Neurotic Pride (Idealized Image) and Neurotic Self-hate
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KeywordsRelational Deprivation Idealize Image Idealize Beauty Realistic Appraisal Early Deprivation
Neurotic pride is a defense posture that arises due to an underlying sense of insecurity and feeling of unworthiness. Horney believed that neurotic development generally arose from an unfavorable or inadequate home environment that in turn weakened the child at the core of his being. As a result, Horney (1950) states, “He becomes alienated from himself and divided. His self-idealization is an attempt to remedy the damage done by lifting himself in his mind above the crude reality of himself and others” (p. 87). Neurotic pride is a compulsively driven attempt to overcompensate for and dissociate oneself from deep-seated feelings of inadequacy that interfere with the unfolding emergence of the real self.
Neurotic pride and the idealized image are fundamental components of Karen Horney’s theory of neurosis. All of Horney’s character dynamics, “moving toward,” “moving against,” and “moving away” are character solutions compulsively created out of pride, idealization, and, the very mirror image of these aspirations, self-hate. This understanding of neurosis as a character disturbance developing out of varying levels of trauma, from disrupted, insecure, or unreliable ties with early caregivers to later grave psychic insults in life, moves the focus of psychoanalysis from instinct fixations to self-individuation.
Horney’s concept of neurotic pride and the idealized image is best understood within the context of examining the contrast between healthy pride and neurotic pride. Horney (1950) states that healthy pride is based on substantial attributes, such as “having autonomous convictions and acting upon them, having the self-reliance that stems from tapping our own resources, assuming responsibility for ourselves, taking a realistic appraisal of our assets, liabilities and limitations, having strengths and directness of feelings, and having the capacity for establishing and cultivating good human relations” (p. 88).
Neurotic pride is based on unsubstantial attributes that support the “glorified” or idealized self. The constructed, idealized image of the self is what actually creates and fuels the pride system. Attributes of neurotic pride are often extraneous assets, such as prestige, status, or superficial measures such as appearance. Horney described the drive to achieve these prestige values as becoming so critical to individuals “that their lives revolve around them and often they would “fritter away their best energies in their service” (p. 89). Because neurotic pride is based on insubstantial or external measures, it is also marked by an extreme sensitivity to hurt, disappointment, or rejection. At just these critical moments, the pride system becomes most vulnerable and therefore most amenable to insight.
The Pride System
How do pride, idealization, and self-hate become an unconscious construction that can grow on itself? They are all systemic parts of what Horney called “the pride system,” a system of feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and behavior that create inner vulnerability and thereby sap a person’s healthy strivings toward growth and self-development.
Since the pride system is substantially unconscious, the individual does not know that he is idealizing himself. It thereby becomes possible to see oneself in flattering terms involving perfectionistic aspirations that can embrace (among other things) idealized beauty, power, saintliness, or honesty. She describes a condition where a person “may have a vague sense that he is making high demands upon himself, but mistaking such perfectionist demands for genuine ideals he in no way questions their validity and is indeed rather proud of them” (Horney 1945, p. 97).
Through such all-or-nothing thinking, the individual is caught between adoration and contempt with no middle ground possible. Either he has unlimited rights or no rights at all. In fact, Horney depicts the pride system as involved in a life-challenging battle with the resources of the real self until the false assumptions of the former can be identified and undermined.
Development of the Idealized Image
How does the idealized image get created? It develops in the microcosm of intimate relationships with caregivers who cannot attune themselves to the needs of the child. The lack of attunement is typically a product of the caregiver’s own idealizations which in turn developed as a result of that adult’s own early relational deprivations. When the caregivers’ early deprivations have metastasized into compulsive narcissistic needs in adulthood, an intergenerational transmission of emotional dysfunction has been created. Thus self and other idealizations get handed off often without consciousness and without conscious intent. And without fail, an idealized image will generate insecurity and self-loathing, which Horney called “basic anxiety – a feeling of being isolated and helpless in a world conceived as potentially hostile” (Horney 1950, p. 18).
Once overidealization takes unconscious hold, the sources of danger deepen and widen. Now we are not only fearful about what we cannot do but what we can do. Without awareness, our idealizations take us into a world designed for self-protection but destined for unrelenting conflict. Russell (2015) describes it well. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us” (p. 3). The very light that could deepen our self-awareness and our potential for healing now becomes coopted by magical ideas of an ultimate perfection. Note here one of Horney’s deepest insights: that the sources of our real self can become usurped and hijacked in the imagined pursuit of “protective” perfection.
Because neurotic pride and the overidealized self-image are compensations meant to keep feelings of shame and unworthiness at bay, the construction of the pride system is ultimately not a sustainable solution. Over time, depression, weariness, and hopelessness eventually emerge from under the surface. Whether triggered by loss or environmental trauma or the result of aging or disappointment, underlying symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and even bitterness or rage will eventually begin to emerge. However, the therapeutic process is one in which we invite our patients to become curious about goals and ambitions and allowing them the freedom to explore these dynamics in an atmosphere of tolerance and support. Over time they gain a precious understanding that no matter how enigmatic these aberrant mechanisms are, the growing forces of the real self will reabsorb them and redeem the person’s sense of authentic wholeness. Knowing this, the posture of the therapist becomes optimistic and life affirming and can remain so.
- Horney, K. (1939). New ways in psychoanalysis. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
- Horney, K. (1945). Our Inner Conflicts. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
- Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and human growth: The struggle toward self-realization. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
- Russell, E. (2015). Restoring resilience: Discovering your clients: Capacity for healing. New York: Norton.Google Scholar