Neurotic Personality: Is There Hope for Change?

You’ve probably heard it so many times that its true meaning is a bit obscured: ‘don’t be so neurotic!’ From the portrayal of the neurotic New Yorker by Woody Allen to the more contemporary neuroses depicted in ‘Desperate Housewives,’ the neurotic personality is often misunderstood. Indeed, even as the neurotic personality as it was being conceived brought about warring disagreements between Drs. Freud and Jung. Both, however, recognized neurosis as an almost inevitable occurrence, at least in terms of degree.

According to Jung, though, neuroses were merely pathological exaggerations of what would otherwise be normal expressions of the self. Freud, on the other hand, believed that if an individual met particular frustrations during one of the psychosexual stages, he or she would suffer corresponding neuroses. Thus, neurosis was to be specifically of a sexual nature. These fundamental differences belie a belief system that shapes our view of pathology today: on the one hand, it is something that is with us forever, and on the other hand, it is an extension of our normal selves gone awry.

For example, Freud believed nerosis was rooted in childhood, and the answers to resolving those problems was to focus intently on one’s past. Jung viewed this idea as problematic, as the neurotic individual enjoys fixating on teh wrongs of the past, which in turn get him nowhere. It’s the proverbial ‘brick wall.’ Jung felt that this type of analysis would actually feed into the neurotic’s self-pitying, narcissistic obsession of the self, and that the focus should rather be on one’s present situation and his attitude towards that situation. If her or she is avoiding something today, then Jung believed that what the patient was evading could tell more about her personality disorder than fixating on her past.

Freud and Jung did agree that neuroses could be exacerbated by outside influences. You know–the unreasonable spouse, the backstabbing co-workers, the promotion you should have gotten. . . However, the motivation and direction of these influences differ. While Freud felt that it was the frustrations experienced during one’s psychosexual development which rooted this disorder to one’s personality, Jung believed a neurosis was related directly to an individual’s frustrated attempts at individuation. While Individuality as a construct forms the basis of our democratic ideals, Individuation is not so easily understood.

Individuation, the process by which someone becomes who they truly are, is a difficult process. Remember the many slammed doors during your adolescence? Rebelling is central to Individuation. It’s how you fight to become yourself; not an easy proposition. Harder yet, though, is when attempts at Individuation are frustrated when the surrounding society disallows the emergence of one’s dominant personality.

Jung believed that if environment encroached upon one’s developing Individuation in a disapproving manner, then the conflict could become so severe as to cause a neurosis. A person who is disposed to introversion, for example, may meet with disapproval if he’s in a society which rewards extroversion. Conversely, one who is extroverted could find this polarity problematic if he’s within a family structure which frowns upon personal expression and unabashed verbalization. Therefore, it is the task of the individual to spar with these two worlds, both internal and external, to achieve the process of Individuation.

As in all things medical, the doctor makes all the difference. I suggest, if you believe you are suffering (as many of us are) from neurotic tendencies, to follow the thinking of Dr. Jung. Jung’s theory regarding neurosis is just so much more appealing. Freud tends to look at the individual as ‘doomed’ because of childhood experiences. Jung looked toward the present day, not the past. He believed that what mattered was the present day, not the past. His ideas are more in line with our modern way of thinking: Problem solving, not problem delving. His belief that neurosis is an outgrowth of an individual’s inability to successfully attain individuation suggest that he felt that it was every individual’s desire to become his higher self. Jung viewed the person from a more spiritual perspecitve, looking at what her or she could become, rather than digging through the rubble of the past, as did Freud.

What does all this mean to you? You can take your pick: either look to your past to see why you’re suffering today, or see where your effort at becoming yourself were thwarted by others around you. And for Pete’s sake, whichever route you choose, remember the words of Sartre: “It’s not what’s been done to you, but what you do with what’s been done that matters.”

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