Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009

Psychological Disorders

One of the best definitions of a psychological disorder is George Kelly's: "Any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation." The behaviors and thoughts of neurosis, depression, paranoia, schizophrenia, etc., are all examples. So are patterns of violence, bigotry, criminality, greed, addiction, and so on. The person can no longer anticipate well, yet can't seem to learn new ways of relating to the world. He or she is loaded with anxiety and hostility, is unhappy and is making everyone else unhappy, too.

Let's start by looking at what some others of the most famous psychologists have to say about psychological disorders.

Sigmund Freud

You could say that Freud made mental illness popular, so it is appropriate we begin with his ideas. First, he believed that our drives or instincts cannot be denied.  If we pretend to ourselves, in the primary example, that we have no sexual desire because expressing that desire is socially unacceptable or even thought to be evil, that sexual desire nevertheless demands to be heard.  As that need increases, it will manifest in sexual dreams (hidden at first), odd defensive behaviors and obsessions, and the like.

Secondly, he believed that traumas, especially in childhood, lead to defenses - repression in particular - when the ego is incapable of dealing with the traumas. This means that the experience is "pushed" into the unconscious where it need not be faced and dealt with properly - for now.  This repressed material develops a life of its own and becomes something very similar to a drive or instinct.  Because the repressed material has its own energy, it will manifest itself in many different ways, such as dreams, nightmares, repetitive behaviors, obsessions, phobias, hysterical paralysis, apparently physical disorders, depression, and so on.

Furthermore, there are certain traumas that are more likely to occur than others, and are particularly associated with sexual development.  Sexuality, for Freud, was admittedly a pretty broad affair, involving things like the infants need to suck, the toddlers interest in poop, and the yound child's confusing about sex roles.  Nevertheless, if one is weaned early and harshly, or hardly weaned at all, if one is disciplined severely during potty training or is allowed to wear diapers for years, or if mom and dad don't provide just the right balance of love and distance, certain neurotic patterns - what he called character types - would inevitably develop.

The issue of repression is, of course, at the center of all this, and repression is an idea that is much debated nowadays.  The empirical evidence tends to be negative.  If anything, people tend to remember traumas more clearly, not less so!  But in clinical situations, it seems that some people do indeed forget their traumas.  I'm on the fence on this issue, and time will tell.

Carl Jung

According to Carl Jung, whenever we are confronted by the need to make a decision between one thing and another, psychological energy is created, in proportion to the distance between the two options. The energy created from the opposition is "given" to both sides equally. When I was a kid, I once found a baby robin that had fallen from its nest.  Being an animal lover, I went to help it.  I picked it up and was struck by its fragility.  I thought "I could crush it by just closing my hand."  So, when I held that baby bird in my hand, there was energy to go ahead and try to help it. But there is an equal amount of energy to go ahead and crush it. I tried to help the bird, so that energy went into the various behaviors involved in helping it. But what happens to the other energy?

Well, that depends on your attitude towards the wish that you didn't fulfill. If you acknowledge it, face it, keep it available to the conscious mind, then the energy goes towards a general improvement of your psyche. You grow, in other words.

But if you pretend that you never had that evil wish, if you deny and suppress it, the energy will go towards the development of a complex. A complex is a pattern of suppressed thoughts and feelings that cluster - constellate - around a theme provided by some archetype. If you deny ever having thought about crushing the little bird, you might put that idea into the form offered by the shadow (your "dark side"). Or if a man denies his emotional side, his emotionality might find its way into the anima archetype. And so on.

Here's where the problem comes: If you pretend all your life that you are only good, that you don't even have the capacity to lie and cheat and steal and kill, then all the times when you do good, that other side of you goes into a complex around the shadow. That complex will begin to develop a life of its own, and it will haunt you. You might find yourself having nightmares in which you go around stomping on little baby birds!

If it goes on long enough, the complex may take over, may "possess" you, and you might wind up with a multiple personality. In the movie The Three Faces of Eve, Joanne Woodward portrayed a meek, mild woman who eventually discovered that she went out and partied like crazy on Saturday nights. She didn't smoke, but found cigarettes in her purse, didn't drink, but woke up with hangovers, didn't fool around, but found herself in sexy outfits. Although multiple personality is rare, it does tend to involve these kinds of black-and-white extremes.

The most serious of these conflicts revolve around the oppositions created by our archetypes.  He particularly points to the conflict between ego and shadow (basically the same idea as Freud's ego and id) and between the anima (the female aspect) and the animus (the male aspect).  If you are a woman, it is the unfulfilled animus that may haunt you; if you are a man, it is the anima.  It is the ego-shadow conflict that accounts for the three faces of Eve.  It is the anima-animus conflict that accounts for problems of sexual identity and hostility.

Alfred Adler

In Adler's theory, we are all of us "pulled" towards fulfillment, perfection, self-actualization. And yet some of us - the failures - end up terribly unfulfilled, baldly imperfect, and far from self-actualized. And all because we lack social interest, or, to put it in the positive form, because we are too self-interested. So what makes so many of us self-interested?

Adler says it's a matter of being overwhelmed by our inferiority. If you are moving along, doing well, feeling competent, you can afford to think of others. If you are not, if life is getting the best of you, then your attentions become increasingly focussed on yourself.

Obviously, everyone suffers from inferiority in one form or another. For example, Adler began his theoretical work considering organ inferiority, that is, the fact that each of us has weaker, as well as stronger, parts of our anatomy or physiology. Some of us are born with heart murmurs, or develop heart problems early in life; Some have weak lungs, or kidneys, or early liver problems; Some of us stutter or lisp; Some have diabetes, or asthma, or polio; Some have weak eyes, or poor hearing, or a poor musculature; Some of us have innate tendencies to being heavy, others to being skinny; Some of us are retarded, some of us are deformed; Some of us are terribly tall or terribly short; And so on and so on.

Adler noted that many people respond to these organic inferiorities with compensation. They make up for their deficiencies in some way: The inferior organ can be strengthened and even become stronger than it is in others; Or other organs can be overdeveloped to take up the slack; Or the person can psychologically compensate for the organic problem by developing certain skills or even certain personality styles. There are, as you well know, many examples of people who overcame great physical odds to become what those who are better endowed physically wouldn't even dream of!

Sadly, there are also many people who cannot handle their difficulties, and live lives of quiet despair. I would guess that our optimistic, up-beat society seriously underestimates their numbers.

But Adler soon saw that this is only part of the picture. Even more people have psychological inferiorities. Some of us are told that we are dumb, or ugly, or weak. Some of us come to believe that we are just plain no good. In school, we are tested over and over, and given grades that tell us we aren't as good as the next person. Or we are demeaned for our pimples or our bad posture and find ourselves without friends or dates. Or we are forced into basketball games, where we wait to see which team will be stuck with us. In these examples, it's not a matter of true organic inferiority - we are not really retarded or deformed or weak - but we learn to believe that we are. Again, some compensate by becoming good at what we feel inferior about. More compensate by becoming good at something else, but otherwise retaining our sense of inferiority. And some just never develop any self esteem at all.

If the preceding hasn't hit you personally yet, Adler also noted an even more general form of inferiority: The natural inferiority of children. all children are, by nature, smaller, weaker, less socially and intellectually competent, than the adults around them. Adler suggested that, if we look at children's games, toys, and fantasies, they tend to have one thing in common: The desire to grow up, to be big, to be an adult. This kind of compensation is really identical with striving for perfection! Many children, however, are left with the feeling that other people will always be better than they are.

If you are overwhelmed by the forces of inferiority - whether it is your body hurting, the people around you holding you in contempt, or just the general difficulties of growing up - you develop an inferiority complex. Looking back on my own childhood, I can see several sources for later inferiority complexes: Physically, I've tended to be heavy, with some real "fat boy" stages along the way; Also, because I was born in Holland, I didn't grow up with the skills of baseball, football, and basketball in my genes; Finally, my artistically talented parents often left me - unintentionally - with the feeling that I'd never be as good as they were. So, as I grew up, I became shy and withdrawn, and concentrated on the only thing I was good at, school. It took a long time for me to realize my self-worth.

If you weren't "super-nerd," you may have had one of the most common inferiority complexes I've come across: "Math phobia!" Perhaps it started because you could never remember what seven times eight was. Every year, there was some topic you never quite got the hang of. Every year, you fell a little further behind. And then you hit the crisis point: Algebra. How could you be expected to know what "x" is when you still didn't know what seven times eight was?

Many, many people truly believe that they are not meant to do math, that they are missing that piece of their brains or something. I'd like to tell you here and now that anyone can do math, if they are taught properly and when they are really ready. That aside, you've got to wonder how many people have given up being scientists, teachers, business people, or even going to college, because of this inferiority complex.

But the inferiority complex is not just a little problem, it's a neurosis, meaning it's a life-size problem. You become shy and timid, insecure, indecisive, cowardly, submissive, compliant, and so on. You begin to rely on people to carry you along, even manipulating them into supporting you: "You think I'm smart / pretty / strong / sexy / good, don't you?" Eventually, you become a drain on them, and you may find yourself by yourself. Nobody can take all that self-centered whining for long!

There is another way in which people respond to inferiority besides compensation and the inferiority complex: You can also develop a superiority complex. The superiority complex involves covering up your inferiority by pretending to be superior. If you feel small, one way to feel big is to make everyone else feel even smaller! Bullies, braggarts, and petty dictators everywhere are the prime example. More subtle examples are the people who are given to attention-getting dramatics, the ones who feel powerful when they commit crimes, and the ones who put others down for their gender, race, ethnic origins, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, weight, height, etc. etc. Even more subtle still are the people who hide their feelings of worthlessness in the delusions of power afforded by alcohol and drugs.

Karen Horney

Horney's theory is perhaps the best theory of neurosis we have. First, she offered a different way of viewing neurosis. She saw it as much more continuous with normal life than previous theorists. Specifically, she saw neurosis as an attempt to make life bearable, as a way of "interpersonal control and coping." This is, of course, what we all strive to do on a day-to-day basis, only most of us seem to be doing alright, while the neurotic seems to be sinking fast.

In her clinical experience, she discerned ten particular patterns of neurotic needs. They are based on things that we all need, but they have become distorted in several ways by the difficulties of some people's lives:

Let's take the first need, for affection and approval, as an example. We all need affection, so what makes such a need neurotic? First, the need is unrealistic, unreasonable, indiscriminate. For example, we all need affection, but we don't expect it from everyone we meet. We don't expect great outpourings of affection from even our close friends and relations. We don't expect our loved ones to show affection at all times, in all circumstances. We don't expect great shows of love while our partners are filing out tax forms, for example. And, we realize that there may be times in our lives where we have to be self-sufficient.

Second, the neurotic's need is much more intense, and he or she will experience great anxiety if the need is not met, or if it even appears that it may not be met in the future. It is this, of course, that leads to the unrealistic nature of the need. Affection, to continue the example, has to be shown clearly at all times, in all circumstances, by all people, or the panic sets in. The neurotic has made the need too central to their existence.

The neurotic needs are as follows:

1. The neurotic need for affection and approval, the indiscriminate need to please others and be liked by them.

2. The neurotic need for a partner, for someone who will take over one's life. This includes the idea that love will solve all of one's problems. Again, we all would like a partner to share life with, but the neurotic goes a step or two too far.

3. The neurotic need to restrict one's life to narrow borders, to be undemanding, satisfied with little, to be inconspicuous. Even this has its normal counterpart. Who hasn't felt the need to simplify life when it gets too stressful, to join a monastic order, disappear into routine, or to return to the womb?

4. The neurotic need for power, for control over others, for a facade of omnipotence. We all seek strength, but the neurotic may be desperate for it. This is dominance for its own sake, often accompanied by a contempt for the weak and a strong belief in one's own rational powers.

5. The neurotic need to exploit others and get the better of them. In the ordinary person, this might be the need to have an effect, to have impact, to be heard. In the neurotic, it can become manipulation and the belief that people are there to be used. It may also involve a fear of being used, of looking stupid. You may have noticed that the people who love practical jokes more often than not cannot take being the butt of such a joke themselves!

6. The neurotic need for social recognition or prestige. We are social creatures, and sexual ones, and like to be appreciated. But these people are overwhelmingly concerned with appearances and popularity. They fear being ignored, be thought plain, "uncool," or "out of it."

7. The neurotic need for personal admiration. We need to be admired for inner qualities as well as outer ones. We need to feel important and valued. But some people are more desperate, and need to remind everyone of their importance - "Nobody recognizes genius," "I'm the real power behind the scenes, you know," and so on. Their fear is of being thought nobodies, unimportant and meaningless.

8. The neurotic need for personal achievement. Again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with achievement - far from it! But some people are obsessed with it. They have to be number one at everything they do. Since this is, of course, quite a difficult task, you will find these people devaluing anything they cannot be number one in! If they are good runners, then the discus and the hammer are "side shows." If academic abilities are their strength, physical abilities are of no importance, and so on.

9. The neurotic need for self-sufficiency and independence. We should all cultivate some autonomy, but some people feel that they shouldn't ever need anybody. They tend to refuse help and are often reluctant to commit to a relationship.

10. The neurotic need for perfection and unassailability. To become better and better at life and our special interests is hardly neurotic, but some people are driven to be perfect and scared of being flawed. They can't be caught making a mistake and need to be in control at all times.

Carl Rogers

Life is filled with stress.  Many people's difficulties begin with childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, poverty, sickness, parent's sicknesses or death, parental psychological problems, divorce, immigration, accidents, deformities, etc.  Sometimes, we are strong enough, or have enough support, to weather these storms.  More often, we find that these experiences leave us with an on-going apprehension about life.  We end up suffering from anxiety, guilt, sadness, anger... not just as a direct result of the specific experience, but because we no longer trust life.

A child with loving parents and compassionate relations, peers, and teachers may well be able to cope with these problems.  On the other hand, a lack of support, a lack of what Rogers calls positive regard, can leave even a child blessed with a comfortable environment troubled with self-doubt and insecurity.

Many of our theories were developed in order to help those who cannot cope, and looking at Adler, Horney, Rogers, Bandura, and others, we find a great deal of agreement as to the details.  As I said a moment ago, in order to cope with life's difficulties, we need positive regard - a little love, approval, respect, attention....  But others often make that love and approval conditional upon meeting certain standards, not all of which we can meet.  Over time, we learn to judge ourselves by those standards.  It is this incongruence (Rogers’ term) between what we need and what we allow ourselves that leaves us with low self-esteem, or what others call a poor self-concept or an inferiority complex.

Note that there is a real advantage to the idea of inferiority over self-esteem:  It is rare to have an overall sense of low self-esteem.  Instead, most people have a sense of inferiority in some domains and not in others.  Acknowledging the specificity of inferiority allows us to focus in on possible remedies, while just saying someone suffers from low self-esteem leaves us with little sense of where to start!

Confronted with the difficulties of life, lacking in the support of others, and not even enjoying confidence in ourselves, we find we must defend ourselves however we can.  We can list a large number of defense mechanisms, as Anna Freud did, or we might be able to simplify a little, like Carl Rogers:  We defend our sensitive egos by denial and rationalization.

Either way, they are lies we tell ourselves and others in order to minimize the impact of that incongruence between our need for love and security and what is afforded to us.  We use these lies because they help, actually.  But they only help in the short run:  Over time, they lead us into a possibly serious misunderstanding of how the world (especially other people) works, and of who, in fact, we are.

For those people who are, perhaps, a bit stronger than those who succumb to neuroses, we still find suffering in the form of alienation:  There develops a split between the deeper, "truer" core self within, and the persona (to borrow Jung's term) that we present to the outside world to attempt to meet with those conditions of worth that Rogers talks about.  We feel inauthentic, false, phony, dishonest on the one hand, and misunderstood or unappreciated on the other.  Over the long haul, this is likely to lead to depression and withdrawal from social life.  But sometimes, alienation can lead to new perspectives on life and some remarkably creative insights.  Perhaps we owe a good portion of our art, music, and literature to these same people.

Existential psychology

One of the things (as a card-carrying neurotic) that I like about existential psychologists is that they have a little bit more respect for the poor neurotic than other theories do:  In some ways, the neurotic is a more aware than the conventional person:  They know they are faced with choices, and it scares the daylights out of them.  It scares them so much, in fact, that they are overwhelmed.  They freeze or panic, or change their existential anxiety and guilt into neurotic anxiety and guilt:  Find something "small" - a phobic object, an obsession or compulsion, a target for anger, a disease or the pretense of a disease - to make life's difficulties more objective.  An existential psychologist would say that, although you may get rid of the symptoms with any number of techniques, ultimately you need to face the reality of Dasein (existence).

Ludwig Binswanger saw inauthenticity as a matter of choosing a single theme for one's life, or a small number of themes, and allowing the rest of Dasein to be dominated by that one theme. A person Freudians might call "anal retentive," for example, might be one dominated by a theme of hoarding, or holding in, or tightness, or perfection. Someone who doesn't seem in control of his or her life may be dominated by a theme of luck, or fate, or waiting. A person who anxiously over-eats may be dominated by a theme of emptiness, hollowness, and the need to fill oneself. A "workaholic" may be dominated by a theme involving wasted time or being overtaken.  Rather than elaborating on the many ways in which a person elaborates their neurosis, existentialists argue that each neurotic finds his own path.

Viktor Frankl

People today seem more than ever to be experiencing their lives as empty, meaningless, purposeless, aimless, adrift, and so on, and seem to be responding to these experiences with unusual behaviors that hurt themselves, others, society, or all three.

One of Frankl's favorite metaphors is the existential vacuum.  If meaning is what we desire, then meaninglessness is a hole, an emptiness, in our lives. Whenever you have a vacuum, of course, things rush in to fill it.  Frankl suggests that one of the most conspicuous signs of existential vacuum in our society is boredom.  He points out how often people, when they finally have the time to do what they want, don’t seem to want to do anything!  People go into a tailspin when they retire; students get drunk every weekend; we submerge ourselves in passive entertainment every evening.  The "Sunday neurosis," he calls it.

So we attempt to fill our existential vacuums with “stuff” that, because it provides some satisfaction, we hope will provide ultimate satisfaction as well:  We might try to fill our lives with pleasure, eating beyond all necessity, having promiscuous sex, living “the high life;” or we might seek power, especially the power represented by monetary success; or we might fill our lives with “busy-ness,” conformity, conventionality; or we might fill the vacuum with anger and hatred and spend our days attempting to destroy what we think is hurting us.  We might also fill our lives with certain neurotic “vicious cycles,” such as obsession with germs and cleanliness, or fear-driven obsession with a phobic object.  The defining quality of these vicious cycles is that, whatever we do, it is never enough.

These neurotic vicious cycles are founded on something Frankl refers to as anticipatory anxiety:  Someone may be so afraid of getting certain anxiety-related symptoms that getting those symptoms becomes inevitable.  The anticipatory anxiety causes the very thing that is feared!  Test anxiety is an obvious example:  If you are afraid of doing poorly on tests, the anxiety will prevent you from doing well on the test, leading you to be afraid of tests, and so on.

A similar idea is hyperintention.  This is a matter of trying too hard, which itself prevents you from succeeding at something.  One of the most common examples is insomnia:  Many people, when they can’t sleep, continue to try to fall asleep, using every method in the book.  Of course, trying to sleep itself prevents sleep, so the cycle continues.  Another example is the way so many of us today feel we must be exceptional lovers:  Men feel they must “last” as long as possible, and women feel obliged to not only have orgasms, but to have multiple orgasms, and so on.  Too much concern in this regard, of course, leads to an inability to relax and enjoy oneself!

A third variation is hyperreflection.  In this case it is a matter of “thinking too hard.”  Sometimes we expect something to happen, so it does, simply because its occurrence is strongly tied to one’s beliefs or attitudes - the self-fulfilling prophecy.  Frankl mentions a woman who had had bad sexual experiences in childhood but who had nevertheless developed a strong and healthy personality.  When she became familiar with psychological literature suggesting that such experiences should leave one with an inability to enjoy sexual relations, she began having such problems!

His understanding of the existential vacuum goes back to his experiences in the Nazi death  camps.  As the day-to-day things that offer people a sense of meaning - work, family, the small pleasures of life - were taken from a prisoner, his future would seem to disappear.  Man, says Frankl, "can only live by looking to the future." (1963 , p. 115)  "The prisoner who had lost faith in the future - his future - was doomed." (1963, p. 117)

While few people seeking psychological help today are suffering the extremes of the concentration camp, Frankl feels that the problems caused by the existential vacuum are not only common, but rapidly spreading throughout society.  He points out the ubiquitous complaint of a "feeling of futility," which he also refers to as the abyss experience.

Even the political and economic extremes of today's world can be seen as the reverberations of futility:  We seem to be caught between the automaton conformity of western consumer culture and totalitarianism in its communist, fascist, and theocratic flavors.  Hiding in mass society, or hiding in authoritarianism - either direction caters to the person who wishes to deny the emptiness of his or her life.

Frankl calls depression, addiction, and aggression the mass neurotic triad.  He refers to research that shows a strong relationship between meaninglessness (as measured by "purpose in life" tests) and such behaviors as criminality and involvement with drugs.  He warns us that violence, drug use, and other negative behaviors, demonstrated daily on television, in movies, even in music, only convinces the meaning-hungry that their lives can improve by imitation of their "heroes."  Even sports, he suggests, only encourage aggression.

Albert Ellis

Ellis's therapy is known as REBT.

REBT - Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy - begins with ABC!  A is for activating experiences, such as family troubles, unsatisfying work, early childhood traumas, and all the many things we point to as the sources of our unhappiness.  B stands for beliefs, especially the irrational, self-defeating beliefs that are the actual sources of our unhappiness.  And C is for consequences, the neurotic symptoms and negative emotions such as depression panic, and rage, that come from our beliefs.

Although the activating experiences may be quite real and have caused real pain, it is our irrational beliefs that create long-term, disabling problems!  Ellis adds D and E to ABC:  The therapist must dispute (D) the irrational beliefs, in order for the client to ultimately enjoy the positive psychological effects (E) of rational beliefs.

For example, “a depressed person feels sad and lonely because he erroneously thinks he is inadequate and deserted.”  Actually, depressed people perform just as well as non-depressed people.  So, a therapist should show the depressed person his or her successes, and attack the belief that they are inadequate, rather than attacking the mood itself!

Although it is not important to therapy to pin-point the source of these irrational beliefs, it is understood that they are the result of “philosophical conditioning,” habits not unlike the habit of answering the phone just because it rings.  Further, Ellis says that we are biologically programmed to be susceptible to this kind of conditioning!

These beliefs take the form of absolute statements.  Instead of acknowledging a preference or a desire, we make unqualified demands on others, or convince ourselves that we have overwhelming needs.  There are a number of typical “thinking errors” people typically engage in, including...

1.  ignoring the positive,
2.  exaggerating the negative, and
3.  overgeneralizing.

I may refuse to see that I do have some friends or that I have had a few successes.  I may dwell on and blow out of proportion the hurts I have suffered.  I may convince myself that nobody loves me, or that I always screw up.

There are twelve examples of irrational beliefs that Ellis often mentions...

12 Irrational Ideas That Cause and Sustain Neurosis

1. The idea that it is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do - instead of their concentrating on their own self-respect, on winning approval for practical purposes, and on loving rather than on being loved.

2. The idea that certain acts are awful or wicked, and that people who perform such acts should be severely damned - instead of the idea that certain acts are self-defeating or antisocial, and that people who perform such acts are behaving stupidly, ignorantly, or neurotically, and would be better helped to change. People's poor behaviors do not make them rotten individuals.

3. The idea that it is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be - instead of the idea that it is too bad, that we would better try to change or control bad conditions so that they become more satisfactory, and, if that is not possible, we had better temporarily accept and gracefully lump their exis tence.

4. The idea that human misery is invariably externally caused and is forced on us by outside people and events - instead of the idea that neurosis is largely caused by the view that we take of unfortunate conditions.

5. The idea that if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome we should be terribly upset and endlessly obsess about it - instead of the idea that one would better frankly face it and render it non-dangerous and, when that is not possible, accept the inevitable.

6. The idea that it is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and self-responsibilities - instead of the idea that the so-called easy way is usually much harder in the long run.

7. The idea that we absolutely need something other or stronger or greater than ourself on which to rely - instead of the idea that it is better to take the risks of thinking and acting less depen dently.

8. The idea that we should be thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects - instead of the idea that we would better do rather than always need to do well and accept ourself as a quite imperfect creature, who has general human limitations and specific fallibilities.

9. The idea that because something once strongly affected our life, it should indefinitely affect it - instead of the idea that we can learn from our past experiences but not be overly-attached to or prejudiced by them.

10. The idea that we must have certain and perfect control over things - instead of the idea that the world is full of probability and chance and that we can still enjoy life despite this.

11. The idea that human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction - instead of the idea that we tend to  be happiest when we are vitally absorbed in creative pursuits, or when we are devoting ourselves to people or projects outside ourselves.

12. The idea that we have virtually no control over our emotions and that we cannot help feeling disturbed about things - instead of the idea that we have real control over our destructive emotions if we choose to work at changing the musturbatory hypotheses which we often employ to create them.

(From The Essence of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. Revised, May 1994.)

Buddhist Psychology

I would like to add the thoughts of one more famous psychologist to this chapter - one from a good 2500 years ago:  Siddhartha Gotama, also known as the Buddha.  He left his home and family at the age of 39 to seek the answer to the problem of suffering.  After six years living in the woods, he eventually found his answer while meditating under a tree.  He began his very first sermon with the four Noble Truths:

 1. Life is suffering. Life is at very least full of suffering, and it can easily be argued that suffering is an inevitable aspect of life. If I have senses, I can feel pain; if I have feelings, I can feel distress; if I have a capacity for love, I will have the capacity for grief. Such is life.

Duhkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering, is also translated as stress, anguish, and imperfection. Buddha wanted us to understand suffering as a foundation for improvement.

One key to understanding suffering is understanding anitya, which means that all things, including living things, our loved ones, and ourselves, are impermanent. Our peculiar position of being mortal and being aware of it is a major source of anxiety, but is also what makes our lives, and the choices we make, meaningful. Time becomes important only when there is only so much of it. Doing the right thing and loving someone only have meaning when you don't have an eternity to work with.

Another key concept is anatman, which means that all things - even we - have no "soul" or eternal substance. With no substance, nothing stands alone, and no one has a separate existence. We are all interconnected, not just with our human world, but with the universe.

2. Suffering is due to attachment. We might say that at least much of the suffering we experience comes out of ourselves, out of our desire to make pleasure, happiness, and love last forever and to make pain, distress, and grief disappear from life altogether.

We are not therefore to avoid all pleasure, happiness, and love. Nor are we to believe that all suffering comes only from ourselves. It's just not necessary, being shot once with an arrow, to shoot ourselves again, as the Buddha put it.

Attachment is one translation of the word trishna, which can also be translated as thirst, desire, lust, craving, or clinging. When we fail to recognize that all things are imperfect, impermanent, and insubstantial, we cling to them in the delusion that they are indeed perfect, permanent, and substantial, and that by clinging to them, we, too, will be perfect, permanent, and substantial.

Our lack of "essence" or preordained structure, our "nothingness," leads us to crave solidity. We are, you could say, whirlwinds who wish they were rocks. We cling to things in the hopes that they will provide us with a certain "weight." We try to turn our loved ones into things by demanding that they not change, or we try to change them into perfect partners, not realizing that a statue, though it may live forever, has no love to give us. We try to become immortal, whether by anxiety-driven belief in fairy-tales, or by making our children and grand-children into clones of ourselves, or by getting into the history books or onto the talk shows. We even cling to unhappy lives because change is too frightening.

Another aspect of attachment is dvesha, which means avoidance or hatred. To Buddha, hatred was every bit as much an attachment as clinging. Only by giving those things which cause us pain permanence and substance do we give them the power to hurt us more. We wind up fearing, not that which can harm us, but our fears themselves.

The most frightening things we've seen in this century are the mass movements - the Nazis, the Red Guard, the Ku Klux Klan, terrorist groups, and on and on. The thought seems to be that, if I'm just a little puff of wind, maybe by joining others of my kind, I can be a part of a hurricane! Beyond these are all the petty movements - political ones, revolutionary ones, religious ones, antireligious ones, ones involving nothing more than a style or fashion. And hatred is the glue that holds them together.

A third aspect of attachment is avidya, meaning ignorance. At one level, it refers to the ignorance of these Four Noble Truths - not understanding the truth of imperfection and so on. At a deeper level, it also means "not seeing," i.e. not directly experiencing reality, but instead seeing our personal interpretation of it. More than that, we take our interpretation of reality as more real than reality itself!

In some sutras, Buddha adds one more aspect of attachment: anxiety. Fear, like hatred, ties us to the very things that hurt us.

3. Suffering can be extinguished. At least that suffering we add to the inevitable suffering of life can be extinguished. Or, if we want to be even more modest in our claims, suffering can at least be diminished.

I believe that, with decades of practice, some monks may be able to transcend even simple, direct, physical pain. I don't think, however, that us ordinary folk in our ordinary lives have the option of devoting those decades to such an extreme of practice. My focus, then, is on diminishing mental anguish rather than eliminating all pain.

Nirvana is the traditional name for the state of being (or non-being, if you prefer) wherein all clinging, and so all suffering, has been eliminated. It is often translated as "blowing out," with the idea that we eliminate self like we blow out a candle. This may be a proper understanding, but I prefer the idea of blowing out a fire that threatens to overwhelm us, or even the idea of taking away the oxygen that keeps the fires burning. By this I mean that by "blowing out" clinging, hate, and ignorance, we "blow out" unnecessary suffering.

I may be taking a bit of a leap here, but I believe that the Buddhist concept of nirvana is quite similar to the existentialists' freedom. Freedom has, in fact, been used in Buddhism in the context of freedom from rebirth or freedom from the effects of karma. For the existentialist, freedom is a fact of our being, one which we often ignore, and which ignorance leads us to a diminished life.

4. And there is a way to extinguish suffering. This is what all therapists believe - each in his or her own way. But this time we are looking at what Buddha's theory -dharma - has to say: He called it the Eightfold Path.   I will save that for the chapter on therapy!

A biosocial theory

Okay, I lied.  I have one more theorist to talk about: your humble servant, me.  Here are some of my thoughts on neurosis:

Neurosis refers to a variety of psychological problems involving persistent experiences of negative affect including anxiety, sadness or depression, anger, irritability, mental confusion, low sense of self-worth, etc., behavioral symptoms such as phobic avoidance, vigilance, impulsive and compulsive acts, lethargy, etc., cognitive problems such as unpleasant or disturbing thoughts, repetition of thoughts and obsession, habitual fantasizing, negativity and cynicism, etc.  Interpersonally, neurosis involves dependency, aggressiveness, perfectionism, schizoid isolation, socio-culturally inappropriate behaviors, etc.

Generally, neurosis means poor ability to adapt to ones environment, an inability to change one’s life patterns, and the inability to develop a richer, more complex, more satisfying personality.

First, there are clearly a variety of predisposing factors involved in mental illness.  Some of us are born with temperaments that make us edgy, nervous, or easily upset.  Others have a life-long difficulty feeling pleasure.  Others still have problems differentiating fantasy from reality.  In other words, we may have certain “hardware” problems that make it more likely that we suffer from certain “software” problems.  The evidence strongly suggests that schizophrenia, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorders in particular have genetic and physiological components.

The second point is that one’s culture, upbringing, education, and learning in general may prepare one to deal with the stresses of life, or not.  It is important to remember that some people who have physiological predispositions towards problems may grow up in circumstances that keep them healthy, while some physiologically healthy people suffer under extreme circumstances which overwhelm them.

The third point concerns the triggering stressors in people’s lives which lead to the various emotional, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms of neurosis.  These stressors can be understood as consisting of situations of uncertainly and confusion, usually involving interpersonal relationships, that overwhelm the person’s capacities, learned and/or inherited, to cope with those situations.

And finally, it needs to be understood, however, that these disorders are nevertheless psychological ones:  Mental illness plays itself out in the arena of personal consciousness.  That is where the suffering comes in.

So, basically, we deal with the world by using our previously acquired knowledge of the world, in coordination with our inherited capacities, to solve the problems presented to us as efficiently as possible.  When we are up to the task, our emotional responses are kept to within tolerable limits.  When we are not up to the task, we experience anxiety.  This anxiety may develop into other emotional responses - depression, anger, withdrawal - as well, depending on the details of the problem, our inherited traits, and our learned patterns of response to problematic situations.

When we experience repeated occasions of stress and anxiety, we begin to develop patterns of behavior and cognition designed to avoid or otherwise mitigate the problem, such as vigilance, escape behaviors, and defensive thinking.  These may develop into an array of attitudes which themselves produce anxiety, anger, sadness, etc.

Developmental aspects

The family is often the focus in discussing the origins of neurosis.  First, any genetic predispositions towards neurosis may be inherited.  Secondly, the family may have provided little in the way of preparation for a child to deal with the stresses of life.  And thirdly, the family may itself be a source of the stress and confusion which the child may be unable to cope with.  It may often be the case that a parent is him- or herself troubled by neuroses, and thereby provides the genetics, the poor parenting skills, and the stresses that lead children to develop neuroses.

A child is still in the process of learning the skills required to survive and thrive in the social world, and is thereby more susceptible to stress.  He or she needs both parental guidance and a degree of security.  The child needs to know that the parent will be there for him or her.  This reliability is communicated by means of the love a parent expresses to the child.  If the child fails to perceive that love (even if it does actually exist), he or she will be left with considerable and very general anxiety, as well as feelings of incompetence and unlovableness.

On the other hand, we should not jump to conclusions in this regard:  Not all neurotics raise neurotic children, and not all neurotics were themselves raised by neurotic parents.  There are many stressful events which can overwhelm even fairly emotionally stable and well educated children, adolescents, and even adults.  Among these, we can mention the death of parents, their divorce and remarriage, foster homes, institutionalization, ill health of the child or the parents, war time experiences, immigration, poverty and homelessness, assault, sexual abuse, bigotry, and so on.

Many people develop neuroses during adolescence.  The sometimes dramatic physical and emotional changes can by themselves overwhelm some adolescents.  Even more likely, these changes, combined with the need to demonstrate social competence and to gain peer approval, can lead to great stress and overwhelm the adolescent’s emotional capacities.  Teenagers rejected by their peers, due to weight problems, physical appearance, weakness, retardation and learning problems, social shyness or awkwardness, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, national origin, etc., are especially vulnerable.  Many, if they have the resources and especially if they have support from family and friends, recover in early adulthood.  Others do not.

Just like the child, the adolescent is still in a stage of development, and has the added burden of requiring the social skills involved in sexual competition.  These are usually learned by imitating other adolescents, especially those that are admired for their skills and successes.  The learning is then supported by gaining validation from other adolescents in the form of acceptance and approval.  Without that approval, the adolescent feels no confidence in his or her social skills and again lives with the anxiety of never quite knowing how to act.  The adolescent is left with feelings of isolation and self-loathing.

Many of these issues continue to apply in young adulthood and even later.  Young adults typically feel the need for a partner in life, for a network of friends, for a sense of competence as evidenced by success in college or in the workplace, and so on.  Later, the desire for children, for financial security, and for social respect add to the stress.  And later still, coming to terms with the prospect of ill health, the death of friends and family, and one’s own mortality provide the older adult with new challenges for their emotional strength.  The better the foundation in childhood and adolescence, however, the better the chances that the adult will be able to cope.

Fear of nothing

Sometimes, when people first become aware of the insubstantiality of social reality, they panic.  Looking for meaning in social reality is like looking for the center of an onion:  you peel and peel, only to find nothing at all!  This panic I call existential anxiety, and we see it making its appearance whenever social reality is threatened.

Someone suffering from a social phobia, for example, is afraid that he or she will fail to uphold the standards of society, fail to live up to the expectations of others.  We may ask them,  “what is the worst that can happen?”  A healthy person just moves on after embarrassments.  But the neurotic sees no existence outside these social forms, and fears the loss of their entire reality.

You can also see this fear of "nothing" in our fears of illness and death and in fears that revolve around the fuzzy borders between that which is alive and that which is not, such as fears of insects, snakes, the dead, mechanical devices, and so on. I remember my children routinely tossing anything remotely alive (such as dolls that move) out of their bedrooms at night.

Some examples of neurotic behaviors - obsessions, compulsions, amnesias, and conversion disorders - may best be understood as the conventional person’s last ditch efforts at keeping neurotic anxiety at bay.  These symptoms are outgrowths of the perfectionist’s rigid structures and the authoritarian’s dedication to rules and sanctions, when these constructs are threatened.

We might also use existential anxiety to understand depression:  Here, the person is experiencing the emotional exhaustion that comes from prolonged fighting to maintain their social reality in direct conflict with experience.  Instead of uselessly trying to adapt to the social norms, the course of action that would most benefit them is one of finally doing what their experiences tell them is far truer to reality than society.  Society, of course, may smack them down if they try - hence the difficulty!  And yet awareness of the illusory nature of social reality is dawning, and we might feel some optimism in the case of the depressed individual!


The authoritarian neurotic is a person who retreats from the complexity of life into authoritarian structures.  Again, the neurotic is not a child, nor a peasant in some traditional society, so this authoritarian world-view must be supported by defensive mechanisms that help him or her to avoid full recognition of traumas and chaos.

The authoritarian neurotic will tend to exhibit his or her rigid sociality in one of two ways:  Depending on such factors as temperament, upbringing, and specific social situation, they will be either aggressive or compliant.  Aggressive neurotics, predominantly men (due to both temperament and upbringing), tend to expect others to bend to their will, and are likely to be angry and even violent if their expectations are not met.  Compliant neurotics, predominantly women (again, due to both temperament and upbringing), tend to expect to yield to the will of others.  They suffer from sadness and spend much of their cognitive time trying to adapt, i.e. trying accept into themselves changes that would be more efficiently accomplished by changing others (most often, the aggressive males they keep company with!).

But please notice that both aggressiveness and compliance change depending on the people you are interacting with:  The aggressive man is likely to become quite compliant when faced with a clear social superior;  the compliant woman is likely to be quite aggressive towards her children or servants.  In a traditional society, these relations operate quite smoothly, with very little overt anger or sadness, and certainly without much sadism or masochism.  Among neurotics, the defensive mechanisms change the anxiety that is at the root of the neurosis into anger or sadness, even to the point of sadism and masochism.  As Freud pointed out, these are just two sides of the same coin, which is the authoritarian perspective.

In the history of humanity, the great majority of people have simply and fully “bought into” social reality.  Inasmuch as each ethnic group was fairly isolated, social reality was the only reality anyone knew, and it served their purposes well.  Large traditional societies  were very much the same:  Everywhere you looked, the same standards of behavior applied.  Only at the very outskirts of your society did you find people living by other rules, and they could be effectively dealt with by calling them barbarians - babblers, ones who don’t know the right words - or by not considering them to be people at all.

In our own society, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain this fiction.  We travel, we communicate around the world.  Even in our own towns, there are people who are different, yet are clearly still people and not “babblers.’  And yet, the rich and complex social realities we each grow up with cannot be surrendered so easily, even in the face of such experiential evidence.  We defend our beliefs, usually by emphasizing even more the conventionalities of our social realities.  We become sticklers for the rules.  We become conventional.

At first glance, this conventional person, so terribly concerned with social forms, may appear  to be more moral than most, the one with the well-developed superego.  But he or she is concerned with the forms, not with people and their pains and sorrows.  True compassion is when you see nothing in another’s face but his or her humanity.  The conventional person only sees social duties.

Other forms of neurosis

Once a person gets beyond the authoritarian level, that is, when they realize that obeying superiors or conforming to the masses is not the ultimate source of values, they may nevertheless be susceptible to neurotic patterns.  For example, if one looks to reason for a solution to life's stresses, and yet finds those stresses too much to take, he or she may begin to retreat into the comfort of rigid personality structures.

These can range from full-blown obsessive-compulsive to anxiety neurosis to compulsive personality, but is best represented by the rather mild but enormously common personality type we could call the perfectionist.  Among the qualities perfectionists tend to exhibit are a love of order in their own lives,  including neatness and punctuality, and a tendency to foist that order onto others, sometimes to the point that they resemble authoritarian types, except that the order they demand is not so much society’s order, but an order that they feel they themselves best represent - all this stemming, of course, from their fear of the chaos they see on the horizon.

They may also appear rather narcissistic, especially to the degree that they consider themselves ideal specimens as a defensive reaction to their fears and anxieties.  The give-away that they are rationalists, rather than authoritarians or psychotics, is that they consider their rigid structures universal rather than just social mores, while nevertheless being fully aware of the reality of other ways of being.  They love logic and reasoning and tend to consider themselves supremely logical whether it is among their talents or not, and consider the lack of logic to be the major flaw of others.

Another pathway to neurosis is found in people who, in their efforts to comprehend life, tend to reduce self to physiology, mind to brain, consciousness to epiphenomenon, values to tastes, morals to customs, and truth to opinion.  The consequence may be a feeling that nothing is tied down, that nothing, including myself, is real, that the whole world is some kind of illusion - i.e. depersonalization and derealization.  So is the sense that everything I do is meaningless, that not much of what I do has any effect anyway, and most especially that there is no right and wrong.  One may develop a sense of emptiness or deadness, with a desire to return to a simpler but more sensuous mode of being.


Some people who have been driven back into an autistic perspective by the complexities or violence of a reality they are not prepared, temperamentally or cognitively, to deal with.  Their autistic view is not natural to them, as it might be to an infant, in that they already have a degree of experience with the world, including social reality.  It must therefore be supported by a defensive avoidance of difficult situations - i.e. of situations that they paradoxically need to face and adapt to in order to progress beyond their autistic perspective.

We must always begin where the patient is.  So, in the case of the autistic or schizophrenic person, we must begin with their personal reality and the defenses which they use to maintain it.  In other words, we must first take great pains to shelter them from perceptions of danger.  Only when they feel safe, in an often highly simplified environment, can we begin to gradually introduce the kinds of complexities, in watered down versions, in which they may find the differentiations they need to adapt and move out of their personal world.  These differentiations cannot lead in any direct fashion to mature perspectives, but can only be directed at an authoritarian world-view.  Ironically, in order to help schizophrenics, we must lead them towards conventionality!

The peach

It should be clear by now that at least one aspect of mental health is the ability to take social reality (as well as idiosyncratic reality) for what it is and deal with it as one must, yet to be in close contact with immediate (unconstructed) reality.  Not conventional, the mentally healthy person has gone beyond neurotic anxiety without falling into the deeper illusions of the psychotic’s idiosyncratic constructed reality.

Life is really more like a peach than an onion:  It has a solid core.  This core is the reality of immediate individual experience.  Although this reality is only a small view of ultimate or total reality, it has the advantage of being a piece of truth, rather than fiction.  This is the sunrise, the toothache, the lover’s touch, the fear and the anger and the sadness, and the joy.  This is life here and now.  This is life beyond words.