ask dr-robert

ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

Dear Dr. Robert:

I am hoping you could help me classify the behavior of my father and provide some advise to help me talk to him. His typical conversations are made up of cute sayings, or spewing advice off the top of his head. I've never seen him have a genuine honest conversation and he often interrupts and doesn't listen. He's very defensive, gets annoyed easily by others, and is always trying to say something clever to strangers.

I dread going into a restaurant with him because he always has to say something clever to the waiter or the cashier. Never a straight "yes" or "no". If it's not something clever and funny he's saying, he goes to the other extreme and complains indirectly by making wise comments. It seems he thinks everyone is stupid or not paying attention.

I am the same way, but I fight off the behavior and do my best to be calm and normal and not defensive. It's hard but I do it.

Would you call this neuroticism? It's certainly seems to be a self-esteem issue, but it's probably a bit more than feeling good about oneself.

I'm curious how you would describe this.

Thank you very much,

Bob Bernstein

Memphis, TN USA

ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

Dear Bob--

Thanks for writing.

The word "neurotic" is an old one, dating back 1769, and these days sounds more judgmental than descriptive; hence, it has fallen into disuse. But when the term is used in modern psychiatry it generally refers to an emotional disorder which has no known organic cause, and which is less serious than "psychosis", a word which refers to mental states in which thought and perception (and sometimes bodily movement) are severely impaired. In other words, neurotic symptoms may cause suffering and even torment, but, unlike psychotic symptoms, do not disrupt rational thought or the ability to function within consensual reality.

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, it was believed that neurotic symptoms were the outcome of past painful experiences--often repressed, and so not available to conscious recollection--interfering with present actions and perceptions, but not to the point of causing the sufferer to lose touch completely with ordinary "reality." The treatment consisted in gradually bringing these conflicts to light, at which point, according to the theory, the neurotic symptoms would lessen or even disappear.

Carl Jung, who was a younger collaborator of Freud's, eventually split off from the master on this point, among others. Jung theorized that neurotic symptoms were better explained by conflicts between two or more parts of the psyche--at least one of them unconscious to the personality--with opposing interests, as, for example, when part of the psyche has a need for order and stability, while another craves excitement, and undisciplined behavior.

Personally, I like to think of neurotic symptoms as survival mechanisms gone awry. In other words, many neurotic symptoms have their origin in tactics for coping with life which perhaps worked in the past, but which presently work poorly, if at all. For example, if a cat jumps onto a hot stove and is burned, the cat will never jump on a stove again, but if a child was burned by a hot stove, and if as an adult he or she still refuses to use a stove, that would be "neurotic." In the example of your father, perhaps his tendencies to be a "wise guy" began because in childhood being open and vulnerable with others caused him to be "burned" (probably repeatedly), so he began to defend against this kind of hurt by hiding behind a false personality--the "wise-guy." And now, by refusing to approach others forthrightly and openly, he persists in attempting to avoid the cause of the early injury, even though this makes no sense. Once this kind of avoidance approach gets rooted, it can become self-sustaining in a way which I will try to explain in a moment.

Now, the word "neuroticism" has another, somewhat separate meaning in contemporary psychology, separate, that is, from its older meaning as a psychiatric diagnosis. In this more modern usage, neuroticism is seen as a normal human trait which is present to some extent in everyone, and, like such other traits as introversion-extraversion or reliability-unreliability, exists along a wide spectrum (a spectrum of neuroticism-emotional stability), so that someone may be very high in "neuroticism"--as this is tested, for example, on a written personality assessment--very low in neuroticism, or somewhere in between. In this usage, neuroticism means an habitual tendency to experience negative emotional states, so that, for example, the person higher in "neuroticism" will be more likely to see normal situations as difficult or threatening, may have trouble controlling urges, may be more likely to "fly off the handle" emotionally, or may be shy or excessively self-conscious.

ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

Now, suppose a child has had bad experiences early on with "being himself." In other words, just for "being natural," this child was made to feel ashamed or was punished, perhaps even violently. In order to survive--either physically in the case of physical abuse, or emotionally in the case of shaming for example--that child might begin to hide behind a "wise-guy" mask as perhaps your father had to do [please be aware that I do not know your father, so all of this is just speculation based on your letter and nothing more].

So far, this is no more than a necessary kind of adaptation to bad circumstances. The problem becomes "neurotic" (although I would prefer to say maladaptive) when, as the child grows up, he begins to offer that same kind of mask to new people whom he is just meeting for the first time. In other words, the child, now older, cannot function without the mask even though the mask probably is unnecessary--after all, it is unlikely that the new acquaintances would try to shame him in the way that mom or dad did. I think you can see that something important has been lost here, buried under the "neurotic" symptoms which are, after all, only a kind of defense mechanism against hurt. What has been lost is the possibility of really knowing others and being known by them, which, in my view, is one of humankind's deepest desires.

When meeting someone for the first time anything at all is possible. That person might be someone from whom one would want to hide by offering the false, wise-guy personality for example, but he or she also might be someone who would be sympathetic, perhaps a possible companion or lover. Well, if the defended one persists in hiding behind the same old habitual mask, the chance to be seen and be known by the new person--seen and known in a real way, that is--is lost. And the more those opportunities to be seen by others are wasted, the more convinced the defended one may become that nothing useful can be found in real contact with others anyway. That is why I say this kind of "neurotic" problem can become self-sustaining, or a kind of vicious circle. And this is just why psychotherapy can be so helpful in such cases. It is the job of the therapist to help the defended one to see that the neurotic defenses which have be built up may have made sense once, but now no longer work to his or her advantage--in fact, they are working against him or her. In good therapy, the client often experiences this increasing awareness as if awakening from a dream. One client of mine who was a professional athlete, and always in wonderful shape, told me that the feeling of being relieved of some of her maladaptive emotional habits was like having full range of motion restored to an injured back or sprained knee which previously had been restricted by pain.

Since you say that you struggle with the same tendencies yourself, Bob, perhaps you would like to give some therapy a try. I understand that you are somehow managing despite these old, maladaptive habits--although it isn't easy, as you wrote--but you might feel very much better with more "range of motion" on the emotional plane--freer and happier, that is. In addition, if you can gain some deeper insight into your own maladaptive outlook, you probably will be better at managing the relationship with your father as well.

Be well.

tell a friend about this page:
his or her name:
his or her email:
your name:
your email:

return to ask dr-robert archives

page last modified February 9, 2007

copyright robert saltzman 2007 all rights reserved