The holidays and tax season are the busiest times of year for many, and I am no exception. Overwhelmed with domestic and professional duties, I’ve hardly had time to sit and “breathe a spell,” as my grandmother used to say. Over the past few days I’ve been catching up on my readings for the Jungian studies program I’ve undertaken, all of them from Freud this month. We have no fewer than five books or book portions to read, and I’ve found Freud slow going.
Nevertheless, I’ve found some passages of Freud interesting and even provocative, among them Freud’s ideas on sexuality in infants and young children and those about neurosis. We don’t much use the term “neurosis” these days in the U.S., and neurotic disorders were removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association years ago, replaced by diagnoses of behavior that include depressive, compulsive, anxiety, and personality disorders.
In the case history that has come to be known as that of the “Wolf Man,” Freud wrote that neurosis amounts to a flight some problem or requirement of real life. We’ve learned before that neuroses and indeed most mental illnesses are treatment programs for the anxieties of life that individuals with weak ego strength employ so as to strengthen themselves. In other words, the stronger a person’s ego, the less likely that he will develop a diagnosable disorder of some kind, for the disorder is nothing more than a poor reaction to a problem of life.
C. George Boeree of Shippensburg University has published an interesting little article called “The Bio-Social Theory of Neurosis” that discusses lack of support as a primary contributor to subsequent disorders in the child, adolescent, or young adult. Other contributors are a hereditary tendency toward emotional instability and psycho-social stressors such as illness in a parent, marital conflict in the home, divorce and remarriage, war-time experiences, poverty, and so on. Even if a child has very loving parents, Boeree wrote, he may still fail to perceive this love in very stressful situations. Dr. Boeree explains:
A child is still in the process of learning the skills required to survive and thrive in the social world, and is thereby more susceptible to stress. He or she needs both parental guidance and a degree of security. The child needs to know that the parent will be there for him or her. This reliability is communicated by means of the love a parent expresses to the child. If the child fails to perceive that love (even if it does actually exist), he or she will be left with considerable and very general anxiety, as well as feelings of incompetence and unlovableness.
I was struck by Boeree’s comments about a child’s needs for support, security, and reliability from the parents, all of which communicate certain ideas to a child that, when transformed into habits of thinking, give the child a certain sense of strength. If problems and stressors are transitory and handled or solved efficiently and the over all atmosphere of the home is consistent and predictably safe, then the child develops the idea that the whole universe is similarly consistent and safe, its challenges and problems solvable. Over the course of his childhood, under the watchful eyes of supportive parents, he learns how to solve whatever developmental problems confront him. Ultimately, he enters adulthood certain of his ability to cope.
The Vulnerable Adolescent
Boeree points out that adolescence can be a tumultuous time that challenges the teen’s ability to cope, even if she’s successfully circumnavigated the problems of childhood. Perhaps parents think that adolescents need less support or guidance, and give them more freedom or responsibility than they can handle; the anxiety of having too much to handle too soon can overwhelm a teenager and lead to the development of neurotic symptoms.
I appreciated the reminder that children need emotional and practical supports until they are adults. Far too many parents drop the ball when their children are adolescents or entering early adulthood, offering no support at all, or confusing financial supports with real problem-solving support. I’m convinced that many adults do not themselves recognize the difference between solvable and unsolvable problems, habitually fail to differentiate between them, and as a result live in a constant state of anxiety. This constant anxiety in turn produces avoidance habits, which then lead to poor coping behaviors as a way of life.
A good exercise is to reflect for a moment about where you feel your anxiety in your body. Put a hand where you feel it, or last felt it, and ask yourself what problems are causing you anxiety. What are you worried about? What unpleasant tasks or situations are looming on the horizon? What confrontations or relationship ills? Make a list if you have to, but identify the problem or problems. Now ask yourself whether the problem is solvable. Can you throw money at it and make it go away? If you don’t have the resources to solve the problem, can you get them? Is there anyone in your life who can help (remember that even a government agency or charity is a ‘someone’). What steps might you need to take to solve the problem? If the solution is too large to implement in one step, can you solve it incrementally?
If the problem is not solvable because it involves another person or persons you can’t control or change, what part of the difficulties caused by others are under your control? Remember that you can control yourself–where your body is, what you put into your body, what you live with, what you refuse to live with, what you listen to and react to, what you think and feel. If you discover you’re not in control of yourself, or can’t seem to control what you think or feel, then get professional help; that’s what therapists and analysts are for.
Everyone Has Problems
Perhaps because our culture is crisis- and spectacle-oriented, we’ve forgotten how to live lives of peace and contentment. Our fast-paced and affluent lifestyles in the U.S. require high maintenance and create challenges we accept uncritically. We forget that we can problem-solve, or perhaps we never fully learned how to problem-solve. Maybe we even think that we shouldn’t have problems or should keep them to ourselves; the texts, tweets, and updates that proliferate in our social strata don’t lend themselves to expressing any sort of suffering, much less of practical problem solving. If anything, they support the illusion that everyone leads carefree lives, that only losers have problems.
The fact is that everyone has problems, and that many problems can be solved. Those that can’t be solved can be accepted or transcended if we will only take the time to thoughtfully consider them.