Jung on Neurosis: Part I Definitions and Causes

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

Jung on Neurosis: Part I

Definitions and Causes

“Neurosis is self-division.”

Jung (1943)1

“The neurosis is thus a defense 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.”

Jung (1932)2

“A neurosis is by no means merely a negative thing, it is also something positive.”

Jung (1934)3

“…the cause of neurosis is the discrepancy between the conscious attitude and the trend of the unconscious. This dissociation is bridged by the assimilation of unconscious contents.”

Jung (1935)4

“… every neurosis is characterized by dissociation and conflict, contains complexes, and shows traces of regression and abaissement.”

Jung (1924)5

“… The symptom is therefore an indirect expression of unrecognized desires which, when conscious, come into violent conflict with our moral convictions…”

Jung (1943)6

“… hidden in the neurosis is a bit of still undeveloped personality, a precious fragment of the psyche lacking which a man is condemned to resignation, bitterness, and everything else that is hostile to life. A psychology of neurosis that sees only the negative elements empties out the baby with the bath-water, since it neglects the positive meaning and value of these “infantile” – i.e., creative – fantasies.”

Jung (1934)7

“… it is only in the today, not in our yesterdays, that the neurosis can be ‘cured.’ Because the neurotic conflict has to be for today, any historical deviation is a detour, if not actually a wrong turning.”

Jung (1934)8

“About a third of my cases are not suffering from any clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and aimlessness of their lives. I should not object if this were called the general neurosis of our age….”

Jung (1929)9

“What does a neurosis look like? If someone is said to be ‘neurotic,’ what does that mean?” A student posed these questions at one point in a conversation, and I offered a glib answer, something like “Life doesn’t work very well,” fully aware that this was quite inadequate, and that the question deserved much fuller treatment. In his Collected Works, letters and various seminars, Jung discussed neurosis nearly 700 times.10 It was a key theme in his work as a psychiatrist, and a major topic in his writing. To do justice to this important topic, I have created a three-part essay. Part I takes up definitions and causes of neurosis; Part II includes features and symptoms (addressing most closely the student’s questions); and Part III considers possible ways a neurosis can be healed and concludes with some comments Jung made that capture relevant aspects of his philosophy.

Part I: Definitions and Causes of Neurosis


Our English word “neurosis” comes from the Greek neuron, which meant “sinew, tendon;…”11 The Latin derivative comes closer to our current usage, nervicus meaning “nervous, having a nervous disorder.”12 A modern dictionary draws on the Latin root, defining “neurosis” as

“a mild nervous disorder showing emotional disturbance with no apparent organic change. The nerve function is deranged and characterized especially by anxiety and a feeling of insecurity.”13

Jung was both more succinct and more elaborate in his definitions, defining a neurosis as:

“self-division,”14 “… an individual attempt, however unsuccessful, to solve a universal problem;…”15 “… a transitory phase, it is the unrest between two positions,”16 in which “something objectively psychic and strange to us, not under our control, is fixedly opposed to the sovereignty of our will.”17

Jung acknowledged Freud as the first to use the term, which he (Freud) considered “to be a substitute for direct means of gratification. For him it is something inauthentic–a mistake, a subterfuge, an excuse, a refusal to face facts; in short, something essentially negative that should never have been.”18 In this, as in so many other ways,19 Jung differed from Freud, taking a much broader view of how, when and why a neurosis can form (more on that below) and also regarding a neurosis as both negative and positive: “A neurosis is by no means merely a negative thing; it is also something positive.”20 (more on this in Part II).

In Jung’s understanding, a neurosis could be regarded as “a dissociation of personality due to the existence of complexes,”21 an “illness”22 manifesting “a relative dissociation, a conflict between the ego and a resistant force based upon unconscious contents.”23 As a “cleavage–the state of being at war with oneself,”24 a neurosis “is a splitting of personality,”25 in which one is alienated “from one’s instincts,” suffering from a splitting off of consciousness from certain basic facts of the psyche.”26 Jung offered examples of such splits: between the “sensual and the spiritual man, or between the ego and the shadow…”,27 that is, situations where we are unable to reconcile or integrate opposites within ourselves.

As failures of adaptation, a neurosis can take “two forms: one, a disturbance of adaptation to outer conditions; two, a disturbance of adaptation to inner conditions.”28 Either we fail to adapt to outer realities, e.g. oldsters who try to hold on to the things of youth,29 or we lose contact with our inner life, and “miss” our vocation, i.e. what we are meant to do with our lives.30 Given the Extraverted, materialistic nature of our modern world, and our “present-day sexual morality,”31 Jung felt the very nature of our time fosters neurosis:

“Neurosis is intimately bound up with the problem of our time and really represents an unsuccessful attempt on the part of the individual to solve the general problem in his own person.”32

By “general problem,” Jung referred to features of the modern world like “hooking up” (i.e. the denigration of sexual morality),33 consumeritis (i.e. the acquisition of stuff in an effort to fill an inner void), and the decline of religion,34 leading to the widespread phenomenon of doubt. Jung was blunt: “Doubt about our civilization and its values is the contemporary neurosis.”35

So, given Jung’s assessment here, I could have replied to my student that we all might be said to be neurotic, since neurosis is

“the hall-mark of civilized man. The neurotic is only a special instance of the disunited man who ought to harmonize nature and culture within himself.”36

“The neurotic is one who falls victim to his own illusions,”37 and, given our current culture we certainly are witness now to lots of illusions in our politics and civic life, and so many Americans have fallen “victim” to their own, and their President’s, illusions! Why is this? Why do neuroses arise? Let’s consider some of the causes Jung identified.


We must start off our discussion of causes with Jung’s reminder of the ubiquity of antimonies:

“… every truth relating to the psyche must, if it is to be made absolutely true, immediately be reversed. Thus one is neurotic because one has repressions or because one does not have repressions; because one’s head is full of infantile sex fantasies or one does not live by the pleasure principle; because one is too unconscious or because one is too conscious; because one is selfish or because one exists too little as a self; and so on …”38

In what follows, we will identify causes, but must do so with the awareness that there are no absolutes, and Jung would never countenance much “theory-building in psychology.”39

With that caveat, we can discuss the various causes for neuroses under several rubrics: conflict, dissociation, maladaptation, being out of sync with one’s age, neuroses relating to social roles, those relating to moral issues, those linked to religion, erotic or sex-based neuroses, and features of our collective life that foster our being vulnerable to neuroses.

Conflict. This cause arises from the fact that we all have both a conscious life and an unconscious. We have an ego and a shadow side, a sensual life and a spiritual life,40 and when “we cannot see the other side of our nature,”41 we can fall prey to a neurosis: “… the cause of neurosis is the discrepancy between the conscious attitude and the trend of the unconscious.”42 Especially is a neurosis likely when we become one-sided,43 e.g. too rational, too “heady,” too worldly (i.e. denying the claim our soul has on our lives), or too saintly. The unconscious always tries to compensate such imbalances, and the result is that we are “faced with a situation which [we] cannot overcome by conscious means.”44 The development of our personality comes to a “standstill.”45 We become at “war with [our]selves [in] the suspicion or the knowledge that [we] consist of two persons in opposition to one another.”46 Our inner life is no longer cooperating with our outer, conscious identity.

One form such conflict can take is in the phenomenon known as the “turn type”–the situation that occurs when a person is unable to live true to his/her own innate type preferences.47 This can be due to parental pressures or family situations in early life in which a child is forced to become something she or he is not. I know this well, having had this experience myself. My innate type preference is INFJ: Introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging. But my early years were marked by profound parental neglect, and having no reliable caregivers, I had to shift to living as a Sensate Thinking type. Jung was clear that “whenever such a falsification of type takes place as a result of parental influence, the individual becomes neurotic later, and can be cured only by developing the attitude consonant with his nature.”48 Yes: I had to reclaim my intuition and feelings, and this was a major piece of work in my analysis. I was living in a mode that was unnatural, and my unconscious side, aware of my true nature, came into conflict with my outer habitual way of living.

Dissociation. Jung regarded dissociation as “the root of all neuroses.”49 In this cause of neurosis, “The conscious goes to the right and the unconscious to the left.”50 A gap forms between our inner “healthy instincts”51 and “an artificial life”52 full of “prejudices, fantasies, infantile wishes, and the lure of external objects.”53 Over time we might develop “an intellectual or moral idea that forms an ideal [that is] incompatible with human nature.”54 We might come to deceive ourselves about how smart we are, how moral we are, etc. and “…self-deceptions of this kind have dissociating effects which breed neurosis,…”.55 In response to a swelled head, or too big an ego, for example, the unconscious may conjure up “feelings of inferiority,”56 and the gap “between conscious and unconscious,”57–between how we think we are and how we really are within–grows wider and wider, leading to “the fatal splitting of the personality”58 and the formation of a neurosis.

Maladaption.59 This cause takes many forms. A person might be “childishly unadapted to one’s environment or … one is adapted exclusively to the environment.”60–both of these being too one-sided, triggering a neurosis. Either we fail to adjust to outer life demands in proper ways, or we fail to attend to our inner life, and fail to “adapt to inner conditions.”61 The key here is imbalance: Trying “to adapt entirely and exclusively to the outside, while entirely neglecting the inside,”62 upsets the balance that is essential for psychic health. Given the strong preference for Extraversion in American society, this imbalance is quite common: Not many people tend to their inner life so diligently that they maintain psychic equilibrium, which is why Jung concluded that our contemporary society promotes neurosis.63

Being Out of Sync with One’s Age. Jung depicted the human life span as an arc,64 much like the passage of the sun which moves from the Eastern horizon at dawn, rises to its maximum altitude at noon, and then sinks lower in the sky until it disappears below the Western horizon at nightfall. Dawn is birth, noontime is mid-life, and nightfall is the moment we die. Jung felt that each of these intervals–youth, mid-life, and old age–has a unique character: “… the life of a young person is characterized by a general expansion and a striving towards concrete ends; and his neurosis seems mainly to rest on his hesitation or shrinking back from this necessity.”65 Mid-life (c. ages 35-45) should be a time of reorientation, as we let go of some of the things of youth and begin to shift our perspective, e.g. planning for retirement, while “… the life of an older person is characterized by a contraction of forces, by the affirmation of what has been achieved, and by the curtailment of further growth. His neurosis comes mainly from his clinging to a youthful attitude which is now out of season.”66

Another example of this cause of neurosis is the adult person who lives under a parental complex, i.e. “an abnormal dependence on the real or imaginary parents.”67 Jung recalled

“a particularly vivid memory of a woman patient with a mild hysterical neurosis which,… had its principal cause in a “father-complex.” By this we wanted to denote the fact that the patient’s peculiar relationship to her father stood in her way…. The progress of her life was thus held up, and that inner disunity so characteristic of a neurosis promptly made its appearance.”68

In my own experience, I too had a father-complex, and, much as with Jung’s patient, the “progress” of my own life was frustrated until I “had it out with myself”69 during my analysis, and was able, over time, to come to terms with the inner father imago that had unconsciously dominated my life. In doing this, I was finally able to get unstuck and grow more fully into the adult life that my soul intended for me.

Social Roles. Another feature of adult life is socialization. Proper parenting should teach youngsters certain social habits so as to allow them to fit into the society they live in. Sometimes this training can become extreme, leading a person to identify with a social role.70 Jung felt such a situation was a “very fruitful source of neuroses.”71 This is because “A man cannot get rid of himself in favor of an artificial personality without punishment.”72 Our “psychic experience within the family or even the social group”73 creates certain expectations and assumptions (most of these quite unconscious), which can result in “psychological insecurity”74 and “the suppression of infantile and primitive demands for cultural reasons…”.75 Jung is not suggesting here that we should act like infants, or live out infantile demands, but that we be conscious of these facets of our unconscious life, i.e. that we bring these into consciousness, and be aware of them, lest they lead to a splitting, with the conscious life manifesting refinement, while the unconscious throws up all sorts of piggish or uncouth compensations. The key to avoiding a neurosis is our holding the tension between these opposite tendencies, rather than repressing one or the other.

Moral Issues. On occasion Jung encountered people who had become neurotic because of their immoral attitudes.76 In several places in his Collected Works77 he wrote of a young man who had analyzed with a Freudian, and had, as a result, keen insight into his situation. The man wrote a very professional monograph, which he gave Jung to read. It was impressive, but all his intellectual efforts had done nothing to eliminate his neurosis. He asked Jung why this was. Jung had no idea, but drew the young man out, asking how it was he spent his winters on the Riviera, and then it came out that the man was living off the financial support of a poor schoolteacher who hoped to marry him. He saw nothing wrong in sponging off this woman, and Jung told him bluntly that his neurosis was “a compensation and a punishment for his immoral attitude.”78 The young man then stomped out of Jung’s office. In another case, Jung worked with

“an introverted, highly intelligent neurotic who spent his time alternating between the loftiest flights of transcendental idealism and the most squalid suburban brothels, without any conscious admission of a moral or aesthetic conflict. The two things were utterly distinct as though belonging to different spheres. The result, naturally, was an acute compulsion neurosis.”79

With such an extreme split between intellect and soul, this man had fallen “into disunity with himself…”.80 Our soul retains moral scruples that cannot be denied acknowledgement, whether we like to admit this or not. Any wide discrepancy between our conscious attitudes (idealisms and pretensions to sanctity) and our actions (using or abusing others) might trigger a neurosis.

Religious Issues. Jung was not a proponent of “creeds”81–his term for organized religion–but he was firmly convinced of the reality of the “religious instinct”82 that lives within every person. This instinct, like the myriad other instincts within us, cannot be violated without risking a neurosis. Ignoring this side of ourselves can result in a conflict between the “sensual and the spiritual man,”83 and our being cut off from the spiritual guidance the psyche holds. Jung was explicit that the “godless”84 life “meant a dire loss of hope and energy.”85 More than this, Jung felt that “… with the decline of religious life, the neuroses grow noticeably more frequent.”86 in our Western culture. Multiple patients showed up in Jung’s consulting room with “religious problems which the patient puts before me as authentic and… possible causes of the neurosis.”87 Closely connected with religion–i.e. our sense of connection to a larger meaning or purpose for living88–is the idea of vocation.89 Everyone, Jung thought, has a vocation, and our “inner voice” tries to “lead [us] toward wholeness,”90 toward the fulfillment of our unique “calling” (aka “vocation”). Those who are vehemently closed to the unconscious often fail to hear this voice, and the result can be a neurosis.

Sexuality and Erotic Issues. This was Freud’s hobby horse: He felt “erotic conflicts,”91 “incest complexes”92 and sexual repressions were the “key to the whole conception of neurosis.”93 Jung did admit that “Abnormal displacements of libido, quite definitely sexual, do in fact play a great role in these illnesses.”94 In many instances neurotics’ heads are “full of infantile sex fantasies”95 which can lead to neurosis. But Jung also felt strongly that “… neuroses are by no means exclusively caused by sexual repressions,…”,96 nor are neuroses only personal: they have a collective causation too.97

Features of Our Collective Life. Jung was not a fan of the modern world. He spoke repeatedly of the “general neurosis of our age.”98 and the banality of much of life in the Western world,99 which gives rise to a host of pathologies, like “separations, discord, divorces, and other marital disorders.”100

“Everything is banal, everything is “nothing but;” and that is the reason why people are neurotic. They are simply sick of the whole thing, sick of that banal life, …”101

In response, “we seek the cause [for our discomfort] in lack of vitamins, in endocrine disturbances, overwork, or sex.”102 We project our problems on to others,103 seeing them as the source of our discomfort, completely forgetting the unconscious–the shadow that lives within us. We dismiss intangibles, like the unconscious, the soul, and a spiritual connection to something larger than ourselves. It never occurs to us to enlist the “cooperation of the unconscious.”104 Quite the opposite: the unconscious “… is something we never think of and always take for granted,”105 until it fails to cooperate. These times of failure occur when we become so unbalanced that a split occurs, causing neurosis.

Jung understood that we can consume all the vitamins we like, supplement endocrine deficiencies all we want, work less or work more, sleep around or indulge in other sensual pleasures, but none of this will address the real cause of our collective problem: “the senselessness and aimlessness”106 of lives lived without a spiritual rootedness. Material stuff (like vitamins or adrenal supports) or “forced exaggeration of the conscious attitude”107 won’t cure what ails our society. Jung is clear that

“… something objectively psychic and strange to us, not under our control, is fixedly opposed to the sovereignty of our will.108 … We can never legitimately cut loose from our archetypal foundations unless we are prepared to pay the price of a neurosis, any more than we can rid ourselves of our body and its organs without committing suicide…109 Projection… is never a cure; it prevents the conflict only on the surface, while deeper down it creates a neurosis…. In that way the devil is cast out by Beelzebub.”110

For those unfamiliar with Biblical terms, Beelzebub is another term for the devil. In other words, it profits us nothing.

Jung reminds us that we are living in a neurotic time,111 a time when

“… everybody, naturally prefers (so long as he lacks insight) never to seek the causes of any inconvenience in himself, but to push them as far away from himself as possible in space and time. Otherwise he would run the risk of having to make a change for the better.”112

Even when the change would offer health, greater happiness and overall improvement in our lives, we resist.113 And what resists, persists, which is why Jesus told his followers “resist not evil.”114 Resistance, projection, and “forced exaggerations of the conscious attitude”115 are some of the features of neuroses. In Part II, we consider others, as well as symptoms, in answering the question of what a neurosis might look like.


Hollis, James (1993), The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jung, C.G. (1973), “Experimental Researches,” Collected Works, 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), “The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease,” Collected Works, 3. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature,” CW 15. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1979), General Index to the Collected Works of C.G. Jung, compiled by Barbara Forryan & Janet Glover. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kluger, Rivkah (1995), Psyche in Scripture: The Idea of the Chosen People and Other Essays. Toronto: Inner City Books.

1 Collected Works 7 ¶18. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

2 CW 17 ¶313.

3 CW 10 ¶355.

4 CW 16 ¶26.

5 CW 17 ¶205.

6 CW 7 ¶438.

7 CW 10 ¶355.

8 Ibid. ¶363.

9 CW 16 ¶83.

10 Cf. CW 20, pp. 477-480; Letters, II, p. 691; and Jung (1984), 735, for complete lists of all these references.

11 Liddell & Scott (1978), 530.

12 Lewis & Short (1969), 1203.

13 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1303.

14 CW 7 ¶18.

15 Ibid. ¶438.

16 CW 18 ¶667.

17 CW 10 ¶309.

18 CW 15 ¶156.

19 For an in-depth discussion of the differences Jung had with Freud, see the essay “Jung on Freud,” archived on this Web site.

20 CW 10 ¶355.

21 CW 18 ¶382.

22 CW 16 ¶11.

23 CW 3 ¶516.

24 CW 11 ¶522.

25 Ibid.

26 CW 8 ¶808.

27 CW 11 ¶522.

28 CW 18 ¶1087.

29 CW 16 ¶75.

30 CW 17 ¶313.

31 CW 7 ¶438.

32 Ibid. ¶18.

33 Ibid. ¶438.

34 CW 11 ¶514.

35 CW 15 ¶69.

36 CW 7 ¶16.

37 CW 17 ¶202.

38 Ibid. ¶203.

39 Ibid. ¶205.

40 CW 11 ¶522.

41 CW 7 ¶438.

42 CW 16 ¶26.

43 CW 13 ¶455.

44 CW 10 ¶546.

45 Ibid.

46 CW 11 ¶522.

47 CW 6 ¶560.

48 Ibid.

49 CW 9ii ¶280.

50 Ibid.

51 CW 18 ¶474.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid. ¶1390.

55 CW 11 ¶457.

56 Ibid.

57 CW 5 ¶683.

58 Ibid.

59 CW 13 ¶12.

60 CW 17 ¶203.

61 CW 18 ¶1087.

62 Ibid. ¶1088.

63 CW 16 ¶83.

64 CW 7 ¶114. For more on Jung’s thoughts on aging, see the essay “Enjoying the Afternoon of Life: Jung on Aging,” archived on this Web site.

65 CW 16 ¶75.

66 Ibid.

67 CW 7 ¶114.

68 Ibid. ¶206.

69 The term Jung and his students use for this work is the German “portmanteau” word auseinandersetzung; cf. Hollis (1993), 108-109, and Kluger (1995), 74-75.

70 CW 7 ¶307.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

73 CW 10 ¶337.

74 CW 17 ¶343.

75 CW 6 ¶573.

76 Cf. CW 18 ¶282 & CW 8 ¶702.

77 Cf. CW 18 ¶282 & CW 8 ¶685.

78 CW 18 ¶282.

79 CW 6 ¶472.

80 CW 7 ¶27.

81 CW 11 ¶10. For more on Jung’s stance on religion, see my book The Spiritual Adventure of Our Time: C.G. Jung and the New Dispensation.

82 CW 17 ¶157.

83 CW 11 ¶522.

84 CW 7 ¶397.

85 CW 9i ¶139.

86 CW 11 ¶514.

87 Ibid. ¶518.

88 CW 17 ¶313.

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid.

91 CW 7 ¶431.

92 CW 4 ¶377.

93 CW 7 ¶431.

94 CW 4 ¶275.

95 CW 17 ¶203.

96 CW 15 ¶106.

97 CW 10 ¶357.

98 CW 16 ¶83.

99 CW 18 ¶627.

100 CW 17 ¶343.

101 CW 18 ¶627.

102 CW 11 ¶784.

103 CW 5 ¶507.

104 CW 11 ¶784.

105 Ibid.

106 CW 16 ¶83.

107 CW 6 ¶663.

108 CW 10 ¶309.

109 CW 9i ¶267.

110 CW 5 ¶507.

111 CW 16 ¶83.

112 CW 17 ¶200.

113 Ibid.

114 Matt. 5:39.

115 CW 6 ¶663.

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