What is meant by neurosis in psychology?

Neurosis generally refers to a mental disorder that is characterized by feelings of anxiety, depression, and fear that are disproportionate to the circumstances of a person’s life but not completely incapacitating.

In this article, however, we’ll look at neurosis from the psychoanalytic perspective. It states that neurosis is the result of mental conflict. This article is based on the work of Karen Horney who reformulated the ideas of Freud in her book Neurosis and Human growth.

Neurosis is a distorted way of looking at oneself and the world. It causes one to behave in a compulsive manner. This compulsive behaviour is driven by neurotic needs. Thus, we can say that a neurotic person is the one who has neurotic needs.

Neurotic needs and their origins

A neurotic need is simply an excessive need. We all have needs such as wanting approval, achievement, social recognition, and so on. In a neurotic person these needs have become excessive, unreasonable, unrealistic, indiscriminate and intense. 


For example, we all want to be loved. But we don’t expect others to shower love upon us all the time. Also, most of us are sensible enough to realize that not all people will love us. A neurotic person with a neurotic need for love expects to be loved by everyone all the time.

Neurotic needs are primarily shaped by an individual’s early life experiences with its parents. Children are helpless and require constant love, affection, and support from their parents. Parental indifference and behaviours such as direct/indirect domination, failing to meet the child’s needs, lack of guidance, over-protection, injustice, unfulfilled promises, discrimination, etc. naturally cause resentment in children. Karen Horney called this basic resentment.

Since children are too dependent on their parents, this generates a conflict in their minds. Should they express their resentment and risk losing the love and support of their parents or should they not express it and risk not meeting their needs? 

If they do express their resentment, it only exacerbates their mental conflict. They regret it and feel guilty, thinking this isn’t the way they should be behaving with their primary caregivers. The strategies that they adopt to resolve this conflict shape their neurotic needs in adulthood.

A child may adopt a number of strategies to deal with resentment. As the child grows older, one of these strategies or solutions will become his dominant neurotic need. It will shape his self-perception and perception of the world.

For instance, say a child always felt that his parents were unable to fulfill his important needs. The child may try to win his parents over by becoming more compliant with this program running in his mind:

If I am sweet and self-sacrificing, my needs will be met.

If this compliance strategy doesn’t work, the child may become aggressive:

I should be powerful and dominating to get my needs met.

If this strategy fails too then the child will have no option but to withdraw:

There’s no point relying on my parents. I better become independent and self-reliant so that I can meet my own needs.

parents neurosis
Parents meeting each and every need of the child is unhealthy in the long run as it can make the child too dependent and entitled, which can carry forward into adulthood.

Of course, a 6-year-old child cannot think of becoming self-reliant. He is likely to use compliance or aggression (tantrums are also a form of aggression) to try and convince his parents to meet his needs. As the child grows older and more capable of satisfying his own needs, it’s more likely that the withdrawal and ‘wanting to be independent’ strategy will be adopted.

A child who develops a neurotic need for independence and self-reliance may grow up to avoid social interactions and relationships because he feels he shouldn’t need anything from other people. He may avoid parties and other social gatherings, whilst being very selective in making friends. He may also have an inclination to avoid normal jobs and prefer being a self-employed entrepreneur.

Three strategies to resolve basic resentment

Let’s discuss one by one the strategies that children use to resolve basic resentment and the neurotic needs that fall under them:

1. Moving Towards Strategy (Compliance)

This strategy shapes the neurotic need for affection and approval. The person wants everyone to like and love them all the time. Also, there’s a neurotic need for a partner. The person thinks that finding a partner who loves them is the solution to all of their problems and needs. They want their partner to take over their life. Lastly, there’s a neurotic need for restricting one’s life to narrow boundaries. The person becomes complacent and satisfied with lesser than what their true potential could help them attain.

2. Moving Against strategy (Aggression)

This strategy is likely to shape a neurotic need for gaining power, exploiting others, social recognition, prestige, personal admiration, and personal achievement. It’s likely that many politicians and celebrities have these neurotic needs. This person often tries to make himself look bigger and others smaller.

3. Moving Away From strategy (Withdrawal)

As stated earlier, this strategy shapes the neurotic need for self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and independence. It may also lead to perfectionism. The person becomes over-reliant on himself and expects too much from himself. He sets unrealistic and impossible standards for himself.

A conflict of self-image

Like many other things in human personality, neurosis is a conflict of identity. Childhood and adolescence are periods when we’re building our identities, our self-image. Neurotic needs drive people to build ideal self-images for themselves that they try to live up to for most of the rest of their lives. 

The see the strategies to deal with basic resentment as positive qualities. Being compliant means you’re a good and a nice person, being aggressive means you’re powerful and a hero, and aloofness means you’re wise and independent. Trying to live up to this idealized self-image, the person cultivates pride and feels entitled to make claims on life and people. He sets unrealistic standards of behaviour on himself and others, trying to project his neurotic needs on other people.

When the person becomes an adult, his idealized self-image solidifies and he tries to maintain it. If they feel that their neurotic need is not being met or won’t be met in the future, they experience anxiety.

If, for example, a person with a neurotic need for self-reliance finds himself in a job where he has to rely on others, he will be motivated to quit it. Similarly, a person with a neurotic need for aloofness will find his idealized self-image being threatened when he finds himself mixing with people. 

Final words

There’s a neurotic in all of us. Understanding how these needs shape our behaviours can help us become aware of them when they play out in our lives. This, in turn, can enable us to regulate them and prevent making them too central to our existence. Self-awareness can allow us to navigate through life and respond to events without letting the neurotic in us get the better of us.

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