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Existential Psychology and Logotherapy are important concepts in the scope of psychotherapy. Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) founded logotherapy, a model of psychology that deals with the meaning and purpose of life (Kelland, 2017). Frankl developed this theory out of his experience in the Nazi concentration camps in the 1940s and argued that the fundamental motivation for the existence of human beings is the desire to find meaning in their lives (Kelland, 2017). The theory underlines that even in the harshest of circumstances, life can have a purpose. On the other hand, Rollo May (1909-1994) introduced the concept of existential psychology, which emphasizes that humans have full responsibility for their existence. Although the theories differ in terms of interpretation of human nature, subject of inquiry, ontological position, temporal orientation, and therapeutic goals, they concur that the pursuit of meaning in life is endless, meaning is not automatic but attained through courage, and object and subject are inseparable.
Viktor Frankl's logotherapy and Rollo May's existentialism both argue that human beings continuously try to find meaning in their lives. According to Kelland (2017), May affirms that people are often involved in the exploration of their own being and their role in choosing the form that they want their lives to take. He terms this element as the "I am" experience because it varies from one individual to the other depending on their exposures and goals in life. This experience is derived from the intrinsic and external factors that combine to give a complete and focused being. Similarly, Frankl's Logotherapy is also founded on the basis that life has a meaning and purpose, but it does not promise happiness (Kelland, 2017). Like May, Frankl asserts that the knowledge of the existence of these meanings, although not explicit, is the reason for man's quest to unearth his potentials and purpose in life (Kelland, 2017). Thus logotherapy is applied as a psychotherapy technique to help people find meaning in their lives.
The two theorists also agree that meaning in life is not given, but has to be found in different ways. According to Frankl's school of thought, the first possible way of finding meaning in life is through personal deeds and the work done (Kelland, 2017). He also adds that humans can find meaning through meaningful encounters and the choice of attitude when faced with unavoidable suffering. Meaningful encounters involve positive experiences such as love while attitudes emanate from difficult conditions such as torture, betrayal, or rejection. Frankl thus argues that the process of finding purpose in life is unique from one being to another depending on their expectations. In the same regard, May's theory underlines that the dread of nothingness forces people to embark on finding the reasons for their existence (Ratner, 2019). His concept also underscores that existence supersedes the essence of being or the "being substance," implying that unless one finds the meanings that correlate with their survival, they can rarely have the ultimate satisfaction.
Object, Subject, and Phenomenological Orientation
Frankl and May's theories also concur that there is no separation between the object and subject in reference to the search for meaning in life. While humans have the ultimate responsibility for their happiness, some external factors force changes in them. May uses three (3) concepts of Umwelt (the world around us), Eigenwelt (own-world), and Mitwelt (the with-world) to explain how the being is inseparable from the objects within their proximity (Kelland, 2017). For instance, the Umwelt, which is the world around where people exist, involves the biological needs and the inevitability of death. These factors cannot be separated from humans, even though they are uncontrollable. In the same perspective, Frankl points out that because the meaning of life continuously changes due to the external variations, human beings should recreate themselves in tandem with the transformations (Batthyany, 2016). In the end, the will to meaning is the one that determines the formation of attitudes and derivations of meaning from the various situations that a person encounters.
Another point of convergence between the two theories is that they contain phenomenological orientation as they advocate for lived experience, freedom, and subjectivity. According to Winston (2015), Frankl and May agree that underline that subjective experience trounces objective reality in the pursuit of meaning and purpose in life. When they are applied in psychotherapy, the two theorists again concur that the constructive choices of change that are central to the relationship between the psychotherapist and the patient are founded on the subjective experiences shaping the condition rather than the perceived objective reality. According to May, existential psychotherapy is an approach to understanding a person's nature to avoid distorting people in the process of trying to assist them (Kelland, 2017). By understanding the level of anxiety, isolation, or loneliness, psychotherapists delve into the subjective exposures and use this understanding to help patients to recover. Similarly, Frankl asserts that breaking the negative cycle of thoughts that are contributing to the psychological problem requires the patient to reverse the symptoms to his/her subjective experiences.
The Importance of Courage and a Healthy Core
Both theories also underline that people's failure to establish meaning in their lives is driven by the lack of courage to face the destiny, which eventually impedes their freedom. One of the underlying assumptions of the Existential Theory is that "Freedom is the goal of personality development, and although this freedom brings with it anxiety, it is through facing this anxiety that the possibility of freedom arises" (Kelland, 2017). In reference to this excerpt, May insists that the underlying anxiety can hamper one's ability to seek and attain psychological development goals unless the person overcomes the barrier. Self-strength, which helps people to confront negative experiences and recreate positive ones, is solely dependent on how the possessed freedom is exercised. Frankl's logotherapy also underpins that all individuals have the exercisable freedom to pursue their meaning provided there is an element of willingness, which allows them to endure any emerging anxieties and setbacks (Batthyany, 2016). Consequently, Frankl argues that one of the best ways of overcoming anxiety is to adopt the right attitude in unchangeable situations.
May and Frankl's theories also argue that every person has a healthy core that is, however, expressed differently because of the variations in intentionality and creativity. According to May, creative activities and other forms of art can be a valuable outlet for the constructive expression of anger or anxiety to maintain mental and emotional wellbeing (Kelland, 2017). Although this creativity is limited, it can mitigate the negative impact that spirals from negative experiences from interaction with people or the environment. Equally, Frankl argues that the uniqueness and irreplaceability of humans imply that people perceive and react to setbacks differently regardless of the core or prevailing conditions contributing to the problem (Winston, 2015). In this context, Frankl agrees with May that people have the power to shape their happiness and purpose in life if they exercise their freedom and capacity as superior to the objects that drive them to anxiety. Just like May's creativity, Frankl's insistence on the uniqueness of human beings affirms that they have the ultimate ability to craft their way out of anxiety and maintain their grip on the journey towards a better future.
Interpretation of Human Nature
In addition to the similarities mentioned above, the two theories have various dissimilarities emanating from the theorists' background and their beliefs in the core concepts they present. The primary difference stems from the interpretation of human nature, which is the fundamental basis for both theories. For instance, Frankl's logotherapy is based on the search for life's meaning through the will to meaning, freedom of will, and meaning of life (Kelland, 2017). In the context of the use of logotherapy in psychotherapy, Frankl's model assumes a more humanistic approach with a more positive focus on enhancing one's life biologically, socially, and psychologically. Frankl views humanity as a culmination of the body, mind, and the spirit, and as such, these elements must be aligned towards the same goals for one to establish purpose in life (Batthyany, 2016). On the other hand, May takes a different standpoint of humanity by arguing that the reactions of humans to external factors are a matter of choice rather than an integral element of the self (Ratner, 2019). While May does not dispute the fact that the external forces partly shape mental wellbeing within the confines of exposure, the theory takes a different approach from Frankl.
Subject of Inquiry
Another point of divergence between the two theories is the subject of inquiry, which is the basis for application in therapy. According to Kelland (2017), May's approach is primarily concerned with human existence. Existentialism focuses on a person's subjective truth and the responsibilities and freedoms that come with being human. Although these elements can lead to anxiety, they can also give an individual the momentum to achieve an authentic life. May's perspective of human existence as the subject of interest of his theory is based on some aspects of human existence such as death, anxiety, freedom, and absurdity (Kelland, 2017). On the other hand, Frankl's theory takes a more humanistic approach by focusing on the human self (Winston, 2015). Although both concepts are intertwined, the human experience as the core area of inquiry is approached differently by both theorists. Unlike May, Frankl's conceptualization of human experience is studied in terms of the human self rather than the person's lived experiences. May's approach can be attributed to his exposure to human suffering in the Nazi concentration camps.
Apart from the subject of inquiry, the two theories also differ when it comes to the ontological position. May's existential model is founded on the inescapable elements of life, such as death, absurdity, and estrangement. The theory underlines that existence precedes essence, and regards these components as essential for human development by underlining their awareness and acceptance (Kelland, 2017). Thus, any lack of knowledge of one's existential conditions leads to passiveness and unauthentic existence. In the context of the therapeutic setting, the theory affirms that change is only viable if the individual confronts and accepts the inevitability of the inescapable factors that directly impact human existence. On the other hand, the ontological stance of existentialist theorists is that essence precedes existence (Winston, 2017). Frankl argues that the conditions under which human beings exist should be the primary focus of therapy because it helps humans to move from a state of nonbeing to being as well as inauthenticity to authenticity. Therefore, focusing on the unavoidable elements such as death is a barrier rather than an enabler of attaining personal satisfaction and meaning.
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