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New Existentialists

In the 21st century, being a “neurotic” is a good thing

By February 19, 2015February 19th, 2018No Comments

Did you know we’re running out of neurotics?

According to an essay in the New York Times, “one modern American type is slipping into the past without a rattle or even its familiar whimper – the neurotic.”

The problem, though, isn’t that there are too few neurotics in the 21st century: it’s that there are too many.

Reporter Benedict Carey laments that the diagnosis of “neurotic” no longer means much because we’re all kind of “neurotic” now. He suggests we need to keep the diagnosis precisely because admitting “we live in a time that makes us neurotic” is better than diagnosing everyone with something stronger.

It’s a fair point, but it has larger implications. Many of the predecessors of Existential and Humanistic psychology, including Carl Jung and Rollo May, explicitly said that neurotics are canaries in a coal mine: the people who seek out therapy today are often the most sensitive to larger social trends that eventually are going to snatch everybody up … at which point what were “symptoms” today become “normal” tomorrow.

“Both artists and neurotics speak and live from the subconscious and unconscious depths of their society,” says May. “The artist does this positively, communicating what he experiences to his fellow men. The neurotic does this negatively.” Both, however, are pointing at the direction we’re all going.

Jung noted that: “About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.”

Or, as R.D. Laing said: “Insanity is a perfectly rational response to an irrational world.”

Benedict’s article is a confirmation that we’ve reached that point where the disorders that once defined mental “illness” are now everyday issues – so common that providing drugs for them has become a billion dollar industry.

It should go without saying that drugging someone to address the symptoms of a crazy world does nothing to address the actual problem. If human beings need healthy attachments, and the ability to express themselves, and meaningful activities to engage in, then offering drugs to get them through the day only elongates and exacerbates the problem.

But we know that. Everyone but pharmaceutical companies and the APA agrees that we’re overmedicating and under-supporting people in the modern world. The question I want to ask is: who are the today’s neurotics, and what is the world of tomorrow that they prophesy?

I’m not a therapist – and I’d love to hear from therapists in the comments section below about this – but the answer that comes to my mind is one that was given in a fascinating look at “cosmetic neurology” for the Guardian of London.

Author Margaret Talbot believes that so-called “neural enhancers” are emblematic of our time, much in the way that psychotropic drugs were emblematic of the 1960s – and that this is no accident. She writes:

Every era, it seems, has its own defining drug. Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited to the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become and the more we need help in order to focus. The experience that neuroenhancement offers is not, for the most part, about opening the doors of perception, or about breaking the bonds of the self, or about experiencing a surge of genius. It’s about squeezing out an extra few hours to finish those sales figures when you’d really rather collapse into bed; getting a B instead of a B-minus on the final exam in a lecture class where you spent half your time texting; cramming for the GREs (postgraduate entrance exams) at night, because the information-industry job you got after college turned out to be deadening. Neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.

Whether it’s meth for blue collar workers or Adderall for “knowledge workers,” we are taking more and more pills because we need to keep up with the demands of our technology. Where we used to look to psychology to help us be more fully human (still the goal of Existential and Humanistic psychology), the cutting-edge neurotics look to psycho-pharmacology to become more like machines.

If May and Jung are right, then much in the same way that we’re now all what used to be “neurotic,” the next generation is going to start from a baseline that’s much more mechanistic, taking pills to keep their messy humanity from distracting them from more productive ways of interacting with technology. They’ll have to be introduced to their humanity just to become neurotic.

If that’s what’s coming, we’ll need to redefine “neurosis” – from a symptom of mental problems to a sign of the capacity for mental health.

What a sad commentary on the world we live in.