Irvin Yalom mentions Karen Horney's Neurosis and Human Growth on the first page of his book The Gift of Therapy as the single most helpful book he read as young student therapist. As a budding student of therapy and counseling myself, I thought I would pick it up and take a stab at it. From the very start I was enthralled by Horney's comprehensive vision of neurosis and the human condition in general. I had read that she was a neo-Freudian, and as such expanded on Freud's theories to regard interpersonal forces as more critical in determining development and behavior. What I began to read was a broad philosophical, moral, and psychological treatise on why we do what we do, think how we think, and feel what we feel.
In her introduction, Horney writes: "Under inner stress... a person may become alienated from his real self. He will then shift the major part of his energies to the task of molding himself, by a rigid system of inner dictates, into a being of absolute perfection. For nothing short of godlike perfection can fulfill his idealized image of himself and satisfy his pride in the exalted attributes which (so he feels) he has, could have, or should have." Her initial description of the neurotic condition puts forth an idea on which she will elaborate extensively throughout the work: that of the individual's process of "self-idealization" and striving towards a false, unattainable image of himself-- one that she will compare to a mirage in the desert. This developmental process is a result of inner alienation from self, as well as the lack of a solid foundation of self-confidence and self-knowledge. It is a shallow substitute and immature compensatory mechanism for the process of self-actualization--the expansive growth into the fully realized self.
In my opinion, American culture is replete with an ethos of self-idealization. This subtle undermining force underlies much of the unhappiness of the average person in the U.S. We live in an ultra-competitive society: materialistic, power-driven, achievement-based. Most young people start out in a position of "less than" and are compulsively driven to attain a superior position-- that of "more than". If they cannot achieve this position they become alienated both from themselves and from society. The "task of molding" oneself rigidly and conscientiously into the "idealized image" of oneself often begins even in childhood in our current culture and may be externally imposed by parents and internalized by children as a way of life. What, however, is wrong with this constant striving for self-improvement and self-betterment? Is this not the pursuit of happiness? Is this not the American dream? Pride, replies Karen Horney; the sacrifice of the "spontaneity" of feeling and thought for an artificial reality in which a person can no longer determine his true thoughts and feelings from those imposed by the need to satisfy his self-ideal as prefigured by his initial feelings of inferiority. We take jobs and pursue careers we do not actually want because we want status and recognition among our peers. We marry spouses whom we are ambivalent about because it seems like the right thing to do, or we wish to be a married person. We are no longer in control of our life. We are no longer in the driver's seat; we are being driven. We no longer know how we really feel, what we really want, or what we value because our genuine self has become obscured by the self-ideal.
I am looking forward to commenting more on Neurosis and Human Growth as I dive further into it. Any comments and thoughts about self-idealization and our current culture's affinity for it are particularly welcome here.