Part 1: The Age of The Neurotic

This article will be the first in a series. The point herein is to introduce the topic of neuroticism, how it manifests in our lives and a potential approach toward its solution. There are many quotes utilized not to serve as a research report, but to stand on the shoulders of giants. I am not formally trained in psychology, so I rely heavily on the information of others and in an effort to not misrepresent their meaning, often provide long-winded quotes.

The next article in the series will focus more on exploring possible solutions to these manifestations with examples.

Introduction

“As a rule, this is an unconscious process that always sets in when the attitude and orientation of the conscious mind has proved inadequate. I stress this point because the conscious mind is a bad judge of its own situation and often persists in the illusion that its attitude is just the right one and is only prevented from working because of some external annoyance. If the dreams were observed it would soon become clear why the conscious assumptions have become unworkable. And, if finally, neurotic symptoms appear, then the attitude of consciousness, it's ruling idea, is contradicted, and in the unconscious, there is a stirring up of those archetypes that were the most suppressed by the conscious attitude...” [1] Pg. 6838

Many of us know what it is like, to be sitting awake in the evening with a general feeling of discomfort without being able to put our finger on a single cause or solution. So then, we must dive into the origins of such a conflict and from there launch into potential solutions.

To begin to understand why we generally feel uneasy when we at first seemingly have no reason to, we must discuss what it means to be neurotic. This delineation has become an archaic term in more modern studies of psychology. The reason it is being presented here is that it still holds merit toward explaining some of the more subtle yet pervasive feelings that we may be having in our everyday lives.

If we look at the definition of neurotic, from Google, it is as follows: “a relatively mild mental illness that is not caused by organic disease, involving symptoms of stress (depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, hypochondria) but not a radical loss of touch with reality.” Perhaps “mental illness” is an archaic and convoluted term, but if we look past that, this definition is merely a restatement of what was said earlier; we are at some point of malaise. If we can agree on this, then we must ask, how does such a discomfort arise? What might be the issue at hand?

Jordan Peterson illustrates the cause of neuroticism beautifully in his book Maps of Meaning, The Architecture of Belief as follows:

“Rigid, inflexible attachment to “inappropriate things of value” - indicative of dominance by a pathological hierarchy of value (a “dead god”) - is tantamount to denial of the hero. Someone miserable and useless in the midst of plenty - just for the sake of illustration - is unhappy because of his or her attachments to the wrong “things.” Unhappiness is frequently the consequence of immature or rigid thinking - a consequence of the overvaluation of phenomena that are in fact trivial. The neurotic clings to the things that make her unhappy, while devaluing the process, opportunities and ideas that would free her, if she adopted them….” [2] Pg. 172

This can be a tough pill to swallow. It often is not easy for us to admit that we might be fundamentally wrong in our outlook on life. If we can accept such a shortcoming, this is good, but it is only one more step in a long process. The concept itself is a difficult one to nail down so that it might be confronted head-on as problems in life should be.

There is a large amount of benefit in exploring mythology when confronting such psychological concepts. We will step through a mythological story and then dive into some of the underpinnings that might inhibit our ability to change. We will then conclude with another myth that will help to delineate one potential path forward in the betterment of our lives.

Origins of Neuroticism

Life is a domain for action. We go into action when we value something highly enough that its pursuit is deemed worthwhile as opposed to the infinite set of alternatives. We can gain some semblance of value through story, or myth. This information garnering is the case due to the fact we value things based on social and societal constructs (an objects relative importance to another in a social situation). Due to our ability to directly communicate through dialogue, the story becomes a crucial medium of exchange. Myth is necessary to have the proper tools for explaining complex, particular, interrelated and often symbolic concepts. In the case of neuroticism, there is a powerful myth known as the “hostile brothers” that will help us on our journey.

There are two brothers in this story. One of them assumes that the great unknown (chaos) acts in a predominantly benevolent manner. “He enters, voluntarily, into creative “union with the Great Mother,” builds or regenerates society, and brings peace to a warring world.” [2] Pg. 307 The other brother is the converse in that he looks upon all anomaly as pure threat. He shrinks from the world in fear instead of embracing it with open arms. “His weakness, in combination with his neurotic suffering, engenders resentment and hatred for existence itself.” [2] Pg. 307

The personality of the “evil” brother comes in two varieties. The first is the “fascist sacrifices his soul, which would enable him to confront change on his own, to the group, which promises to protect him from everything unknown. The decadent, by contrast, refuses to join the social world, and clings rigidly to his own ideas-merely because he is too undisciplined to serve as an apprentice.” [2] Pg. 307 Both of these approaches are born of fear and cowardice.

Here it is important to mention a few things about fear. First, it is not learned, it is unlearned. When we explore new areas, we are naturally afraid. As we explore the new territory and begin to learn that it is safe, the fear response subsides. Secondly, if during our exploration of the new area, we become overwhelmed by some negative experience we might not be able to handle these thoughts and emotions. Take, for example, a mouse venturing into a new region, and all of a sudden a cat appears. This new object is the embodiment of a threat. The mouse should run, as a cat is representative of death. We humans rarely face such imminent threats. However, it is still easy for our emotions to get out of control. When this occurs, we withdraw, we run out of fear. A Roman Philosopher named Seneca the Younger illustrated this concept well:

“There are more things...likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Therefore, if we have experienced overwhelming situations in the past, and integrated them poorly, it is likely that we can fall into the trap of the “evil” brother. Here it is important to note, that the key to malevolence is not the evil portion itself, it is our level of willingness and ability to approach, or face it head-on. Evil is born when we do not have the confidence to face these challenges forthrightly. It becomes especially challenging to change this state of mind when many of our reactions happen so quickly that they fall out of the realm of conscious awareness.

Underpinnings of Neuroticism

It would be one thing if we could merely increase our level of awareness, and then approach new situations independently with little or no fear. However, because we humans are a complex system of psychic phenomena, this is not the case.

“...psychic happenings have an objective side. In large measure, they are withdrawn from our conscious control. We are unable, for example, to suppress many of our emotions; we cannot change a bad mood into a good one, and we cannot command our dreams to come or go… We only believe that we are masters in our own house because we like to flatter ourselves. Actually, however, we are dependent to a startling degree upon the proper functioning of the unconscious psyche, and must trust that it does not fail us. If we study the psychic processes of the neurotic persons, it seems perfectly ludicrous that any psychologist could take the psyche as the equivalent of consciousness. And it is well known that the psychic processes of neurotics differ hardly at all from those of so-called normal persons-for what man today is quite sure that he is not neurotic?” [3] Pg. 183

The idea that we have far less “freedom of will” than we at first would like to admit can bring us to a place of a double bind. At first, we can panic and slip into the notion of determinism or fatalism where life takes on little to no meaning. On the flip side of things, we can find a certain sense of ease knowing that our conscious processes play a far smaller role than we would like to admit. We also should recognize that we do have some semblance of will, but that we do not have complete control over our destiny. Here we can find a balancing point. There has to be a letting go due to the level of control that we inherently lack. However, we can work to change some of the contents of our unconscious mind incrementally. The critical aspect here is to be willing to accept our many shortcomings, no matter how ugly their heads are when they rear.

Carl Jung illustrates beautifully a highly intelligent individual who was not ready to admit his shortcomings and was therefore trapped:

“It concerns a highly intelligent young man who has worked out a detailed analysis of his own neurosis after a serious study of medical literature…[he wanted me] tell him why he was not cured. He should have been according to the verdict of science as he understood it... Since he was not, I supposed this must be due to the fact that his attitude to life was somehow fundamentally wrong… His want of conscience was the cause of his neurosis, and it is not hard to see why scientific understanding failed to help him. His fundamental error lay in his moral attitude... He supposed that, by invoking scientific thought, he could spirit away the immorality which he himself could not stomach. He would not even admit that a conflict existed…” [3] Pg. 193

An overly rational method does not necessitate sound moral convictions. This extremely rational approach is only one, and the smaller of the issues at hand. To continue from the quote above:

“...It is much more a question of his unreasoned need of what we call a spiritual life, and this he cannot obtain from universities, libraries, or even churches. He cannot accept what these have to offer because it touches only his head, and does not stir his heart.”[3] Pg. 194

Because the human psyche consists of three parts (Mind, Soul, and Spirit), we cannot merely feed one of these and expect to have a well integrated and balanced existence. As modern man becomes less historical and religious, the mind grows at the detriment of the soul and spirit. As we continue to move away from past works, both mythological and spiritual, we are losing our footing in the reality of the collective unconscious. This historical material is the ground for truth. As the study and perpetuation of this knowledge slowly continues to degrade, it is ever increasingly leaving us on islands of our arbitrary convictions as humanism continues to rise and places the “individual self” at the highest point in the value structure - as playing god. This superhuman role is a dangerous place to reside when we lack the realization that there is good and evil within us all. Jordan Peterson puts it well while talking of the “hostile brothers” introduced above:

“The bloody excesses of the twentieth century, manifest most evidently in the culture of the concentration camp, stand as testimony to the desires of the adversary and as monument to his power.” [2] Pg. 307

A potential Solution

Neuroticism itself is an elusive concept for several reasons. The first point is that this being a psychological ailment, means that obvious physical symptoms may not be present. This veil makes it challenging to identify because the psyche of a normal human acts much the same as that of a neurotic. Secondly, the treatment of such a facet is complex. The solution is two-fold. First, we must have the awareness and ability to recognize the conflict. Secondly, the fundamental answer is something like dissolution - or the melting down and reformulation of old thought patterns. This breaking down is not an easy or straight forward process to carry out, especially on one’s own. The part of ourselves that we often must dissolve is the same one that we at the very least like. This aspect makes letting go of this part that is no longer serving us, difficult at best.

One viable solution toward the conquering of neuroticism is that of a journey; The Hero’s Journey to be precise. We must first be willing to look in the places that we least want to, as that is where we will learn the most. Once we can stare those dark shadows in the face, we will realize the fear for what it is. It is unlearned, or unexplored territory that will rarely harm us. A large part of The Hero’s Journey is to go out and face the chaos of the world voluntarily. If executed properly, we can:

“...confront the ego with its adversary and thus initiate the melting and recasting process. The confrontation is expressed, in the alchemical myth of the king, as the collision of the masculine, spiritual father ruled over by king Sol with the feminine, chthonic [underworld] mother-world symbolized by the aqua permanens or by the chaos.” [1] Pg. 6838

As the hero, we must slay the king to be able to break down our old and sickly thought patterns. To continue the Jordan Peterson quote from the introduction:

“...The sacrifice of the “thing loved best” to “appease the gods” is the embodiment in procedure of the idea that the benevolent aspect of the unknown will return if the present schema of adaption (the “ruling king”) is sufficiently altered (that is, destroyed and regenerated). An individual stripped of his “identification” with what he previously valued is simultaneously someone facing the unknown - and is, therefore, someone “unconsciously” imitating the hero.” [2] Pg. 172

“The hero rejects identification with the group as the ideal of life, preferring to follow the dictates of his conscience and his heart. His identification with meaning - and his refusal to sacrifice meaning for security - renders existence acceptable, despite its tragedy.” [2] Pg. 308

The ideal path to take is that of the hero. The hero is the one who voluntarily stands bridging the chasm between chaos and order. This chasm represents the edge of society. The hero is the one who can leverage this position to transform chaos into order, weakness into strength, and problems into solutions. He is the one that can properly psychologically orient himself in the world both in social structures and dominance hierarchies. The hero realizes the game for what it is, and is eager to play. Of course, as the age-old platitude goes, following the course of the Hero’s Journey is “easier said than done.”

At this point, a great deal of information has been presented with few examples. The question that might arise is “what is the proper hero’s journey for me?” This will be the focus of the next article in the series.

Citations:

[1] C. G. Jung, Collected Works of C.G. Jung: The First Complete English Edition of the Works of C.G. Jung. Routledge, 2015.

[2] J. B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. Routledge, 2002.

[3] C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul. 2014.