One of the obstacles to human progress is the widespread extent of neurosis. It’s important that we clearly see the nature of this psychological impairment—this common virus of the psyche—in order to overcome it.
Amid the world’s turmoil, we need signposts for orientation and direction. The word neurosis was one such pointer. Unfortunately, the word is no longer widely used. It was dropped from the leading psychiatric reference book in 1994, after psychoanalysts were elbowed aside by the growing medical and drug-oriented approach to treating mental health.
One research psychiatrist said recently that the term neurotic now seems “old-fashioned and quaint” and “ultimately anachronistic.” Another expert commented, “The qualities we once attributed to neurotics have simply become normalized.” The category is obsolete, he said, because “we’ve become so accustomed to people with continual worries and fears . . .”
Are they saying neurosis has become fashionable? If so, our species has nowhere to go but down. The suffering associated with neurosis is not normal. It can be avoided with the right insight.
Neurosis is the condition of being regularly distressed by fear, self-doubt, anxiety, ill-temper, cynicism, depression, apathy, and loneliness. Neurotics are thin-skinned and easily triggered. This shortcoming of humanity is a worldwide mental-health problem—a failure of our intelligence and a barrier in our evolvement—and there’s nothing fashionable about it.
The intention in identifying neurotics isn’t to stigmatize them, of course. It’s to help us see ourselves more objectively. We’ve lost some of that objectivity.
Neurosis doesn’t discriminate. It can contaminate the unconscious minds of men, women, liberals, conservatives, independents, religious and nonreligious, academics and illiterates, and rich and poor. Neurosis is the great equalizer.
Why then was this valuable term discarded? Pressured by insurance companies and by the financial temptation to treat emotional distress with pharmaceuticals, psychiatry became more superficial. It began to focus on mental-health symptoms rather than the deep unconscious causes of the symptoms. Hundreds of distinct symptoms—as exceedingly specific units of diagnosis—are now described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatric bible. Neurosis as a general term is now considered too broad and undifferentiated to be of use for the purpose of prescribing psychiatric medications.
Yet the term is exceedingly important and helpful. Everyday people—friends, neighbors, and ourselves—are often burdened by painful emotions. We can stumble into self-defeating behaviors that constantly undermine our wellbeing and that of others. Some measure of neurosis runs through us all because we all have some degree of inner conflict. Identifying chronic negativity and self-defeat as neurosis gave us a psychological leg to stand on. Our suffering had a clinical basis.
Now that clinical basis has been undermined. Members of the American Psychological Association, in condoning torture, have revealed their own neurosis. Where does that leave us? What wise authority is now in a position to call out the neurotic behavior of others? What pot can call the kettle black? Freudian psychoanalysts used to have the moral-professional authority to identify neurosis and hold people accountable for it. But the profession, undermined by members who resisted the humbling, radical truths that psychoanalysis championed, has lost its former authority.
Neurosis impairs human intelligence and causes people to recycle and replay unresolved negative emotions. It’s particularly virulent when experienced as fear, willful ignorance, stubbornness, passivity, and apathy. At this point, widespread neurosis is central to our failure to address climate change, the mass extinction of species, resource depletion, and the wild gyrations of the global economy (read, for instance, Greed as a Mental-Health Disorder). An epidemic of neurosis facilitates our flirtation with disaster.
Indeed, these are challenging times, with political demagoguery and marketing blather invading our private spaces. It’s likely, as well, that we’re experiencing an abundance of unconscious guilt and fear about climate change. We’re stressed by toxins in our air, water, and food. With ubiquitous background noise, 24-hour terrorism news, and rising complexity, we’re agitated and feeling overwhelmed.
Hijacking this situation, some politicians and media outlets in the United States actually encourage and spread neurosis. They lead the way in rationalizing one of the major symptoms of neurosis—sizable deposits of inner fear that warp one’s emotional life and cloud over one’s rationality. For instance, they make fear about immigration, Ebola, and terrorism seem acceptable and normal. They try to rationalize torture as a sensible approach to self-protection. Of course, people have died and will continue to suffer and die from Ebola and terrorism. When we’re not neurotic, though, we’re able to live with a brave heart.
Irrational fear is easily stoked because, unconsciously, we have a tendency to “libidinize” it. That means fear can be transformed into a thrilling sensation that appeals to one part of our mind. When “libidinizing” inner fear, we experience macabre delight reading thrillers, going to horror movies, and speculating incessantly about terrorism and other threats. The phenomenon can be observed in the media excitement over such events as mass shootings.
This quirk of human nature—the ability to turn fear into a macabre sensation—is at play in the zombie craze that has infected popular culture. The business of writing and publishing ghost stories and fantasy novels is booming, writes one such author in The New York Times. When we allow fear to dictate our values, policies, and entertainment choices, we’re acting irrationally and neurotically.
Neurosis is a painful condition, one in which people are plagued by suffering that need not be endured. People are not fated to suffer this way indefinitely, but they will if they don’t seek counseling, read the best self-help books, or find other effective methods of self-development. Not all such approaches are effective. Many psychologists, for instance, blame culture or social conditions for the symptoms of neurosis, when in fact neurosis operates according to psychological forces and anomalies that are biologically determined. When we raise our consciousness through the assimilation of self-knowledge, we can override these biological influences.
We can’t be fully rational as long as irrationality rules in our unconscious mind. We’re not fully evolved creatures, so of course irrationality will exist and sometimes prevail within us. The more that irrationality directs our inner state of mind, the more neurotic (or possibly psychotic) we become. Fortunately, our reason is empowered when it penetrates this inner chaos to understand the dynamics at play, thereby bringing these dynamics under the control of our intelligence and growing capacity for self-regulation.
The quest to infuse personal and public life with more reason and rationality depends on how successfully we uncover and address the components of irrationality. Depth psychology allows each of us to unlock the knowledge of our unconscious mind and apply the remedies through our own intelligence. This process is self-empowering and democratic. Such a revolution in humanity’s psychological development would render mute the question of whether the pharmaceutical industry is a major obstacle to mental health, in that the industry profits so much—in terms of both physical and psychological ailments—from neurosis.
Many modern psychologists find it counter-intuitive that the powers of reason can emerge through our engagement with the unconscious mind. They tend to believe reason is best augmented by cognitive processes that avoid the messy realm of the unconscious which remains opaque to their so-called scientific approach. But this approach is a straightjacket strapped to human intelligence. To explore the unconscious, we each can don our own spacesuit—the best knowledge from depth psychology—and plunge into that inner cosmos. We’re humbled and amazed by what we find, particularly our affinity for negative emotions, false perceptions, and self-defeating impulses.
Through self-knowledge, our intelligence can stake a greater claim in our unconscious mind, leading to freedom from neurosis and a giant leap forward in human progress.