Jung on Neurosis Part II

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Jung on Neurosis Part II:

Features and Symptoms




Conflict. Our discussion of definitions and causes for neurosis, in Part I, brought up some of the features of neuroses. An inner conflict, or “cleavage of the personality,”[1] is one. A “part of the personality which is too contrary to the conscious part becomes split off.”[2] This “violent conflict”[3] can lead to a “systematic”[4] dissociation of the personality, “autonomous psychic contents,”[5] and “contrary tendencies [which] frustrate and prevent psychological adaptation.”[6]

Emotions. This conflict can come along with “tempests of passion,”[7] “unusually strong emotional charges,”[8] and “feelings of inferiority,”[9] which have such “constellating power”[10] that they can “fetter the whole individual.”[11] As a result, the neurotic person may feel stuck, fraught with “emotional indigestion,”[12] and overwhelmed with suffering. The slew of emotions that accompany a neurosis are “unusually strong”[13] because of a third feature of neurosis: complexes.

Complexes. Jung made his early mark in the field of psychiatry for his Association test[14] that identified “a collection of various ideas, held together by a emotional tone common to all.”[15] This is how Jung defined “complex.” We all have complexes. In my discussions with students, I liken a complex to a black-and-blue mark on the skin: Just as a bruise is very sensitive and hitting it elicits a strong pain and “Ouch!,” so a complex is a very sensitive part of our inner psychic landscape, and when it gets “hit”–i.e. life events “constellate” this collection of ideas–we react automatically, before the ego can modulate or temper our response. This is what Jung meant when he called a complex “autonomous:”[16] it has a power beyond the ego’s conscious control. A person that is highly neurotic has multiple complexes which “form an intrinsic part of his psychic life.”[17]

All this was very meaningful to me, for, when I began my analysis, I had multiple complexes (none of which I knew about in the beginning, of course, but my analyst could spot them): a negative father complex, a negative mother complex, an inferiority complex–I was a mess! Events in outer life would constellate one of these inner sensitive spots, and my conscious ego stance would disappear. In the case of my father complex, for example, when a man “hit” that sensitive spot in me, by some words or actions that called up my relationship with my father, “I”–my normal way of dealing with life–would vanish, and the complex would take over, leading me to interact with the man as I did with my father. Fortunately, as Jung said, these “autonomous complexes… can be brought under control again through the analysis…”.[18] And so they were: Initially, the work of analysis helped me spot what had happened after the fact. Gradually, having this process repeat over and over (we learn all this through repetition), I got wise to the type of man and the sort of situation that would spark the complex. Over more time, I became able to witness the process as it began, and then could mitigate it a bit. Eventually I was able to say to myself, in interacting with someone like my father, “Once upon a time, that would have set off my complex.” Just as in physical terms, a bruise heals and no longer is sensitive to the touch, so our complexes can be healed, as we become less neurotic.[19]

Resistance, Regression and Retardation. Note the words above: Initially, gradually, eventually–neuroses take time to heal, just like bruises. And, just as with the physical injury, the ego cannot rush the process of healing. In fact, the ego often tends to slow it down, thanks to the phenomenon of “resistance.”[20] When we encounter this feature of neurosis we truly conclude that we are our own worst enemy, at war with ourselves! Some part of me wanted to heal my complexes, but another part of me didn’t want to change. Rather, it regressed, “withdrew”[21] the libido (psychic energy) and held back. In some cases, Jung felt, such regression was a “retardation,”[22] due to a “too strong attachment to the parents.”[23] I discovered, over the course of my analysis, that I was still hoping to gain my father’s approval, even though he had been dead for decades! The father “imago” still lived within me, leaving me “imprisoned in an infantile relationship,”[24] as Jung put it.

Fantasies. My hope was a fantasy, and “infantile fantasies”[25] are another feature of neuroses. Such “nostalgic yearnings”[26] are completely unconscious, as well as completely unrealistic. Even if our parents are still alive, it is very unlikely we’ll get them to change: the only thing we can change is ourselves. Analysis helps us do that. It gets us to wise up to our fantasies, and to whatever “skeletons in the cupboard”[27] might be blocking the growth our soul wants for us.

Problems with Thinking or Interpreting Reality. Fantasies are “infantile.”[28] Other forms of mental activity are more developed: “all kinds of prejudices,”[29] “obsessional ideas,”[30] “the logic of the intellect.”[31]–Jung described the neurotic’s mental life with terms like these, to explain “how impotent man’s reason and intellect are…”[32] when we are dealing with the realm of the unconscious. Jung warns us that, in confronting the unconscious, “the logic of the intellect usually fails…”.[33] Given my life as an academic, with all the years of intellectual training that implies, this truth came as both a shock and an insult. I could not figure it out! Healing my neuroses was not a challenge my logical mind could solve. In fact, I discovered that, the more I tried to reason things out, the more confused and frustrated I became. My analyst suggested relaxing and trusting the vix medicatrix naturae–the healing force of Nature, using the analogy of the bruise or the cut: Did my ego mind step in and heal those things? Would my ego mind even know how to do that? No. Likewise, in the realm of the psyche, I could trust that my soul would know how to heal my psychic illness.

Rather than hyper-rationalism, Jung saw healing in the opposite, in what he called “an abaissement du niveau mental,”[34] a lowering of the mental level, which he felt belonged “to the stock-in-trade of neurosis.”[35] This “lowering” would put mental energy closer to the unconscious (since, in Jung’s image of our psychic structure, the unconscious is below consciousness), and this lowering might give more access to contents of the unconscious that would be helpful. The more we can relax our defenses and resistances, and allow the unconscious to do the healing work, the more we support the process.

Positive Features. Jung’s belief that the unconscious would be helpful reflects his years of experience working with neurotics, which led him to recognize that neurosis, while unpleasant, is not entirely negative.[36] No sickness–physical or mental–is meaningless. Any form of illness holds meaning, has a purpose. Once we understand “the point”[37] of the neurosis, it can “collapse.”[38] Jung said that “Neurosis is teleologically oriented.”[39] That is, it has a goal, an end result that our soul wants to achieve. More specifically, Jung reminds us that “hidden in the neurosis is a bit of still undeveloped personality, a precious fragment of the psyche …”.[40] A neurosis “belongs to him [the neurotic] in the deepest sense, completes him, creates organic balance, and yet for some reason is feared,…”.[41] Of course, we fear it! We can’t figure it out, so we fear it. But, Jung reminds us that the neurosis is giving us a “stronger incentive to probe into our unconscious,”[42] and “to make a change for the better.”[43] And Jung saw all this–the illness, the challenge, the work to heal–as part of our “destiny,”[44] the task the soul sets us. In my own experience, I can see how this is true. Becoming neurotic is no fun, but when the work to heal is undertaken consciously, in analysis, it is life-transforming and opens whole new realms of learning, loving and growth. It “enlarges the personality,”[45] as Jung put it.




Like any illness, neurosis has symptoms. These can be physical, emotional, intellectual (warped thinking) and behavioral, usually with a mix of all of these. In the interests of clarity, I will take these up by category, but the reader should understand that the reality is anything but clear: The neurotic’s reality is generally a jumble of all these types of symptoms.

Physical Symptoms. Many people, regarding neurosis as a “mental illness,”[46] might wonder why there would be physical symptoms. But Jung recognized the mind-body connection and knew that psychological problems can easily produce physical ailments.[47] Jung lists some of these in his Collected Works: “nervous catarrh of the stomach,”[48] (an inflammation of mucus membranes in the digestive track), “excessive innervations of the sympathetic system, which lead to nervous disorders of the stomach and intestines; or of the vagus (and consequently of the heart)…”,[49] the loss of energy,[50] “dangerous symptoms of nervous ailments, such as a paresis,[51] contractures, paraesthesias,[52] etc.”, “hysteria[53]… dyspepsia,”[54] “auditory hallucinations,”[55] “anemia and its sequelae,”[56] “hypochondriacal symptoms, hypersensitivity of the sense organs,”[57] “somatic innervations,”[58] and insomnia.[59]

In volume 6 of his Collected Works, Jung described some of the physical manifestations of neuroses he observed in different patients:

“… a singer whose fame has risen to dangerous heights that tempt him to expend too much energy suddenly finds he cannot sing because of some nervous inhibition. Or a man of modest beginnings who rapidly reaches a social position of great influence with wide prospects is suddenly afflicted with all the symptoms of a mountain sickness. Again, a man about to marry a woman of doubtful character whom he adores and vastly overestimates is seized with a nervous spasm of the esophagus and has to restrict himself to 2 cups of milk a day,… Or a man who can no longer carry the weight of the huge business he has built up is afflicted with nervous attacks of thirst and speedily falls victim to hysterical alcoholism.””[60]

In a myriad of ways a neurosis can produce a wide range of physiological problems, as well as skew one’s thinking, feeling and behavior.

Behavioral Symptoms. Neurotics may engage is all sorts of weird behaviors, from “underhanded tricks they play on themselves and their neighbors”[61] to “irritability for no reason,”[62] and “carelessness of all kinds, neglected duties, tasks postponed, willful outbursts of defiance…”.[63] They may “suddenly lose their energy,… and come under a strange influence,”[64] leading those around them to wonder what’s going on. They may develop “a deep depression,”[65] “morbidity,”[66] or paralyzing phobias[67] or vices.[68]

Under the influence of a neurosis, a person may become forgetful,[69] uncoordinated,[70] or lose interest in things that previously were passions.[71] Will-power may weaken and self-control can become slack.[72] “Separations, discord, divorces, and other marital disorders”[73] sometimes occur, due to a neurosis. In hysterical forms of neurosis, the neurotic may show

“an exaggerated rapport with persons in the immediate environment and an adjustment to surrounding conditions that amounts to imitation. A constant tendency to make himself interesting and to produce an impression is a basic feature of the hysteric. The corollary of this is his proverbial suggestibility, his proneness to another person’s influence.”[74]

If the hysteric is an Extravert, Jung felt that his hysteria might show up as “abusiveness,”[75] while in the case of “the pure sensation type,”[76] a neurosis can appear as “a banal and overweening desire to dominate, into vanity and despotic bossiness. … unscrupulous ambition and mischievous cruelty.”[77]

Neurotics are prone to psychological game-playing, e.g. engaging in “counter-intrigues,”[78] suspecting others, and then weaving counterplots.[79] They can

“make frantic efforts to get their own back and be top dog. Endless clandestine rivalries spring up, and in these embittered struggles [they] shrink from no baseness or meanness, and will even prostitute [their] virtues in order to play the trump card.” [80]

Having to deal with the behavior of a neurotic is not pleasant!

Especially is this true for the family of a neurotic. The general “impatience and difficulty in getting on with people”[81] tend to show up particularly in “irritability towards… family,”[82] and this irritability can get to the point of “violent abuse.”[83] Close friends and family may sense something is amiss with their loved one, without being able to identify the cause. The person may swing between depression and “an inner restlessness and excitement,”[84] with unpredictable emotional lability.

Emotional Symptoms. “Lability” means “instability.” A neurotic’s emotional state can vacillate widely over the course of a day, even within an hour, with “awful attacks of fear,”[85] “deep depressions,”[86] “panic,”[87] “spitefulness,”[88] “callousness,”[89] and irritability[90] close on the heels of “inhibited emotions”[91] or “emotional indigestion.”[92] Jung recognized that “… our ego-consciousness is disrupted by affects”[93] very easily, as can be seen in colloquial sayings, e.g. “Something makes you ‘jump out of your skin,’ ‘drives you mad’,” so that you “no longer know what you were doing.”[94] One of most pervasive feelings I had in my neurotic state was aridity: There was no way I could summon creative juices, and when I looked within, all I found was dessication. The wellsprings of inspiration had run completely dry.

Perhaps the most difficult of the emotional symptoms in neurosis is found in “peculiar relationships,”[95] especially with our parents. Jung wrote of a neurotic woman whose “… progress in life was… held up” by an “emotional bond” that tied her to her father–a bond that “stood in her way.”[96] This is how a father complex can show up in life, and it can prevent a successful marriage and/or thwart career success. A mother complex is no easier to handle, as it often gives rise to a

“… longing… an insistent demand, an aching inner emptiness, which can be forgotten from time to time but never overcome by strength of will.”[97]

For Thinking types, and those of us who like to live in our heads, this can be enormously frustrating. We make “desperate efforts to master the difficulty by force of will.”[98] During my analysis, there were so many times when, confronting my mother and father complexes, I wanted so much to figure it out, to apply my will (i.e. an ego action), to make the whole mess go away. But Jung was clear that the conscious mind and ego desires are impotent in the realm of the unconscious.[99]

Intellectual Symptoms. Making it all go away is one of the “unrealizable fictions, plans, and aspirations”[100] which Jung saw as symptomatic of neurosis in an intellectual form. We think back in our past and the memories that come up “become overvalued and prey on the conscious mind,”[101] and then we make “mountains out of molehills.”[102] It becomes difficult to concentrate,[103] to hold a mental focus, as our “will-power weakens and [our] self-control becomes slack and begins to lose its grip upon circumstances,… and thoughts.”[104] Psychic energy may no longer be “under the control of the conscious mind,”[105] and “silly thoughts”[106] can arise and overcome us.

“Illusionary ideas, hallucinations, paraesthesias,[107] and bizarre hebefrenetic[108] fantasies”[109] may manifest, as our thinking becomes “distorted.”[110] In some cases, the content of the neurotic’s thinking becomes “… so inadequate that the patient himself clearly recognizes its logical untenability and regards it as senseless, yet it seems to be the source of anxiety.”[111] “Persecution mania”[112] is possible, as are “phobias, obsessive ideas”[113] and impossible ambitions.[114] In compulsion neuroses, it is common to find impossible goals, e.g. “the patient had, as he put it, to keep himself in a ‘provisional’ or ‘uncontaminated’ state of purity.”[115] Such thinking then leads to all sorts of obsessive, compulsive behaviors, like constant hand washing, fears of germs etc.

All this is most difficult in the context of family relationships, for the family members generally bear the brunt of the illness. Jung noted how

“A neurosis in a husband clearly shows that he has strong resistances and negative attitudes towards his wife; in a neurotic wife there is an attitude that drives her away from her husband. In an unmarried patient the neurosis turns against the lover or the parents. Every neurotic naturally resists such a relentless interpretation of the content of his neurosis and often refuses on any account to recognize it, and yet this is always the heart of the matter.”[116]

In this passage Jung identifies the key to healing: recognition, i.e. the person admitting he/she has a problem. Other ways in which a neurosis can be healed we consider in Part III.




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.




[1] Collected Works 11 ¶522. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 18 ¶382.

[3] CW 3 ¶516.

[4] Ibid. ¶544.

[5] CW 13 ¶48.

[6] CW 4 ¶623.

[7] CW 7 ¶114.

[8] CW 2 ¶665.

[9] CW 11 ¶427.

[10] CW 2 ¶665.

[11] Ibid.

[12] CW 16 ¶731.

[13] CW 2 ¶665.

[14] See CW 2 for Jung’s experimental work with the Association test.

[15] CW 2, ¶1350.

[16] CW 8 ¶711.

[17] Ibid. ¶590.

[18] CW 7 ¶438. Italics in the original.

[19] But a complex never goes away: if we work to heal it, we “depotentiate” it so it is no longer autonomous and doesn’t overwhelm the ego when it gets constellated.

[20] CW 2 ¶994.

[21] CW 4 ¶275.

[22] Ibid. ¶297.

[23] CW 2 ¶1013.

[24] Ibid.

[25] CW 10 ¶546.

[26] CW 17 ¶201.

[27] CW 8 ¶208.

[28] CW 10 ¶345.

[29] CW 17 ¶181.

[30] CW 2 ¶666.

[31] CW 14 ¶705.

[32] CW 11 ¶26.

[33] CW 14 ¶705.

[34] CW 9i ¶244 & CW 17 ¶205.

[35] CW 17 ¶205.

[36] CW 10 ¶355.

[37] CW 18 ¶635.

[38] Ibid.

[39] CW 7 ¶54.

[40] CW 10 ¶355.

[41] Ibid. ¶364.

[42] CW 17 ¶196.

[43] Ibid. ¶200.

[44] Ibid. ¶313.

[45] CW 7 ¶218.

[46] Ibid. ¶252.

[47] See CW 6 ¶565 for examples.

[48] CW 7 ¶27.

[49] Ibid. ¶206.

[50] CW 18 ¶43.

[51] This term means “a partial paralysis that affects the ability to move, but does not affect the ability to feel;” World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1410.

[52] This term means “an abnormal sensation of prickling, tingling or itching of the skin;” ibid.

[53] CW 18 ¶797.

[54] I.e. poor digestion; CW 8 ¶710.

[55] CW 3 ¶558.

[56] “Sequelae” means what follows from being anemic; CW 6 ¶643.

[57] Ibid. ¶663.

[58] CW 4 ¶32.

[59] CW 2 ¶666.

[60] CW 6 ¶565.

[61] CW 7 ¶27.

[62] Ibid.

[63] CW 16 ¶372.

[64] CW 18 ¶43.

[65] CW 3 ¶148.

[66] CW 7 ¶206.

[67] Ibid. ¶307.

[68] Ibid.

[69] CW 10 ¶286.

[70] CW 11 ¶784.

[71] Ibid.

[72] CW 3 ¶521.

[73] CW 17 ¶343.

[74] CW 6 ¶566.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid. ¶642.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid. ¶643.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Ibid.

[81] CW 2 ¶666.

[82] Ibid.

[83] CW 2 ¶1011.

[84] Ibid. ¶666.

[85] CW 18 ¶635.

[86] CW 3 ¶148.

[87] CW 7 ¶252.

[88] CW 17 ¶200.

[89] Ibid.

[90] CW 2 ¶666.

[91] CW 16 ¶131.

[92] Ibid.

[93] CW 10 ¶286.

[94] Ibid.

[95] CW 7 ¶206.

[96] Ibid.

[97] CW 8 ¶711.

[98] CW 7 ¶252.

[99] CW 10 ¶546.

[100] CW 7 ¶88.

[101] Ibid. ¶206.

[102] Ibid.

[103] CW 11 ¶784.

[104] CW 3 ¶521.

[105] CW 5 ¶683.

[106] CW 2 ¶666.

[107] CW 18 ¶922.

[108] “Hebefrenetic” means “having to do with hebephrenia, i.e. schizophrenia characterized by a regression to extreme childishness;” World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 915.

[109] CW 18 ¶922.

[110] CW 8 ¶808.

[111] CW 3 ¶148.

[112] Ibid. ¶506.

[113] CW 7 ¶307.

[114] Ibid. ¶114.

[115] Ibid. ¶286.

[116] CW 2 ¶1010.