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Existential Theory Manuela Radulovic Rochester College Psychology of Personality PSY3013-32 Dr. Amy Freigruber


What is personality and how people can change, are one of the most essential questions in the history of mankind. Its been discussed among philosophers, psychologists and theologians that an individual will reach his or her fulfillment and purposefulness, once his or her personality returns to its original entity. Mans ability to change is the key for self-actualization. It is almost impossible to determine effects of changing if the theories of personality are completely ignored or denied. Personality is defined through different, above mentioned perspectives. This work is based on personal believes of inseparability of philosophy, science and theology. It describes personal characteristics and change, supported by existential approach and Christian believes. Existentialism In order to explain existentialism, philosophers and psychologists emphasized existence before essence, while some theologians gave an equal importance to both phenomena. Existence means to become; it is a process and ability to grow and change. Essence represents being, product and stagnation. Existentialists believe that people are both, subjective and objective. Second, people search for their purposes and meaning of their live, and they are responsible for who they are and what they become. Existentialists also oppose theories, assuming that theories dehumanize people (Feist and Feist, 2009). Freedom, choice and responsibility are essential for self-awareness. The basic concepts of the existentialism are being-in-the world and nonbeing. Being-in the world explains peoples existence in the world and three basic human experience models: 1) Umwelt- mans experience and relationship with the environment and surroundings; 2) Mitweltmans relation with other people and 3) Eigenwelt- mans relation with himself. Existentialists suggest that healthy people live all three models simultaneously; people adapt the natural world,

EXISTENTIAL THEORY relate to other people and they are aware of what these experiences mean to them (ac cited in Heist &Heist, 2009). Nonbeing also explains death, as the only absolute and certain thing. American psychologist Rollo May (1958) explained that when people confront death, their lives become more meaningful. Nonbeing can be in form of substance abuse, sexual promiscuity or some other compulsive behavior. May also suggests that people are make active choices and strive for being-in- the- world, because they are afraid of the nonbeing, or death. On the other side, if people deny their individuality and avoid their self-awareness, they feel empty (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Existential approach was not created by any particular person or group. It was adopted by European psychologists and psychiatrists after the World War II, when many people experienced postwar existential crises. Many practitioner existentialists were inspired by philosophers and writers of the 19th and 20th century, such as Sren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others (Corey, 2009). The most influential existentialist was a Danish philosopher and Christian theologian, Sren Kierkegaard ( 1813-1855), who proposed peoples subjectivism and objectivism. He emphasized importance of both, experiencing person and persons experience. Kierkegaard suggested balance between peoples freedom and responsibility, believing that people become free if they expand their self-awareness and accepting responsibility for their actions (Feist & Feist, 2009). Another person, who influenced modern psychologist, was an Austrian doctor, Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), known by his book Mans Search for Meaning (1963), in which he described peoples experiences from concentration camps in the World War II. Frankl was very much inspired by Nietzsche. He developed logotherapy, or therapy through meaning. He suggested that people should find their meaning of lives under any circumstances (Corey, 2009).

EXISTENTIAL THEORY Rollo May Rollo May (1909-1994) is an American psychologist, also influenced by existential philosophers and writers, as well by psychologists, such as Alfred Adler and Abraham H. Maslow. He is responsible for bringing existentialism into United States of America. It is

important to mention his work Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology. May suggested that it takes courage to make choices in life, which may determine the kind of person we become. He strongly believed that people struggle through changing and making choices. In other words, personal growth is painful. When people become aware of their existence, they experience anxiety. May recognized normal and neurotic anxiety. People are free when able to make choices and when willing to change, but freedom cannot be without anxiety and vice versa. This is normal anxiety and people experience it through developmental changes. Unlike normal anxiety, neurotic anxiety is disproportional and involves repression and blocks awareness activity (as cited at Feist &Feist, 2009). Mays theory included intentionality (1969), which gives meaning to experience and allows people to make decisions in their lives. He believed that without intentionality people wouldnt be able to make choices. Apropos Kierkegaards proposal that there should be balance between subject and object, May used intentionality to connect these two terms: mans intention to do something results in the meaning of the thing hes done. May wrote about care, love and will, where care is the part of love and peoples ability to identify with others. Love has its four forms, such as sex, eros ,philia and agape, where the agape is the purest, divine or unconditional love. Will is someones ability to create a goal and take an action in order to achieve that goal (Feist & Feist, 2009). May proposed that love and will should

EXISTENTIAL THEORY be unified. Christian theologians explain emphasis of the free will in peoples ability to love the nature, to love others and themselves. Propositions of the Existential theory As part of the humanistic theories, existential theory focuses on humans wellbeing and living full, authentic life. Unlike other theories, it is not based on scientific evidences and researches. It is more a philosophical approach, and it is applied with other theories of the

psychotherapy. Its goal is to assist people to find the way to live full and meaningful life. People are free to find purpose and meaning and recognize the obstacles that may block the freedom and ability to change and grow. Existential theory suggests encouraging people to widen their perspectives, to make choices, to activate their potentials and accept their freedom and responsibilities. As subjects of loneliness, meaningless, emptiness, guilt or isolation, people are encouraged to find identity and increase relations with nature, others and self. As such, this theory emphasizes challenging destiny. Destiny includes inherited characteristics and death. People cannot change their destiny and some circumstances, but they can chose how they will respond and how will they use their potentials (Corey, 2009). Although not based on scientific hypothesis, existential approach was influential and it was combined with other approaches. Existential approach was reconsidered and used in cognitive therapies. Becks (1967) traditional CT (cognitive theory) focuses on recognizing issues, but some people, for example people diagnosed with depression, cannot see the way out. When applied with CT, existential approach helps people to discover meanings, widen their perspectives and find other possibilities (Ottens and Hanna, 1998). Unglued

EXISTENTIAL THEORY I wasnt completely aware how much I could relate with other peoples emotions and reactions on everyday stressors, until I read the book Unglued, written by Lysa Terkeurst. Terkeurst wrote about her own life, her own everyday experiences and choices she was making that determine her personality. American writer and motivational speaker mostly for everyday

women, Terkeurst found her audience among men as well. The book Unglued provides inspiring examples how through faith and self-change a person can grow confidence and resolve problems in relationships through peace and honesty. Terheurst proposed two types of reactors: internal suppressor and external processor. Internal suppressor or stuffer could be a stuffer who builds barriers and stuffer who collects retaliation rocks. External processor or exploders are also divided into two groups: exploder that blames others and exploder that shames herself (Terkeurst, 2012). The goal was to identify the type of reactor and learn how to become calm and respond in different ways to situations we cannot control. I could have recognized myself in all four types of reactors: I am exploder with my family members and stuffer with my friends, coworkers, school mates and acquaintances. Being an exploder with family members, who also knows when to stop and become calm, and more importantly, who is aware of family members forgiveness, I have realized that raw emotions have been helpful to become closer and build stronger relationships with people I love the most. However, it seems that stuffer who builds barriers affected me the most. Everybody loves a peacemaker, but not a peacemaker that lacks of honesty. Because of this important missing peace, I hurt others and I hurt myself. As Christian, I believe that confessing my sins would help me to become aware of my sins, repent them and gain Gods forgiveness. This also includes forgiving myself and moving

EXISTENTIAL THEORY forward in changing and growing. Ive been a prisoner of the same sins, and it is time to start making wise choices in the midst of raw emotions (Terkeurst, 2012). Existential theory emphasizes freedom, choice and responsibility that are the main

elements of self-awareness. I have had freedom to make choices in my life and I am the only one responsible for those choices and for who Ive become. I could identify anxieties I experienced in my earlier developmental changes (May, 1967). The choices I made as a child, such as not confronting verbal or physical violence or injustice, made me the person I am today. Every time I tried to do differently was very painful for me, and I simply gave up and decided to stay in my safe zone. I was rather tolerating things, instead of being honest and expressing my feelings. However, I was very happy child, who had lot of friends, who learned very early to be responsible and hardworking and to respect authorities and who also had freedom. Period of adolescence was very painful for me. All the values elders taught us disappeared in one day. Very soon I learned about the real world injustice and violence, such as war and street violence that affected every single person in the country I grew up. Real values were gone and some people became mean and cruel, which was their way of surviving. I was sent to boarding-school, where I learned how to live with two hundred people under the same roof, share the room with seven roommates and follow almost the military rules. I refused to follow certain rules, such as studying in the same room with 200 other students. I hated those bars on the windows; I felt like a prisoner, like a captured bird. My feelings toward everything that surrounded me were captured. I was my own prisoner who wasnt able to be honest with my parent, with my teachers, with my roommates, with anyone. I wasnt able to see clearly that thinking about not hurting other peoples feelings, or discussing straight about issues many of us couldnt change, isnt helpful. Ive decided to become a rebel. My grades dropped down, I tried

EXISTENTIAL THEORY to run away in order to become dispelled from the school, and all teachers saw me as a bad

influence, while I knew what I was and what could I be under different circumstances. Although I thought that no one can see me the way I am, there were some people who saw my potentials and understood the reason of my behavior. Maybe I wanted to hear that in person, as Terkeurst( 2012) said I love to give words of encouragement and I love to receive words of encouragement, but I recognized it by not being dispelled from school. By the end of that first year of high-school, I chose to tolerate community life and to push myself harder in order to gain recognition and succeed in school. The next year I won. My mother allowed me to rent a room and be on my own. My grades improved and I had my freedom back. This was an important milestone in my life and I recognized the normal anxieties (May, 1958) experienced during this period. The war and bad economy were still present at that time, which means that I couldnt change all the life circumstances. I couldnt blame the government system and society changings, nor I could blame the behavior I learned and characteristics I inherited from my parents. May ( 1981) called it essential freedom. Lysa Terkeurst simply explains it: I can face things that are out of my control and not act out of control. I learned that I was aware of myself and how to activate my potentials and live my full life under different circumstances. And as Viktor Frankl (1963) wrote about finding the meaning under severe circumstances, I found my purpose and meaning of life in the mid-adolescence. I wanted to become a good person and a good citizen; I wanted to go to college and have a meaningful job and have a family to live and fight for. During this period, religion was brought back to people after 50 years of dark, and I discovered the most meaningful part of living and growing in God.


It seemed I was completely ready to enter adulthood, and everything seemed so smoothly and almost painless. I had my own living place, a job and later I entered university. I chose to study theology and gain comprehensive knowledge about history of mankind, Christianity and all other world religions, philosophy, psychology, languages and art. Everything I loved and appreciated I found in one place. I was happy for the choices I made and I believed that such choices would help me more to grow into the person Ive always wanted to be and confront nonbeing (May,1958). However, there were everyday situations and relations I reacted in a different way. Theoretically I knew and I felt that we need to thank God for the stressor in our lives, but its very important how we are going to react on those stressors and what choices we are going to make. I seemed made my peace with my Umwelt (environment), but I recognized weakness in Mitwelt (relations with others) and Eigenwelt (self). To go back on the book Unglued, Terkeurst also recognizes imperfect changes and slow steps of progress wrapped in grace (Terkeurst, 2012). I recognized myself as a stuffer who builds barriers, which affects my relations with others and satisfactions with self. How hard it is to make a progress is subjective, but at the end, we see the hard work and the result that also becomes objective and it gives the meaning to it. I know I cannot burry my emotions, because God gave me emotions, so I could experience life, not destroy it (Terkeurst, 2012). But I also recognized my intentionality (May, 1969), or the ability to make decisions, in order to change and grow. Existential theory and Terkeurst talk about recognizing barriers that prevent us to make choices and change. I know I have my existential freedom (May, 1981) to make a choice and take an action. I want to change the thoughts patterns and change the way I react toward other people that are not my family. Terkeurst said that barriers shut down communication. The

EXISTENTIAL THEORY barriers I created, such as thinking not to hurt other peoples feelings or labeling people


prevented me to be honest with self and with others, therefore Ive been hurting myself and I hurt others. I think Ive been experiencing all three forms of ontological guilt (May, 1958). By spending too much time on a computer, I became distant from the nature, I dont do things I usually want to do and I lack of real and live communications (Umwelt guilt). By building barriers and not seeing clearly other peoples needs, I experience the second form of ontological guilt or the Mitwelt. This is me as a stuffer who builds barriers. And finally, as someone who is aware of possessed potentials and who is afraid to use them, I experience Eigenwelt guilt, which May finds connection with Maslows Jonah complex (Maslow, 1970). I have realized that I didnt create set of boundaries that would help me to clearly communicate with others. Assuming that all people have similar values or that everybody can use their common sense was completely wrong. I was very angry with myself, because I met so many people in my life, people of different characters and personalities, I experienced many things, worked with people all my life, and I still allow myself to get hurt and hurt others. As Terkeurst said, I dance around, instead of facing the issues. The more I dance around, the emotional yuck gets pulled into situation. It is exhausting and frustrating (Terkeurst, 2012). Here is the example of being afraid to be honest. Few months I go I entered personal therapy to discuss these things and things that have been affecting my personal goals. Every time I opened myself, I found it hurtful and exhausting and I simply backed up, and without any notice, I stopped attending sessions. I had impression that talking about issues would prevent me of moving forward and they would make me weak and more vulnerable. I didnt see the course of therapy as a motivation to change. Instead of opening up and talking about these feelings, I simply determined therapy on my own, without any notice. How irresponsible and unethical. So

EXISTENTIAL THEORY many times I wanted to call my therapist or write an email, but I was afraid of being rejected. Now is the time to do so and face the real issues and the person I left without any explanation.


I wasnt honest with myself and others what I wanted from the situations. I didnt ask this question, appointed in the book Unglued. I prayed, but not enough, or not the right way. More likely, I didnt think about God when building those barriers and making things difficult for myself and others. Now I want to pray for the grace, to see things clearly and to have strength to confront my issues and react the best possible way on different stressors, whether with difficult people or in difficult situations. I want to let God chisel me (Terkeurst, 2012). The things cannot get better on their own. This requires taking small steps, falling and getting up again, like an infant, but moving forward. And here I am, a middle-aged woman, who keeps learning every day in order to reach her full potential and become a person God wants me to be, or to return to my original entity. Christian theologians, such as John Zizioulas explain mans fulfillment and ontology of personhood through unity with God, or through unity with Holy Trinity (as cited at Letihart, 2007). God has a purpose and meaning for all of us and He wants us to find those meanings and recognize all the potential He gave us, in order to live our purposeful and meaningful lives. He gave us free will, to love one another, to make choices and decisions in our lives and be responsible. The choices we make determine who we become (Heist & Heist, 2009). I want to find the balance between freedom and responsibility (May, 1967) and the perfect spot for grace to grow (Terkeurst, 2012). I am struggling and falling on my path to change and grow, but I have to let God to do his work and pray Him to be with me until the end. I want to choose patience, or gentleness, or grace (Terkeurst, 2012). That is the power of choice. (Terkeurst, 2012)

EXISTENTIAL THEORY References Corey, G. (2009). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.


Feist, J., & Feist, G. J. (2009). Theories of Personality (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Leithart, P. J. (2007). Ontology of Personhood. Retrieved from Ottens, A. J., & Hanna, F. J. (1998). Cognitive and Existential Therapies: Toward an Integration. Psychotherapy, 35, 312-322. Retrieved from Terkeurst, L. (2012). Unglued. Austin, TX: Fedd & Company, Inc.