It is my observation that all of us, in some way or another and to varying degrees, display a certain amount of neurotic behavior in our engagement with life.
We manage, time and again, to unnecessarily create difficult situations for ourselves. Probably all of us could win an award for “going out of my way to make my life more challenging and painful than it already is”. It isn’t an award we strive for, yet our mantel piece is awash in such memorabilia.
The fact that all of us exhibit a certain amount of neurotic tendencies suggests, in my mind, that these tendencies are actually intended to be of benefit. They are psychological phenomena that were born out of the biological urge to stay alive.
The question then becomes:
How is it that these neurotic behaviors, if they are supposedly oriented towards improving our well-being, do precisely the opposite?
THANK YOU Neurosis
The place to begin this inquiry is in the origin of neurosis itself.
There is a time in life – infancy – where all of us occupy what psychology refers to as the pre-neurotic stage.
In this stage, we are entirely powerless, helpless little beings. The world isn’t just new, but we have absolutely no template for making sense of it. We don’t yet have a conscious mind with which to digest and interpret our experiences. We don’t even have a sense of self.
As we experience more of life, our mind gradually becomes aware of a self – a ‘me’ that resides inside what I come to know as ‘my’ body. At the same time, our mind also recognizes a world that is separate from this sense of me. This world represents a threat. It doesn’t always meet our needs. Sometimes it is painful and overwhelming. Furthermore, we quickly learn that we cannot exercise our will over the world.
Because we cannot control the world, we have to figure out a different way to ensure our survival. And our solution is to control our own behavior. These strategies of self-control are attempts to ensure not only that the outside world will not destroy us, but that it will also meet our basic needs – both physical needs (food, water, shelter) and psychological needs (love, nurturance, care, attention).
Say I am a three year old. I learn through repeated experiences that throwing things will not get me what I want. Furthermore, I learn that it causes my parents to get loud (which is scary) and then distance themselves from me (which I experience as a threat to my very survival). My solution, which is ingenious, is to stop throwing things. BUT, children’s feelings are bound to their behavior. That is to say, they don’t yet have the ability to experience a feeling without acting it out. Accordingly, in order to put a stop to the behavior of throwing things, I have to disconnect from the feelings that “cause” the behavior. In this case, I push out the feeling of anger and the anxiety/panic that accompanies it.
The resulting strategy (which is entirely unconscious – i.e. I am not actively ’thinking’ about the strategy and ‘choosing’ the strategy, but I am ‘doing it’ at the level of survival-instinct) is to never express anger or feel angry. Furthermore, I internalize the strategy as part of my identity: I am a person who never gets angry.
This capacity to successfully repress – and keep repressed – certain feelings is known as neurotic organization. And neurotic organization is very much a developmental achievement.
The ability to not behave in a manner that gets me into trouble or that results in my not receiving the love/care/nurturance I need, achieved through the successful repression of feelings that trigger that behavior, ensures my continued survival.
Neurotic organization is a highly intelligent adaptation to our environment and is of very real benefit to our psychological, emotional and physical survival.
So Are My Neuroses Actually Problematic?
We now know that our present-day neuroses were initially intelligent adaptations to our early childhood environments. Unfortunately, the simple fact that they served us then is not a guarantee that they continue to serve us now.
As a comparison, let’s run this simple thought experiment: if Microsoft attempted to stay in competition with the marketplace by way of running its 1980’s software in 2019, how would it do? Not very well. Its 1980’s software is out-of-date. The same can be said of our neurotic strategies.
In the beginning, our strategies gave us a good framework from which to navigate the world. They were the launching pad that allowed us to move forward and stay alive.
But they are no longer in line with reality. We are using out-dated formulas born years ago to engage with present-day circumstances.
And this can have unfortunate – and not to mention unnecessary – consequences.
Say my three year old self is all grown up now. I’m 38. Wow! Unfortunately, I still have a deep-seated aversion to feeling and expressing anger (much of which is unconscious).
And sometimes this works for me. I don’t get inappropriately angry. I don’t burn bridges with people. I don’t rage my way out the door of the companies I work for. But sometimes my refusal to participate in my anger has regrettable consequences. I don’t set adequate boundaries, I don’t effectively advocate for myself, I shut down in the face of conflict, I play ’nice’ instead of real. As a result, I don’t progress as far as I would like in my career, my intimate partners leave me and take advantage of me, and I have an inaccurate, limited, divided sense of self. (Inaccurate because I actually do get angry, limited because I don’t let myself go there and divided because a part of me is off limits.)
If I adapted to my changing environment the way Microsoft does, I would have changed my “not getting angry” strategy as soon as I went out into the world. I would have realized that the world doesn’t respond to my anger the way my parents did. I would have realized that being able to skillfully use my anger would have been to my benefit.
Alas, that is generally not the case. We continue to operate in the world using the strategies we stumbled into as children. Sometimes it works, but not all the time.
This is what we commonly know as neurotic behavior. Our efforts to avoid a certain feeling – like anger – are a product, and perpetuation, of our childhood. They result in unnecessary suffering. They makes our lives more difficult and painful than need be.
(Depending on our particular childhood, a similar pattern could happen with any emotion or associated behavior.)
Once we’ve become aware of our neuroses (a process that therapy can help with tremendously) we are still frustratingly stuck with them. We claim to want to get over them, but we continually do exactly the opposite. Why might this be the case?
Goodbye My Neurosis – But I Love You So!
As paradoxical as it may seem: we are heavily invested in maintaining our neurotic behaviors.
How could we not be? These strategies are linked to our actual survival. They kept us alive – psychologically, emotionally and physically. Furthermore, the feelings that they protect us from consciously experiencing are associated with high levels of fear, panic, discomfort and anxiety.
To drop our protective shell and walk directly into what we have spent a lifetime avoiding (our core vulnerabilities) is akin, on a feeling level, to choosing our own annihilation. One can easily imagine the terror that would be associated with relinquishing something that helped us survive and that we think continues to help us survive. It is only natural that we are very conflicted about doing this. We both want to leave our shell behind and we don’t want to leave our shell behind.
Additionally – and this is a Buddhist perspective – these strategies and problems actually form part of our sense of self. Without our shell, who are we? If I am not the person who never gets angry and is always nice, agreeable and accommodating, then who am I? I don’t know. This is a disturbing experience. Our solution to the panic is to return to the shell ASAP. Overcoming our neuroses requires a willingness to step into our panic, into our lifelong vulnerabilities, and out of our familiar sense of self.
It might then be to our benefit to exercise kindness to those aspects of ourselves that resist overcoming our neuroses. They are simply trying to protect us, admittedly ineffective though they are.
By way of making this dilemma conscious – that we both want and don’t want to overcome our neuroses – we can start to exercise some choice. We can choose to actively address our neurotic behaviors and, at the same time, know that we won’t overcome them quickly. We can allow ourselves the space to act in familiar neurotic ways from time to time without being hard on ourselves.
We work with our neurotic behaviors by doing the counter-instinctual task of opening ourselves up to our core vulnerabilities (those aspects of ourselves that we have spent a lifetime avoiding) in an embodied, immediate, conscious and kind way.
To continue the previous example, I can invite anger into my awareness so that I may experience it directly. I could say something like, “Apparently I am a profoundly angry, rageful, selfish person.” The language here is intense, but it is intentionally activating.
The aim of such statements is to actively remove the shell and embrace the vulnerability that is already there but that we have been exhausting ourselves in our efforts to avoid.
In doing this, I can investigate whether it actually harms me to let myself experience my anger and the anxiety that is associated with it. It will likely be a disturbing experience, but if I do it repeatedly, I cultivate the confidence that anger is not going to kill me, get me killed or kill others. I am an adult now, not a dependent and helpless child, and I can handle my anger adequately.
By doing this work we develop the conviction that our greatest fears won’t kill us and that experiencing them may actually liberate us.
Admittedly this is difficult – though not impossible – to do alone. And it is something that I do with my clients frequently. Learn more by following the links below.