Neurosis is really an attempt at self-cure. … It is an attempt of the self-regulating psychic system to restore the balance, in no way different from the function of dreams— only rather more forceful and drastic. – Carl Jung, CW 18, par. 389
What is meant by the term ‘neurosis’? What marks a person as ‘neurotic’? The American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition of neurosis:
Any of various functional disorders of the mind or emotions, without obvious lesion or change, and involving anxiety, phobia, or other abnormal behaviour symptoms.
More simply put, neurosis is a pronounced state of disunity with oneself. We have all, at one time or another, experienced this.
Jung’s view was that an acute outbreak of neurosis is purposeful, an opportunity to become conscious of who we are as opposed to who we think we are. By working through the symptoms that regularly accompany neurosis—anxiety, fear, depression, guilt and particularly conflict—we become aware of our limitations and discover our true strengths.
In any breakdown in conscious functioning, energy regresses and unconscious contents are activated in an attempt to compensate the one-sidedness of consciousness.
Neuroses, like all illnesses, are symptoms of maladjustment. Because of some obstacle—a constitutional weakness or defect, wrong education, bad experiences, an unsuitable attitude, etc.—one shrinks from the difficulties which life brings and thus finds oneself back in the world of the infant. The unconscious compensates this regression by producing symbols which, when understood objectively, that is, by means of comparative research, reactivate general ideas that underlie all such natural systems of thought. In this way a change of attitude is brought about which bridges the dissociation between man as he is and man as he ought to be. – Carl Jung, CW 13, par. 473
Jung called his attitude toward neurosis energic or final, since it was based on the potential progression of energy rather than the Freudian view that looked for causal or mechanistic reasons for its regression. The two views are not incompatible but rather complementary: the mechanistic approach looks to the personal past for the cause of psychic discomfort in the present; Jung focused on difficulties in the present with an eye to future possibilities. Thus, instead of delving deeply into how and why one arrived at an impasse, he asked: “What is the necessary task which the patient will not accomplish?” [CW 4, par. 570]
Jung did not dispute Freudian theory that Oedipal fixations can manifest as neurosis in later life. He also acknowledged that certain periods in life, and particularly infancy, often have a permanent and determining influence on the personality. But he found this to be an insufficient explanation for those cases in which there was no trace of neurosis until the time of the breakdown.
Freud’s sexual theory of neurosis is grounded on a true and factual principle. But it makes the mistake of being one-sided and exclusive; also it commits the imprudence of trying to lay hold of unconfinable Eros with the crude terminology of sex. In this respect Freud is a typical representative of the materialistic epoch, whose hope it was to solve the world riddle in a test-tube. – Carl Jung, “The Eros Theory,” Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, par. 33
The psychological determination of a neurosis is only partly due to an early infantile predisposition; it must be due to some cause in the present as well. And if we carefully examine the kind of infantile fantasies and occurrences to which the neurotic is attached, we shall be obliged to agree that there is nothing in them that is specifically neurotic. Normal individuals have pretty much the same inner and outer experiences, and may be attached to them to an astonishing degree without developing a neurosis. – Carl Jung, “Psychoanalysis and Neurosis,” Freud and Psychoanalysis, CW 4, par. 564
What then determines why one person becomes neurotic while another, in similar circumstances, does not? Jung’s answer is that the individual psyche knows both its limits and its potential. If the former are being exceeded, or the latter not realised, a breakdown occurs. The psyche itself acts to correct the situation.
There are vast masses of the population who, despite their notorious unconsciousness, never get anywhere near a neurosis. The few who are smitten by such a fate are really persons of the ‘higher’ type who, for one reason or another, have remained too long on a primitive level. Their nature does not in the long run tolerate persistence in what is for them an unnatural torpor. As a result of their narrow conscious outlook and their cramped existence they save energy; bit by bit it accumulates in the unconscious and finally explodes in the form of a more or less acute neurosis. – Carl Jung, CW 7, par. 291
Jung’s view of neurosis differs radically from the classical psychoanalytic reductive approach, but it does not substantially change what happens in analysis. Activated fantasies still have to be brought to light, because the energy needed for life is attached to them. The object, however, is not to reveal a supposed root cause of the neurosis—its origin in infancy or early life—but to establish a connection between consciousness and the unconscious that will result in the renewed progression of energy.
The operative question in such situations is just this: “Where does my energy want to go?” The answer—not so easy to come by, and even more difficult to act upon—points the way to psychological health.
© from Daryl Sharp’s Digesting Jung, reproduced with kind permission of the author.