I'm Neurotic, You're Neurotic
Life is interspersed with symptoms—many, signs of adaptability and resilience.
Posted February 16, 2019
Sigmund Freud believed that we are determined by underlying inclinations that maintain their power by our oblivion to them. Scottish physician William Cullen coined the term “neurosis” in 1769, a term Freud popularized in describing the formation of patterns—of behavior, thoughts, dreams, emotions, or bodily symptoms, and not necessarily negative patterns—which form in response to the unconscious force of what he called "repression." According to Freud, our lives are filled with such patterns. Freud (1917) commented, "Ostensibly healthy life is interspersed with a great number of trivial and in practice unimportant symptoms." We easily miss them because frequently they are benign. Many may be even described as signs of adaptability and resilience.
"Neurosis" was Freud's less-serious conceptual counterpart to more extreme patterns of symptoms he called "psychosis"—pathologies mental health professionals now more commonly refer to as "severe and persistent mental illness." These two categorizations captured two extremely different classifications of psychological functioning: psychosis, of someone who is out of touch with reality in some way—delusional or paranoid, for instance—typically chronic and disabling; neurosis, of someone who is so weathered in the course of adaptation to the hard scrabble reality of life's suffering as to become nervously quirky in some set of ways or another, often involving being anxious or depressed. Neurosis referred to a conflict between ego and id—conscious self-awareness and the unconscious—psychosis referred to a conflict between ego and reality.
Certainly neuroses do have potential to become severe and even debilitating, as anyone who has suffered from significant bouts with depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress can attest. Yet—in varying forms—we are all neurotic.
Our minds are vast repositories of meaning. Symbols lay dormant in the dark confines of what Carl Jung (1915), Freud's student and eventual theoretical adversary, spoke of as "shadow," an aspect of our psychological unconscious that keeps concealed from our awareness and attention aspects of ourselves that we disown, a dangerous storage whose task of protection risks the threat of projection. We inflate the influence of shadowed traits and triggers by repressing them and become anxious, defensive, or deluded to the same degree. The temperamental veneer of some pompous personality may betray the insecurities and fear of vulnerability that lie within.
We live in constant risk of projecting the threats of childhood—the way a coach cursed and slung us into the mud by the sidebar of a face mask, the way a friend betrayed us, leaving us in emotional agony, the way a lunch lady screeched at our clumsiness with such fire and terror that our hearts pulsed with anxiety. And when, of course, we experienced abuses by the very caregivers who raised us, the stakes are much higher.
Certain stimuli affect particular reactions. The smell of appetizing food induces salivation. Touching a hot frying pan causes a reflexive jerk. Ivan Pavlov discovered that natural physiological reactions can also be conditioned to occur in response to stimuli that would not normally trigger a particular response. In this sense, our natural human reflexes have the capacity to be corrupted. Every intense situation that produces anxiety generates unconscious memory bytes associated with the original stimuli (e.g. food, frying pan). Under unique circumstances and through a process of conditioning, the smell of appetizing food could hypothetically cause a reflexive jerk, or touching a hot frying pan, salivation. We face an unrelenting hazard of introjecting and projecting emotionally-loaded, experience-laden images and symbols from and onto those around us.
Jung (1964) wrote,
[Man] is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by 'powers' that are beyond his control. His gods and demons...keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food — and, above all, a large array of neuroses. (p. 82)
Thus the force of perception in the multiplicitous, emotional flow of all interpersonal relating. We are emotionally feeling creatures who make continual hypothetical calculations based upon an internal schema of qualitatively coded meanings based in experiences from early attachment, friendship, culture, religion, our interpretations of life from novels, television, movies, social media, and more—from all, we take with us the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our intrinsic biases may be accurate, or outdated, or quite frankly, even evil. One way or another, as my emotions about you interact with your emotions about me, the reality of us takes on a third identity.
Human functioning is not merely psychological; it is markedly ecological. Think of the notion of a family-of-origin—an emotionally dynamic, largely internally self-regulating system of relationships from which we in all our complexity were borne into identity. The preeminent anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson (1972) wrote, “People in a family act to control the range of one another’s behavior.” Our families are crucibles in which internalized self-image becomes largely shaped. In our families, for better and for worse, we learn attachment styles, love languages, conflict reflexes, quirky little ways that we do and think about nearly everything. During critical years of attachment, we unknowingly work to consolidate our disposition and worldview. We learn through a process of emotional conditioning how to react to stress, how to feel, think, and be. We are feeling creatures, and even our thought is so inextricably tied to emotion.
Our past experiences intermingled with our own unique temperamental predispositions continue to intertwine and evolve, ever influencing our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Hypnotic, self-fulfilling preconvictions and perseverating interpersonal habits have power to paralyze our capacities for relational reflection and emotional responsiveness. As we scan further out, from family to culture to society, we see the interplay of increasingly complex systems of emotion, perception, thinking, and meaning. People become stuck in their own rigidity—presupposed ideas are supported by a social system which conversely supports the presupposed ideas because the social system itself is a vast recursion full of individuals with presupposed ideas. The proverbial “chicken or the egg” really cannot do justice at this level of complexity.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Freud, S. (1917/1920). Vorlesungen zur einführung in die psychoanalyse (Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis), translated by G. Stanley Hall in 1920 as, A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Boni & Liveright.
Jung, C. G. (1915). The theory of psychoanalysis. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. New York.
Jung, C. G. (1964). Man and his symbols. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday.