Saturday, February 11, 2012

Understanding Family Neurosis

Lighting a Candle in the Darkness
An unpleasant exchange with my sister this week opened the door once more on unresolved family issues. Angry, hurt, and frustrated I decided to scan the Internet for help and what I found may change my life.

I've read a long list of self-help books, met with excellent therapists, talked to dear friends, journaled about my feelings, and looked into the mirror to understand the dysfunction in my family. Even though every bit of this work has helped me grow, there has always been a darkness I could not penetrate. My research this week lit a candle in that darkness and revealed a family neurosis that has been passed from one generation to another not unlike beggars who maim their children to make them better beggars.

The light I speak of radiates from theories of neurosis developed by 20th century psychiatrist Karen Horney (1885-1952). Of her works on the topic, the book Neurosis and Human Growth (1950) is considered to be her best (click here for a link). When I read excerpts from the book and articles about Horney, it was as though I found an instruction manual describing the origin of my family's issues.

Horney believed neurosis is in large part due to parental indifference, a lack of warmth and affection in childhood. She makes the point that it is the child's perception, not the parents' intentions that create the neurosis. According to Horney, ten neurotic needs result from the perceived indifference. While we all crave love, attention, approval, and power, a neurotic's needs are intense, unrealistic, and unreasonable.

Here are the ten:
  1. Affection and approval
  2. A partner who will solve all problems
  3. Power, control over others
  4. Exploitation of others
  5. Social recognition, prestige
  6. Personal admiration, to be valued
  7. Personal achievement
  8. Self sufficiency and independence
  9. Perfection
  10. Restriction of life within narrow borders
Horney grouped the ten into three coping strategies:
  • Compliance - If I give in, I shall not be hurt.
  • Aggression - If I have power, no one can hurt me.
  • Withdrawal - If I withdraw, nothing can hurt me.
These neurotic coping strategies get in the way of understanding our "real self" and keep us from realizing our potential. I have seen all three strategies up close in my family and the result is pain all around.

I am energized by the insight I have discovered in this information. There is no need to waste energy on making sense out of nonsense or fixing what is broken. My goal is to follow the light and actively seek my "real self" letting go of the compliant coping strategy of the past. 

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