photo taken by Louis Hoffman

Note: This is an update of a blog posted on the New Existentialist Blog. This version contains minor changes. A link to the original article is listed at the end of the article. 

As I write this, it has been 12-years since I obtained my PhD in clinical psychology. In many ways, I feel quite proud of what was accomplished during this year; in other ways I struggle with the existential guilt associated with the privilege that allowed for that success. I write this as I near the end of my term as president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology. The focus of my presidency was on multiculturalism and diversity. Yet, this piece was inspired in part by an email I received recently confronting me on my own mistake when, in a recent article I wrote, I easily focused on the accomplishments and status of two White males instead of choosing to be more inclusive in the people I identified. I am very appreciative of that feedback. Even though diversity is one of the primary passions of my career, I am regularly humbled by my mistakes and how much I have yet to learn.

Existential Guilt
Existential guilt can be thought of as referring to when one lives inauthentically, or fails to seek out achieving one’s potential. However, it can also be understood as something connected deeply to human nature (i.e., something ontological) or who one is as a person. Tillich (1957) distinguishes between a more particular guilt and the guilt not from particular acts, but one’s participation in a larger system:

The citizens of a city are not guilty of the crimes committed in their city; but they are guilty as participants in the destiny of [humanity] as a whole and in the destiny of their city in particular…. They are guilty, not of committing the crimes of which their group is accused, but of contributing to the destiny in which these crimes happened. (p. 58)

May (1961), however, cautions that one should not be too judgmental about deserving this guilt:

…because of this interplay of conscious and unconscious factors in guilt and the impossibility of legalistic blame, we are forced into an attitude of acceptance of the universal human situation and a recognition of the participation of every one of us in man’s [sic] inhumanity to man [sic]. (p. 50).

Existential Guilt and Responsibility

The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won. Absurdity challenges every ethics; but also the finished rationalization of the real would leave no room for ethics; it is because man’s [sic] condition is ambiguous that he [sic] seeks, through failure and outrageousness, to save his [sic] existence.  (de Beauvior, 1948, p. 129)

If, as Tillich points out, one cannot escape being existentially guilty and, as May points out, one should not be too harsh on oneself about this, what does this mean? It seems the easiest choice would be to become cynical, apathetic, or both. Yet, from an existential perspective, this is seen as a call to live more responsibility in the face of one’s guilt. Existential thinkers are often creating meaning out of paradox, and it is often from the tension of these seeming contradictions that the deepest forms of meaning emerge.

Tom Greening addresses this beautifully:

I finally went to a concentration camp for the first time in my life last August… I wanted to do that, and am glad I did. It was a very powerful experience. It sort of felt like paying one’s existential dues… if you are going to be alive in the 20th or 21st century, that you are going to claim to be alive and had lived in that time, then what should you be aware of, or in touch with?… There are a whole bunch of existential facts that one ought to really… embrace, or acknowledge, even feel existential guilt about. (as cited in Claypool, 2010, p. 110)

One’s guilt is not their final condemnation, but rather it is what frees one to respond authentically and responsibly to the inevitability of failure in one’s limited, finite state. When the redemptive purpose of guilt is embraced, it is possible to no longer experience this as a burden, but rather a positive element of responsibility.

Existential Responsibility and Privilege
My life has been one of privilege, and for this, I gladly experience existential guilt. Guilt can be a healthier alternative to the other possibilities of shame or fear. Many people of privilege, when recognizing how their privilege has benefitted them and harmed others, feel a sense a shame. This can be a normal and even healthy phase in one’s cultural identity development. However, if stuck in shame, it can lead to defensiveness or an inability to respond. Similarly, many people of privilege live in fear of being identified as a “racist” or “sexist.” However, as Granger (2013) point out, fear is often the root of many forms of racism, particularly microaggressions. When one’s fear and guilt is embraced, they are freed to become part of a powerful personal transformation.

Guilt has the potential to be redemptive in the context of privilege. If guilt is embraced it can motivate individuals to live responsibly with the reality of privilege.


What we experience as an essential quality of authenticity is humility, of allowing ourselves to not know and be humbled by the not knowing for others and ourselves. (Heery, 2009)

I could never identify, let alone reject, all of my privilege. Privilege is such a thing that one has it, even when it is not recognized. If individuals can face their prilivege directly (i.e., zhi mian), then they can be empowered to use their existential guilt in a way to counteract their privilege. Thus, the calling is to reduce and eliminate privilege where one can and, when one cannot, to use it honestly, responsibly, and authentically.

Claypool, T. (2010). On becoming an existential psychologist: Journeys of contemporary leaders. ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing (3412340).

deBeauvior, S. (1948). The ethics of ambiguity (B. Frechtmsn, Trans.). New York, NY: Citadel Press.

Granger, N. , Jr., (2013, February 21). The future of existential psychology: Fear the boogie man, not the negro. Retrieved from

Heery, M. (2009). Global authenticity. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F. J. Kaklauskas, & A. Chan (Eds.), Existential psychology east-west (pp. 205-219). Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

May, R. (1961). The meaning of the Oedipus myth. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 1, 44-52.

Tillich, P. (1957). Systematic theology (Vol. 2). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

An earlier version of this was published on the New Existentialist Blog ( This version contains minor changes.

Love and Other Emotions: Reflections from the Novel The Girlfriend Project

This review is published in the New Existentialist Blog: A brief summary is posted here. 

I first read The Girlfriend Project (2014) by Jason Dias as he is a colleague and a friend. I am thankful that I did. Through fiction, Dias provides an interesting exploration of Asperger’s disorder and emotions. Dias engages this topic with sensitivity to existential perspectives as well. It is a valuable read for therapists, and also can be a valuable read for individuals with Asperger’s disorder (now part of the Autism spectrum) or their family. Beyond that, it is also an interesting piece of fiction that many may enjoy.

Read more New Existentialist Blogs by Louis Hoffman

The Proper Use of Tradition and Scholarly Authority

This post is a brief introduction to a New Existentialist Blog by Louis Hoffman, PhD. The full blog can be read at:

Society and the academy often tend to fluctuate between idealizing history and devaluing it. As we witness many tragic errors of the past repeated in contemporary society, it is evident that engagement with history is critically important for our present and our future. History can best aid us when it is not idealized or devalued, but rather engaged with honestly through consideration of both the good and tragic aspects of history.

This blog takes into consideration the value of history in scholarly writing and the academy. Lu Xun, an important Chinese literary figure, was the primary inspiration for this blog, which can be read at the link above.

Read more New Existentialist Blogs by Louis Hoffman

Finding Oneself and Creating Oneself: Implications of the Psychotherapy Folklore

The full post is a New Existentialists blog by Dr. Louis Hoffman posted at A brief introduction is below.

The idea of finding oneself if deeply embedded in pop views of psychology. However, this understanding of “the self” and therapy is based upon some faulty assumptions about the nature of the self, which are explored in this blog. Read the full blog at the link above.

Read more stories by Louis Hoffman on the New Existentialist Blog

Why Become an Existential Therapist?

As an existential therapist, I’ve frequently heard colleagues and students comment, “I’ve always liked existential theory, but I don’t know what to do with it in the therapy room.” Students considering taking a course on existential therapy have also asked questions such as, “Am I going to be able to understand this theory?,” “Are we going to have to read Kierkegaard and Sartre?,” and “Will this class be relevant to what I do in therapy?”

Existential psychotherapy seems to draw both intrigue and hesitation from students and professionals in the mental health field. This is not a surprise from a therapy approach embracing paradox and priding itself in being largely technique-less. However, the fear of existentialism is largely due to a lack of understanding. In this overview, I hope to demonstrate that existential therapy is less threatening than it first appears, but also much more exciting and powerful than is often realized.

Flexibility with Foundation

It is important to continually re-evaluate where you are at as a therapist, including where you are at in your theoretical development. For many years now I’ve considered myself an existential therapist, but continued to read broadly into other approaches to therapy. Through this process I’ve become heavily influenced by contemporary/relational psychoanalysis, humanistic therapy, and constructivist approaches. At times, I’ve wondered whether one of these approaches to therapy would be a better label for what I do on a day to day basis. However, as I’ve assessed this process I continue to realize existential is the best title from how I approach therapy.

One of the advantages of the existential approach is that it provides a framework from which other approaches can be integrated. Kirk Schneider and Rollo May (1995), two of the most influential existential therapists, outlined an existential integrative approach. This places existential therapy as the foundation, but allows for an integration of other theories. However, because of the emphasis on authenticity, genuineness, and critical thought, it also demands that approaches or aspects of approaches which are integrated remain consistent with the foundation.

The flexibility of existentialism comes from many sources. By its nature, existential therapy does not fit with the fundamentalism that develops within many other approaches. The most successful therapies adapt to the strengths of the individual therapist, but also to each client. As Yalom (2002) states, a new therapy is created with each client.

Existential psychotherapy also avoids the opposite problem of too much flexibility incurred in eclectic approaches. A weakness of many eclectic approaches is that they loose their foundation through their attempts to be adaptive and pragmatic. Pragmaticism often seeks to accomplish goals without taking into account the consequence of the process to or result of attaining the goals.

Central Tenets of Existential Thought

Yalom (1980) identified the four major themes of existential thought as death, freedom/responsibility, isolation/loneliness, and meaninglessness. While Yalom’s organization is generally agreed upon, it also reflects a significant point of distinction. Yalom states these themes in a manner which emphasizes their finality. Yalom does not believe there are ultimate answers to these questions. Rather, they are viewed as existential terrors with which we all much cope. Other existential thinkers disagree. May, Tillich, and many others state that while there may be ultimate answers to these issues, we are not able to fully attain these answers and the questions remain difficult.

The issue of death refers to the reality of a physical death, but is also symbolic of all human limitation. These two prongs of finiteness are difficult realities for many people to accept. Ernest Becker’s (1973) The Denial of Death, is often considered a classic in this discussion. Becker makes a penetrating analysis of our attempts to deny our finiteness. In Becker’s (1975) follow up, Escape from Evil, this argument is extended to the concept of evil. Becker purports the basis of evil is the denial of our finiteness.

Freedom is the next existential reality Yalom (1980) discusses. It is essential to connect freedom with responsibility. You cannot have one without the other. Yet, this is what many people seek and also can contribute to the problem which bring many individuals into therapy.

Isolation is the third existential reality (Yalom, 1980). Here, we are pushed to deal with the reality that everyone experiences isolation and loneliness. Yet, the desire for love, connection, and intimacy is arguably the strongest and most central human drive. Don’t let the odd placement of relationship as the third existential issue trick you. Many, maybe most, existential therapists place relationship is the primary issue of human existence.

Meaning, the final of the central existential issues, unites the three other theories. Humans are meaning seeking creatures. The attainment of meaning requires the facing of the three previous existential issues. This also returns us to relationship; many existentialists believe authentic relationship is the most powerful form of meaning a person can achieve.

How Therapy Heals

The common adage “it is the relationship that heals” is consistent with existential therapy. While it would be a mistake to claim any one theory on how change occurs according to existential theorists, the general tendency is toward a phenomenological, experiential, and relational perspective.

While the focus is on the relationship, there are many other aspects of therapy which contribute to the healing and growth process. First, insight is extremely important. Existential therapists may interpret aspects of the unconscious differently, but they still believe in the importance of the unconscious. Existential therapy also helps people make changes in their attitudes, decisions, behaviors, and thoughts through the awareness process. While the approach to accomplishing these changes is very different than brief therapy, existentialists agree they are part of healing.

A third component of healing is experience. Experience can be thought of in terms of experiencing a genuine relationship, but also is conducive to the idea of a corrective emotional experience talked about within many psychodynamic approaches to therapy.

As should be evident, healing occurs through a variety of processes in existential therapy. However, the therapy relationship remains a central component in all the various aspects of healing.

The Experience of the Therapist

The therapist takes a unique role in existential therapy. We are co-participants in a deeply rewarding, but sometimes painful process. While therapist and client sit facing each other, the process of therapy focuses their vision in the same direction. Existential therapy is, at its heart, a very collaborative approach.

Because of the focus on genuineness, authenticity, and awareness, it requires the therapist to be emotionally present and available. Additionally, it is vital that the existential therapist continue to keep their vision as clear as possible by doing their own work, continuing in the self-reflective process, and seeking out their own continued journey.

While it is often thought that depth therapists are passive in their way of relating with clients, this is a misnomer. Existential therapists are very actively engaged in the therapy process. However, their engagement is not in a directive manner. Rather, it’s an engagement in the relationship process as it unfolds and develops. Being passive is not genuine.

Advice for those Considering Becoming an Existential Therapist

If you are considering the pursuit of becoming an existential therapist, I would recommend beginning by reading three authors which will give you differing perspectives. Yalom is a good place to start because his reading is the most accessible. I recommend beginning with Love’s Executioner (1980) and Existential Psychotherapy (1989). The former begins with a brief overview of existential theory before offering 10 tales or case histories of existential therapy. The latter is the most comprehensive overview of existential therapy written to date.

Yalom was heavily influenced by Rollo May, who is generally considered the father of American Existential Psychotherapy. May, like Yalom, is an excellent writer who has an ability to make existentialism accessible. Love and Will (1969) and The Cry for Myth (1991) are two excellent places to start with Rollo May. The former has more clinical utility, while the latter is more abstract but an immensely important book.

Frankl provides a much different approach than May and Yalom. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1984), is a classic far beyond the realms of existential thought and psychotherapy. It begins with Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps during World War II and follows this with an overview of logotherapy (Frankl’s approach to existential therapy). However, for a better summary of Frankl’s approach to therapy, Man’s Search for UltimateMeaning (2000) is recommended.

Two other resources may help get a vision of the existential approach and deserve mentioning. First, are the many videos of James Bugental. Bugental was one of the early existential therapists strongly influenced by Rollo May and many humanistic psychologists. His legacy includes many brilliant therapy demonstration videos which do an excellent job of illustrating existential therapy. A second resource is Kirk Schneider’s Rediscovery of Awe. Using an existentially informed depth psychotherapy approach, Schneider gives a vision of how existential thought and depth psychotherapy can have an impact beyond the therapy room.

There are a growing number of other training opportunities in existential psychotherapy. If you remain interested after some initial reading on existential therapy, it may be beneficial to seek out one of these training opportunities and/or contact an experienced existential therapist to talk with them in more detail about what it like to be an existential therapist.


Being an existential therapist is an extremely exciting career. The experience of working with suffering people to help them find healing, new insight, and authentic relationship in itself is rewarding. An added benefit is the colleagues you will meet. It is a wonderful group of people that is drawn toward existential therapy and we are always happy to welcome new colleagues.

Review of The Beautiful Risk by James Olthuis

James Olthuis is an impressive therapist and writer. I was first introduced to this book when attending a presentation on Olthuis’s approach to therapy. I was so struck by the deep compassion and love that was evident in his presence. When providing a therapy demonstration, it was evident that Olthuis is truly gifted in his ability to connect with people and recognize their suffering.

This book is an excellent book, but does not replace the power of attending one of Dr. Olthuis’s workshops. While Olthuis does not consider himself an existential therapist, the similarities abound in his relational approach which he describes as being strongly influenced by relational theory, feminism, and postmodernism. An important point of convergence between Olthuis and existential thought is in the valuing of the relationship. He demonstrates the power availed through a compassionate relationship between therapist and client. Some of the most powerful illustration in this book are the times when Olthuis talks about the power of crying with his “therapeuts.”

A central theme throughout this book is love. For Olthuis, the basis of this is his spiritual beliefs and convictions. The Beautiful Risk, in embracing this relational perspective, the concept of love, and spirituality provides a great example of a high quality integrative perspective. Yet, it is still a good read for those not interested in the more spiritual approach.

I highly recommend this book for therapists and those seeking to become a therapist, especially those who feel stifled by many of the ways therapy is practiced in today’s society.

Added 2004; Never been updated.

Review of Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donahue

Dr. Robert Murney, my long time mentor, was the first person to introduce me to Anam Cara. It was during a time when his wife had been diagnosed with cancer and he was trying to prepare for the possibility of losing her. He showed it to me one day and said this was the only book he had ever read seven times. The book intrigued me for two reason. First, it had such an incredible grip on Dr. Murney. But also because as he described the book it just seemed filled with existential wisdom. I quickly purchased the book and devoured it in a couple of days. It remains one of the most profoundly intriguing books I’ve ever read. Not more than a year later, we were joking that we should be getting a commission for all the copies of this book that we gave away as gifts or that were sold upon our encouragement.

John O’Donohue is a Catholic priest living in Ireland. However, his writing has not always been very well accepted within the Catholic community. This is partially because it is rooted as much in Irish paganism as it is in Catholicism. This is an issue which O’Donohue addresses in Anam Cara. When Christianity entered Ireland, it was blended with folk wisdom and religion, just as has occurred in many other parts of the world. It is this rich blending of traditions that brings this little book to life.

“Anam Cara” literally means “soul friend.” This is comparable to what is often referred to as “soul mates.” Unfortunately, the concept of soul mates has often been degraded by superficial, romantic views of what it means to be soul mates. The view presented in Anam Cara, however, is far from shallow or superficial. For O’Donohue, an Anam Cara is someone who deeply impacts who we are as a person. It’s more than finding someone to marry or even someone to spend your life with. It’s more than a best friend. It’s someone who becomes a part of you.

O’Donohue’s version of a soul mate interacts with many ideas not considered in the more traditional literature. For example, he views time apart and death as two extremely important aspects of being a soul friend. It is death, that makes life and our relationships so precious. It is time apart, or solitude, that allows us to invest deeply into our immediate relationships. These harsh realities are part of the beauty of relationships.

Anam Cara has been a great lesson for me as a therapist, but even more it has been a great lesson for me as a human being. Dr. Murney, who introduced me to this book passed away several months before I sat down to write this review. In his death, I realize the preciousness of his life and friendship. I think he’d be happy to know that in his death I think of this book and that it has been a comfort to me in my grieving for him.

The lessons in this book are very much alive. It is an important read for all those in the professions which deal with the soul and relationships.

Original Version added February, 2006
Never updated

Review of The Cry for Myth by Rollo May

In all the significant books written by Rollo May, this is the book which has had the greatest impact upon me and my thinking. The breadth of May’s knowledge and the depth of his understanding quickly become very evident. It is also interesting to note the influence of Jung’s theory in this book. While Jung’s influence is apparent in many of May’s works, perhaps none as much as this volume.

In the first section of the book, May provides an outstanding overview of the concept of myth from an existential framework. May defines myth in a very Tillichian (Paul Tillich) fashion as that which cannot be proved, but yet is believed. However, in stating it cannot be proved it is not claiming that myths are false. In one of the most powerful lines in the book, May states: “There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular – though profoundly mistaken – definition of myth as falsehood” (p. 23).

 In the next several sections, May applies this to many of the great myths of our society. Part II examines “Myths in America.” Included in this analysis are Gatsby and the American Dream, the American frontier myths, individualism, and narcissism. Part III expands to include the “Myths of the Western World.” In this section May examines Dante’s journey through hell, Peer Gynt, the Briar Rose, three views on Faust, and the devil & creativity. The final section, Part IV, closes with a discussion of “Myths for Survival.” Included are the issues of women’s liberation, mortality, planetism, and humanism.

Whether a psychotherapist or just interested in existential perspectives, this is an excellent book.

Added 2004; Never been updated.

Review of Paulus: Tillich as Spiritual Teacher by Rollo May

This short book is one of my favorites of Rollo May. It’s only a little over 100 page, has been out of print for a while (though still fairly easily accessible), and is not your typical Rollo May book. However, it did win the 1987 American Psychological Foundation Gold Metal Award.

The book is a tribute to May’s mentor and friend, Paul Tillich. Tillich, one of the most famous American theologians, spent many years teaching philosophy and theology at Union Theological Seminary. His work has not only be influential on theology and philosophy, but he has also been a powerful influence on existential psychology.  His most famous work in psychological circles is The Courage to Be.

May compassionately gives the story of Tillich’s life and thought in a way which applies to psychological theory. Tillich is presented in a very human manner in this book. His mistakes, including his affairs, are not hidden from the reader. Rather, Tillich is presented as who is very human yet able to make profound contributions to the world of thought.

One of the greatest contributions of Tillich’s thought which May addresses is the benefits and agony of doubt. Tillich saw doubt as contrary to faith, but rather as part of it. This also forms the basis for one of Tillich’s greatest quotes: “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful” (p. 71). This statement is one that has become my teaching philosophy.  I believe it can be applied well beyond the the topic of faith in God, to many other realms of thought.

Another important contribution in this book is May’s discussion of Tillich’s presence. This is the basis for the title being referred to as “Paulus,” which brings a much more intimate feel with it. May goes through extensive detail about his perception of Paulus’ presence. This has been the basis for much of my own though development around the issue of presence — both in examining my own presence and also in using this as a teaching technique for those studying to be therapists.

Overall, this is an excellent, excellent book which I highly recommend to therapists, theologians, and anyone interested in existential theory.

Added 2004; Never been updated

Review of Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning by Viktor Frankl

The nemesis of Frankl’s writing has always been the discontinuities of his books. While Frankl’s essays are penetrating and powerful, when brought together in a book format they retained the feel of a collection of essays instead of a unified work. It could be argued that this has always been a limiting factor in logotherapy becoming more influential. Until this book, there has not been a book of Frankl’s which has been able to achieve consistency through the entire piece.

While if you were to only read one of Frankl’s books, I’d recommend Man’s Search for Meaning, this book is the best overview of his theory.  It is more of a therapy book aimed at clinicians, but could also be an interesting read for those interested in existential or logotherapy theory.

Added 2004; Never been updated.