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The Time Has Come to Resurrect Karen Horney's Way of Thinking About Neurotics

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) May 10, 2010 -- Last week the natural disaster of the flood in Nashville took third place in media attention behind two man-made disasters: (1) BP's man-made disaster with its oil spill, and (2) the disaster on the stock market, which in any event was not a natural disaster, as the flood in Nashville was.

Because of the frequency of man-made disasters, I say that the time has come to resurrect the work of Karen Horney, M.D. (1885-1952). She was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and gifted writer (even though English was not her native language; German was her native language). Everything by Horney is still worth reading, even though some of her ways of thinking can be and have been qualified in different ways by subsequent insights, as I will explain below.

Horney works with a twofold sense of the divided human self: (1) the neurotic self and (2) the real self. The religious writer Thomas Merton (1915-1968) also worked with a comparable sense of the divided self, which he termed (1) the false self and (2) the true self.

In Horney's view, all of us are neurotic, so all of us should invest time and effort in undertaking psychoanalysis, so that we can make certain headway in outgrowing our neurotic solutions to our inner conflicts and thereby grow into our real self. Self-realization is the goal toward which we should strive.

In her summative book NEUROSIS AND HUMAN GROWTH: THE STRUGGLE TOWARD SELF-REALIZATION (1950), Horney works with eight neurotic solutions to our inner conflicts, three of which she groups under the broader category of the expansive neurotic solutions. According to her way of thinking, all of us usually have at least three of the eight neurotic solutions working in us, usually with one of the three dominating over the other two. However, we can have more than three different neurotic solutions operating in us to one degree or another.

Now, most man-made disasters are the work of the three expansive types. I'll return to the expansive types momentarily.

Unfortunately, according to Horney's way of thinking, the other five neurotic solutions that she discusses lead to tendencies whereby we step aside and allow the three expansive types to run amok unregulated.

Yes, I am suggesting that the three kinds of neurotic solutions that produce the three expansive types produce people whose activities should be carefully regulated.

In addition, I am suggesting that the three expansive types are probably over-represented among Americans who speak out most loudly against government regulations (a.k.a. Republicans).

Horney has described the three expansive types in the following paragraphs:

"He [the expansive type any one of the three expansive types] glorifies and cultivates in himself everything that means mastery. Mastery with regard to others entails the need to excel and to be superior in some way. He tends to manipulate or dominate others and to make them dependent upon him. This trend is also reflected in what he expects their attitude toward him to be. Whether he is out for adoration, respect, or recognition, he is concerned with their subordinating themselves to him and looking up to him. He abhors the idea of his being compliant, appeasing, or dependent.

"Furthermore, he is proud of his ability to cope with any contingency and is convinced that he can do so. There is, or should be, nothing that he cannot accomplish. Somehow he must be and feels that he is the master of his fate. Helplessness may make him feel panicky and he hates any trace of it in himself.

"Mastery with regard to himself means that he is his idealized proud self. Through will power and reason he is the captain of his soul. Only with great reluctance does he recognize any forces in himself which are unconscious, i.e., not subject to his conscious control. It disturbs him inordinately to recognize a conflict within himself, or any problem that he cannot solve (master) right away. Suffering is felt as a disgrace to be concealed. It is typical for him that in analysis he has no particular difficulty in recognizing his pride, but he is loath to see his shoulds, or at any rate that aspect of them which implies that he is shoved around by them. Nothing should push him around. As long as possible he maintains the fiction that he can lay down laws to himself and fulfill them. He abhors being helpless toward anything in himself as much as or more than being helpless toward any external factor" (pp. 214-15).

I myself am acquainted with the type of neurotic sense of mastery that Horney discusses here. For a variety of reasons, my sense of mastery was actually advanced during my childhood and my teenage years as I was socially conditioned to play a helper role. I was my mother's helper and my father's helper, and I also played the role of helper in school. My efforts at being a helper were recognized and acknowledged by my mother and my father and other adult authority figures. In this way, my prizing of mastery was enhanced and socially reinforced.

However, in accord with Horney's observations about mastery and helplessness, my neurotic sense of mastery still makes it difficult for me to tolerate feeling helpless. By definition, feeling helpless is not a pleasant feeling. But who among can go through life without feeling helpless at times?

But the real threat of feelings of helplessness is that they will somehow resonate with our unconscious repressed abandonment feelings, which involve acute feelings of helplessness. When our feelings of helplessness in the present catch our unconscious repressed feelings of helplessness from the past, then the sheer power of our unconscious repressed feelings of helplessness can be overpowering. Such repressed feelings are so overpowering that they must be expressed somehow, because it can seem impossible to contain them within oneself. But the expression of such powerful feelings must be channeled in non-violent ways, because it can lead to violence otherwise.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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We need to resurrect Karen Horney's way of thinkin... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, May 10, 2010 at 10:21:44 PM