Neurosis and Human Growth- Avoidance
Karen Horney’s book is like a road map of the human psyche, detailing the ways in which we compensate for damage to the self. Her explanation of avoidance, which I’ve included below, is probably the best I’ve come across. It can apply to work, relationships, social situations and thoughts and can go unrecognized or be felt as life threatening as in the case of phobias. I recommend this book to both clients and colleagues.
So much for the devices employed to restore pride when it has been hurt. But pride is both so vulnerable and so precious that it also must be protected in the future. The neurotic may build an elaborate system of avoidances in the hope of circumventing future hurts.
This too is a process that goes on automatically. He is not aware of wanting to avoid an activity because it might hurt his pride. He just avoids it, often without even being aware that he is. The process pertains to activities, to associations with people, and it may put a check on realistic strivings and efforts. If it is widespread it can actually cripple a person’s life. He does not embark on any serious pursuits commensurate with his gifts lest he fail to be a brilliant success. He would like to write or to paint and does not dare to start. He does not even dare approach girls lest they reject him. He may not even dare to travel lest he be awkward with hotel managers or porters. Or he may go only to places where he is well known since he would feel like a nonentity with strangers. He withdraws from social contacts lest he be self-conscious. So, according to his economic status, he either does nothing worth while or sticks to a mediocre job and restricts his expenses rigidly. In more than one way he lives beneath his means. In the long run this makes it necessary for him to withdraw farther from others because he cannot face the fact of lagging behind his age group and therefore shuns comparisons or questions from anybody about his work. In order to endure life he must now entrench himself more firmly in his private fantasy-world. But,since all these measures are more a camouflage than a remedy for his pride, he may start to cultivate his neuroses because the neurosis with a capital N then becomes a precious alibi for lack of accomplishment.
These are extreme developments and needless to say, pride is not the only factor operating in them, although it is one of the essential ones. More often, avoidances are restricted to certain areas. A person may be quite active and effective in those pursuits in which he is least inhibited and which are in the service of glory. He may, for instance, work hard and successfully in his field but shun social life. Conversely, he may feel safe in social activities, or in a Don Juan role, but would not dare to venture into any serious work which would put to a test his potential capacities. He may feel safe in his role as an organizer but avoid any personal relations because he would feel vulnerable in them. Among the many fears of getting emotionally involved with others (neurotic detachment) the fear of injuries to pride often plays a prominent part. Also, for many reasons, a person may be particularly afraid of not being glamorously successful with the opposite sex. He unconsciously anticipates- in the case of a man- that when approaching women, or having sexual relations with them, his pride will be hurt. Women then present to him a potential threat (to his pride.) This fear can be powerful enough to dampen, or even crush, his feelings of attraction to them and thereby cause him to avoid contact. Pride, in may diverse ways, is the enemy of love.
The avoidance may concern many different specific matters. Thus a person may avoid speaking in public, participating in sports, telephoning. If somebody else is around to do the telephoning, to make a decision, or to deal with the landlord, he will leave it to him. In these specific activities he is most likely to be aware of shirking something, while in the larger areas of the issue is often more befogged by an attitude of “I can’t” or “I don’t care.”
Examining these avoidances, we see in operation two principles which determine their character. One is, briefly, safety through restricting one’s life. It is safer to renounce, to withdraw, or to resign than to take the risk of exposing one’s pride to injury. Perhaps nothing demonstrates so impressively the overwhelming importance of pride in many instances as the willingness, for its benefit, to restrict one’s life to an often cramping degree. The other principle is: It is safer not to try than to try and fail. This latter maxim gives the avoidance the stamp of finality because it deprives the person of the chance of gradually overcoming whatever difficulties he has. it is even unrealistic on the basis of the neurotic’s premises,for he has not only to pay the price of unduly restricting his life but in the long run his very recoiling damages his pride more deeply. But of course he does not think in long-range terms. He is concerned with the immediate danger of trial and error. If he does not try at all it does not reflect on him. He can find an alibi of some sort. At least in his own mind he an have the comforting thought that he could have passed the examination, secured a better job, won a woman, if he had tried. Often it is more fantastic: “If I had applied myself to composing or writing, I would be greater than Chopin or Balzac.”
In many instances the avoidances extend to reaching out in our feelings for anything desirable: in short, they may encompass our wishes. I mentioned people who feel it a disgraceful defeat not to attain something they wish to have. The mere wishing then entails too great a risk. Such a check on wishes, however, means putting a lid on our aliveness. Sometimes people also have to avoid any thought that would hurt their pride. – Karen Horney “Neurosis and Human Growth.”