Away, Against, Toward: The 3 Neurotic Trends

A child is small. It starts out life mostly dependent on others for survival, essentially helpless and at the mercy of the people around him.


Image by mulan via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Now, to this child one of two things may happen. On the one hand, the child may experience genuine warmth and affection from his parents. This satisfies the child’s need for a sense of security, and allows the child to gain the impression that the world is essentially a good place where he is accepted for who he is and where his real feelings are valued. In this scenario, all is well and good—normal development is facilitated.

On the other hand, if the child is not as lucky, he may instead encounter what psychoanalytic theorist Karen Horney called the basic evil—indifference, hatred, or rejection from his parents. Maybe he is ridiculed, humiliated, or isolated from others. Maybe promises made to him often remain unfulfilled. Maybe he is subjected to hostility in the form of unfair punishment or downright violence. Or maybe he experiences subtle signs of rejection such as obvious preference for a sibling. In any way, these attitudes and actions may engender in the child a feeling of being unwanted and unloved, creating the condition for the emergence of what Horney called basic anxiety.

Basic anxiety is at the cornerstone of Horney’s theory of personality. She describes it as “the feeling the child has of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world.” Now take a moment and try to imagine the terrible nature and severity of this psychological threat. Imagine you are this child. You are small, alone, and helpless in a world you perceive to be “out to abuse, cheat, attack, humiliate, betray…” How would you feel? More importantly, how would you respond to this threat?

Horney theorized that the child in this situation adopts certain strategies of defense, as an attempt to reduce basic anxiety and restore a sense of security. However, because these strategies often come to prevent the child from relating to others in an authentic way, they become unproductive and alienating. They come to be what Horney called neurotic needs, with the term ‘neurotic’ here pertaining to the irrational, inappropriate, compulsive, and rigid nature of these needs. These neurotic needs are said to eventually get woven into the personality of the individual, serve to alienate a person from their “real self,” and will be evident in their interactions with others as an adult.

Horney identified three general categories of these neurotic needs: (1) moving toward people, (2) moving against people, and (3) moving away from people.

1. Moving toward people

 “If I give in, I shall not be hurt.”

This is what is also known as the compliant solution. Those who move toward people try to reduce their basic anxiety by “gaining affection and approval and controlling others through their dependency.” What appeals most to them is love, but they don’t move toward people out of genuine love. Rather, they move toward people in an attempt to shield themselves from intense feelings of helplessness. They do this either by desperately trying to please others, or by seeking a powerful partner capable of taking responsibility for their lives.

Seeing themselves as humble, unselfish, and loving, compliant people readily subordinate themselves to others. Rather than assert themselves or make demands, they are content to accept however they’re being seen or treated by other people.

2. Moving against people

 “If I have power, none will hurt me.”

Those who adopt the strategy of moving against people carry out the expansive solutions. They respond to basic anxiety by striving to appear superior, perfect, or ruthless. What appeals most to them is mastery; they feel the need to achieve success, power, or prestige as a way to counter the hostility they perceive the world has against them. Horney identified three expansive solutions: (a) narcissistic, (b) perfectionistic, and (c) arrogant-vindictive.

a. Narcissistic

The narcissistic solution attracts those who were gifted, favored, and admired as children. It suits those who are convinced they’re destined to win at everything and need the constant admiration of others to affirm their superior estimate of themselves. They’re compulsively driven to appear superior and thus tend to go on endless monologues of their wonderful qualities and importance.

b. Perfectionistic

Those drawn to the perfectionistic solution take great pride in their extremely high standards of morality and intellect. They feel that because of their dutiful adherence to being fair, just, and well-behaved, they are entitled to fair treatment by fate itself. Thus, to perfectionistic people, success simply represents a rightful badge of their virtue, while failure and misfortune are taken as a betrayal by life itself or a cause for self-condemnation.

c. Arrogant-vindictive

The arrogant-vindictive solution appeals to people who have been treated harshly in childhood and feel a need to get even for the abuses they’ve suffered. They make every effort to appear hard and tough, as they consider the world an arena where “the strong annihilate the weak.” Thus, they tend to be competitive and ruthless in the way they relate to people, needing to defeat others in order to prove their power and unassailability.

3. Moving away from people

 “If I withdraw, nothing can hurt me.”

Those drawn to move away from people have adopted the solution known as detachment. Mainly affected by feelings of isolation, detached people try to remedy basic anxiety by striving to build a world of their own, not needing anyone and being perfectly capable of taking care of their needs all on their own. Their basic reasoning behind this is that if they don’t ever bother or need anyone, then they can’t be rejected. They thus have a compulsive need to put emotional distance between themselves and others, and find freedom, peace, and self-sufficiency appealing above everything else.

It’s worth noting that the basic motivations underlying these three trends also apply to normal (non-neurotic) individuals. Everyone has needs for affection, personal achievement, and independence; everyone moves toward, against, and away from people throughout their lives. The difference is that while in neurotic development the person tends to stick to a single trend in a compulsive and indiscriminate manner, in normal development the person acquires the ability to move in all three directions — flexibly and appropriately.

Horney’s theory thus highlights how mental health really is about the capacity to adjust, to the world outside and to the self within. It is an acceptance of struggle and problems as part of life and ways to growth. It is also a capacity for authenticity, a forgiveness of the self for all its flaws and shortcomings, a restoration of the person to what Horney called the “real self.”

For people who have come to know and accept their real selves are able to love without feeling the need to subordinate themselves or appease others at their own expense. They are able to seek mastery without needing to exploit others or to gain admiration or power through it. They are capable of being independent without needing to cut themselves off from the world.

I like Horney’s theory because it reminds me to be better at being able to adjust. It reminds me to look more closely at whether I am compulsively moving away from, against, or toward people—and to try to move more flexibly, more appropriately given the situation.

Most importantly, it reminds me that my real self could not be found by securing love from others, by achieving perfection or power, or by attaining absolute freedom and self-sufficiency. Rather, my real self could only be found if I resist the crutch offered by such neurotic strategies and strive instead to be fully open to knowing and accepting that self—flaws, ordinariness, and all. ♥

“The release of the real self…is a triumph of the ordinary… In simply being herself with all her capabilities and flaws, a person comes to realize that she does not have to be extraordinary in order to be worthwhile.” ~ Westkott, 1986

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39 thoughts on “Away, Against, Toward: The 3 Neurotic Trends

  1. That acceptance of self is the beginning of true love and the happiness we have always sought. And as our journey requires us to face them all, it slowly balances those things we struggle with so that we eventually find that acceptance.
    Great post, and well written my friend 😀 ❤

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This makes me think about the great fortune I had in living across the street from a very loving and welcoming gay couple, one of whom was actually a nurse at the mental hospital my mother would cycle into. I attribute the presence of these two men to establishing my sense of optimism and penchant to perform, knowing I could count upon appreciative laughs and smiles. It is a shame that many neighborhoods, at least in my recent experience, lack the baseline contact and intermixing that made this situation the saving grace and reality of my childhood. If the norm is to stay indoors with electronics, or “hide” out on the backyard deck, there is far less likelihood that a needy child will be able to find a friendly porch of people willing and able to provide a measure of emotional harbor.
    Thank you for taking the time to address your subject so thoroughly!

    Liked by 4 people

    • You mention your great fortune. Why do you suppose they were there? In your environment? People don’t enter your life by “accident”. There is something about who you are, the causes you made to have the good fortune of them in your life. People don’t think about the truth in the statement, you reap what you sow, you get back what you give, what goes around comes around. However you say it. You did something – you made cause to have this benefit. Keep it up!

      Liked by 2 people

      • What a lovely, generous thought. Thank you for the kind offering of your perspective. I find it quite sensible to consider those two wonderful people as a grand and mysterious special blessing!

        Liked by 1 person

    • What a touching and lovely sharing of personal experience and insight, Nichole! I’m glad to know you had that emotional harbor, love, and acceptance near to you growing up. It must have made a world of difference in who you’ve become.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely love this summary, and co sign your sentiments of appreciation regarding it. The whole capacity of adjustment just blew me away. Resonated deeply with things that have been swirling around in my heart as of late. Thank you for sharing x

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I think my son exactly fits the away personality. He allows others to have undo influence in his life and often gets into unfavorable situations that damage his position and we’ll being. He wants so badly to help other people but refuses to help her myself. The s, He feels, is authentic love be.

    Liked by 2 people

    • His refusal of your help might indeed be his way of striving for the self-sufficiency and independence characteristic of the away personality, although I think children do tend to go through a phase like that as they mature into adulthood. Hopefully he gets to develop a more balanced way of relating with others later on.


  5. The first five years of our lives pretty much determine who we are. All of us have certain feelings that we cannot explain. I’m sure we could write a book on that subject alone.

    I’m sure a lot of it has to do with things that we saw and felt in those first five years.

    Fascinating piece. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. It goes so much deeper than this – the differences we are born into. Then the question that begs an answer is – why? Why each baby is born into the circumstance he/she is? What is the cause? Do you think its chance? The luck of the draw? What part of the continuity of life would have baby be born into a negative situation vs a positive one? Do we only react to the effect without trying to understand the cause?

    Liked by 2 people

    • My parents gave me away. Four different families offered to take me. My grandparents ended up being to the ones who raised me. I was a year old.

      How different would things have been had one of the other three raised me instead.

      This is a fascinating topic, isn’t it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Those are all very interesting questions, Sonni! Why we are each born into the specific circumstances we’ve been brought into is a deep mystery that I think touches on the very core of life. Philosophers from ancient up to the modern times still think about whether all this is random, or there’s an order/system to how things happen… I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the bottom of these mysteries, but it’s vastly interesting to keep asking these questions and to keep wondering.


    • Hmm.. That is such a thought-provoking and intriguing matter to consider! Maybe other creatures also have their own psychological issues, but tweaked according to the rules and norms of their own social world. Thank you for contributing an interesting thought to this conversation! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I always believe it is more complex than it seems. While categorizing some issues works (especially when working with clinical trials for me), there is still the specific, the very individual aspect to each case. It is that extra unique DNA, these very distinctive epigenetic factors and all kinds of other components.
    It is true that we all come from our childhood and our past. I also have experienced a lot in my 60 years, although, I think I had a decent childhood.
    I think it is good I did not try to relate myself to PTSD and anxiety after the terrible accident I had 25 years ago and after 19 of a totally abusive spouse. Those times, it wasn’t viewed like nowadays, and, therefore, I just survived it very successfully. However, I could not get across a street for some 2 or 3 years, and the habit of hiding every knife and every possibly harmful item is still there.
    Most likely, we have to also less analyze everything. I have that sin, too. I analyze a lot, especially when typing medical brochures and clinical data reviews. It feels like everything becomes relevant, and next thing you know: stress, anxiety and fear. I am avoiding generalizing now. It is easier and more helpful. Looking simply forward not back any longer is also good.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful sharing, Inese! True, we mustn’t forget about individual idiosyncrasies, too. I’m glad to hear how successfully you’ve survived the adversity you’ve gone through. There might still be remnants of its effects now, but on the whole it sounds like you’ve gained so much wisdom and strength through it.


  8. This is such an excellent piece. It is enlightening. I think that having experienced as a child a little bit of being ridiculed by other kids, and “abandoned” (with my mother leaving the country in order to provide), I chose to go against people. I realize now why I sometimes wonder if I’m narcissistic. I’m a perfectionist and I do have that tendency for arrogant and vindictive behaviour. I think it’s okay to start off with these chosen defence mechanism and then work on managing in the world the right way. The initial defence should make us stronger and able to handle situations where walls around us are down.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Three Days Three Quotes Challenge (Day 3) – Randomness Inked

  10. An incredible insight and analysis of where the real value and happiness can be found ~ accepting the flaws and ordinariness of who we are. Who everyone is, and at some level struggles with at some point in life. Your opening about children is important, as I truly believe a happy childhood with a nurturing environment is the best gift us as adults can give a child ~ as they will have strength and understanding of life, knowing if they falter and fall, there is the love of family/friends there to support.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Randall! Always a pleasure reading your insights. Indeed, the significance of that nurturing environment to a growing child cannot be overstated. It is through the experience of that loving, accepting environment that children learn they are worthy and lovable as they are.


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