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The following is a transcript of this video.
“I am not altogether pessimistic about neurosis. In many cases we have to say, “Thank heaven he could make up his mind to be neurotic.” Neurosis is really an attempt at self-cure…It is an attempt of the self-regulating psychic system to restore the balance, in no way different from the function of dreams – only rather more forceful and drastic.”Carl Jung, The Symbolic Life
Anxiety disorders, or what traditionally have been classified as forms of neuroses, are so prevalent in the modern world that some suggest we live in an age of anxiety. But what is causing so many people to suffer from anxiety disorders? The psychologist Carl Jung spent much of his career trying to answer this question. Jung’s theory of neurosis, however, is largely overlooked in our day where pills are seen as the panacea for virtually all mental ailments. But Jung’s theory demands our attention because unlike the pharmaceutical model, which focuses on symptomatic relief, Jung viewed the neurotic illness as signalling to us that a change in our way of life is needed. If we merely mask the symptoms, and go on with life as usual, then we impoverish our self, losing access to the crucial information that the neurotic illness provides.
“We should not try to “get rid” of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is.”Carl Jung, Civilization in Transition
In this 2-part video series we will provide an overview of Jung’s theory. In this first video we are going to explore what anxiety disorders can teach us about our way of life by examining what Jung saw as their root cause. In part 2 we will discuss how Jung proposed we can escape the clutches of our demons in order to return to a more flourishing way of life.
A defining feature of Jung’s theory is that the cause of the neurosis is always to be found in the present.
“In constructing a theory which derives the neurosis from causes in the distant past, we are first and foremost following the tendency of our patient to lure us as far away as possible from the critical present…It is mainly in the present that the affective causes lie, and here alone are the possibilities of removing them.”Carl Jung, Theory of Psychoanalysis
Jung was not denying that our neurotic suffering may have started in our childhood. Nor was he overlooking the influence our upbringing has on our psychological development. Rather, he focused on the present because he believed that what generated the symptoms of the neurosis was a conflicted way of life in the here and now. Conflicts may have been present in our childhood, but those conflicts have changed and are no longer the source of our present suffering, or as Jung explains:
“It makes no difference that there were already conflicts in childhood, for the conflicts in childhood are different from the conflict of adults. Those who have suffered ever since childhood from a chronic neurosis do not suffer now from the same conflict they suffered from then.”Carl Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis
What is the nature of the conflict that leads to the neurosis? In his essay The Significance of the Father in the Destiny of the Individual, Jung provides a quote by the Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes which helps unravel this mystery.
“The Fates lead the willing, but drag the unwilling.”Cleanthes
The Fates were the three weaving goddesses of Greek mythology who spun the threads of individual destiny. Jung did not believe in gods or goddesses determining our fate, but he did believe that each of us is presented with a series of life tasks, which are not of our choosing, and so can be conceptualized as our fate. These tasks are a product of our evolutionary history, our mortal nature, and the culture in which we live. Foremost among these is our biological drive to pass on our genes. But others include the need to achieve psychological independence from our parents, to cultivate a social life, to contribute to our community, to find a purpose, and eventually to face up to death.
According to Jung we are naturally driven to accomplish these tasks. Our instincts, our nature as social animals, the pull of conformity, and our ever-approaching death, all impel us in this direction. But while we are naturally driven to achieve the tasks of life, we also have a tendency towards inertia and self-sabotage or as Jung put it:
“[we] have a mighty dislike of all intentional effort and are addicted to absolute laziness until circumstances prod [us] into action.”Carl Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis
If we can get the upper hand on our laziness and display the courage to face up to the tasks of life, then these tasks act as guides marking the path toward a healthy development. Fate leads us forward. But if our laziness and fear get the upper hand and we neglect the tasks of life, then they become chains around our neck. We become the ‘unwilling’, in the words of Cleanthes, whom fate drags forward. The neurotic, according to Jung, is the man or woman who walks among the unwilling, who has adopted, in other words, a faulty attitude towards the tasks of life.
When treating his patients Jung emphasized that the problem for the neurotic always lies with their attitude. Achievement of the tasks being of secondary importance. For life can present us with immense challenges which make it impossible to achieve a certain task – but this does not destine us to a life of neurotic suffering. In such cases acceptance of the situation and a shifting of our energy to another of life’s tasks is the appropriate reaction. But usually the obstacles which impede us are not of an insurmountable nature. Rather what holds us back is a moral incapacity, we are either too lazy or we lack the courage to face up to the challenge. Being impeded in this manner is not unique to the neurotic as we all face times where our resolve is tested. But what is unique to the neurotic is that rather than acknowledging their incapacities, they choose to deceive themselves and to lay blame solely on the obstacles in their path. Or as Jung explains:
“[The neurotic] draws back [from his life tasks] not because of any real impossibility but because of an artificial barrier invented by himself…From this moment on he suffers from an internal conflict. Now the realization of his cowardice gains the upper hand, now defiance and pride. In either case his [energy] is engaged in a useless civil war, and the man becomes incapable of any new enterprise…His efficiency is reduced, he is not fully adapted, he has become – in a word – neurotic.”Carl Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis
In such a conflicted state our desire to achieve the tasks of life, and all the energy which impels us in this direction, does not simply disappear. Rather, it seeks an alternative outlet. Or as Jung explains:
“The energy stored up for the solution of the task flows back into the old riverbeds, the obsolete systems of the past, are filled up again.”Carl Jung, Freud and Psychoanalysis
In other words, if we cease moving forward in life, we tend to regress to more immature, or what Jung called infantile, modes of adaption. And this regression in the response to the conflict, is what generates the various symptoms of the neurosis – be it the pervasive anxiety, phobias, compulsive behaviours, depression, apathy, or obsessive and intrusive thoughts. But as uncomfortable as such symptoms may be, they serve an important purpose by alerting us to the fact that we are descending down a dangerous life path. For while we regress psychologically, our physical maturation does not cease and a glance in the mirror forever reminds us that we are not keeping pace with the seasons of life and the inexorable march of time. The longer we exist in this conflicted state, the less adapted we feel, and a vicious cycle takes over whereby
“retreat from life leads to regression, and regression heightens resistance to life.”Carl Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis
When caught in the grips of a neurosis, we are likely to wonder why we were cursed in this way? What led us to react to the challenges of life in this inappropriate manner? Jung did not see a single cause for this incapacity. Rather each case is unique. For some of us it can be blamed on our genes. Certain newborn babies, Jung observed, display a “congenital sensitiveness” (Carl Jung) which predisposes them to the neurotic attitude later in life. In other cases, it is a poor upbringing:
“There are indeed parents whose own contradictory nature causes them to treat their children in so unreasonable a fashion that the children’s illness would appear to be unavoidable.”Carl Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis
But for most people it is an indecipherable combination of genetic and environmental influences which is ultimately to blame.
Whatever the cause the crucial question is how to break the cycle of our neurotic suffering? If we are willing to acknowledge our conflicted way of life, what can we do to resolve it? In the next video we will explore Jung’s ideas regarding this question. As we will see his prescription did not involve digging through the events of our childhood or working through what he called the “boring emotional tangles of the “family romance”” (Carl Jung, Freud and Psychoanalysis). Rather, Jung maintained that the best way to conquer a neurosis is through the construction of something new – specifically a new attitude to life. We must look forward, not back.
“For all my respect for history, it seems to me that no insight into the past and no re-experiencing of pathogenic reminiscences – however powerful it may be – is as effective in freeing man from the grip of the past as the construction of something new…no matter what the original circumstances from which they arose, [the neurosis] is conditioned and maintained by a wrong attitude which is present all the time and which, once it is recognized, must be corrected now.”Carl Jung, Freud and Psychoanalysis
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