Wasting Our Time

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Karen Horney’s (pron. “Horn-eye”) Neurosis and Human Growth is an influential but heterodox work of psychoanalytic theory that argues on behalf of self-realization (her coinage). It’s a good book that would’ve been a great essay, so I want to compress its framework of ideas here and sort what felt resonant from what didn’t.

Here’s the structure of Horney’s neuroticism: an improper environment in childhood causes a deep, underlying anxiety (or feeling of precarity) which leads the child to seek anxiolytic and palliative coping strategies at the cost of real growth. We can call this development non-acute trauma, referring to the banal way an environment routinely shapes one’s priors about self and society, such that when one leaves the conditioning environment, previously adaptive strategies become suddenly maladaptive. In an extreme case, and ancient archetype, the soldier returns home, bringing with him an adaptive jumpiness which while useful on tour, causes him to hear gunshots in slammed doors and backfiring engines. We can look back to Euripides’ Herakles for a portrait: Herakles comes home and, perception befogged by madness, mistakes his children for enemies, slaying them with poisoned arrows.

As Simpolism notes, 

[In ancestral environments,] these events were potentially cyclical: a tribesman might experience war repeatedly throughout their lives. However, the current state of modern war leaves veterans returning, psychologically prepared for another go at war at any time, but without any real likelihood that they’ll be sent back out in the field… the developed priors become useless, rather than necessary preparation for the next conflict. We can also consider how ancient tribes may have handled “bad” prior formation by considering ritual experience. The sacred, the psychologically powerful, as a means of restoring a more “normal” psychic equilibrium.


We’ll start with neurotic drives toward self-expansion. In order perhaps to gain mastery over his environment (and therefore reduce predictive uncertainty), or merely because he has internalized the neurotic pressures of parents, a person might be left with an impression of how he ought to be—an idealized self he seeks to live up to. In some radical cases, the neurotic finds that the simplest solution for reconciling the discrepancy between real and ideal is to replace the former with the latter, developing illusions of grandeur or else a more everyday, neurotic species of pride which is disconnected from his demonstrated qualities. To minimize the resultant cognitive dissonance between the idealization he believes in, and the actuality he is constantly faced with, the neurotic “must put in an incessant labor by way of falsifying reality.” There are, Horney writes, “endless ways in which [a patient] chooses not to see. He forgets; it does not count; it was accidental… others provoked him.” These justifications are somehow sufficient to prevent his priors’ revisions—or, perhaps, they are post-hoc linguistic justifications for a neurotic inability to update priors in the first place. 

Already, a quasi-predictive framework for discussing cognition has been used to discuss trauma and perceptual revision. Briefly, the predictive model posits that much of cognitive energy is directed toward attempting to make predictions and minimize prediction error, improving the calibration of one’s model, or “schema,” to the workings of reality. Thus trauma is a miscalibration of the schema, a set of misunderstandings about one’s self, one’s inner desires, and one’s real precarity. From a Fristonian perspective (following Karl Friston, computational neuroscientist and pioneer of predictive cognition models) we can conceptualize a patient’s “choosing not to see” as the top-down imposition of an internal model of reality onto the sensory experience of the world, overriding it. There is a more adaptive version of this top-heavy cognitive style, common to CEOing and persons of high executive function, sometimes referred to in folk parlance as “manifesting intentionality.” In order to minimize distance between personal vision and reality, the high-functioning, top-heavy neurotic moulds reality to his vision. Hence, the prevalence of manipulative personality styles, this being an interpersonal strategy for controlling the world.

See also Kenneth Liberman, writing on the ways buses merge into traffic (h/t Perry):

Take the case of three female friends most probably returning to campus from lunch… They wish to cross Kincaid at the same time that a city bus with the right-of-way is moving to turn left from 13th Street onto Kincaid, where a bus stop is located. Two of the three friends are veteran crossers and one is a novice. As the three commence to cross, the novice crosser spies the bus barreling into the intersection and hesitates, making a bid to catch the gaze of the driver in hope of securing his permission to cross. The veterans brook no such illusion, and lunge straightforward into the wet crossing, the one with an umbrella shielding her head from the driver’s gaze and the other in a rain jacket staring steadily at the opposite side. They know from experience that this driver will not run them over and that if they hesitate they will lose the opportunity to cross.

The self has been made legible, which is to say predictable. One commits to a behavior that is easily predictable and constant, and “performs obliviousness” to make oneself into a fact of nature, not intelligent but physical, like water rushing down rocks. The women crossing becomes an inevitable reality which the bus driver must accommodate, and he does.

Legibility in general puts people at ease, increasing their amiability (or inclination to cooperate); illegibility actively makes people nervous, threatening coordination. (Anxiety, remember, is unease at the unforeseeable potential for future calamity, which increases alongside general uncertainty in the predictive schema.) 


Let’s start by laying out Horney’s vocabulary and frame. Basic anxiety is the experience of “profound insecurity and vague apprehension,” beginning in childhood but bleeding into one’s adult life. Neuroticism, as we’ll understand it throughout, is the possession of maladaptive priors about self, and manifests in the compulsive pursuance of (one of) three strategies for minimizing basic anxiety. These strategies are moving toward (ft. affection, appeasement, clinginess), moving against (into conflict), and moving away (self-isolation, creating distance, setting apart). These strategies can be understood, within the predictive processing model, as minimizations of predictive entropy through the limitation of possible futures. Openness is not a superficial character trait, nor a continuous identity trait, but a schema’s self-perception of precarity: those who see the world as fundamentally safe will predictably take risks at higher rates than those who see it as fundamentally unsafe. Thus “the degree of blindness and rigidity in [one’s] attitudes is in proportion to the anxiety lurking within him”—flexibility on rules, rituals, and premises is too risky to allow. Already experiencing the sensation of instability, there is a compulsive avoidance of situations which might destabilize the neurotic’s worldview, such as by calling into question a trusted authority (for the clingy-affectionate) or their self-perception of superiority (for the self-isolating and neurotically prideful).


In the Neapolitan Novels, the two female friends at the center of the tetralogy each exemplify a neurotic coping strategy for the very real precarity of poverty they grew up in. Lina’s intelligence is wild, untameable, patterning outward. Greco’s is studied, born of the desire to always give the right answer, to never disappoint those who have invested her. Both intelligences are able, but where Lina drops out of school, Greco climbs to middle and then high school (rare for their small, 60s Italian neighborhood) and then onto college. She is usually at the top of her class. As diplomatic as she is studious, Greco monitors what people want from her, is constantly assessing their mental states and trying to ease or deescalate social situations. She has a strong theory of mind. Her path is discovering, at twenty-seven, she is not free, that she has too long said and been what others wanted, instead of following her own, “self-stemming” desires. 

On one hand, we see the desire to please; on the other, a steadfast refusal to give others what they want. Moving toward; moving against and away. At some point, the former type learns how to assert her own wants and needs, how to project her own vision top-down onto the world instead of searching for the “right” answer. At some point, the latter type learns that not playing the game is against her own interests, that being able to competently play in fact constitutes a truer type of freedom than abstaining completely.


I want to talk briefly about the different strategies for coping, and some of the ways I think they play out in the real world, beyond what Horney advances.

First is the impression that these strategies are gendered, that movements toward appear more commonly in women, while movements away and against appear more commonly in men.[1] To give a more concrete image of moving toward, I’ll quote Horney, discussing a patient:

In one girl… compliant trends had become predominant. They showed in a blind adoration of certain authority figures, in tendencies to please and appease, in a timidity about expressing her own wishes, and in sporadic attempts to [self-]sacrifice.

We need look no further than Andrea Long Chu’s Females: A Concern, which defines as female “any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of the other.” Pregnancy is our symbolic image at-hand, one body making way for another, the umbilical cord diverting nutrients automatically; “the self is hollowed out, made into an incubator for an alien force.” To be a female, Long Chu Writes, is to let someone else do your desiring for you—adding, in the spirit of Horney—at your own expense.


There are two undesirable outcomes one risks in making a decision. One is the object-level consequence, the direct effect of the error or miscalculation. The second is the sense of responsibility for making a wrong decision. Having bad done to you; doing badly. This secondary, reflexive effect can sometimes come at the further cost of respect (in interpersonal or social situations), self-respect (more generally), and reputation (when performed in public). It’s accompanied, depending on the individual, by anything from haunting guilt to complete remorselessness and indifference.

Further depending on the individual, either cost can be perceived as meaningfully preferable to the other. The overly empathic, or excessively eager to please, may prefer to put themselves in the shoes of the suffering than watch another pay for their decisions. The overly anxious, or self-conscious, may prefer to [put themselves in the shoes… ] than face the uncertainty of choosing the right move, the possibility of picking poorly. The overly vain may prefer to [put themselves…] than lose face in front of others.

This is the deal that dom and sub make together: the sub will take what the dom dishes out; the dom will take responsibility for deciding what to dish. Authority—who decides on behalf of whom— is the underlying logic of their transaction.

Another characteristic of the self-effacing neurotic: alongside the constant desire for affection (i.e. validation through affection), an impression of being constantly abused. For one, his easy compliance does, in fact, lead him to be easily taken advantage of. For another, he may be unconsciously, strategically amplifying his suffering to enlist others’ help.[2] But perhaps most significantly, he projects abuse when none is there, when, specifically, his inner, unconscious neurotic claims (i.e. perceived entitlements) to affection are not met. Perhaps a volunteered (i.e. unasked-for) self-sacrifice is not met with sufficient gratitude, resulting in the neurotic feeling unappreciated. Here, the selfish impositions of the neurotic’s “implicit” and subconscious demands for emotional validation are spun as a kind of selflessness.[3]


The masculine and feminine encodings of away/against (rebellion, distance) and toward (compliance, closeness), respectively, play out in the creation of alternate values systems by, e.g. the cult leader, and the young women who bond with & to his authority. The rebel justifies his distance via ideological grounds—the oppressive and irrational failures of the primary order, say. But his followers act in allegiance to him, more so than to the idea or ideology (which the cult leader regularly updates, changes, or adapts to suit the convenience of the moment). In other words, when not drafted as post-hoc justification, the private ideology is a defense, by the authority, against his own doubts for making the decisions he makes. Whereas the only justification needed by his followers is the authority of his Word. As time passes, he “scorns her trust in people” and instills his“own suspiciousness in her” (Horney). She begins to “look at her relatives or friends through his eyes,” “loses roots and becomes more and more impoverished”; in other words, he has taken her with him in his withdrawal.


Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman features two cellmates, Valentin Arregui and Luis Molina—the former detained for leftist organizing, the latter for “corrupting the youth,” i.e. attempting to seduce a teenage boy. The pair develop a close friendship that develops, eventually, into a more sexual relationship. Molina, “homosexual windowdresser,” takes on the role of mother in their time together, sharing his extra rations with Valentin or caring for him when sick. Whether these acts are “generous” or merely masquerade as such is unclear: when proper gratitude is not shown by Valentin, for instance, Molina can occasionally fall into a funk, which is to say, chooses an alternative strategy for securing the attention and worry of his cellmate. Nevertheless, despite the potentially neurotic origins of his personality style, Molina’s selflessness and care makes prison conditions bearable for both of them, meaningness generated through their growing investment in one another; I have zero interest in assassinating his character.

When Molina learns he will soon be released from prison he feels conflicted—on one hand, his mother is ill, and he has pledged himself to return to care for her. On the other hand, his attachment to Valentin has grown, and he would almost remain in prison to preserve the pair’s relationship:

Molina: Valentin, I made a promise, I don’t know who I promised, God, maybe, although I’m not a believer.

Valentin: Mmm… 

Molina: And it was that what I wanted more than anything in life was to get out of here in order to take care of my mom. And that I’d sacrifice anything for that, that everything to do with me came second, that what I wanted above all was to be able to care for mom. And my wish has been granted.

Valentin: Be happy then. You, you’re very generous to think first about someone else, and not yourself. You ought to be proud of that.

Molina: But is it fair, that, Valentin?

Valentin: What?

Molina: That I always end up with nothing … That I don’t have anything truly my own in life.[4]

But while Molina frames this as a conflict between living for another and living for himself, he has not “discovered” some true, inner desire so much as he has transferred allegiance and authority from his mother onto Valentin.


Upon his release, Molina is given a set of instructions for contacting the revolutionary group Valentin is involved with. Molina cares little for politics, or the ideals of the group, but he cares deeply for (and trusts) Valentin, and believes the message may secure Val’s earlier release. Despite anxieties and misgivings, Molina is talked into delivering the message, eventually leading to his death at the hands of rebels. It is Valentin, then, who must live with the responsibility of Molina’s death, which torments him throughout the book’s final section.


The fear of taking responsibility and making decisions can apply also in carving out one’s own life-course. From “Neurosis and Human Growth”:

…an insufficient sense of direction may be hidden behind an attitude of compliance. People then do what they think others expect them to do; they are what they think others desire them to be. And they may develop considerable astuteness about what others need or expect. Usually they will, in a secondary way, glorify this skill as sensitivity or considerateness.

Then she gives us a definition of object mentality: “Without being the least bit aware of it, [compliant neurotics] are compelled to leave the direction of their lives to others, instead of taking it into their own hands.”

We can understand movements away-against and toward, respectively, as forms of compulsive subjecthood and compulsive objecthood. The former is self-expansive, seeks the assertion of self over world. Pride and arrogance flourish; dominance, autonomy, and control are sought out. The self-effacing (movements toward) neurotic, meanwhile, is self-minimizing, feels guilty, insufficient. Because he cannot help himself, he “cultivates and unwittingly exaggerates” suffering and helplessness, hoping others will come to the rescue. He longs for “surrendering,” self-sacrificing love, and feels a “diffuse sense of failure” and inferiority. “Characteristic and easy to observe is the fear of winning in games.”


In the neurotic, the “real self” is suppressed in favor of an onslaught of should, which is to say, prescriptive internal judgments dictating the way he ought to be or behave. Crucially, the rules, constraints, and prescriptions with which the self-effacing, object-oriented neurotic navigates toward can be “real or imagined” (Long Chu). Though these judgments can originate in the internalized voices of parents, or early authority figures, or the ambient pressures of a culture, their internal reality is more authoritative and strongly felt in the neurotic. The blurriness of distinguishing externally imposed pressures, and those which are self-imposed, rears its head in, for instance, conversations about emotional labor: is Jane really expected to maintain the social glue at her boyfriend’s family reunion, or has she volunteered responsibility, perhaps because she feels most ill at ease in awkwardness and less-than-warm relations? Perhaps her labor is performed out of high self-expectation: where did those self-expectations originate? 

This is similar to the difficulty in distinguishing between the so-called “real self” and the neurotic self. Horney takes this concept from William James, along with his depiction of the real self’s spontaneity and coherence. For one, the real self wants whereas the neurotic self feels compelled. It is the difference, Horney tells us regularly, between driving and being driven. Spontaneous urges are performed out of self-stemming desire; neurotic urges are carried out to avoid the anxiety of not obliging them. Often, inner dictates are projected externally onto others, a confusion of our own expectations for another’s. Horney notes, in own analytic experience, a plethora of incidents in which internal disappointment or anger with oneself is projected by the patient onto the therapist. (We fear judgment most, after all, on matters we ourselves judge most harshly.)

Importantly, both those who move toward and those who move away follow a pattern of seeking external verification of worth. The compliant seek prestige, association bolstering their poor self-rating. The withdrawn seek achievement, validating their exceptionality. The aggressive seek power, vindictively asserting their superiority. In all cases, external and costly markers of success prop up the idealized self-image. The anxiety is palliated by seeing the self as more sturdy, more substantial, more important and higher status than it is.


Look now, for a second, at neurotic ambition, marked by an emphasis on optics, on seeming over being. Basic confidence, the opposite of basic anxiety, is in the child a predictive confidence in both others and the self. It is an accurately calibrated assessment of equipedness relative to danger; there is a “strict cause-and-effect relation between existing personal assets and the feeling of self-confidence.” (Basic confidence therefore correlates with openness; it is a predictive system’s self-assessment that it can handle destabilization.) 

Neurotic pride, the partner in crime of neurotic ambition, has no such grounding. It is derived from markers of prestige, such as institutional affiliation, and from much-desired attributes which one is imagined as possessing. Since this top-down imposition of model onto reality is vulnerable to subversion, the prideful individual is “extremely sensitive” to insult. Pride, once injured, is typically coped with through either vindictiveness, withdrawal, minimization, or humor.

(One who is neurotically ambitious will often dwell on, and hope for, vindictive successes—triumphs over others’ predictions, or others’ judgments, which reflect the superior calibration of one’s mental schema.)

In literature, neurotic ambition is represented by the Faustian bargain: infinite power and ability in exchange for one’s soul, the cost of glory an “inner hell of self-contempt and self-torment.” The activities of the neurotically ambitious constitute a “tragic waste” of lives, sacrificed on the “altar of glory.”

In opposition, Horney casts the Buddha and Christ archetypes as those who have explicitly rejected the temptations of glory. The alternative to Faustian bargains is the raising of “other values—such as, in particular, that of growth as a human being—[as being] more important than competitive excelling over others.” Here as in occasional elsewheres, Horney pushes a disappointing combination of New Agey and vague in using the figurative language of personal “growth” (or elsewhere, “real self” and“spontaneous desire”).

This idealized self-image wins out, in the Faustian bargain, and, taken for true self, spills out into a general entitlement, where special treatment is sought out specifically for its ability to prop up the reality of self-ideal. Insofar as being treated like everyone else undermines one’s self-perception of exceptionalism, it will be taken as a slight. Inner wishes, or needs, are turned into normative claims—I want becomes I deserve; I want to be treated becomes I ought to be treated. Often, the entitlement includes the belief that one need not even work or ask for some affordance, that it ought be granted to him automatically. The neurotic “does not admit that if he is lonely, he might well call up somebody; somebody should call him up.” He believes, pre-verbally (since verbalization would call to attention the absurdity of the entitlement) that others ought anticipate and accommodate his highly specific preferences, which he blurs with established social laws. 

Deservingness is one, self-justified, and two, played up or performed, in making entitlement claims by, again, increasing one’s self-perception of suffering, making use of the only tool the scorned object has: sympathy.

Many people, for instance, feel too timid to make inquiries by telephone. If the claim is made that somebody else make the inquiry for him, the person concerned feels his inhibitions greater than they actually are in order to validate them.

This forfeiture of agency is akin to choosing object- over subjecthood.


I mentioned that this post was written through resonance, by noting what felt true and what didn’t. (In other words, comparing Horney’s observations with my own internal schema, using that schema as a gatekeeper to its own revision.) Harold Garfinkel, in his ethnomethodological writings, identifies the radical reflexivity of this process. A map, for instance, is only understood through reference to the landscape, and likewise the landscape is understood through reference to the map; this interlocking reflexivity constitutes a tight feedback loop until the two are practically merged. Our predictive expectations about how a cup of coffee tastes will shape our experience of the coffee, and in turn our experience of the coffee shapes our predictive expectations about future sips. And when we read ethnomethodological claims about, e.g. merging into traffic, we make sense of the descriptions through reference to our existing understanding, emphasizing or expanding on those aspects which appear pertinent to our experience and deemphasizing those aspects which do not. Perhaps we simulate the bus’s steady transition between lanes as a mental visualization, and then note the familiarity of the picture.

Imagine a 2×2 with subjective-informal vs. objective-formal (statistical significance) on the X-axis, and bottom-up vs. top-down on the Y. Subjective-informal inquiries typically use resonance as a heuristic for testing observations, though the experienced psychiatrist benefits from larger data sets. Objective-formal inquiries, such as those practiced by science, seek the more rigorous but equally slippery “statistical significance.” Top-down inquiries begin with a frame, and seek applications; bottom-up searches attempt to build the frames from scratch, which is to say observation of patterns. Psychoanalysis, as @context_ing points out, is a more top-down, theory-heavy discipline, in opposition to Liberman’s ethnomethodological home turf, which is a kind of “anti-theory.” Part of what makes Neurosis and Human Growth stand out, in her field’s production, is that, despite coming from a psychoanalytic frame, she does not so much pattern-match against existing concepts, top-down, so much as she builds concepts bottom-up from observed experience. What psychoanalysis and Liberman’s ethnomethodology share, ultimately, is a deep commitment to noticing. Not the formal or statistical analysis of data; not a cordoned-off process of inquiry; but an ongoing, quasi-infinite—in the Carsean sense—mode of attention to the living of life. Liberman, in More Studies in Ethnomethodology, argues that the existence of clear bounds of “statistical significance,” and the clear procedures of formal analysis, leads practicing social scientists to prefer it over informal observation. I would add, in the spirit of Horney, that there is also anxiolytic comfort of formal, “objective” statistical analysis—a feeling of certainty which allows social scientists to feel legitimated in their work. 


Lastly: how can we get past neurosis? Closely linked to our central syllogism (neurosis = trauma, trauma = maladaptive priors), we can look toward Ecker et al’s Unlocking the Emotional Brain (UtEB) as well as recent attempts to treat mental illness with psilocybin and MDMA (in accord with Friston/Carhart-Harris’s “REBUS and the Anarchic Brain”). Central to these approaches is the idea of identifying and correcting undesirable priors (which, again, typically hinge on the self in its relation to society). Since “mere” reason is never enough, some kind of neurochemically transformative event must precede the correction: either the loosening of one’s predictive schema, as advanced by psilocybin trials on depression (e.g.), or else placing the patient in a heightened affective state and allowing them to discover the active contradictions between their miscalibrated predictions and reality.

Quoting from Kaj Solana’s review of UtEB, we can merely replace “deconsolidate the memory” with “update the prior” to illustrate the free energy workings of the authors’ therapeutic process: 

Starting from 2004, new studies suggested that activation alone is not sufficient to deconsolidate the memory. The memories are used to predict that things will occur in a similar fashion as they did previously. Besides just activation, there has to be a significant mismatch between what one experiences and what the memory suggests is about to happen. The violation of expectation can be qualitative (the predicted outcome not occurring at all) or quantitative (the magnitude of the outcome not being fully predicted). In either case, it is this prediction error which triggers the deconsolidation and subsequent reconsolidation.

Similarly, contemporary psychiatrists are experimenting with exposing phobic patients to their trigger while the patient is under the influence of benzodiazepines. By allowing them to rewrite their predictive structure for the actual level of threat the phobia present, future encounters will theoretically be less loaded with “irrational” (i.e. miscalibrated) predictive anxiety.


[1] Horney herself speculates as much, albeit more lightly: A pairing of a self-effacing woman and aggressive man “seems to be more frequent in our civilization” (“Morbid Dependency”).

[2] See also the writing of Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature, and Theodore Reik, Masochism in Modern Man.

[3]  From The Color Purple:  “Caring for and stripping autonomy from. We already know how it all ends. ‘I did it for you, Beck. All of it.’ Her, horrified & bewildered: ‘I never asked you to.’” (p. 107) And: “The quote is passed around, attributeless, source obscured by time and virality, by young women. One day, somebody you sacrificed so much for will turn around and say they never asked for it, and it will hurt because they will be right.” (p. 110)

[4] Emphasis mine.