(THE BOOK) Chapter 37: On this bus

  • The healthiest anyone gets is neurotic.

    Thus spake my first supervisor.

    I was dismayed.  Back then, as both a new therapist and a recovering depressed person, I clung to the idea of mental healthiness the way a sinner clings to the idea of redemption.

    But decades later I know he was right.

    Neurotic means split into two parts: one public, one private.  You create neurosis by convincing a person that it is neither acceptable nor safe to be him- or herself.

    This happens to everyone.  It is the inevitable result of socialization and other forms of conditioning which teach us not to be ourselves.

    Think of it as what happens when two sets of needs collide.

    We each need to function as autonomous individuals, to operate in ways that meet our individual needs.  Some needs are physical (food, shelter, etc.), some psychological, some emotional.  We have a psychological need to establish ourselves as unique individuals, for example, (see the discussion of separation and individuation in Chapter 28) and an emotional need to express how we feel (see Chapters 24 and 25 on anxiety and depression).

    Call these the self-needs.

    At the same time we’re also social animals with social needs.  We need contact and connection with other people, need their acceptance, approval, affection, protection and support.  No less than the self-needs, these social needs define what it means to be a human being.

    But getting social needs met can be costly.  Even if we grow up in a reasonably healthy family able to love and accept us unconditionally, the world outside is less gentle.  There we face inevitable demands to adapt and conform, to redefine and disguise ourselves according to what the tribe expects.  And we have no choice but to comply.

    When I work with couples I explain that all relationships are difficult because they force us to wrestle endlessly with two questions: How can I have you without losing me?  How can I have me without losing you? 

    Every socialized human being struggles with the same questions.  How can we satisfy self-needs and social needs at the same time?  How can we belong to the larger tribe without losing what makes us unique individuals?

    So pervasive is this struggle that it can blur the boundaries that define us.  For many it becomes hard to tell where we end and the rest of the world begins.

    I’m mad at Dad.  But if Dad knows I’m angry he may reject me, and I’m scared of that.  I’m afraid it would leave me feeling hurt, guilty, inadequate, abandoned and/or disinherited.  So I hide my anger in self-defense.
    Am I controlling myself in order to control Dad?  Or am I controlling Dad in order to control myself?

    Thus I get split into two selves, private and public, real-me and false-me, controller and controlled.

    And my boundary gets blurred, and after a while I can’t tell who I really am, what I really need, or how I really feel.

    Again, nobody can avoid the tension between self and environment.  

    Which means neurosis happens to all of us.

    Which means it’s normal to end up split, and scared, and trapped by the control addiction to which neurosis gives birth.

    Which means we’re all monkeys on this bus.

9 responses to “(THE BOOK) Chapter 37: On this bus

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