Karen Horney saw neurosis as part of normal life. 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.
Alcoholics, addicts and co-dependents may identify with some or all of these neurotic needs.
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.
As Horney investigated these neurotic needs, she began to recognize that they can be clustered into three broad coping strategies:
- Compliance, which includes needs one, two, and three.
- Aggression, including needs four through eight.
- Withdrawal, including needs nine, ten, and three. She added three here because it is crucial to the illusion of total independence and perfection that you limit the breadth of your life!
In her writings, she used a number of other phrases to refer to these three strategies.
- Besides compliance, she referred to the first as the moving-toward strategy and the self-effacing solution.
- Besides aggression, the second was referred to as moving-against and the expansive solution.
- And, besides withdrawal, she called the third moving-away-from and the resigning solution.
The 12-Step model of recovery addresses these ‘needs’ and ‘coping’ strategies by ‘normalising’ their expressions in everyday life.