Individual Differences


Existential Perspectives on Personality

Last updated:
14 Oct 2003

Existentialism: An Introduction

Key Elements

Ludwig Biswanger

Rollo May

Viktor Frankl

R.D. Laing

Therapeutic Approach


Existentialism: An Introduction


Existentialism is a philosophical perspective which was also expressed in art, literature and other forms of socio-psychological comment.  Existentialism was at its height during the 1930'-1950's in Europe.  Key figures included Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, also Friedrich Nietzche and Soren Kierkegaard who were earlier philosophers. 


Existentialism understands the human to be challenged by the reality of temporary existence, and the view that life has no inherent meaning; meaning had to be constructed.  Authentic human beings were those who could face existential futility and yet still go on to construct a meaningful life.  The existential perspective could be understood thus:

All existence ends in death

Therefore, what is the point?

The human challenge:

Descend into nothingness

or have the ‘courage to be’?

Existentialism represents the philosophical root of the phenomenological approach to personality.

After WWII this philosophy gained a large following in Europe.  The purpose of existential philosophy was to regain contact with the experiences of being ALIVE and AWARE.

Key questions of existential philosophy: What is the nature of existence? How does it feel? What does it mean?

The key issue for existential psychology is: All existence ends in death. Therefore, what is the point? The human challenge: Do we descend into nothingness or have the ‘courage to be’? All we have is existence. So existential psychology is about helping people to BE and helping people take responsibility for their lives.

Existential Psychology - Key Elements

According to the existentialists human beings have no existence apart from the world. Being-in-the-world or “dasein” IS man’s existence. Dasein is the whole of mankind’s existence. The basic issue in life is that life inevitably ends in death.  Thus we experience angst or anguish because of our awareness of death’s inevitability.

So we either retreat into nothingness or have the courage to BE. The extreme of the retreat into nothingness is suicide but we can also retreat into nothingness by not living authentic lives.

From this perspective it is extremely important that we BE, that we live authentically. This entails living a life that is honest, insightful and morally correct. Authenticity is about living genuinely with one’s angst and achieving meaning despite the temporary nature of one’s existence. Life has no meaning, unless you create it. Friedrich Nietszche said the only logical response to this void and meaninglessness was to rise above it and become a superman (sadly Nietszche went insane and died in an asylum!).

We are all responsible for our choices but even honest choices won’t always be good ones. You will still feel guilty over failing to fulfill all the possibilities in your life. Existential guilt, or existential anxiety or ANGST is inescapable.

Ludwig Biswanger

Ludwig Biswanger, an existential psychologist, suggested in 1958 that in order to understand how existence feels, which is at the heart of the phenomenological approach, we need to understand our experiences at three different levels. That is, that the conscious experience of being alive has three components: biological (Umwelt), social (Mitwelt) and inner or psychological experience (Eigenwelt).

  • Umwelt: In order to understand how existence feels we need to be aware of our physical sensation such as pain, pleasure, hunger, warmth, cold etc.

  • Mitwelt: In order to understand how existence feels we need to be aware of our social relations.  What we think and feel as a social creature who exists in a world with other people. Your thoughts and feelings about others and the thoughts and feelings you receive from them is your experience of Mitwelt.

  • Eigenwelt: This could be simply classified as “introspection”. In order to understand how existence feels we need to be aware of the inner workings of ourselves.  This is all about our attempt to understand ourselves: the experience of experience itself.

Rollo May (1909-1994)

The existential perspective was introduced into the US by Rollo May. May accepted many psychodyanmic principles (such as neurosis, repression and defense). May believed that individuals can only be understood in terms of their subjective sense of self. He felt that abnormal behaviour is often just a stratagem for protecting the centre this is the subjective sense of self) against perceived threats. The person may give up on self-growth if he or she feels his centre is threatened and retreat to the secure, known centre. As May put it in 196, this is a  “a way of accepting nonbeing…in order that some little being may be preserved” (p.75).

May was concerned with people’s loss of faith in values. If we lose our commitment to a set of values we will feel lonely and empty. Life will be meaningless.  Ultimately we need therefore to take responsibility for ourselves and find meaning in our lives.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997)

Viktor Frankl spent from 1942-1945 in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl’s father died in the Nazi concentration camp, Theresienstadt, in 1943.

In 1944, Frankl and his wife Tilly, and shortly later his 65 year old mother, were transported to the extinction camp Auschwitz. His mother was immediately murdered in the gas chamber, and Tilly was moved to Bergen-Belsen, where she dies at the age of 24. In cattle cars Viktor Frankl is transported, via Vienna, to Kaufering and Türkheim (subsidiary camps of Dachau).

In 1945, in the last camp he comes down with typhoid fever. To avoid fatal collapse during the nights he kept himself awake by writing on slips of paper stolen from the camp office. On April 27 the camp was liberated by U.S. troops. In August Frankl returned to Vienna, where he learned, within a span of a few days, about the death of his wife, his mother and his brother who has been murdered in Auschwitz together with his wife.

During his time in the camps, he observed people who survived horrific circumstances but were able to resist despair. He felt that those who were able to do so were people who found some spiritual meaning in their lives. He believed that the prime motive of human behaviour is the “will-to-meaning”. In order to find a meaning in our troubled existence we need to discover meaning through values and we have a moral duty to discover these values. And we discover our values through work, through love for others and through confrontation with our own suffering.

Frankl devised a treatment for to help people find the meaning in their lives. It is called Logotherapy from the word Logos = Greek for meaning. Logotherapy views psychological problems as symptomatic of the person having lost meaning in life.  Once meaning is rediscovered, the problems tend to resolve. This is done by confronting patients with their RESPONSIBILITY for their existence and by helping them choose values.

R. D. Laing (1927-1989)

According to the R. D. Laing, the British psychiatrist and existentialist the mind of modern man is a divided entity: the false self and the true self. He believes that modern social communication and the family in particular is very damaging. He believes the family requires us to stifle our true feelings and to pursue meaningless goals. According to Laing, the family discourages authentic (real) behaviour. By the time we reach adulthood we are cut off from our “true self”. We might seem normal but we are really deeply impaired (Laing, 1967). According to Laing, abnormal behaviour a function of relationships. Schizophrenia, according to Laing (1979, p. 115), is “a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation”. Laing conceded that there may be some biological predisposition towards schizophrenia but he firmly believed that interpersonal stresses could lead people to find they can no longer maintain their “false self” and hence they retreat from reality into their own inner worlds.

Existential Psychology – Therapeutic Approach

Existentialists: freedom is a constant struggle, something people may wish to avoid, and that once embraced still comes with a price: existential guilt and anguish. The goal of existential therapy though is to set the client on this hard road. It encourages a sense of responsibility for their symptoms by attempting to make them see that this way of being is something they have chosen and helps to show them that they are free (in fact obligated) to choose better ways of coping; ways that will give meaning to their lives. The therapists tries to help restore a sense of self-responsibility & courage and to facilitate self-discovery of meaning & purpose. They try to see the world as the patient sees the world but they are less emphatically warm than the humanist therapist. The most important source of meaning is honest, respectful personal relationships.

Therapy is good in that it deals with the person as a whole but it is long and costly and is best for neurotic disorders.

Existential Psychology - Conclusions

The existential approach also has much more negative undertones than the humanistic approach. It emphasizes powerlessness, loneliness, emptiness, and angst and admits that it is very hard to find meaning and value in our lives.