Self Improvement — 17 March 2013
Dealing with your, or your partner’s, neuroticism

When we are unable to understand another person’s behavior, attitude or demeanor we may label it as ‘neurotic’. This term is synonymous with a self-defeating, inexplicable conduct stemming from internal dysfunction.  We are usually perplexed about how to respond to others or how to modify our own ineffectual conduct.

Sigmund Freud’s pioneering work suggested that neurotic behavior was propelled by compulsive drives. In “Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis” Karen Horney described the origins of these compulsive drives as “born of feelings of isolation, helplessness, fear and hostility that represent ways of coping with the world despite these feelings; they aim primarily not at satisfaction but at safety; their compulsive character is due to anxiety lurking behind them.”

Dr. Horney’s theory added the interpersonal dimension of neuroticism. She said, “I see the basic conflict of the neurotic in the fundamentally contradictory attitudes he has acquired toward other persons.” She paralleled adult behavior to those of children, “A child can move toward people, against them, or away from them.”

Adults who move towards people are the “compliant type”. “They believe that others are nice and have a strong need for affection, approval and a connection to a partner, a friend, lover, husband or wife.” They expect to be loved, protected, forgiven and devalued because they are weak and helpless. They subordinate themselves, are dependent and define themselves by the opinions of others.

Neurotic adults who move against people believe that others are hostile. They are determined to excel, achieve success and attain power. They seek outside affirmation of their supremacy and have a strong need to exploit others, outsmart them and use them. They confuse ruthlessness with strength.

Those who move away from people choose to put emotional distance between themselves and others. They “do not get emotionally involved with others in any way, whether in love, fight, co-operation or competition.” Their most striking need is self-sufficiency and utter independence.

Obviously, none of these stances is healthy. They are propelled by deep anxiety and insecurity that inhibits authentic, healthy and rewarding human connection and are thus, neurotic.

When contrasting Freud’s beliefs about human neurosis with her own, Karen Horney stated, “Freud’s pessimism as regards neuroses and their treatments arose from his disbelief in human goodness and growth. Man, he postulated, is doomed to suffer or destroy. My own belief is that man has the capacity as well as the desire to develop his potentialities and become a decent human being, and that these deteriorate if his relationship to others and hence, to himself, is disturbed.”

Using Dr. Horney’s recommendations, psychotherapy is the avenue for self-exploration and healing. Today’s treatment modalities are kind and effective.

To deal with neuroticism:

  • Understand that self-defeating emotions and conduct are neurotic and block you from a healthy, calmer and authentic existence.
  • Seek treatment and recommend it to your partner for a happier, more fulfilling and intimate relationship with yourself, your mate and others.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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