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Neurosis, Culture and Change

Leda Carter, A balancing act…. Details coming…. “To hell, to hell with balance! I break glasses; I want to burn, even if I break myself. I want to live only for ecstasy. I’m neurotic, perverted, destructive, fiery, dangerous – lava, inflammable, unrestrained.” ― Anaïs Nin via Flickr

In non-medical schools of psychology neurosis is a less serious condition than psychosis. Unlike the psychotic, the neurotic hasn’t lost touch with reality but experiences anxiety to a degree that can affect judgement and behavior.

Examples of neuroses would be phobias, obsessions, anxiety, depression, hysteria and hypochondria.

Psychosis, on the other hand, is generally taken as a violent or non-violent break with reality, where normal judgment is severely impaired or non-existent.

To me, this distinction seems a bit arbitrary. Isn’t it more a continuum than an either / or situation?

Psychiatry formally dropped the term neurosis in 1980, although it may come up in so-called talk therapy because the idea permeates the cultural landscape.

Both terms – psychosis and neurosis – are to some extent culturally bound. Psychology and psychiatry are in part indicators of social norms at any given point in modern history. As social norms change, the scientific categorization system often changes with them.

An informal example I can think of as a middle aged person is the idea of aliens. As a kid, my parents’ generation would have thought only a real flake would have believed in the possibility of ETs.


Advertidos! by Psicoloco / Alex Torres via Flickr

Today, however, serious inquiry into ETs takes place in several fields.

Considerable scientific research funds are invested around the world in an attempt to detect ETs through the construction and monitoring of large satellite dishes, China being the latest country to step up.

So a belief that was once pretty crazy to one generation is taken seriously by the next.

One can only wonder what will be next. ESP? Telekinesis?

Mind you, some folks do seem to get locked into beliefs and behaviors that aren’t quite in touch with the world around them. So the debate continues, as it should.

Related  » Alien Possession Theory, Compensation, Defense Mechanism, Madness, Obsession

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 Sept. 11 Conspirator Files Lawsuit Saying His Isolation Is ‘Psychological Torture’ (


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Drawing of American poet Emily Dickinson (10 D...

Drawing of American poet Emily Dickinson (10 December 1830 – 15 May 1886) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a positive sense, solitude is a peaceful, regenerating experience that comes from choosing to be alone for some uninterrupted period of time. Western culture champions individuality but, ironically, also tends to marginalize and even stigmatize individuals who prefer their own company.

It’s almost as if you’re “weird” if you don’t fit in with some kind of group—be it your peers at work, worshippers at Church, local ball team… whatever.¹

By way of contrast, saints and mystics from different world traditions contend that, as one progresses in a contemplative path toward God, direct interaction with others should be minimized. For many contemplatives, superficial talk is a distraction from the source of true happiness, which they maintain is God.

Contemplatives may engage in everyday talk. They may even be quite gregarious if they believe God wants them to behave that way. But socializing is rarely done for its own sake. And when contemplatives do socialize it apparently is in a state of spiritual detachment. Detachment in this sense is not pathological. It means being mindful that God is first and God’s creation is second. In Hinduism this is the ideal of karma-yoga.

Put differently, solitude enables some individuals to recharge their spiritual batteries. Providing that withdrawal isn’t entirely based on some unresolved psychological complex, solitude should be not only valued but treasured.

Psycho (Imelda May song)

Psycho (Imelda May song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, in the negative sense, some individuals seem to neurotically play the social role of the solitary saint or reclusive hero. They may deceive themselves (and others) into supposing they are more spiritually developed than they really are. They may also try to manipulate, exploit or cheat those gullible enough to be fooled.

We’ve probably all met these kinds of fakers somewhere along the line. Upon close inspection there is a disjoint between their words and actions. So it seems reasonable to differentiate between healthy solitude, on the one hand, and a neurotic or cultic type of seclusion that could possibly lead to insanity, sociopathy and even violence, on the other hand.

An example of positive solitude would be the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), who withdrew from society at age 23, preferring her own company to that of others. Her outstanding verse of over 1000 poems has had a profound influence on modern literature.

Another example would be the influential Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. Merton gained permission from his monastic order to live the simple life of a hermit. His efforts to promote interfaith dialogue have become a model for many Catholics and non-Christians. Sadly, Merton met an untimely death at Bangkok in 1968 while visiting several Asian religious leaders.

Ronald E. Powaski has written about the Trappi...

Ronald E. Powaski has written about the Trappist monk, peace activist, and writer, Thomas Merton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More recently, the Catholic Church has been emphasizing the importance of community. I’ve noticed that priests in different parishes are highlighting the theme of community in their homilies, which makes me wonder if some kind of internal memo from the Vatican has instructed them to do so.

Community is fine and dandy, even necessary. But of all things, a religious community should also recognize that some individuals are more sensitive than others. And these people can be just as involved in the ongoing dynamic of salvation as the big talkers and glad-handers who often dominate the scene at local Catholic parishes.

¹ Of course, being alone is officially endorsed within religious retreats, which are not seen as weird partly because people retreat in the safety of a group. The event is organized by a Church and retreatants usually pay a fee for their solitude/retreat. So buying your solitude with others within a pre-established program is okay. But just wanting to be alone, not spending money, and creating your own program is often suspect.

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Civilization and its Discontents

Civilization and its Discontents via Tumblr (click on image for quotes from the book)

Civilization and its Discontents is an important work written in 1929 (after WWI) by Sigmund Freud in which he proposes a “death instinct” (thanatos) said to exist on both personal and cultural levels.

Freud says tensions arise between personal, instinctual desires their cultural repression. And realizing that mankind is capable of mass destruction, Freud suggests that not only individuals but subcultures and even entire societies can be neurotic.

This might all seem pretty obvious today but in his time, Freud was groundbreaking.