Neurotic symptoms, therefore, might be compensatory; part of a self-regulating mechanism whose aim was the achievement of a better balance within the psyche. Jung sometimes said of an individual: “Thank God, he became neurotic!” Just as pain might make a man realize that there was something wrong with his body, so neurotic symptoms could draw attention to psychological problems of which the individual was unaware.
The very frequent neurotic disturbances of adult years all have one thing in common: they want to carry the psychology of the youthful phase over the threshold of the so-called years of discretion. Who does not know those touching old gentlemen who must always warm up the dish of their student days, who can fan the flame of life only by reminiscences of their heroic youth, but who, for the rest, are stuck in a hopelessly wooden Philistinism? As a rule, to be sure, they have this one merit which it would be wrong to undervalue: they are not neurotic, but only boring and stereotyped. The neurotic is rather a person who can never have things as he would like them in the present, and who can therefore never enjoy the past either.
The neurosis is thus a defence against the objective, inner activity of the psyche, or an attempt, somewhat dearly paid for, to escape from the inner voice and hence from the vocation. For this “growth” is the objective activity of the psyche, which, independently of conscious volition, is trying to speak to the conscious mind through the inner voice and lead him towards wholeness. Behind the neurotic perversion is concealed his vocation, his destiny: the growth of personality, the full realization of the life-will that is born with the individual. It is the man without amor fati who is the neurotic; he, truly, has missed his vocation, and never will he be able to say with Cromwell, “None climbeth so high as he who knoweth not whither his destiny leadeth him.”
To the extent that a man is untrue to the law of his being and does not rise to personality, he has failed to realize his life’s meaning. Fortunately, in her kindness and patience, Nature never puts the fatal question as to the meaning of their lives into the mouths of most people. And where no one asks, no one need answer.
And just as the typical neurotic is unconscious of his shadow side, so the normal individual, like the neurotic, sees his shadow in his neighbour or in the man beyond the great divide. It has even become a political and social duty to apostrophize the capitalism of the one and the communism of the other as the very devil, so as to fascinate the outward eye and prevent it from looking within. But just as the neurotic, despite unconsciousness of his other side, has a dim premonition that all is not well with his psychic economy, so Western man has developed an instinctive interest in his psyche and in “psychology.”
Most commonly, dreams were compensatory to the conscious point of view; expressions of aspects of the individual which were neglected or unrealized; or, like neurotic symptoms, warnings of divergence from the individual’s proper path. Dreams from the collective level might sometimes be visions of vast significance, quite outside the range of conscious contrivance.
You may ask why the neurotic has a special tendency not to accomplish his necessary tasks. Here let me point out that no living creature adjusts itself easily and smoothly to new conditions. The law of inertia is valid everywhere.
A sensitive and somewhat unbalanced person, as a neurotic always is, will meet with special difficulties and perhaps with more unusual tasks in life than a normal individual, who as a rule has only to follow the well-worn path of an ordinary existence. For the neurotic there is no established way of life, because his aims and tasks are apt to be of a highly individual character. He tries to go the more or less uncontrolled and half-conscious way of normal people, not realizing that his own critical and very different nature demands of him more effort than the normal person is required to exert. There are neurotics who have shown their heightened sensitiveness and their resistance to adaptation in the very first weeks of life, in the difficulty they have in taking the mother’s breast and in their exaggerated nervous reactions, etc. For this peculiarity in the neurotic predisposition it will always be impossible to find a psychological aetiology, because it is anterior to all psychology. This predisposition — you can call it “congenital sensitiveness” or what you like — is the cause of the first resistances to adaptation. As the way to adaptation is blocked, the biological energy we call libido does not find its appropriate outlet or activity, with the result that a suitable form of adaptation is replaced by an abnormal or primitive one.
In neurosis we speak of an infantile attitude or of the predominance of infantile fantasies and wishes. In so far as infantile impressions are of obvious importance in normal people they will be equally influential in neurosis, but they have no aetiological significance; they are reactions merely, being chiefly secondary and regressive phenomena. It is perfectly true, as Freud says, that infantile fantasies determine the form and the subsequent development of neurosis, but this is not an aetiology. Even when we find perverted sexual fantasies whose existence can be demonstrated in childhood, we cannot consider them of aetiological significance. A neurosis is not really caused by infantile sexual fantasies, and the same must be said of the sexualism of neurotic fantasy in general. It is not a primary phenomenon based on a perverted sexual disposition, but merely secondary and a consequence of the failure to apply the stored-up libido in a suitable way. I realize that this is a very old view, but this does not prevent it from being true. The fact that the patient himself very often believes that his infantile fantasies are the real cause of his neurosis does not prove that he is right in his belief, or that a theory based on this belief is right either. It may look as if it were so, and I must admit that very many cases do have that appearance. At all events, it is perfectly easy to understand how Freud arrived at this view. Everyone who has any psychoanalytic experience will agree with me here.
To sum up: I cannot see the real aetiology of neurosis in the various manifestations of infantile sexual development and the fantasies to which they give rise. The fact that these fantasies are exaggerated in neurosis and occupy the foreground is a consequence of the stored-up energy or libido. The psychological trouble in neurosis, and the neurosis itself, can be formulated as an act of adaptation that has failed. This formulation might reconcile certain views of Janet’s with Freud’s view that a neurosis is, in a sense, an attempt at self-cure — a view which can be and has been applied to many other illnesses.
The numerous compensations of the basic type are generally due to experiences which teach a man, perhaps in a very painful way, that he cannot give free rein to his nature. In other cases, for instance with neurotics, one frequently does not know whether one is dealing with a conscious or an unconscious attitude because, owing to the dissociation of the personality, sometimes one half of it and sometimes the other half occupies the foreground and confuses one’s judgment. This is what makes it so excessively trying to live with neurotic persons.
Neurotic symptoms, also, can be compensatory to a distorted, one-sided conscious attitude, and may thus be valuable pointers toward a new adaptation rather than being simply disagreeable. In a discussion following one of his Tavistock Lectures, Jung says:
I am not altogether pessimistic about neurosis. In many cases we have to say: “Thank heaven he could make up his mind to be neurotic.” Neurosis is really an attempt at self-cure, just as any physical disease is in part an attempt at self-cure. We cannot understand a disease as an ens per se any more, as something detached which not so long ago it was believed to be. Modern medicine — internal medicine, for instance — conceives of disease as a system composed of a harmful factor and a healing factor. It is exactly the same with neurosis. It is an attempt of the self-regulating psychic system to restore the balance, in no way different from the function of dreams — only rather more forceful and drastic. [CW 18, par. 389]
Since dreams provide information about the hidden inner life and reveal to the patient those components of his personality which, in his daily behaviour, appear merely as neurotic symptoms, it follows that we cannot effectively treat him from the side of consciousness alone, but must bring about a change in and through the unconscious. In the light of our present knowledge this can be achieved only by the thorough and conscious assimilation of unconscious contents.
It would also be a great mistake to suppose that this is the path every neurotic must travel, or that it is the solution at every stage of the neurotic problem. It is appropriate only in those cases where consciousness has reached an abnormal degree of development and has diverged too far from the unconscious. This is the sine qua non of the process. Nothing would be more wrong than to open this way to neurotics who are ill on account of an excessive predominance of the unconscious. For the same reason, this way of development has scarcely any meaning before the middle of life (normally between the ages of thirty-five and forty), and if entered upon too soon can be decidedly injurious.