By Joseph Smullen, LCSW-S:
“Many people suffer from the fear of finding oneself alone, and so they don’t find themselves at all”
Rollo May (1909- 1994) was an American and existentially oriented practicing psychologist and author of many works including his 1953 book “Man’s Search for Himself” from which this quote comes. Existentialism is a philosophical stance fathered by the 19th century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche that rejected the idea to limit the understanding of humans to only scientifically observable data. For existentialists, this reductionist effort removed the humanness out of research on humans. Existentialism is an exploration into the deeply held personal truths that we self-narrate given the presence of our mortality, freedom, and isolation in an objectively unintelligible existence from which we can extricate a personally meaningful essence through our own agency.
Existentially-oriented psychology, and by extension, psychotherapy, asserts that when individuals firmly grasp and accept the inescapable challenges of being human, they are able to generate meaning and engage their lives while assuming responsibility for both (Winston, 2015) In agreement, De Castro (2013) argued that dysfunctional existential experiences involve the maladaptive navigation of life’s dialectical givens; freedom versus responsibility, life versus death, connectedness versus isolation, control versus dyscontrol, and meaning versus meaninglessness.
If we choose to look deep enough, we all struggle with the challenging conditions of being human such as finding meaning and purpose, creating an identity, managing our “time”, making sense of adverse life events, and meeting our psychological needs, finding our place in the universe, handling relationships, dealing with loss, and having emotions, all the while cascading towards our own personal destruction.
For, Rollo May along with other existentialist thinkers, managing the human condition and our aloneness in doing so creates anxiety, tension, and pressure. And to ameliorate this anxiety, we merge and fuse with people, places, and things. For example, we may attempt to control the uncontrollable by excessively browsing social media, compulsively watching the news, or frequently asserting our perceived helplessness rather than becoming more accepting, letting go of the fallacy of control, and making decisions to become the person we desire to be.
During this time of social distancing, we can take advantage of our situation and lean into our aloneness to experience personal growth as Rollo May suggested. Below are three suggestions for doing so.
- Therapeutic Writing
A thick forest of research has been completed on the use of reflective writing in diverse groups with consistent results of effectiveness (Miller, 2014). Reflective writing involves narratives about meaningful experiences. Taking a step further, interactive writing involves the synthesis of reflection and therapeutic writing prompts. Here is an interactive writing gem I have found, recommended, and personally ordered: https://www.theschooloflife.com/shop/us/who-am-i/
Historically two camps in research have emerged regarding the study of events that create meaning in our lives. Whereas some research has suggested that we are more likely to ascertain meaning during emotionally positive events, other studies have indicated that subjective distress is associated with increased meaning-making (Kaufman, 2019). Yet, rather than focusing on the “goodness” or “badness” of events, new research has suggested that the most influential factor in meaning-making is the intensity of the experience. Research completed by Park (2016) found that meaning making, sense-making, and developing global meaning, were all important factors in the recovery and resilience of disaster survivors. A few questions that may help to get you started:
A. What is most important to me right in this moment?
B. What am I feeling when I tune in to what is happening?
C. How do I want this experience to shape my life?
- Find Your Own Personal Truth
Philosophers dating back to the ancient Greeks have contemplated truth and those from the existential branch are no different.
“the objective uncertainty, held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth available for an existing person”
“There are no facts, only interpretations”
Not to be confused with a demeaning bias against an individual or group, I often encourage my clients to identify and use a personal “bias” such as a virtue, value, or principle that has been extricated from an adverse event that they have experienced in life. This is a personal interpretation—an inner truth of compassion, community, or goodwill that only you will completely understand.
If you would like more personalized help, please call Believe Behavioral Health today at 361-894-8734.
Joseph Smullen, LCSW-S is a psychotherapist with Believe Behavioral Health
De Castro, A. (2013). Dysfunctional personal experiences and existential dilemmas. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41, 371-383.
Kaufman, S.B. (2019). Forget happiness, find meaning. Scientific American Mind. 30(6), 21-23.
Miller, W. (2014). Interactive journaling as a clinical tool. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 36(1), 31-42.
Park, C.L. (2016). Meaning making in the context of disasters. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 72(12), 1234-1246.
Winston, C. N. (2015). Points of Convergence and Divergence Between Existential and Humanistic Psychology: A Few Observations. The Humanistic Psychologist, 43, 40-53.