What is Neurosis?
The psychologist Carl Jung described neurosis as a price we pay when we attempt to escape legitimate pain. It includes symptoms such as obsessive thinking, chronic anxiety, compulsive behaviors, phobias, impulsive behavior, avoidance, and over-dependence on other people.
Neurotic behaviors become a substitute for the yucky emotions and mental states we don’t want to deal with. It can be a long time before we notice the negative effects of this ‘remedy’ are far worse than the thing we are trying to avoid. Reality does not like to be ignored, and the more we do it, the more painful our life becomes.
Are Addictive Behaviors a Type of Neurosis?
Addiction is a complex condition involving many factors, but it was the opportunity of escape that made drugs such a tempting proposition for many of us. For those of us struggling to feel comfortable in our own skin, or who were dealing with emotional trauma, it provided a ‘way out’- something to numb the pain so we could at least temporarily forget our problems.
Even if we didn’t start abusing drugs as an attempt to escape our difficulties, it soon becomes our favorite way of dealing with things. If the boss is giving us grief, we can always ‘take the edge off’ with a bottle of whiskey. If life is becoming a bit bumpy, we can find an oasis of peace through an opiate haze.
Drug abuse is the most radical thing we can do in our attempts to escape the ups and downs of life. In the beginning, it seems to offer the perfect solution – if reality won’t play ball, we can create our own reality through altering our brain chemistry. What could possibly go wrong? We don’t understand that there is only one reality, and anything that prevents us from fitting in with this reality eventually becomes a source of suffering.
When I discovered the ‘blessed numbness’ of being drunk as a young teenager, I was genuinely baffled by the fact that everyone wasn’t doing it. Who wouldn’t want this? It felt like I had found the ultimate ‘free pass’ for life, and I was convinced all the bad days were behind me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was only when I fully accepted that alcohol was incapable of making things better that I was able to quit for good. There is no free pass for life and reality doesn’t like to be ignored. I then discovered the freedom and peace I yearned for was to be found in the opposite direction – not by trying to escape reality but by learning to live with it (‘absolute cooperation with the inevitable’ as the mystic Anthony de Mello once described it).
Self-Compassion as an Alternative to Neurosis
Self-compassion is the ability to accept the ups and downs of life. It is a skill we develop through facing our pain head on – the more we do this, the easier it becomes to do it the next time. The only thing reality expects of us is that we fully accept what has already happened, and this includes what we are experiencing right now as this too has already happened.
The one thing that prevents us from developing self-compassion is our ‘shoulds’ – e.g. ‘this should not be happening’ or ‘that should not have happened’. Remember, there is only one reality, and it is not going to change to fit in with our expectations. So, rather than thinking ‘that should not have happened’, it is more skillful to think ‘that happened, so what do I do now?’.
Self-compassion includes the ability to self-soothe. We have to be able to fully support and comfort ourselves when times are difficult as this will give us the courage to face the stuff we previously run away from. We are like little children running away from the bogeyman, but when we summon up the courage to face this monster, we are usually amazed at how it is nowhere near as frightening as we once thought.