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Through-the Eyes of Others

Updated on October 9, 2012

Through the Eyes of Others: A multi-faceted look into the personality development of Rollo Reese May


This paper reflects on the personality development of Rollo Reese May, a prominent contributor to the field of existential psychology. May’s personality development will be examine under the criteria of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson and B.F. Skinner in relation to their respective theories. Specifically, attention will be given to major life events and cultural influence and their subsequent influence on May’s development. In conclusion this paper will attempt to evaluate the accuracy of each theory.

The development of personality has been a subject of debate among many prominent psychologists, of these, Freud, Erikson and Skinner where major contributors to our current understanding of this subject. Yet, how accurate are their theories? As variable as human beings can be it would seem impossible to have an exact and concrete explanation of the developmental process, a unified theory of personality development if you will. Our understanding of human psychology is an ever developing field of study and continuously seeks and explores new possibilities and theories in an attempt to give individuals control of their lives through personal awareness and therapeutic change. However, what are the results if only one perspective is taken when analyzing an individual’s personality? If taking more than one perspective do different theories result in incompatibility? In an attempt to answer these questions the personality development of Rollo Reese May, a prominent contributor to the field of existential psychology, will be examined from the theoretical perspectives of Freud, Erikson and Skinner.

The Life of Rollo Reese May

Rollo Reese May was the first born of 6 siblings in 1909. His relationship with his parents was very limited as his father traveled for work and his mother often left him and his siblings to care for themselves (Feist J. & Feist J. G., 2009). His experience as a child with his parents was one of neglect and fear due to their frequent arguments and detachment from one another and the children. Most of his time was spend by the water admiring nature and reflecting. It is possible that the time spent in nature created a desire to study art and literature as upon graduating high school May enrolled at Michigan State University as English major. While attending the school he became editor of a “radical” student paper and was subsequently asked to leave the school. From there May moved on to Oberlin College, Ohio where he received his first bachelor’s degree.

There is a substantial time in which May traveled eastern and southern Europe studying various native arts and painting. During this time he also tutored English at nearby colleges. After a time May experienced a period of loneliness in which he increased his focus on his studies and work. Eventually feeling stagnant he realized that he needed to set new goals and find new purpose. To do this he began listening to what he referred to as his “inner voice” (Feist J. & Feist J. G. 2009). Soon after his journey towards the field of psychology began as he attended a seminar hosted by Alfred Adler that taught him self-awareness. Plagued by curiosity about spirituality May attended the Union Theological Seminary to study under Paul Tillich. After receiving his Master of Divinity degree he served as a pastor for 2 years. At this time May found the duties required of him as a pastor to “meaningless” and thus decided to leave the seminary and pursue his studies of psychology.

For a period of three years May suffered from tuberculosis and was confined to Saranac Sanitarium. At this time in history there was no medical treatment for tuberculosis so May spent those years not knowing if he would survive. A notable observation that may have fueled May’s interest in existentialism was that while observing the other patients he found that the ones that exhibited a “will to live” survived their ailment more often that the ones who did not exhibit this psychological attitude. This spawned his perspective that in order to heal, be it psychologically or physiologically, the individual must fight to do so. From this point until his death in 1994 May contributed many writings to the field of psychology, in particular, existentialism. Although he was well known and respected throughout the schools of psychology May’s relationships did not hold the same solidarity. At his death May had had a total of three wives. (Feist J. & Feist J. G., 2009). This seems to be one of the most prominent results of his childhood experiences and the subsequent shaping of his personality. To determine this and other developmental personality pattern Mays’ life will be examine in relation to personality development theories of Freud, Erikson and Skinner.


The theory of personality development laid out by Freud involved several stages of development he labeled as the Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent and Genital Stages. Each stage represents a time in which personality development is affected by the experiences had by the individual. In the case of Rollo May he was not able to fulfill some of the areas of his early stages of development such as the oral and anal stages. In these stages May would begin to learn to trust the outside world through positive and negative interaction and subsequently start learning and need affirmation about his body. With the absence of his parents he was left to learn about himself alone. His estranged relationship with his mother could have caused an Oedipus crisis in that his intimate contact with her was probably limited leaving him less experienced in his psychosexual development (Boeree, C. G., 2006). This is quite possibly the reason for his struggle with conflict resolution exemplified by the number of his failed marriages in later life

The Phallic stage of development, in which an individual develops sexual desire towards their opposing parent and subsequent castration anxiety (Bereczkei T. & Gyuris P., 2009), may have been a difficult time for May as his father’s presence and therefore the level of castration anxiety was limited. It is possible that because his oedipal impulses where not as repressed his feeling related to his mother’s unpredictable behavior and frequent absence may have been heightened. In addition to this the only factor that stood out about his father’s influence was his propensity to move around from place to place, which May seems to have unwittingly adopted himself as he mimicked this behavior in later years, starting with his frequent solitude by the water.

From this stage May moved into the stage of latency which is exemplified by his intense focus on school and his self-exploration. From this stage May moves repeatedly through different areas of academia in his search to define himself and his purpose. It seems safe to assert that due to the early childhood experiences May possibly had difficulties in forming his identity. Although May exhibited difficulties in his relationships with women he seems to have entered maturation through his eventual contributions to psychology.

The developmental personality stages laid out by Freud, in particular the importance of psychosocial development can clearly be seen throughout May’s childhood. His later relationship patterns support Freud’s theories of all stages of development. However, these are limited examples of development in that they propose base drives and subconscious motives but do not expand upon or necessarily include other aspects of developmental influence such as social, biological or existential influence. In fact, Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex has been found by some empirical researchers to be “mostly speculative and arbitrary (Bereczkei T. & Gyuris P., 2009).


Erikson’s theory of personality development encompasses a more detailed and conflict oriented description that spans the entire life cycle. There are 8 stages of development proposed by Erikson in which the development of ego characteristics or “basic strengths” is dependent on the resolution of conflicts indicative of that stage. For example in regards to Rollo May and his early development in the infancy stage of Erickson’s theory may have developed a heightened sense of mistrust of the surrounding world due to his mother’s absence and likely resulting neglect. This may be the catalyst for his development of introversion as a young child (Feist J. & Feist J. G., 2009). Moving into the conflict of autonomy vs. shame it is hard to determine what type of influence May had, yet based on his radical and resistant views and his lack of parental discipline may have created an exaggerated sense of shame. Children require attention from parents and if that attention is not given as a result of positive behavior then the child is likely to exhibit negative behavior in an attempt elicit attention also (Smith K., 2012). That being said, his mistrust is fueled by a sense of unworthiness/shame due to the lack of attention from his parents. It could be said however that this heightened sense of shame is what enabled him to leave home and find solace alone.

It is unclear from Mays biography what influences he had during his play age outside of being often unsupervised. The play age defined by Erikson is the stage in which a child begins to conceptualize the realities of growth, death, reproduction and the future. It is also a stage in which like postulated by Freud, the child also learns to fantasize and have those fantasies repressed through doubt imposed by social and parental standards (Feist J. & Feist J. G., 2009). For May this may have been a very confusing time as his first impressions of relationship behavior was that of his parent’s arguments. Although the level of veracity during the fight must assuredly effect the impression made, at its base the experience may have imprinted a tendency for May to be resistant when interacting in intimate relationships with women and apprehension or even fear of emotional expression. As stated in Theories of Personality, Rollo May began to express an interest in art and literature. This seems a natural developmental adaptation for emotional and intellectual expression that was repressed due to aversive conditions in early childhood.

The next stages proposed by Erikson and their likely developed ego traits seem to be lacking an explanation for how a child growing up under duress and isolation find initiative and purpose. Although May did not start his studies in psychology his education was always enamored of personal expression or exploration. He seems to have in later life developed a healthy sense of identity and purpose. The road to this was not easy and was greatly influenced by his stay at the earlier stated sanitarium in which he suffered from tuberculosis for 3 years. This seems to be the time in which his final identity was formed and from then began its refinement through education and experience, resulting in one of the great contributors to our understanding of our psychological development recognized throughout the academic and psychological communities (Feist J. & Feist J. G., 2009).


Skinner’s theory of personality profiling is centered on the concepts of classical and operant conditioning. These are the two base drives for our behavior resulting from behavioral reinforcement. Simply put an individual will exhibit a tendency to repeat behavior that has satisfied a perceived need (Feist J. & Feist J. G., 2009). For example, witnessing his parents fight as a result of their emotional expressions towards one another, May could have likely learned a classically conditioned response that was later reinforced through operant conditioning if his own personal expression was also repressed or met with contempt. It seems apparent that May experienced negative reinforcement as his solitude and wanderlust was likely a way to avoid the anxiety of being tied to one place. This clearly shows that even the absence of a parent has profound influence on later behaviors.

Although this theory seems much less detailed that either Freud’s or Erikson’s it is quite apt at describing any individual and their behavior based on stimulus. For example; the author, taking writing courses began with limited ability and knowledge. Yet due to his drive to receive better than average grades and the reinforcers applied by a lower grade than desired the author is has been conditioned to be more attentive to detail in the areas in which he was lacking. In the case of May a pattern of sequential influences that correlate with respondent behavior can be affixed to many of his related experiences.

Compiled Evaluation of Theory

The three perspectives of Freud, Erikson and Skinner all show close relationship to the cause and effect of Mays childhood experiences. Although they vary in detail they canal be ascribed to being accurate on some level. However it seems that these theories of development are not separate in nature although they may be viewed as such. From the authors perspective the theories are all part of the same equation that cannot stand alone to scrutiny but will when in support of one another. Therefore it is the authors assessment that the theories laid forth by Freud, Erickson and Skinner are accurate in their assessment of personality development, yet are limited by their proposed individuality.


Boeree, C. G. (2006) Personality Theories, Rollo May, Psychology Department, Shippensburg University, Retrieved on Oct. 2nd 2012 from

Feist J. & Feist J. G. (2009). Stages of Development, Erikson: Post-Freudian Theory, Chapter 9, Theories of Personality, McGraw-Hill, pp. 243-262.

Feist J. & Feist J. G. (2009). Stages of Development, Freud: Psychoanalysis, Chapter 2, Theories of Personality, McGraw-Hill, pp. 38-46.

Feist J. & Feist J. G. (2009). Stages of Development, Skinner: Behavioral Analysis, Chapter 15, Theories of Personality, McGraw-Hill, pp.450-456

Bereczkei T. & Gyuris P, (2009). Oedipus Complex, Mate Choice, Imprinting; an Evolutionary Reconsideration of a Freudian Concept based on Empirical Studies, Institute of Psychology, University of Pécs, Hungary, Vol. 1, No.1-2. p. 72-73

Smith K., (2012) Passive Aggressive Behavior: preventing and dealing with challenging behavior, Institute on Community Integration, College of Education, University of Minnesota. Retrieved on Oct. 5th 2012 from


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