When The Patient Asks: How Did I Become So Neurotic?
The questions my patients most frequently ask are, “Why am I so neurotic?” and “How did I get this way?” When they speak of being neurotic, they usually mean their compulsive, rigid, inflexible way of moving through life. This is a painful road filled with suffering and a waste of constructive energies. It is the opposite of a healthy, satisfied way of living. Dr. Karen Horney, in her books, described simply and clearly how the neurotic process begins and evolves. She explained that under favorable conditions, which would be an environment or a family where we were accepted and allowed to experience ourselves, we could grow up with an appreciation for ourselves. In such an environment, we could feel comfortable and secure in expressing our creative aspirations and reach our full potential.
Such a family would see each of us as unique and special, and we would move in the direction of our own given potentialities, as we develop them. But, when we come from a family where we are not permitted to experience and express ourselves, or what I prefer to call an “abusive environment,” we develop altogether in a different way. An abusive environment is characterized by what Dr. Horney called “the basic evil.” This she described as an environment that was lacking in genuine warmth and affection. She felt that a child could tolerate much adversity as long as the child felt inwardly loved. She also stated that the reason children do not receive enough affection was due to the fact that their parents were themselves victims of poor parenting. So we are all, in some way, victims of victims. Some of the actions and attitudes on the part of the parents most damaging to the child include the following:
•Self-sacrificing behavior by the parents who use their deeds to manipulate their children and instill guilt.
•Unjust scolding, blaming or punishing.
•Unpredictable shifts between superficial love and affection and scornful rejection.
•A disregard for the child’s needs.
•Disturbing or interfering in the child’s friendships.
•Ridiculing independent thinking.
Discouraging and spoiling the child’s interests in his or her own pursuits— these can be interests of an artistic, athletic or mechanical nature.
And most damaging of all was what Dr. Horney described as “an attitude of the parents, which, if not in intention, nevertheless means breaking the child’s will.”
What evolves from growing up under such adverse conditions is a way of behaving and going through life that is based on finding some sense of safety and security. This in turn leads to a rigid system of inner rules and regulations, which demands nothing short of perfection, greatness and glory. When such perfection is not achieved, we strike out—or, I should say, in—at ourselves, in the form of self-hate. Self-hate can be expressed in many different ways, including: accident proneness, psychosomatic disorders, alcohol and drug addiction, compulsive gambling, guilty feelings, excessive and inappropriate worrying, competitiveness, perfectionism, criminal activity, depression, anxiety, suicide and a behavior or action which is hurtful, punishing or damaging to oneself. No pill, no magic can make selfhate go away. Only a process of exploration and expression, such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, is designed to diminish self-hate and increase our mercy and compassion for ourselves.
Prepared as a public service from the office of Psychotherapist Michael Feld, L.C. S.W. (718) 444-8560.