Carl Jung, Psychology, Videos

Carl Jung on Overcoming Anxiety Disorders

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The following is a transcript of this video.

“The perpetual hesitation of the neurotic to launch out into life is readily explained by his desire to stand aside so as not to get involved in the dangerous struggle for existence. But anyone who refuses to experience life must stifle his desire to live – in other words, he must commit partial suicide.”

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

In the first video of this two-part series we discussed what Carl Jung believed the existence of anxiety disorders, and other forms of neurotic suffering, can teach us about our way of life. The cause of the neurosis, according to Jung, is always to be found in the present, in a conflicted way of life in the here and now. The outbreak of the neurosis functions in a prospective manner. It signals to us that the life path we are on is inconducive to our well-being, or as Jung wrote:

“The outbreak of the neurosis is not just a matter of chance. As a rule it is most critical. It is usually the moment when a new psychological adjustment, a new adaptation, is demanded.”

Carl Jung, Freud and Psychoanalysis

The road to recovery, according to Jung, does not require reliving childhood memories or working through old family conflicts. For unless we were the victim of some sort of trauma, of which we have yet to process, our childhood memories will not free us from our present suffering. What is needed is a new attitude – one which entails a “wholehearted dedication to life” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation) and which makes “the powerful urge to develop [our] own personality. . .an imperative duty” (Carl Jung, Freud and Psychoanalysis) We must step off the sidelines of life and establish a uniform direction to our existence, in which we, and not others, are the final authority. 

“All the [energy] that was tied up in family bonds must be withdrawn from the narrower circle into the larger one, because the psychic health of the adult individual, who in childhood was a mere particle revolving in a rotary system, demands that he should himself become the centre of a new system.”

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

The first step in recovery, is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. We need a clearer picture of who we are and where we are heading. We can no longer afford to falsify reality. Instead of fleeing from our difficulties, denying our flaws, or blaming our lot in life on forces independent of our control, self-acceptance must become the rule. For as Jung wrote:

“A neurosis…is not a disgrace…It is not a fatal disease, but it does grow worse to the degree that one is determined to ignore it.”

Carl Jung, Civilization in Transition

While many people fear what they may see if they take an honest look at themselves, in actual fact the practice of self-acceptance is liberating. No longer do we need to expend so much energy denying our flaws and hiding them from our self and others. Instead this energy can be used for its proper purpose of contributing to personal growth and promoting our recovery. For the bold among us, Jung suggested that one way to gain a better picture of who we are, is to turn to someone we trust for an honest assessment of our character:

“…one of the most important therapeutically effective factors is subjecting yourself to the objective judgment of others.”

Carl Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis

In addition to becoming more aware, and accepting, of our current situation, we also need to recognize where we are heading if we remain neurotic. For often those afflicted by anxiety disorders, especially in the initial stages of the illness, believe that if they can avoid the things which trigger their symptoms, then a relatively comfortable life is still possible. Symptom management, not recovery, becomes their primary goal. But this path often leads to a hell of one’s own making. For while avoiding the situations, activities, and life tasks that trigger our symptoms may be of minimal inconvenience at first, over time, as many neurotics will attest, the practice of avoidance snowballs until life becomes restricted in the worst of ways. For this reason, Jung believed it was crucial for the neurotic to recognize that while recovery is certainly not easy, it will in the long-run, prove far less arduous than remaining in the grips of a neurosis. Or as Jung wrote: 

“Flight from life does not exempt us from the law of age and death. The neurotic who tries to wriggle out of the necessity of living wins nothing and only burdens himself with a constant foretaste of aging and dying, which must appear especially cruel on account of the total emptiness and meaninglessness of his life.”

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

Jung compared the task of recovery to climbing a steep mountain pass, while he suggested those who never make the attempt are like individuals who sit on the pleasant valley road below not realizing that a raging bull is heading directly for them. But so as not to be overcome by despair in the recognition that no easy escape remains, we should remember that a neurosis offers us the chance to discover a path in life that is far more fulfilling than the one we currently tread. In fact, recovering from a neurosis can result in a level of psychological health, and a degree of resilience, not found in those who never endure such suffering. A neurosis, in other words, is only a curse if we remain forever caught in it, but will prove a blessing if we can find an escape. 

But the attitude change which is engendered by self-acceptance and the recognition of where we are heading if we remain neurotic, is only the preparatory step on the road to recovery. The real solution lies in action. We must stop being mere observers of life and “venture into the strange world with all its unforeseen possibilities” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation). At this stage there is a tendency for those suffering from a neurosis to want to know exactly what tasks they should be fulfilling and what path in life they should follow. But according to Jung caution must be exercised in this regard, for as he wrote: 

“What direction the patient’s life should take in the future is not ours to judge. We must not imagine that we know better than his own nature, or we would prove ourselves educators of the worst kind…It is better to renounce any attempt to give direction, and simply to try to throw into relief everything that the analysis brings to light, so that the patient can see it clearly and be able to draw suitable conclusions. Anything he has not acquired himself he will not believe in the long run, and what he takes over from authority merely keeps him infantile. He should rather be put in the position to take his own life in hand.”

Carl Jung, Some Crucial Points in Psychoanalysis

With that said, Jung does offer some general advice to help us avoid dead-end paths. Firstly, he warned that the neurotic should be cautious of conformity. Some people are neurotic because of an acute sensitiveness to the inadequacies of the dominant way of life in their society and hence, so long as they strive for conformity, they will remain trapped in their suffering.

“So it comes about that there are many neurotics whose inner decency prevents them from being at one with present-day morality and who cannot adapt themselves so long as the moral code has gaps in it which it is of the crying need of our age to fill.”

Carl Jung, Some Crucial Points in Psychoanalysis

These individuals, according to Jung, are not ill because they lack the ability to live like everyone else, they are ill “because [they have] not yet found a new form for [their] finest aspirations.” (Carl Jung) Instead of following the well-worn path of conformity such people:

“…are born and destined rather to be bearers of new cultural ideals. They are neurotic as long as they bow down before authority and refuse the freedom to which they are destined.”

Carl Jung, Some Crucial Points in Psychoanalysis

But not all who are neurotic fall into the class of the “bearers of new cultural ideals”. Many people are neurotic simply because they are unwilling to face up to one of those tasks of life which all of us, because of our shared human nature, naturally gravitate toward – be it the need to pass on our genes, to cultivate a social life, to participate in some form of productive work, or eventually to face up to our death.

“The young neurotic shrinks back in terror from the expansion of life’s duties, the old one from the dwindling of the treasures he has attained.”

Carl Jung, Some Crucial Points in Psychoanalysis

In these cases the question of conformity or non-conformity does not apply, recovery is simply a matter of facing up to the life tasks we have for too long avoided, or as Jung put it: 

“Previously, because of his illness, the patient stood partly or wholly outside life. Consequently he neglected many of his duties, either in regard to social achievement or in regard to his purely human tasks. He must get back to fulfilling these duties if he wants to become well again.”

Carl Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis

For those whose neurosis has led to a dramatic restriction in activity, the specific task which is chosen is not too important. We just need to find something to aim at which can help effectuate a transition from the inner realm of our doubts, worries, and intrusive thoughts, to the external world of people, places, and things. A useful practice in this regard was recommended by Jung’s colleague Alfred Adler. We should imagine our self free of the neurosis and also free of the fear of social ridicule. In such a situation what would we choose to do, who would we want to become? We can even turn to our dreams and fantasies for clues as to the direction our life should take, for as Jung wrote:

“It would, in general, be a great mistake to deny any teleological value to the apparently pathological fantasies of a neurotic. They are, as a matter fact, the first beginnings of spiritualization, the first groping attempts to find new ways of adapting.”

Carl Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis

As we begin effectuating the extroversion that accompanies recovery, focusing our energy on living in the world, instead of primarily in our heads, our symptoms are likely to flare up. But, as Jung points out,

“…whereas the neurosis and the troubles that attend it are never followed by the pleasant feeling of good work well done, of duty fearlessly performed, the suffering that comes from useful work and from victory over real difficulties brings with it those moments of peace and satisfaction which give the human being the priceless feeling that he has really lived his life.”

Carl Jung, General Aspects of Psychoanalysis

Many people, however, never heed the call of their neurosis urging them towards a more fulfilling life, maintaining that before they can begin down this path, they must first conquer their symptoms. But if we agree with Jung’s analysis, that our symptoms are primarily the result of our choice to stand on the sidelines of life, then such an approach will likely fail. We have to accept that recovery will only be achieved if we are willing to move forward in the presence of our fear and anxiety. And in this regard, there is no formula for our deliverance, no advice that will turn the meek into the brave, rather as Jung wisely noted:

“only boldness can deliver from fear. And if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is somehow violated, and the whole future is condemned to hopeless staleness.”

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

August Kopisch--The Pontine Marshes at Sunset
Mednyánszky, László - After the Brawl (ca1898)
Edward Lear - Plains of Bengal, from above Siligoree - Google Art Project
Lavinia Fontana - Family Portrait - WGA7980
Giovanni Fattori 069
Jasper Francis Cropsey Sunset Eagle Cliff
Vil han klare pynten
Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind (detail) - WGA3512
Retrat de Graner - Joan Brull i Vinyoles (1863-1912)
Fantasia - Joan Brull i Vinyoles (1863-1912)
Michael Ancher - Christmas Day 1900 - Google Art Project
Michael Ancher - Figures in a landscape. Blind Kristian and Tine among the dunes - Google Art Project
Benjamin-Constant Portrait de ses deux fils (63 8 1)
Carl Spitzweg - Aschermittwoch
Joseph Wright of Derby - The Prisoner - Google Art Project
Anna Ancher - Valdemar Schønheyder Møller - Google Art Project
Albert Bierstadt - Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863)
Taureau dans les Alpes oil painting 1884
Albert Bierstadt - Sunrise on Mount Tacoma
Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt, c1875
Elliott Daingerfield - Landscape (c.1918)
Thomas Hovenden - Self portrait of the artist in his studio
PeinturesMuséeFabre174 Fabre vieillard étude
An Evening at the Royal Theatre by Paul Gustav Fischer
Henry Scott Tuke - The Look Out
Winslow Homer - Gargoyles at Notre Dame (1867)
Winslow Homer - Rocky Coast (Maine Coast)
Jerome Thompson-The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain-1858
Frank Duveneck - Portrait of an Old Man
Gustave Courbet - Bonjour Monsieur Courbet - Musée Fabre
Mednyánszky, László - Day Labourer
Der Schmetterlingsfänger
Waldmüller - Lachender Bauernbursche
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - The Day Dream - Google Art Project
Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Leaving the Conservatory (La Sortie du conservatoire) - BF862 - Barnes Foundation
Ladislav Mednyánszky - Boy on the Porch - O 2823 - Slovak National Gallery
Ladislav Mednyánszky - Kneeling Convict - O 4930 - Slovak National Gallery
Gustave Moreau - Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra - 1964.231 - Art Institute of Chicago