THE PEOPLE WHO DEVELOPED EXISTENTIAL THERAPY
Many names are associated with the development of existential therapy, including Viktor Frankl, Rollo
May, Irvin Yalom, James Bugental, Ludwig Binswanger, and Medard Boss. The ideas of theoreticians
and philosophers such as Abraham Maslow, Sören Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin
Heidegger, Paul Tillich, and Martin Buber also were key to the development of this approach. In
addition, writers including Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, and others helped shape
existentialism. Following are brief biographies of the three men—Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, and Irvin
Yalom—who are most strongly associated with existential therapy today. Information on several other
contributors to this approach also is included.
Viktor Frankl was born in 1905 in Vienna, Austria, and received both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the
University of Vienna. Before the Second World War, he was a practicing physician. Between 1942 and
1945, however, he was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps in Dachau and Auschwitz. His
mother and father, his brother, and his first wife and their children all perished in the camps. Of course,
these experiences had a profound impact on Frankl’s thinking. Although his interest in existential
thought began before his imprisonment, his difficult years in the concentration camps led him to
conclude that the will to create meaning and purpose is the prime human motivator (Bauman & Waldo,
). For Frankl, his purpose became surviving his imprisonment so that he could tell others about
those experiences and the terrible impact of war and hatred.
Man’s Search for Meaning
is a powerful description of his experiences, his existential struggles, and what he learned from them
). In that book, Frankl quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with
almost any how” (p. 121) and “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger” (p. 130). These
quotations reflect Frankl’s own triumph over tragedy, his ability to make meaningful the terrible losses
and experiences he endured.
Frankl called his treatment approach
—therapy through meaning. Barton (
) said of
logotherapy, “It presupposes that the freedom to make meanings belongs to the human world
essentially, and that all human beings have regions in which they can take up freedom and make
meaning” (p. 338). Frankl believed that, even under extreme circumstances, people have choices. The
tasks of the clinician are to help people:
•Discover and notice where they possess freedom and the potential for meaning
•Actualize those potentials to transform and make meaning of their lives
•Honor meanings realized in the past (Lantz,
For Frankl, as for most existentialist clinicians, the central ingredient in treatment is the use of the
treatment relationship to accomplish these goals.
Frankl’s writings as well as his lectures throughout the world certainly made his life a meaningful one.