Are We All “Screwed Up?”

NeurosisAre We All “Screwed Up?”

I get asked this question a lot and the answer is, “yes.” This is comforting to many and not such welcome news to others. In the psychological world, “screwed up” is better known as “neurotic.” Psychoanalyst Karen Horney described neurosis as “a distorted way of looking at the world and oneself, determined by compulsive needs rather than by a genuine interest in the world as it is.” Yep. Unfortunately we all do this to one degree or another, in one or more areas of our lives. The extent to which this occurs is in proportion to the severity of the mental and emotional suffering we experience.

I recently came across this explanation as to why neurosis is a common human experience. Dr. Kubie sums it up better than I ever could and points out that neurosis is often not the result of major trauma or stress. (This is what makes raising children such a daunting task, as parents well know.)

There is a neurotic potential that is inherent to the structure of the human psyche and because of this universal potential the neurotic process is set in motion and shaped by experiences that are universal in infancy and early childhood, and not by exceptional or even specifically stressful circumstances, however dramatically these may influence it’s later evolution. Were all of this not true, the neurotic process would not be universal. 

I have in mind many events which occur daily in every life, and which are familiar to us in every culture. They shape our personalities, our potentials for psychological health and illness, and our potential creativity. Yet just because of their familiarity, their importance for human development has been overlooked. A further implication is that if we are ever to learn how to prevent or at least lessen the insidious destructive influence of the neurotic process, we shall have to re-examine the minutiae of the early steps of personality development, not when these are complicated by adverse environmental circumstances but in fortunate and benign situations.

Among the early external experiences which are universal and inescapable are the basic experiences of differences: the sharp changes in motion, sound, temperature, and light to which the human infant is incessantly exposed during his days as a Lilliputian in the world of seemingly eternal and Brobdignagian giants.  Later come the toddler’s encounters with further differences in size, bulk, weight, consistency, and also with the differences between those things which are and are not movable, which are hard and soft, rough and smooth, sharp and blunt, hot and cold. 

Interwoven with the developmental experiences of an inner and outer world and adding to their complexity are other daily experiences which slowly bridge the gap between these two worlds.  To take alien things from the outer world into that strange and mysterious bodily machine which ultimately signifies “Me” becomes at some point an overwhelming experience for every child.  The concomitant daily experiences of bringing products forth from that Body and casting them off into the outer world of limitless space become equally strange and mysterious.

These universals are among the child’s disturbing, primary encounters with reality, about which our elementary symbolic potential develops.  To them are added other disturbing experiences of body differences with respect to size, shape, smell, color, and hairiness and especially, of course, the differences in all secondary sexual characteristics.  

To none of these differences have men ever become fully reconciled, either in the course of individual lives, or through the history of human culture.  This fact is one of the great unsolved conundrums of human development….As generation succeeds generation, the lessons of these experiences are rejected with pain and are relearned with distortions.  Indeed, with every new human life, they are rejected and denied anew…Throughout our entire lives we spend a substantial part of our energies struggling to master these universal experiences by devious and unsatisfactory efforts to deny (or reconcile) them. -Dr. Lawrence S. Kubie “Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process”