I first saw mention of Karen Horney in one of Irvin Yalom’s book and he seemed to be suggesting that she was saying that without neurotic constructs the personality sort of naturally grows towards health. It seemed like more of my humanistic-y psychology with a bent towards integration and acceptance. Boy how wrong I was!
When I actually sat down to read it I did not get what I wanted at all. What I wanted was a ‘do what you feel like’ charter. What I found though were extended discussions about the false pride systems of the neurotic. Essentially saying that the neurotics feelings are governed by pride (in service of a ‘false’ or ‘idealized self’), his emotions essentially reactionary and his triumphs mostly vindictive without his even knowing. Just to add to the general uplifting feeling of the book (not!) there is a chapter entitled ‘morbid dependence’ and a cynical explanation of ‘false’ suffering.
She raises Adler’s discussion of suffering as a means of getting attention, shirking responsibility and as a means of gaining devious superiority. This is continued with reference to Theodore Reik who stresses demonstrative suffering as a method of getting love and expressing vindictiveness and later to Franz Alexander who emphasize how suffering is effective at removing guilt feelings.
There are several passages throughout the book that contain lists of things and what the neurotic mistakes them for. One of the less depressing of these reads as follows:-
Futile daydreaming may take the place of directed activities; sheer opportunism, the
place of honest strivings; cynicism may choke off ideals. Indecision
may reach such an extent as to prohibit any purposeful functioning.
I have been avoiding reading further Kleinian and Winnicottian theories specifically not to get this kind of close to the bone analysis. I desperately awaited a chapter which I hoped would be entitled ‘the real self’. In the meantime though I had to trudge through this disheartening book that unfortunately makes a lot of sense. Actually I had to stop reading because I was not hearing enough about this ‘real self’ that has been mentioned earlier in the book. I decided instead to watch this on a loop.
The most uplifting part of the book were the few mentions of the ‘real self’ and its ‘constructive forces’. The mentions of spontaneity and genuine feelings are inner direction were this books highpoint. As was its framing of the problem of neurotic personality as follows:-
With increasing clarity the battle is now drawn between the pride system and the real self. Self-hate now is not so much directed against the limitations and shortcomings of the actual self as against the emerging constructive forces of the real self. It is a conflict of greater dimensions than any neurotic conflict I have discussed hitherto. I suggest calling it the central inner conflict.
Horney includes then at least three versions of the self. The actual self, the idealized self and the real self and they can be put together in a number of different conflicts. Also we are told pithily enough that self-hate and pride are two sides of the same coin. Pride feeds self-hate and self-hate feeds pride. It is a nice if a bit of a complicated downer on the whole.
Now maybe there is a fantastically uplifting bit that I missed but I guess I’ll never know. My experience of the book is that it’s bleak.The book emphasizes the importance of ‘true suffering’ like that described in De Profundis to broaden and deepen our range of feelings for others. It suggests that the need for excitement or thrill is ‘a trustworthy indication of painful inner emptiness’ because it is ‘only the sharp stimuli of the unusual can elicit any response
from such a person’s inert emotions.’ It also likens the neurotic’s pursuit of an idealized self and the resulting alienation from the ‘real self’ in terms of a deal with the devil:-
In terms of the devil’s pact, the abandoning of self corresponds to the selling of one’s soul. In psychiatric terms we call it the “alienation from self.” (A rather unfortunate association).