Viktorfrankl / rolloma y imagno/Victor Frankl Institute

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V I K T O R F R A N K L / R O L L O M A Y

©IMAGNO/Victor Frankl Institute


(1905–1997) was

born and edu- cated in Vienna. He founded the Youth Advisement Centers there in 1928 and directed them until

1938. From 1942 to 1945 Frankl was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, where his parents, brother, wife, and children died. He vividly remembered his horrible experiences in these camps, yet

he was able to use them in a constructive way and did not allow them to dampen his love and enthusiasm for life. He traveled all around the world, giving lectures in Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the United States.

Frankl received his MD in 1930 and his PhD in philosophy in 1949, both from the University of Vienna. He became an associate professor at the University of Vienna and later was a distinguished speaker at the United States International University in San Diego.

He was a visiting professor at Harvard, Stanford, and Southern Methodist universities. Frankl’s works have been translated into more than 20 languages, and his ideas continue to have a major impact on the develop- ment of existential therapy. His compelling book Man’s Search for Meaning (1963), which was originally entitled From Death Camp to Existentialism, has been a best-seller around the world.

Although Frankl had begun to develop an existential approach to clinical practice before his grim years in the Nazi death camps, his experiences there confirmed his views. Frankl (1963) observed and personally experienced

the truths expressed by existential philosophers and writers, including the view that love is the highest goal to which humans can aspire and that our salvation is through love. That we have choices in every situation is another notion confirmed by his experiences in the concentration camps. Even in terrible situations, he believed, we could preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom and independence of mind. He learned experientially that everything could be taken from a person except one thing: “the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (p. 104). Frankl believed that the essence of being human lies in searching for meaning and purpose. We can discover this meaning through our actions and deeds, by experiencing a value (such as love or achievements through work), and by suffering.

Frankl knew and read Freud and attended some of the meetings of Freud’s psychoanalytic group. Frankl acknowl- edged his indebtedness to Freud, although he disagreed with the rigidity of Freud’s psychoanalytic system. Frankl often remarked that Freud was a depth psychologist and that he is a height psychologist who built on Freud’s founda- tions. Reacting against most of Freud’s deterministic notions, Frankl developed his theory and practice of psychotherapy emphasizing the concepts of freedom, responsibility, mean- ing, and the search for values. He established his international reputation as the founder of what has been called “The Third School of Viennese Psychoanalysis.”

I have selected Frankl as one of the key figures of the existential approach because of the dramatic way in which his theories were tested by the tragedies of his life. His life was an illustration of his theory, for he lived what his theory espouses.


Existential therapy is more a way of thinking than any particular style of prac- ticing psychotherapy (Russell, 2007). It is neither an independent nor separate school of therapy, nor is it a neatly defined model with specific techniques. Exis- tential therapy can best be described as a philosophical approach that influences a counselor’s therapeutic practice. This approach is grounded on the assump- tion that we are free and therefore responsible for our choices and actions. We are the authors of our lives, and we design the pathways we follow. This chapter

ROLLO MAY (1909–1994) first

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lived in Ohio and then moved to Michigan as a young child along with his five brothers and a sister. He remembered his home life as being unhappy, a situation that had something to do with his interest

in psychology and counseling. In his personal life May struggled

with his own existential concerns and the failure of two marriages.

Despite his unhappy life experiences, he graduated from Oberlin College in 1930 and then went to Greece as a teacher. During his summers in Greece he traveled to Vienna to study with Alfred Adler. After receiving a de- gree in theology from Union Theological Seminary, May decided that the best way to reach out and help people was through psychology instead of theology. After com- pleting his doctorate in clinical psychology at Columbia University, May set up private practice in New York while also becoming a supervisory and training analyst for the William Alanson Institute.

While May was pursuing his doctoral program, he came down with tuberculosis, which resulted in a 2-year stay in a sanitarium. During his recovery period, May spent much time learning firsthand about the nature of anxiety. He also spent time reading, and he studied the works of Søren Kierkegaard, which was the catalyst for his recognizing the existential dimensions of anxiety. This study resulted in his book The Meaning of Anxiety (1950). His popular book Love and Will (1969) reflects his own

personal struggles with love and intimate relationships and mirrors Western society’s questioning of its values pertaining to sex and marriage.

The greatest personal influence on May was the German philosopher Paul Tillich (author of The Courage to Be, 1952), who became his mentor and a personal friend. The two spent much time together discussing philosophical, religious, and psychological topics. Most of May’s writings reflect a concern with the nature of human experience, such as recognizing and dealing with power, accepting freedom and responsibility,

and discovering one’s identity. He draws from his rich knowledge based on the classics and his existential perspective.

May was one of the main proponents of human- istic approaches to psychotherapy, and he was the

principal American spokesman of European existential thinking as it is applied to psychotherapy. He believed psychotherapy should be aimed at helping people discover the meaning of their lives and should be con- cerned with the problems of being rather than with

problem solving. Questions of being include learning to deal with issues such as sex and intimacy, growing old, and facing death. According to May, the real chal- lenge is for people to be able to live in a world where they are alone and where they will eventually have to face death. He contends that our individualism should be balanced by what Adler refers to as social inter-

est. It is the task of therapists to help individuals find ways to contribute to the betterment of the society in which they live.

addresses some of the existential ideas and themes that have significant impli- cations for the existentially oriented practitioner.

The existential approach rejects the deterministic view of human nature es- poused by orthodox psychoanalysis and radical behaviorism. Psychoanalysis sees freedom as restricted by unconscious forces, irrational drives, and past events; behaviorists see freedom as restricted by sociocultural conditioning. In contrast, existential therapists acknowledge some of these facts about the human situation but emphasize our freedom to choose what to make of our circumstances.

A basic existential premise is that we are not victims of circumstance be- cause, to a large extent, we are what we choose to be. A major aim of therapy is to encourage clients to reflect on life, to recognize their range of alternatives,

and to decide among them. Once clients begin the process of recognizing the ways in which they have passively accepted circumstances and surrendered control, they can start on a path of consciously shaping their own lives. Yalom (2003) emphasizes that the first step in the therapeutic journey is for clients to accept responsibility: “Once individuals recognize their role in creating their own life predicament, they also realize that they, and only they, have the power to change that situation” (p. 141). One of the aims of existential therapy is to challenge people to stop deceiving themselves regarding their lack of respon- sibility for what is happening to them and their excessive demands on life (van Deurzen, 2002b).

Van Deurzen (2002a) writes that existential counseling is not designed to “cure” people of illness in the tradition of the medical model. She does not view clients as being sick but as “sick of life or clumsy at living” (p. 18) and unable to live a productive life. In existential therapy attention is given to clients’ im- mediate, ongoing experience with the aim of helping them develop a greater presence in their quest for meaning and purpose (Sharp & Bugental, 2001). The therapist’s basic task is to encourage clients to explore their options for creating a meaningful existence. We can begin by recognizing that we do not have to re- main passive victims of our circumstances but instead can consciously become the architects of our lives.

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