Neurotic Character as Device

Published January 2021, The NASAP Newlsetter (Connection), Erik Mansager, PhD

Adler spoke a lot about the neurotic character over the course of his therapeutic career. It is a rich and complex construct; one whose dynamic is still helpful to our work today even though the term “neurotic” has morphed into useful and not-so-useful connotations.

For Adler, the neurotic can be distinguished by their world view and by interactions within the world. The view is one of anxiety, wishing, and expecting difficulties to be swept out of their way since they were not able to help themselves. The interaction rests on a presumption of exemption for oneself, and obligation of another; for example:

·       It has always been done for me, so, I’m entitled to have it now.

·       You did it for me then, you must do it for me now.

·       As you have done it and not taught me, I don’t know how to. Therefore, you must continue to do it for me.

Initially, in our clinical work, we don’t experience the character trait quite so clearly as this. Formulations like those shared above are examples of a clarifying process that comes forward in the clinical interaction.

Our clients themselves present as confused or frustrated or angry or pitiful and evoke a range of emotions in us as clinicians: our own sympathy, empathy, fear, pity, frustration, and sometimes anger. So, while we are wise to keep our “emotions in check even in difficult situations” (Adler as quoted in Stein, 2013, p. 103), we know emotions are perfectly harmonious with our clients’ fictional goal! Their impact on the clinician intends to coopt the clinician to aid in goal-attainment. By tuning in to our own emotional reaction, we can tune into the intention that the client unconsciously presents us – the direction and movement toward the client’s unconscious goal.

Such preparedness to understand client movement needn’t be confused with suspiciousness. Certainly, we are curious about the purposes of the client – and we are hungry for clues as to the unifying goal their movement tends-toward and that is aimed at in our interactions. We are curious, concerned, and caring toward them, “as with a friend whom we wish not to burden” (Adler, ibid.).

We want to understand the use our clients are making of our interaction to simplify their lives. Adler understood the effort to simplify life’s difficulties as the purpose behind every device.  Device construction and utilization is something inherently human. “Simplifying life” is what guessing does for us, what art and discovery and invention provide us. These devices signal our attempts to sidestep insurmountable difficulty by solving smaller riddles before us.

In our interpersonal lives, Adler explained, we use other devices like metaphors, dreams, and principles – that all aim at simplifying life. Poets use metaphor to make a beneficial impact on someone with related images; dreams make movement easier by stoking emotions in a decided direction; our principles make life easier by exalting specific behaviors while ruling out others.

In this broad sense, it’s easy to understand the neurotic demand, “Care for me as I have become accustomed to!” as a device our clients use for simplifying their lives. By appreciating such neurotic movement, we can distinguish between the device that benefits others – among whom I can count myself and the device that serves only myself – at the expense of others.

Adler concluded that devices that are helpful to the community (like those mentioned above) are, at their foundation, full of reason which he described as having a sense of commonality, literally common sense. Devices that focus on personal benefit, derive from a private sense of life and intend to trick others.

So, at its base, the neurotic character is one of tricking others into meeting the needs of one; closed to personal responsibility, without interest in benefiting others. The neurotic character is intended to make life simpler for the individual without benefit to the community.

Our aim, our intention, as Adlerians in the depth-tradition, is to reveal the trick of neurotic character traits in a patient and friendly manner; to clarify the device in its trickery; to open the door back to the useful side of life. Adler reminds:

This cannot occur if the patient is not won over to cooperate and to be kind and if we fail to generate … a social interest directed toward helping others (ibid).





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