A Bridge Between the Past and the Present: A Comparative Look at Psychoanalysis and Modern Psychological Thought

by Elizabeth Carter

Often when people think of psychoanalysis there’s a sense their mind has stumbled upon something antiquated and even perverse. As if the birthplace of modern psychology is comprised solely of sexual complexes, rigid old men, and little else. Given Freud’s pop culture relevance—from Homer Simpson referencing his concept of the subconscious, to Viggo Mortenson playing him in the Hollywood film, A Dangerous Method—and his penchant for associating developmental stages with sex (see the oral, anal, and phallic stages) this viewpoint is understandable. However, it’s also unjustly limited.

Psychoanalysis, like all fields of study that evolve over time, is peopled with multiple luminaries whose ideas have refuted older ideas and expanded far beyond those of Freud. In what has traditionally been a male-dominated field, many of these luminaries are women whose work, though often overlooked, retains its influence and relevance. These forgotten female analysts helped pave the way for the many divergent paths that sprouted from traditional psychoanalysis, into the varied schools of psychological thought that coexist and flourish to this day. But importantly, the core tenets of psychoanalysis and contemporary psychological (eg: solution-focused therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Gestalt, humanistic therapies etc.)  and sociological thought are incredibly similar—it’s their emphasis that differs. If we compare the work of three thinkers—two turn of the century psychoanalysts (Karen Horney and Marie Louis von Franz) and a modern sociologist (Brene Brown)—we discover that what on the surface appears starkly different is at the core quite similar.

Karen Horney,  who was active between 1913 and 1952 when she passed away, was a psychoanalytic pioneer. After defecting from Freud’s rigid camp of psychoanalytic thought grounded in the primacy of sexual desire and the compulsion toward destruction, she authored her own theory of mind, whose basic tenets were a stepping-stone for the development of modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Later in her career, Horney’s psychoanalytic focus was largely on a form of mental illness that, in her day, was called neurosis. In her book Neurosis and Human Growth (The Struggle Toward Self-Realization) she dissects the problematic intra-psychic processes that develop during childhood and persist into adulthood, thus spawning neurotic behavior. Viewed through a contemporary analytic lens, “neurosis” could be anything from severe anxiety to a personality disorder. It’s an umbrella term that the DSM-V (the most updated version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has divvied up into several, quite disparate, categories.

To elaborate, Horney believed children who grew up to be “neurotic” used very particular strategies of unhealthy thinking and behaving. These strategies, while ultimately detrimental, served as coping mechanisms in their early environments, which were settings that didn’t allow for individuality or promote the acceptance and acknowledgement of their genuine feelings. These faulty strategies were thus comprised largely of beliefs about themselves and their realities that were untrue. This falseness lead to the construction of a mask-self, and Horney believed that this adherence to a mask was what moved people farther and farther away from their real and authentic experience of themselves.

To Horney, the intricate processes that scaffold this type of psychological disconnection and defense can be summarized as:

Horney describes these intra-psychic processes as operating like filters for distorted patterns of behavior. Her model depicts people as tending to move toward, against, or away from others in an attempt to cope with their feelings of emptiness, unworthiness, and distress. In other words, for Horeny, to move toward others was to behave in a generally sycophantic way; to move against others was to be excessively competitive, combative, and/or narcissistic; to move away from others was to be largely shut down socially and avoidant as a means to escape any possibility for conflict.

Though this is inevitably an over simplification of the nuanced depths of Horney’s theory, it demonstrates that Karen Horney was looking at the cogs and wheels of the psyche, picking them apart, and making them concrete and grounded in the idea that distorted ways of being are driven by our thoughts about ourselves and our reality.  Looking at her theory through this lens, it makes a lot of sense how her work laid foundations for modern CBT, which is focused largely on how our thoughts dictate our behaviors and feelings.  Her concept of “the tyranny of the should” is even counted among CBT’s long list of cognitive distortions.

While Horney believed that the road out of mental illness was paved with awareness of how the mind was malfunctioning—in order to truly transcend these detrimental modes of thinking and behaving—she believed that this awareness had to become “an emotional experience”. She explains:

“Why then is it important that the patient not only think about the forces in himself but feel them? Because the mere intellectual realization is in the strict sense of the word no ‘realization’ at all: it does not become real to him; it does not become his personal property; it does not take roots in him…it is not enough to know vaguely that his anger or self-reproach is probably greater than warranted by the occasion. He must feel the full impact of his rage or the very depths of his self-condemnation: only then does the force of some unconscious process…stare him in the face.”

Karen Horney was a master at honing in on subtle psychological states, thought processes, and defense mechanisms, but she knew that in the end therapy of any kind is about feeling through what we have rejected within ourselves—because in feeling the things we’ve disconnected from and disowned we’re able to return to wholeness, thus finding release.

Both Marie-Louis von Franz and Brene Brown have made similar assertions, though their focuses are vastly different. Marie Louis von Franz was active between 1935 and 1998 and worked directly with Carl Jung for 31 years until his death in 1961.  As a Jungian psychoanalyst, von Franz was enraptured with the way mythology and psychological projection weave together our inner and outer worlds. In her book Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul she describes projection as a process in which the inner and outer perceptions become confused, with the faulty inner perception creating a distorted overlay onto those in our environment who bear similar characteristics to the disowned pieces of ourselves. As you can imagine, this sort of faulty perception creates all sorts of problems.

Much like Horney, von Franz asserted that inside each of us there are aspects of ourselves we consider unacceptable. She believed these are often the undesirable portions of our personality we’ve inherited from the early authority figures in our lives. As a means to alleviate the discomfort of unconsciously experiencing parts of ourselves we dislike we then “project” these aspects of ourselves outwards onto others. This serves a dual function. We simultaneously are able to view and acknowledge a part of ourselves we dislike thus making it on some level conscious and “real”. However, by actively projecting, we are ultimately disconnecting ourselves from rightful ownership of these unconscious fragments of self. Projection therefore serves to further alienate us from our own reality, or to use Horney’s terms, to  reinforce our mask self. By projecting our unwanted characteristics onto others, we are blinding ourselves to the reality of who we truly are.

As an example, a person who grew up with a tyrannical parent will tend to exaggerate and despise the tyranny of others through projection. They will hate and rage against any and all people who have the slightest trace of tyranny in their personality. All the while, they will also ignore that there are likely some tyrannical facets of their own personality.

To awaken to the subjective nature of projection, we must become aware of how our exaggerated responses to those outside of us are in fact the projection of our own unconscious material. Like Horney, von Franz made a similar insight into the necessity of emotional experience during therapy as a way to release unhealthy projection.  In Projection and Reflection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul she describes a Chinese ghost story that serves as a metaphor for projective reintegration. In this story, a ghost (the projection) disappears after a man accidentally hits himself in the nose and begins to bleed profusely. She explains:

“Blood symbolizes everywhere the emotional part of the human psyche. His own effective participation and the blow against himself that this involved conquered the ghost.”

If we look at this as a metaphor for therapy, von Franz agrees with Horney: in order to heal we have to connect with our hurt, and we have to feel. She also states:

“Many people are brought back to themselves through the loving appreciation of another person…that is why the phenomena of countertransference is so important in psychotherapy, and not just as a disadvantage to be combatted; it can carry the other like a magic carpet and guide him to his goal. One day, though, this projection naturally falls away, and then it must be proven whether the other can remain himself even without such help.”

According to von Franz, to truly reintegrate a projection, it seems one must enter into a state of intense vulnerability both within the self and in the presence of a kind and supportive other. This involves a lot of courage and an enormous leap of faith, along with the belief that, rather than obliterating us, looking into our own darkness will allow us to more greatly experience our light.

Researcher Brene Brown who has been an active sociology professor and researcher since 2004 through to the present day gives a cogent and in-depth analysis of the many facets of vulnerability in her books The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. Her primary research focus has centered on authentic leadership in organizations and the concept of wholeheartedness in families, schools, and organizations. When it comes to emotion she has a simple axiom: if you numb the bad you numb the good. Which is to say, the things we don’t feel—the parts of ourselves we disown, disconnect from, and ignore—actively take away from the robustness of our experience. If we can’t feel the depths of sadness, neither can we truly feel the heights of joy.

Brown takes a very different approach than both Horney and von Franz to understanding human behavior. Her focus starts with looking at how the ways we feel, or avoid feeling, take away from our experience of what Horney would call “the real self” and von Franz would simply call “the self”. To Brown the crux of so much of our emotional chaos originates in feelings of shame and an ensuing sense unworthiness. She explains:

“I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

While Horney and von Franz took a top down approach—intricately deconstructing intra-psychic processes and defense mechanisms of the unwell—Brown cuts to the core of the feelings that drive all that complicated chaos because these types of terrible feelings make us want to escape ourselves. This brings us back to Horney’s idea of a glorified mask self that is bolstered by pride and maintained by being what we “should be”—we hate anything within ourselves that isn’t what we believe is worthy enough to be acknowledged. And so the reality of our frailty or imperfection is relegated to unconsciousness, to be seen only in the guise of our hated projections that appear as those outside of us.

Brown explains: “We let our fear and discomfort become judgment and criticism.” This sounds a lot like what occurs in projection when we judge and criticize in others what we cannot bear to accept within ourselves. It’s this variety of psychological fragmentation and disconnection from the self that denies us the richness of our emotional experience, which Brown describes as vulnerability and wholehearteness. Vulnerability and wholeheartedness are the gateways to connection and meaning, both internally and in our lives at large. Wholeheartedness is defined as a sort of unconditional self-acceptance in which we cultivate a profound feeling of internal worthiness, both despite of and because of our shortcomings. It’s an embrace of all our darkness and perceived weakness, and it’s an opening to all the shame, unworthiness, guilt, and fear that ensues. It’s a commitment to the knowledge intrinsic in the axiom that in order to experience joy we must also open ourselves to the inevitable strife intrinsic to human experience.

Brown’s approach makes sense when you think of the modern psyche. She explains how we’re hurting and how this pain leads us to miss out on the bounty and emotional richness of life. It’s this fear of missing out (FOMO) on life that Brown has so adeptly tapped into. Rather than prescribing intricate systems of deconstructing our thoughts and intra-psychic behaviors, she encourages plain old honesty with ourselves and an unabashed willingness to feel what we feel and be who we are. Brown’s approach emphasizes that, in the long run, it’s far riskier to refuse to feel than it is to risk opening to the broad spectrum of our emotions in the here-and-now.

What Brown asks us to do is really no different than what Horney and von Franz have suggested, her language and focus are just a bit simpler. When I look through a “trifold lens” comprised of each of these thinkers, I understand their suggestions as follows: only when we find the courage and compassion to see beneath the masks we hold in front of our real selves  can we learn to feel into who we truly are with acceptance. Only then can we learn to deconstruct and reintegrate our unconscious projections, which appear as environmental conflicts and relationship disturbances. It’s at this point when we can live our lives with earnest connection to both the depths of our own emotions and to the emotions of those around us.

And so we’ve come full circle. From early twentieth century thinkers like Horney and von Franz with their intricate models of the psyche, to contemporary thinkers like Brown whose work is deeply grounded in emotional vulnerability and compassion, yet no less nuanced. Perhaps our task as human beings on the search for self knowledge is a bit more varied than we’ve been led to believe. On the one hand we must to learn to focus—with vulnerability and wholeheartedness—on the bounty of the end goal, that being the peace and joy that come from an authentic experience of the self. But if that path is, for any myriad of reasons, hindered or obscured, turning to the models of the self illuminated by thinkers like Horney and von Franz could be of some help. I believe these models retain the gravity of their relevance, despite their age, though admittedly they do require a bit more imagination.

 

References:

Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Avery.

 

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and human growth: The struggle towards self-realization. New York: Norton.

 

von Franz, M. (1980). Projection and Recollection In Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.

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