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Karen Horney: Our Inner Conflicts. Excerpts.

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Karen Horney *  
Our Inner Conflicts  


A crescendo of observation opened my eyes to the significance of such conflicts. What first struck me most forcibly was the blindness of patients toward obvious contradictions within themselves. When I pointed these out they became elusive and seemed to lose interest. After repeated experiences of this kind I realized that the elusiveness expressed a profound aversion to tackling these contradictions. Finally, panic reactions in response to a sudden recognition of a conflict showed me I was working with dynamite. Patients had good reason to shy away from these conflicts: they dreaded their power to tear them to pieces. (...)  
But the striking fact is that most people are not aware of them, and consequently do not resolve them by any clear decision. More often than not they drift and let themselves be swayed by accident. They do not know where they stand; they make compromises without being aware of doing so; they are involved in contradictions without knowing it. (...)  
To experience conflicts knowingly, though it may be distressing, can be an invaluable asset. The more we face our own conflicts and seek out our own solutions, the more inner freedom and strength we will gain. Only when we are willing to bear the brunt can we approximate the ideal of being the captain of our ship. A spurious tranquillity rooted in inner dullness is anything but enviable. It is bound to make us weak and an easy prey to any kind of influence. (...)  
The only factor to which I should like to draw special attention in this context is the child's sense of lurking hypocrisy in the environment: his feeling that the parents' love, their Christian charity, honesty, generosity, and so on may be only pretense.


If, however, the impact of early experiences has been powerful enough to have molded the child to a rigid pattern, no new experience will be able to break through. In part this is because his rigidity does not leave him open to any new experience: his detachment, for instance, may be too great to permit of anyone's coming close to him, or his dependence so deep-rooted that he is forced always to play a subordinate role and invite exploitation. In part it is because he will interpret any new experience in the language of his established pattern: the aggressive type, for instance, meeting with friendliness, will view it either as a manifestation of stupidity or an attempt to exploit him; the new experience will tend only to reinforce the old pattern.


the compliant type, manifests all the traits that go with "moving toward" people. He shows a marked need for affection and approval and an especial need for a "partner" - that is, a friend, lover, husband or wife "who is to fulfill all expectations of life and take responsibility for good and evil, his successful manipulation becoming the predominant task." These needs have the characteristics common to all neurotic trends; that is, they are compulsive, indiscriminate, and generate anxiety or despondence when frustrated. They operate almost independently of the intrinsic worth of the "others" in question, as well as of the person's real feeling toward them. However these needs may vary in their expression, they all center around a desire for human intimacy, a desire for "belonging." Because of the indiscriminate nature of his needs, the compliant type will be prone to overrate his congeniality and the interests he has in common with those around him and disregard the separating factors. His misjudging of people this way is not due to ignorance, stupidity, or the inability to observe, but is determined by his compulsive needs. He feels - as illustrated by a patient's drawing - like a baby surrounded by strange and threatening animals. There she stood, tiny and helpless, in the middle of the picture, around her a huge bee ready to sting her, a dog that could bite her, a cat that could jump at her, a bull that could gore her. Obviously, then, the real nature of other beings does not matter, except in so far as the more aggressive ones, being the more frightening, are the ones whose "affection" is the most necessary. In sum, this type needs to be liked, wanted, desired, loved; to feel accepted, welcomed, approved of, appreciated; to be needed, to be of importance to others, especially to one particular person; to be helped, protected, taken care of, guided.


A third typical feature is a part of his general dependence upon others. This is his unconscious tendency to rate himself by what others think of him. His self-esteem rises and falls with their approval or disapproval, their affection or lack of it. Hence any rejection is actually catastrophic for him. If someone fails to return an invitation he may be reasonable about it consciously, but in accordance with the logic of the particular inner world in which he lives, the barometer of his self-esteem drops to zero. In other words any criticism, rejection, or desertion is a terrifying danger, and he may make the most abject effort to win back the regard of the person who has thus threatened him. His offering of the other cheek is not occasioned by some mysterious "masochistic" drive but is the only logical thing he can do on the basis of his inner premises.


In contrast to authentic ideals, the idealized image has a static quality. It is not a goal toward whose attainment he strives but a fixed idea which he worships. Ideals have a dynamic quality; they arouse an incentive to approximate them; they are an indispensable and invaluable force for growth and development. The idealized image is a decided hindrance to growth because it either denies shortcomings or merely condemns them. Genuine ideals make for humility, the idealized image for arrogance. (...)  
Unaware of these drives, he had fabricated an idealized image that was a composite of three figures. He was the great lover and friend - incredible that any woman could care more for another man; nobody was so kind and good as he. He was the greatest leader of his time, a political genius held much in awe. And finally he was the great philosopher, the man of wisdom, one of the few gifted with profound insight into the meaning of life and its ultimate futility.  
The image was not altogether fantastic. He had ample potentialities in all these directions. But the potentialities had been raised to the level of accomplished fact, of great and unique achievement.


Even a rebellious type who ordinarily believes he is "free" labors under the enforced standards he is trying to overthrow; though the fact that he is still in the clutches of his idealized image may show only in his swinging those standards as a whip over others. Sometimes a person goes through periods of alternating between one extreme and another. He may, for instance, try for a time to be super-humanly "good" and, getting no comfort from that, swing to the opposite pole of rebelling violently against such standards. Or he may switch from an apparently unreserved self-adoration to perfectionism. More often we find a combination of these variant attitudes. All of which points to the fact - understandable in the light of our theory - that none of the attempts are satisfactory; that they all are doomed to failure; that we must regard them as desperate efforts to get out of an intolerable situation; that as in any other intolerable situation the most dissimilar means are tried - if one fails, another is resorted to.  
All these consequences combine to build a mighty barrier against true development. The person cannot learn from his mistakes because he does not see them. In spite of his assertions to the contrary he is actually bound to lose interest in his own growth. What he has in mind when he speaks of growth is an unconscious idea of creating a more perfect idealized image, one that will be without drawbacks.


The fact is that since he does not know what he "really" is, he cannot possibly be selective in what he accepts or rejects, and no amount of care on the analyst's part to refrain from imposing any personally held belief will make any difference. And since he also does not know that he labors under an inner coercion which has set him in a certain pattern, he can only rebel indiscriminately against every external intent to change him. Needless to say, this futile battle appears not only in the analytical situation but is bound to occur in greater or less degree in any close relationship. It is the analysis of this inner process that will finally lay the ghost.


Power politics, as played among political and professional groups, may serve as another instance. Frequently such maneuvering is motivated by a conscious intention to weaken a rival and fortify one's own position. But it may also spring from an unconscious dilemma similar to the one presented above. In that case it would be an expression of unconscious duplicity. It would permit one all the intrigue and manipulation involved in this kind of attack without blemishing the idealized image, while at the same time affording an excellent way of pouring all one's anger and contempt for oneself upon another person - better still, upon one whom it is desirable to defeat in the first place.  
I shall conclude by pointing out a common way in which responsibility may be shifted to others without investing them with one's own difficulties. Many patients, as soon as they are made aware of certain of their problems, jump immediately to their childhood and pin all their explanations on that. They are sensitive to coercion, they say, because they had a domineering mother. They are easily humiliated because humiliations were suffered in childhood; they are vindictive because of their early injuries; they are withdrawn because nobody understood them when they were young; they are sexually inhibited because of their puritanical upbringing, and so on and so on. I do not refer here to interviews in which both analyst and patient are seriously engaged in understanding early influences but rather to an overeagerness to explore childhood which leads to nothing but endless repetition and is accompanied by an equally great lack of interest in exploring the forces operating in the patient at present.  
Inasmuch as this attitude is supported by Freud's overemphasis on genesis, let us carefully examine how much of it is based on truth and how much on fallacy. It is true that the patient's neurotic development started in childhood and that all the data he can provide is relevant to an understanding of the specific kind of development that has taken place. It is true also that he is not responsible for his neurosis. The impact of circumstances was such that he could not help developing as he did. For reasons that will be discussed presently, the analyst must make this point very clear.  
The fallacy lies in the patient's lack of interest in all the forces that have been built up in him on the basis of his childhood. These, however, are the forces that are operating in him now and that lie behind the present difficulties. His having seen so much hypocrisy around him as a child may have played a part, for instance, in making him cynical. But if he relates his cynicism to his early experience alone, he ignores his current need to be cynical - a need that springs from his being divided between divergent ideals and so having to throw all values overboard in an attempt to solve that conflict. Moreover, he tends to assume responsibility where he cannot, and. to refuse to assume it where he should. He keeps referring to early experiences in order to reassure himself that he really cannot help having certain failings, and at the same time feels that he should have come out of his early calamities unscathed - a white lily emerging unsullied from a bog. For this his idealized image is partly to blame, since it will not permit him to accept himself with flaws or conflicts past or present. But more important, his harping on childhood is a particular kind of evasion of self which still allows him to maintain an illusion of eagerness for self-scrutiny. Because he externalizes them he does not experience the forces operating within him; and he cannot conceive of himself as an active instrument in his own life. Having ceased to be the propellant, he thinks of himself as a ball that once pushed downhill must keep on rolling, or as a guinea pig, once conditioned forever determined.  
The one-sided emphasis a patient may put on childhood is so definite an expression of his externalizing tendencies that whenever I meet this attitude I expect to find a person who is thoroughly alienated from himself and who continues to be driven centrifugally away from himself. And I have not yet been mistaken in this anticipation.


It is obvious that in each of these cases the function of the blindness was to keep underlying conflicts from awareness. What is amazing is the extent to which this was possible, the more so since the patients in question were not only intelligent but psychologically informed.


Our aim is to leave the reader not with some vague notion that unresolved conflicts are injurious but to convey a fairly clear and comprehensive picture of the havoc they inflict on the personality.  
Living with unresolved conflicts involves primarily a devastating waste of human energies, occasioned not only by the conflicts themselves but by all the devious attempts to remove them. When a person is basically divided he can never put his energies wholeheartedly into anything but wants always to pursue two or more incompatible goals. This means that he will either scatter his energies or actively frustrate his efforts. The former is true of persons whose idealized image, like Peer Gynt's, lures them into believing that they can excel in everything. A woman, in this case, wants to be an ideal mother, a perfect cook and hostess, dress well, play a prominent social and political role, be a devoted wife, have affairs outside marriage and do productive work of her own to boot. Needless to say, this cannot be done; she will be bound to fail in all these pursuits, and her energies - no matter how potentially gifted she is - will be wasted.  
Of more general relevance is the frustration of a single pursuit where incompatible motivations block each other. A man may want to be a good friend but be so domineering and demanding that his potentialities in this direction are never realized. Another wants his children to get on in the world, but his drive for personal power and his insistent Tightness interfere. Someone wants to write a book but gets a splitting headache or is seized with a deadly fatigue whenever he cannot immediately formulate what he wants to say. In this instance it is again the idealized image that is responsible: since he is the mastermind, why shouldn't brilliant thoughts flow from his pen like rabbits from a magician's hat?


It is interesting to note in this connection that in Zen Buddhist writings sincerity is equated with wholeheartedness, pointing to the very conclusion we reach on the basis of clinical observation - namely, that nobody divided within himself can be wholly sincere.Monk: I understand that when a lion seizes upon his opponent, whether it is a hare or an elephant, he makes an exhaustive use of his power; pray tell me what is this power?  
Master: The spirit of sincerity (literally, the power of not-deceiving).  
Sincerity, that is, not-deceiving, means "putting forth one's whole being," technically known as "the whole being in action" ... in which nothing is kept in reserve, nothing is expressed under disguise, nothing goes to waste. When a person lives like this, he is said to be a golden-haired lion; he is the symbol of virility, sincerity, wholeheartedness; he is divinely human.
Egocentricity is a moral problem in so far as it entails making others subservient to one's own needs. Instead of their being regarded and treated as human beings in their own right they come to be merely means to an end. They have to be appeased or liked for the sake of allaying one's own anxiety; they have to be impressed for the sake of lifting one's own self-respect; they have to be blamed because one cannot assume responsibility for oneself; they have to be defeated because of one's own need to triumph, and so on.


The pretense of love. The variety of feelings and strivings that can be covered by the term love or that are subjectively felt as such is astonishing. It may cover parasitic expectations on the part of a person who feels too weak or too empty to live his own life. In a more aggressive form it may cover a desire to exploit the partner, to gain through him success, prestige, and power. It may express a need to conquer someone and to triumph over him, or to merge with a partner and live through him, perhaps in a sadistic way. It may mean a need to be admired, and so secure affirmation for one's idealized image. For the very reason that love in our civilization is so rarely a genuine affection, maltreatment and betrayal abound. We are left with the impression, then, that love turns into contempt, hate, or indifference. But love does not swing around so easily. The fact is that the feelings and strivings prompting pseudo love eventually come to the surface. Needless to say, this pretense operates in the parent-child relation and in friendship as well as in sexual relationships.  
The pretense of goodness, unselfishness, sympathy, and the like is akin to the pretense of love. It is characteristic of the compliant type and is reinforced by a particular kind of idealized image as well as by the need to blot out all aggressive impulses.  
The pretense of interest and knowledge is most conspicuous in those who are alienated from their emotions and believe that life can be mastered by intellect alone. They have to pretend that they know everything and are interested in everything. But it appears also in a more insidious way in persons who seem to be devoted to a particular calling, and without being aware of it use this interest as a steppingstone to success, power, or material advantage.  
The pretense of honesty and fairness is most frequently found in the aggressive type, especially when he has marked sadistic trends. He sees through the pretenses of love and goodness in others and believes that because he does not subscribe to the common hypocrisies of feigning generosity, patriotism, piety, or whatever, he is particularly honest. Actually he has his own hypocrisies of a different order. His lack of current prejudices may be a blind and negativistic protest against any traditional values. His ability to say no may be not strength but a wish to frustrate others. His frankness may be a wish to deride and humiliate. A desire to exploit may be behind the legitimate self-interest to which he confesses.


Another moral problem is the inability to take a definite stand and the undependability that goes with it. The neurotic rarely takes a stand in accordance with the objective merits of a person, idea, or cause but rather on the basis of his own emotional needs. Since these, however, are contradictory, one position can easily be exchanged for another. Hence many neurotics are readily swayed - unconsciously bribed, as it were - by the lure of greater affection, greater prestige, recognition, power, or "freedom." This applies to all their personal relationships, whether individual or as part of a group. They often cannot commit themselves to a feeling or opinion about another person. Some unsubstantiated gossip may alter their opinion. Some disappointment or slight, or what is felt as such, may be reason enough to drop a "very good friend." Some difficulty encountered may turn their enthusiasm into listlessness. They may change their religious, political, or scientific views because of some personal attachment or resentment. They may take a stand in a private conversation but give way under the slightest pressure by some authority or group - often without knowing why they changed their opinion or even that they have done so at all.  
A neurotic may unconsciously avoid obvious wavering by not making up his mind in the first place, by "sitting on the fence," leaving every alternative open. He may rationalize such an attitude by pointing to the actual intricacies of the situation, or he may be determined by a compulsive "fairness." Unquestionably a genuine striving to be fair is valuable. It is true also that a conscientious wish to be fair makes it harder to take a definite stand in many situations. But fairness can be a compulsory part of the idealized image, and its function then is to make taking a stand unnecessary, while at the same time allowing the person to feel "anointed" for being above prejudiced struggle. In this case there is a tendency to be indiscriminate in believing that two viewpoints are really not so contradictory, or that in a dispute between two persons there is right on both sides. It is a pseudo objectivity which prevents a person from recognizing the essential issues in any matter.  
On this score there are great differences among various types of neuroses. The greatest integrity is to be found in those truly detached persons who have kept out of the whirlpool of neurotic competition and neurotic attachments and are not easily bribed by either "love" or ambition. Also, their onlooker attitude toward life often permits them a considerable objectivity in their judgment. But not every detached person can take a stand. He may be so averse to disputing or to committing himself that even in his own mind he takes no clear position, but either muddles issues or at best registers the good and the bad, the valid and the invalid, without arriving at any conviction of his own.  
The aggressive type, on the other hand, seems to contradict my assertion that as a rule the neurotic has difficulty in taking a stand. Especially if he is inclined to rigid rightness he seems to have an unusual capacity for definite opinions, for defending them and sticking to them. But the impression is deceptive. When this type is definite it is too often because he is opinionated rather than because he has genuine convictions. Since they serve as well to choke all doubts in himself, his opinions will often have a dogmatic or even fanatic character. Moreover, he can be bribed by prospects of power or success. His dependability is restricted to the limits set by his drive for domination and recognition.


Perhaps Søren Kierkegaard has given the most profound answer. In The Sickness unto Death he says that all despair is fundamentally a despair of being ourselves. Philosophers of all times have stressed the pivotal significance of being ourselves and the despair attendant on feeling barred from its approximation. It is the central theme of Zen Buddhist writings. Among modern authors I quote only John Macmurray: "What other significance can our existence have than to be ourselves fully and completely?"


Persons in the grip of neurotic hopelessness manage to "carry on" in one way or another. If their capacity to be creative has not been too greatly damaged by their neurosis they may be able fairly consciously to resign themselves to the state of their personal lives and concentrate on a field in which they can be productive. They may submerge themselves in a social or religious movement or in the work of an organization. Their work may be useful; the fact that they lack zest can be outweighed by their having no personal ax to grind.  
Others, in adapting themselves to their particular frame of life, may cease to question it but yet not attach much meaning to it, trying merely to fulfill their obligations. John Marquand depicts this kind of life in So Little Time. It is, I believe, the state that Erich Fromm describes as a "defect" condition, in contrast to neurosis. I interpret it, however, as the outcome of neurotic processes.  
They may, on the other hand, give up all serious or promising pursuits and turn to the periphery of life, trying to snatch from it some bit of enjoyment, finding their interest in a hobby or in incidental pleasures like good eating, convivial drinking, minor sexual affairs.  
Or they may drift and deteriorate, let themselves go to pieces. Unable to do any consistent work, they take to drink, gambling, whoring. The kind of alcoholism described by Charles Jackson in The Lost Week-End would represent an end stage of such a condition. In this connection it might be interesting to examine whether an unconscious determination to go to pieces may not supply a powerful psychic contribution to such chronic diseases as tuberculosis and cancer.


If we regard sadism as a neurotic symptom, we must start, as always, not by trying to explain the symptom but by seeking to understand the structure of the personality that develops it. When we approach the problem from this angle we recognize that nobody develops pronounced sadistic trends who has not a profound feeling of futility as regards his own life. Poets intuitively sensed this underlying condition long before we were able to dig it out with our prodding clinical scrutiny. In the case of both Hedda Gabler and the Seducer, the possibility of ever making something of themselves or their lives was a more or less closed issue. If under these circumstances a person cannot find his way to resignation, he of necessity becomes utterly resentful. He feels forever excluded, forever defeated.


The attitudes that arose from the necessity of coping with the world in the face of helplessness, fear, hostility, and isolation become more and more meaningless and hence can be gradually dispensed with. Why, indeed, should anyone want to efface or sacrifice himself for persons he hates and who step on him if he has the capacity to meet others on an equal footing? Why should anyone have an insatiable desire for power and recognition if he feels secure within himself and can live and strive with others without the constant fear of being submerged? Why should anyone anxiously avoid involvement with others if he is able to love and is not afraid to fight?
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