The Schematics of Neurosis

Around the year 1880 John Venn created a tool that has been used throughout the fields of education, philosophy and mathematics.  I am of course referring to the elegant Venn Diagram which allows us to map sets of things in terms of their overlap, inclusivity and exclusivity.  The Venn diagram we are most frequently familiar with is usually comprised of two or three circles, like so:

I have always loved the clarity and beauty that can be illustrated with Venn diagrams (he came up with much more intricate ones, for much larger sets) and they are one of the things I remember from my high school career.

Another thing, or rather person, I remember learning about in high school was Karen Horney .  Not from classes exactly, but from buying her books at a used book store.  I read them during study hall, at first to cultivate a certain geek chic:  Who could resist reading something entitled “The Neurotic Personality of Our Time” to impress one’s friends?  Actually nobody was impressed, but as I actually delved into TNPOOT I was impressed by Horney’s thinking, and her courage to talk about things seldom heard about in our daily lives, neurosis, homosexuality, taboo, and aggression to name a few.

What’s this got to do with Venn diagrams?

The way I first understood neurosis was through Horney’s explanation of it, which sketched in my mind a classic Venn diagram.  There are, Horney asserted, two forms of the self at play in neurosis.  The first is our ideal self, that way we wish to see our self, the way we finish the sentence “I’m the type of person who…,” and perhaps what Lincoln was referring to when he referred to “the better angels of our nature in his inaugural address.  The second is our real self, the self which, like Walgreens isn’t anywhere near perfect.  The real self is how we really are rather than how we wish to be.  Having explained this, Horney goes on to explain that the self as a whole looks something like this:

See that spot in the middle where the two overlap?  Well that is the measure of your neurosis.  The larger the overlap between your ideal self and your actual self, the less neurotic conflict you have and the less troubled by neurosis you’ll be.  It will be the rare event that who you wish to be doesn’t dovetail with who you really are.  Sound like anyone you know?

Yeah, me neither.

For most of us, the overlap is more like the one in the above picture.  We have clear ideas of how we want to see ourselves and be seen, but they don’t always match up with who we really are at the moment.  That makes us feel conflicted and guilty and we try to repress knowledge of it as much as possible.  Psychotherapy, in this light, helps us come to understand where our ideal and real selves disconnect, to find the middle of the Venn diagram.  Having done that, maybe we rethink our ideal self, or maybe we see our real self in the here and now with more acceptance as we try to get the circles to overlap more.

Ok, so one more diagram for you:

How Neurotic is your practice?  How far apart is the private practice you want from the one you have?  As you think about the last few months, has the overlap been getting bigger and the circles closer?  Or have the circles been drifting farther apart, so that what you do and what you wish to do are a thinning sliver?  Meditate on this image this week, maybe print it out.  Because you know when you’re feeling more conflicted about your business and when you’re feeling in synch.  A Venn diagram is worth a thousand words:  What does this one tell you about your practice?

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