Otto Rank 1884-1939: In 1936 Carl Rogers, the most influential psychologist in America after William James, invited Otto Rank to give a series of lectures in New York on Rank’s post-Freudian models of experiential and relational therapy. Rogers was transformed by these lectures and always credited Rank with having profoundly shaped “client-centered” therapy and the entire profession of counselling. “I became infected with Rankian ideas,” said Rogers.



Client-centered therapy antecedent Otto Rank

Otto Rank.jpg




Rollo May, a pioneer of existential psychotherapy in the United States, was deeply influenced by Rank’s post-Freudian lectures and writings and always considered Rank to be the most important precursor of existential therapy. Shortly before his death, Rollo May wrote the foreword to Robert Kramer’s edited collection of Rank’s American lectures. “I have long considered Otto Rank to be the great unacknowledged genius in Freud’s circle,” said May (Rank, 1996, p. xi).


The New York writer Paul Goodman, who was co-founder with Fritz Perls of the Gestalt method of psychotherapy, one of the most popular in the world today, and one that makes Otto Rank’s “here-and-now” central to its approach, described Rank’s post-Freudian ideas on art and creativity as “beyond praise” in Gestalt Therapy (Perls, Goodman and Hefferline, 1951, p. 395). According to Ervin Polster (1968), a pre-eminent Gestalt therapist, “Rank brought the human relationship directly into his office. He influenced analysts to take seriously the actual present interaction between therapist and patient, rather than maintain the fixed, distant, ‘as though’ relationship that had given previous analysts an emotional buffer for examining the intensities of therapeutic sensation and wish. Rank’s contributions opened the way for encounter to become accepted as a deep therapeutic agent” (p. 6).

Rank also affected the practice of action-oriented and reflective therapies such as dramatic role-playing and psychodrama. “Although there is no evidence of a direct influence, Rank’s ideas found new life in the work of such action psychotherapists as Moreno, who developed a psychodrama technique of doubling … and Landy [director of the drama therapy program at New York University], who attempted to conceptualize balance as an integration of role and counterrole” (Landy, 2008, p. 29).

Rank was the first to see therapy as a learning and unlearning experience. The therapeutic relationship allows the patient to: (1) learn more creative ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now; and (2) unlearn self-destructive ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now. Patterns of self-destruction (“neurosis”) represent a failure of creativity not, as Freud assumed, a retreat from sexuality.

Rank’s psychology of creativity has recently been applied to action learning, an inquiry-based process of group problem solving, team building, leadership development and organizational learning (Kramer 2007; 2008). The heart of action learning is asking wicked questions to promote the unlearning or letting go of taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. Questions allow group members to “step out of the frame of the prevailing ideology,” as Rank wrote in Art and Artist (1932/1989, p. 70), reflect on their assumptions and beliefs, and reframe their choices. The process of “stepping out” of a frame, out of a form of knowing – a prevailing ideology – is analogous to the work of artists as they struggle to give birth to fresh ways of seeing the world, perspectives that allow them to see aspects of the world that no artists, including themselves, have ever seen before.

The most creative artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo, know how to separate even from their own greatest public successes, from earlier artistic incarnations of themselves. Their “greatness consists precisely in this reaching out beyond themselves, beyond the ideology which they have themselves fostered,” according to Art and Artist (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 368). Through the lens of Otto Rank’s work on understanding art and artists, action learning can be seen as the never-completed process of learning how to “step out of the frame” of the ruling mindset, whether one’s own or the culture’s – in other words, of learning how to unlearn.

Comparing the process of unlearning to the “breaking out” process of birth, Rank was the first psychologist to suggest that a continual capacity to separate from “internal mental objects” – from internalized institutions, beliefs and neuroses; from the restrictions of culture, social conformity and received wisdom – is the sine qua non for lifelong creativity.

In a 1938 lecture, Rank said: “Life in itself is a mere succession of separations. Beginning with birth, going through several weaning periods and the development of the individual personality, and finally culminating in death – which represents the final separation. At birth, the individual experiences the first shock of separation, which throughout his life he strives to overcome. In the process of adaptation, man persistently separates from his old self, or at least from those segments off his old self that are now outlived. Like a child who has outgrown a toy, he discards the old parts of himself for which he has no further use ….The ego continually breaks away from its worn-out parts, which were of value in the past but have no value in the present. The neurotic [who cannot unlearn, and, therefore, lacks creativity] is unable to accomplish this normal detachment process … Owing to fear and guilt generated in the assertion of his own autonomy, he is unable to free himself, and instead remains suspended upon some primitive level of his evolution”(Rank, 1996, p. 270).

Unlearning necessarily involves separation from one’s self-concept, as it has been culturally conditioned to conform to familial, group, occupational or organizational allegiances. According to Rank (1932/1989), unlearning or breaking out of our shell from the inside is “a separation [that] is so hard, not only because it involves persons and ideas that one reveres, but because the victory is always, at bottom, and in some form, won over a part of one’s ego” (p. 375).

In the organizational context, learning how to unlearn is vital because what we assume to be true has merged into our identity. We refer to the identity of an individual as a “mindset.” We refer to the identity of an organizational group as a “culture.” Action learners learn how to question, probe and separate from, both kinds of identity—i.e., their “individual” selves and their “social” selves. By opening themselves to critical inquiry, they begin to learn how to emancipate themselves from what they “know” – they learn how to unlearn.

In 1974, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer prize for The Denial of Death (1973), which was based on Rank’s post-Freudian writings, especially Will Therapy (1929–31), Psychology and the Soul (1930) and Art and Artist (1932/1989). The feeling of anxiety, writes Rank in Will Therapy (1929–31), divides into two currents, running in opposite directions: one toward separation and individuation; the other toward union and collectivity. The outbreak of neurosis typically comes from the streaming together of these two fears—which Rank also calls the “fear of living” [Lebensangst] and the “fear of dying” [Todesangst] – “which, even in The Trauma of Birth, I had designated as the fear of both going forward and of going backward” (Rank, 1929–31, p. 124). A crisis “seems to break out at a certain age when the life fear which has restricted the I’s development meets with the death fear as it increases with growth and maturity,” writes Rank in Will Therapy (1929–31). “The individual then feels himself driven forward by regret for wasted life and the desire to retrieve it. But this forward driving fear is now death fear, the fear of dying without having lived, which, even so, is held in check by fear of life” (pp. 188–189).

The “fear of life” is the fear of separation and individuation. The “fear of death” is the fear of union and merger—in essence, the loss of individuality. Both separation and union, however, are desired as well as feared since the “will to separate” correlates with the creative impulse and the “will to unite” with the need for love. To respond obsessively just to one need—by choosing to separate “totally” or to merge “totally”—is to have the other thrown back at one’s self.

According to Rank (1929–31), “Birth fear remains always more universal, cosmic as it were, loss of a connection with a greater whole [einen größeren Ganzen], in the last analysis with the ‘All’ [dem All] … The fear in birth, which we have designated as fear of life, seems to me actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual, and not the reverse, the fear of loss of individuality (death fear). That would mean, however, that primary fear [Urangst] corresponds to a fear of separation from the whole [vom All], therefore a fear of individuation, on account of which I would like to call it fear of life, although it may appear later as fear of the loss of this dearly bought individuality as fear of death, of being dissolved again into the whole [ins All]. Between these two fear possibilities these poles of fear, the individual is thrown back and forth all his life, which accounts for the fact that we have not been able to trace fear back to a single root, or to overcome it therapeutically” (ibid., p. 124).

On a microcosmic level, therapy is a process of learning how to give and take, surrender and assert, merge and individuate, unite and separate—without being trapped in a whipsaw of opposites. Therapist and client, like everyone else, seek to find a constructive balance between separation and union. In psychological health, the contact boundary that links I and Thou “harmoniously [fuses] the edges of each without confusing them,” Rank wrote in Art and Artist (1932/1989, p. 104). Joining together in feeling, therapist and client do not lose themselves but, rather, re-discover and re-create themselves. In the simultaneous dissolution of their difference in a greater whole, therapist and client surrender their painful isolation for a moment, only to have individuality returned to them in the next, re-energized and enriched by the experience of “loss.”

“[T]he love feeling,” Rank observes in a lecture delivered in 1927 at the University of Pennsylvania, “unites our I with the other, with the Thou [dem Du], with men, with the world, and so does away with fear. What is unique in love is that—beyond the fact of uniting—it rebounds on the I. Not only, I love the other as my I, as part of my I, but the other also makes my I worthy of love. The love of the Thou [des Liebe des Du] thus places a value on one’s own I. Love abolishes egoism, it merges the self in the other to find it again enriched in one’s own I. This unique projection and introjection of feeling rests on the fact that one can really only love the one who accepts our own self [unser eigene Selbst] as it is, indeed will not have it otherwise than it is, and whose self we accept as it is.” (Rank, 1996, p. 154)

On a macrocosmic level, taking the experience of love as far as humanly possible, to the boundary of the spiritual, Rank compared the artist’s “giving” and the enjoyer’s “finding” of art with the dissolution and rediscovery of the self in mutual love. “The art-work,” says Rank in Art and Artist, “presents a unity, alike in its effect and in its creation, and this implies a spiritual unity between the artist and the recipient” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 113). It is in art, and its correlative, love, that microcosm meets macrocosm, the human meets the spiritual. At the height of the individuating impulse, the “will to separate,” artists feel most strongly the longing for attachment, the “will to unite.” Although artists begin the creative process by separating from their fellow human beings and liberating themselves from conforming to the past, escaping from the anxiety of influence, eventually the creative impulse merges into a desire for a return to “a greater whole,” to “the ALL” (Rank, 1929–31, p. 155) — in human terms, to the “collective” that alone has the power to immortalize the artist with the approval it grants the artwork:

“For this very essence of man, his soul, which the artist puts into his work and which is represented by it, is found again in the work by the enjoyer, just as the believer finds his soul in religion or in God, with whom he feels himself to be one. It is on this identity of the spiritual … and not on a psychological identification with the artist that [aesthetic pleasure] ultimately depends… But both of them, in the simultaneous dissolution of their individuality in a greater whole, enjoy, as a high pleasure, the personal enrichment of that individuality through this feeling of oneness. They have yielded up their mortal ego for a moment, fearlessly and even joyfully, to receive it back in the next, the richer for this universal feeling (Rank, 1932/1989, pp. 109–110).

In one of his most poetic passages, Rank suggests that this transcendent feeling implies not only a “spiritual unity” between artist and enjoyer, I and Thou, but also “with a Cosmos floating in mystic vapors in which present, past, and future are dissolved” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 113)–an identity with “the ALL” that once was but is no more. The healing nature of artistic experience, Rank believed, affirms difference but, paradoxically, also “leads to the release from difference, to the feeling of unity with the self, with the other, with the cosmos” (Rank, 1929–31, p. 58). In art, microcosm meets macrocosm. Of the uncanny feeling of emotional unity we experience in surrendering ourselves—giving up temporarily the burden of our difference—to the Other in art, Rank writes in Art and Artist: “[It] produces a satisfaction which suggests that it is more than a matter of the passing identification of two individuals, that it is the potential restoration of a union with the Cosmos, which once existed and was then lost. The individual psychological root of this sense of unity I discovered (at the time of writing The Trauma of Birth, 1924) in the prenatal condition, which the individual in his yearning for immortality strives to restore. Already, in that earliest stage of individualization, the child is not only factually one with the mother but beyond that, one with the world, with a Cosmos floating in mystic vapors in which present, past, and future are dissolved. The individual urge to restore this lost unity is (as I have formerly pointed out) an essential factor in the production of human cultural values” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 113).

No one has expressed the conflict between the will to separate and the will to unite better than Ernest Becker (1973), whose award-winning The Denial of Death captured the largest—macrocosmic—meaning of separation and union for Rank: “On the one hand the creature is impelled by a powerful desire to identify with the cosmic forces, to merge himself with the rest of nature. On the other hand he wants to be unique, to stand out as something different and apart” (Becker, 1973, pp. 151–152). “You can see that man wants the impossible: He wants to lose his isolation and keep it at the same time. He can’t stand the sense of separateness, and yet he can’t allow the complete suffocation of his vitality. He wants to expand by merging with the powerful beyond that transcends him, yet he wants while merging with it to remain individual and aloof …” (ibid., p. 155).

On a microcosmic level, however, the lifelong oscillation between the two “poles of fear” can be made more bearable, according to Rank, in a relationship with another person who accepts one’s uniqueness and difference, and allows for the emergence of the creative impulse—without too much guilt or anxiety for separating from the other. Living fully requires “seeking at once isolation and union” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 86), finding the courage to accept both simultaneously, without succumbing to the Angst that leads a person to be whipsawed from one pole to the other. Creative solutions for living emerge out of the fluctuating, ever-expanding and ever-contracting, space between separation and union. Art and the creative impulse, said Rank in Art and Artist, “originate solely in the constructive harmonization of this fundamental dualism of all life” (1932/1989, p. xxii).

On a macrocosmic level, the consciousness of living—the dim awareness that we are alive for a moment on this planet as it spins, meaninglessly, around the cold and infinite galaxy—gives human beings “the status of a small god in nature,” according to Ernest Becker: “Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still has the gill marks to prove it … Man is literally split in two: he has awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with” (Becker, 1973, p. 26).

Through the influence of Ernest Becker’s writings, Rank’s eternal dialectic between “life fear and death fear” has been tested experimentally in Terror Management Theory by Skidmore College psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, University of Arizona psychology professor Jeff Greenberg, and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs psychology professor Tom Pyszczynski.

The American priest and theologian, Matthew Fox, founder of Creation Spirituality and Wisdom University, considers Rank to be one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century. See, especially, Fox’s book, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2002), paperback: ISBN 1-58542-329-7.

Stanislav Grof, a founder of transpersonal psychology, based much of his work in prenatal and perinatal psychology on Rank’s The Trauma of Birth (Kripal, 2007, pp. 249–269).

In 2008, the philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone published The Roots of Morality (Pennsylvania State University Press), which contains an analysis of Rank’s argument that “immortality ideologies” are an abiding human response to the painful riddle of death. Sheets-Johnstone compares Rank’s thought to that of three major Western philosophers—René Descartes, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida: “Because immortality ideologies were originally recognized and in fact so named by Rank, a close examination of his writings on the subject is not only apposite but is itself philosophically rewarding … Rank was a Freudian dissident who, in introducing the concept of immortality ideologies, traced out historical and psychological roots of ‘soul-belief’ (Seelenglaube)… [My chapter] points up the extraordinary cogency of Rank’s distinction between the rational and the irrational to the question of the human need for immortality ideologies” (Sheets-Johnstone, 2008, p. 64). Sheets-Johnstone concludes her book on a note reminiscent of Rank’s plea for the human value of mutual love over arid intellectual insight: “Surely it is time for Homo sapiens sapiens to turn away from the pursuit of domination over all and to begin cultivating and developing its sapiential wisdom in the pursuit of caring, nurturing and strengthening that most precious muscle which is its heart” (ibid., pp. 405–06).

Today, Rank can be seen as one of the great pioneers in the fields of humanistic psychology, existential psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy and transpersonal psychology.


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