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Neurotic Pessimism

By Harold Kelman

[In this lecture, Harold Kelman distinguishes “neurotic” from “rational.” pessimism:

« … Neurotic pessimism is distinguished by pervasive and indiscriminate negativity. It is dramatized and destructive. Preoccupied with past times, viewing them "with rose colored glasses" and disinterest in present and future.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection » (quotations from - AKS]

Neurotic Pessimism

NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, April 17, 1950

The purpose of this talk is to discuss neurotic, or irrational, and rational pessimism. We shall be more especially concerned with neurotic, or irrational pessimism. We do not speak of normal pessimism. The words seem almost a contradiction in terms, and the word “normal” is unsatisfactorily vague. Irrational pessimism will have the characteristics of any neurotic drive, and will show, in addition, those peculiar to itself. It is pervasive and indiscriminate; comparatively unrelated to reality; compulsively governed by unrealistic drives and illusions, hence to consume the whole personality; is exaggerated and dramatized; is basically destructive; and is unrelated to time, place, and situation. The basic feeling is that everything was, is, and will be bad. It is motivated and impelled by forces of considerable intensity. There are several factors to explain this: The trend may be difficult to identify, most of its determinants, operations, and powerful motivations may be unconsious. Rational pessimism has quite a different character. It is limited and is caused by actual difficulty. It is felt only by those aspects of the personality currently involved — except in those rare instances which really are life-and-death matters. It is in proportion to whatever caused it; consequently, the situation, however bad it may be, can be viewed objectively and constructively by the rest of the self. The past and the future seem hopeful.

Such objectivity and hopefulness are not possible in neurotic pessimism because the individual afflicted with it is alienated from himself and others. In difficult situation, a hopeful attitude is possible only when a person can expect and ask for help from people to whom he would give help in return. Rational pessimism lacks the consuming force and intensity of of neurotic pessimism. Efforts made to overcome real difficulty tend to strengthen and re-vivify the person making them, lead to increased self-esteem, courage, and joy; and act as a positive stimulus to others. Irrational pessimism, by contrast, exhausts and wears down both the individual experiencing it and those about him. For the rest of this talk, we will concern ourselves almost exclusively with irrational pessimism.

Pessimistic drives may be of more or less recent origin in the life of an individual, but often when we meet them in psychoanalysis, they have been chronically present for some time. We can say that, at whatever period we observe a person, there must have been at one time during his life less of these drives, and even little of them. He is often only partly aware of them, no matter how much they may influence his life and the lives of those about him. They may show only under special circumstances; they may show, to some extent, all the time, but the more intense and more exclusive in response to existing situations. Or, finally, they may be so pervasive as to dominate his life, and the lives of those in contact with him. Except, possibly, in the psychoses — that is, when people are considered insane — a person is at no time completely consumed by neurotic pessimism.

Now we can conjecture the dynamics of the development of neurotic pessimism and the maintenance of it. Rational pessimism may be the response to repeated failure in attaining a goal. When the reaction is one of morbid pessimism, another factor must be added: the irrational expectations connected with reaching the goal. Such expectations are fore-doomed to defeat. And it is this type of failure from which neurotic pessimism derives. This point will be clearer when we trace the formation of these irrational expectations. There are, of course, individual differences present at birth, but for any infant, most of his organism is used to further living and growth, except for those few born severely maimed physically or mentally.

The basis for neurotic pessimism must thus be found in life experience. The child’s attempts to learn judgment, decision, responsibility, choice, discrimination, and individual resourcefulness in his attempts need encouragement in order to succeed. When they meet, instead, with unnecessarily painful frustration, more and more of his energies will be diverted from the attainment of constructive goals. The disastrous effects will vary, of course, according to the number, intensity, and spirit of the frustrations. Simple, direct wishes become distorted during such a process, and rarely reach consciousness. In their stead is a feeling of defeat. Even this may be buried beneath a series of defenses erected to protect the individual against it, and also against the occurrence of failure. When these changes have taken place, the natural situation is reversed. The maximum of energies is deflected from constructive goals, to pessimistic, destructive ones.

Even an infant can react to difficulty with anger and temper, or he may react by clinging, or by an attempt at withdrawal, often revealed by the constant sleeping and apathy — even to the point of wasting in death. The last reaction is the most dangerous of the three. It is especially threatening in infancy, when the baby requires the active mobilization of its forces to maintain life. The situation becomes more complex when walking, talking, thought, and feeling are added to the picture. The child’s natural sense of his own smallness can be exaggerated by frustration or a loss of love, until he feels overwhelmed by helplessness. As a result, his own character may be constructed out of the three attitudes of aggressiveness, yielding, and detachment.

The situation may even culminate in producing a fourth attitude: a trend towards self-destruction. In infancy, self-destruction is merely a more or less accidental result of withdrawal, but later it can represent a definite direction or goal. The child’s security depends on love, and loss of love means pain. When he experiences it, his attention becomes redirected to the avoidance of pain. Failing to be acceptable to his parents, he aims to be completely acceptable to himself. To meet this need, he forms in his mind an idealized image of himself. This image also serves the function of giving him a false sense of unity and wholeness, which he needs acutely, as his personality is now made up of contradictory drives, and the disequilibrium thus produced further increases his helplessness. The idealized image may be patterned after the predominating trend in his character, or may be a fusion of two or more trends — a fusion which minimizes contradictions or puts them in a flattering light. The difficulty is that he must now live up to this image at practically any cost to himself or others.

We can hardly think of an idealized image created by a self-destructive trend — for the aim of self-destruction is not to glorify the self, but to put an end to it. Self-destruction as a consuming ideal cannot be a primary goal. It is rather a consequence of a failure to live up to the idealized image. We can see, now, what was meant by irrational expectations: the expectation of meeting the standards set by the idealized image. In attempts to reach this goal, failure may be felt as simple frustration, but actually, it is fore-doomed. The whole self is rarely consumed in the service of the idealized image — something of genuine feeling, thought, and desire remains. But apart from these remnants of a real self, the individual tends to regard himself from the point of view of this image — to accept anything in himself that seems to fit the image, and to reject whatever does not. This material on the idealized image is a personal condensation of some of Dr. Horney’s thoughts on this subject.

The idealized image plays a part in most neuroses, and it follows that some neurotic pessimism will always be present. Its extent and intensity, and the prominence of its appearance in any individual will depend on the degree of preoccupation with with the idealized image, and how strongly the individual feels its demands, and how he feels he may be able to meet these demands. Pessimism will become acutely manifest whenever the individual’s attempts in this direction are seriously threatened — whether by life situations, or during the course of a psychoanalysis. There are several component trends to irrational pessimism: they tend to fall into groups commonly present at one time. We give them, now, in the sequence in which they frequently appear in the course of an analysis, though the predominant trends keep changing in character and intensity, yet most of those to be discussed will show at one time or another.

The first of these to be discussed is chronic dissatisfaction. Although neurotic pessimism originally results from failure to attain irrational goals, it spreads, and is in time attached to all goals, all effort. In this situation, a state of chronic dissatisfaction may be needed to whip the individual to renewed efforts. There is also present the failure to obtain real satisfaction from real success. Enjoyment is felt as dangerous, as something out of control in the open. So great are the destructive trends associated with pessimism that a lack of control is often visualized as an orgy of wanton destructiveness. Enjoyment also threatens detachment and entails responsibility. As analysis progresses, patients may see to what extent their attitude of dissatisfaction represents a turning away from the present as something too vital and too near.

A second category of trend can be subsumed under chronic depression. This attitude is often unconscious. It may also not be apparent to observers. It may not appear in analysis for some time. It is so unbearable a feeling that it is greatly feared when once experienced. And this fear may produce a frenzied flight toward hyperactivity and surface joviality. The dread of experiencing depression can be used as a stubborn resistance against insight into the false nature of this superficial elation. In the course of analysis, there appears beneath the vivacity a strong drive to escape from a deep sense of numbness, deadness, emptiness, and loneliness. These feelings impel a person to desperate attempts to gain approval and a sense of closeness to others.

Hopelessness: This feeling usually results from he irrational nature of the goal, from the need to live up to the fantastic demands of the idealized image. The image itself was also conceived in a setting of frustration or failure. The realization of the individual’s real self may be greatly hindered in the process. These various factors all contribute to a deep hopelessness. In spite of this feeling, there is, in most cases, reason for optimism. The damage is rarely beyond repair. Still, some incentive to live and grow can be found in most of us, no matter how crushing the injuries have been.

Doom: The idealized image represents the neurotic solution for unbearable difficulties. But its attainment is so impossibly beyond reach that effort in that direction begins to be felt as futile. Yet the individual feels that without the image, he cannot face life. He is caught in a dilemma — in a sense of being doomed either way. The sense of doom shows, in some people, in the intensely negative reaction to joy. Happiness is regarded as illusory — passing, accidental. They think, “You are not entitled to enjoy life. Don’t be a fool and kid yourself, that all will be well. When the axe falls, the pain will be worse because you took a chance with optimism.”

A further trend, nostalgia: A longing for the past is a prominent trend, and is closely related to the trends previously described. The “good ol’ days” are seen in roseate hues, even though they were really not so happy. The past seems carefree, and there is a morbid turning away from from the present, and even more so from the future. The attitude is related to the extreme need for freedom — a freedom of a special kind. It means an absence of all ties, and a release from anything which might interfere with a person’s functioning according to his idealized image. It is a living in a vacuum, which seems the ideal reality. A person may show this nostalgia in a preoccupation with his childhood. He may be haunted by sad tunes of long ago; he remembers the scenes of his childhood as beautiful. The past presents, and represents, to him, a respite from struggle, a realm without problems. In one patient, the preoccupation with the past had, also, another meaning, and one quite different from a seeing the past in such a roseate hue. He hoped to blot the past out, and especially those portions which flagrantly contradicted this idealized image of himself — the trend of deadness.

People in whom pessimism is strong often complain that they feel dead. Their friends may have the same impression of them. The feeling may show in all aspects of human expression — in fantasies, dreams, colors chosen, acquaintances preferred; in a hollow, monotonous, chilling voice; rigid measured gait; noiseless motion; drooped posture; a masklike, funereal face. These people feel that their relationships are without life. They feel limited, rigid, and controlled. They suffer from boredom and a conviction that nothing changes. Their idealized image imposes upon them the need to function automatically, like a machine. And though such functioning is extremely rigid and restricted, it represents their peculiar concept of freedom: freedom from spontaneous feeling, which might be beyond their control. During analysis, one patient began to recognize how inhibiting her stoical idea of an absence of feeling was. The insight disturbed her, as it made her aware of her emptiness, and exposed the invalidity of her idealized image. Much work must be done when the feeling of deadness is strong before patients are willing to take a chance on themselves, and on living. They use the feeling as a barrier against the pain of exposure, against insights into measures taken to attain irrational goals, and to prevent the coming to life of those parts of the personality which violate the idealized image. They are afraid of real hurt, and cannot see its constructive quality — they prefer neurotic suffering.

On being wraith-like: There are two sides to this trend. It has its advantage, and its disadvantage, both strongly felt. The person feels as though in a vacuum, surrounded by a wall of protective space, felt as distance, a haze, or a glass enclosure. The advantage is protection. Such a person feels unassailable and invulnerable to mental or physical pain — beyond material needs and invisible. He may feel that he can see out, observe others, know their secrets; but on the other hand, he suffers from being alone, in an endless void, shut off, unable to make himself felt or heard. As children and even as adults, such people often have the fantasy of being invisible — able to float through space, doors, and walls. Or the fantasy may be more aggressive, and they may have the idea of spiriting people away. Intense suffering is felt by that part of the personality submerged in the service of the idealized image. It makes frantic, but futile attempts to break out of the void. Such attempts are short-lived, because of the inexorable demands of the idealized image. These genuine efforts are not the same as the majestic sorties of the image coming down to earth. One patient behaved like a queen who, in transitory earthly visitations, picked up and dropped a series of Princes Charming. Everything, indeed, was picked up and dropped in this manner. Such fragmentary relationships protect a wraith-like quality in our defense against insight. The contradictory aspects of these people’s lives are kept separate, compartmentalized so that inconsistencies will not show — the trend of sterility in non-existence.

People having these feelings never seem to settle. They have no weight or substance, resemble echoes. They protect themselves from coming alive in the ordinary sense. They feel that they have a life of their own, meeting their needs. They suffer from feelings of emptiness and weakness. They cannot experience themselves as an effective force in their own lives. They feel like fugitives, stowaways, passing shadows, of no significance to themselves or others. Such feelings show when, during the course of analysis, they must make efforts of their own. At first, such efforts are mere gestures at self-discipline. But they may lead in time to more intense work, and become more genuine striving.

The transcendental and fate: There is much of the occult and mystical in these people. Their concern is with the spiritual and beyond-life, and they are often strongly suspicious and superstitious. Fate has a special meaning for them: they believe that luck and accident have been arranged in their favor, but that they must wait for fate, not hurry it, predict it, or tamper with it. Their waiting for fate may be confused with real patience — but their patience is a patience with waiting, and not a patience with doing. Patience with doing, and taking real chances, has a positive quality.

Inertia and the fear of taking a chance: The various attitudes we have already considered, and the difficulties in conflicts growing from them, all tend to produce inertia. It is related, with special closeness, to looking backward, the emphasis on fate and transcendental, and to detachment. People caught in pessimistic trends may show a decided aversion to work. They sit and do nothing, like some Oriental god, immortal, unassailable, beyond material wants. There may be another disregard for the body and for feelings. The problem of asceticism is obviously involved in these attitudes. An actual wallowing in despair and apathy may occur and may contain unmistakable destructiveness, or be felt merely as respite from turmoil. To maintain inertia, they cling to a sense of boredom and purposelessness. In analysis, they may even plead to be allowed to abandon the struggle altogether. They often say, “Every psychoanalyst must expect some failures; I’m just lazy.” But the inertia causes anxiety, especially as insight grows.

When one patient had achieved some questioning of her idealized image, she was faced with new problems: with the inability to want anything, with the lack of conviction that she had a right to desires, or that her desires would be respected, and she had the feeling that she could not muster the energy needed to fulfill wants, if she were ever to have them. In connection with the turning to the past, we find a great dislike for taking any chance on the future, and aversion for the unknown, and a need to be protected against it. People with pessimistic trends cannot understand how anyone can enjoy taking a stand, taking a chance, or think of enjoying the privileges of responsibility. They try to foresee and plan the future, to know everything in advance.

The negative therapeutic reaction and creativity: In any psychoanalysis, the therapist has to expect periods when some piece of insight, instead of giving greater freedom, will seem to make the person worse. For the moment, all symptoms will seem to be exaggerated. We name this the “negative therapeutic reaction.” It is most likely to occur when basic problems are reached, threatening the idealized image, or exposing basic conflicts. It can be quite disturbing, and at times, is one of the factors making caution and slowness necessary. In dealing with neurotic pessimism, this reaction may appear whenever insight is imminent, or the need to make efforts is clear. Trends already discussed show, then, in distinct outline, and two yet to be discussed, destructiveness and vindictiveness, are always present. A hatred of growth and creativeness is apt to show with special vividness. Pessimistic people may be capable of short bursts of creative effort. They want to have the thing done quickly ended and out of the way. What they envisage is a finished product which has ceased to develop. A growing thing is dynamic, out of control — and that is deeply disturbing to people who are compelled to to arrange all thought, feeling, and action in rigid conformity with the idealized image. To gain back control, they rush to snuff out anything forming between themselves and others — birth, life, creativeness, and the right of other people to be different are all hateful to them.

Concerning destructiveness: We have touched on some aspects of destructiveness in several connections, for it is prominent in the whole picture of neurotic pessimism. It is chronically present, and will be evoked in greater intensity by any threat to the status quo. People suffering from pessimistic trends feel hopeless about themselves and powerless to improve. On this basis they justify a positive allowing, wishing, and encouragement of their own destruction. They do not want to help themselves, and definitely do not want to help others. Such people may show a macabre sense of humor, but the things they laugh at are not funny. They laugh at injury, illness, death, and loss. They even seem most amused when such disasters happen to themselves, as though they enjoyed sitting in at their own death and dissolution. But one may discern a driven, frightened quality in their laughter. When the causes for it are revealed, it disappears and gives place to tears. Destruction also shows in attempts to humiliate, degrade, exploit, and frustrate others, and pessimistic people turn these same attitudes onto themselves, and will do whatever they can to prevent anyone from helping them effectively.

Vindictiveness and Vindicativeness: The vindictiveness of these people may be generated in a number of ways, and in as many ways justified. Though they bend all energies towards reaching the goal of the idealized image, yet at the same time they behave as though they had already reached it, and many devices are used to maintain this illusion. Such a very false and contradictory position naturally leaves them open to exposure, and extremely sensitive to anything that threatens exposure. When they are exposed, or if they imagine that danger is imminent, they may resort to a direct assault in retaliation. This may also be expected if any of the questionable traits which they have developed are exposed. Because these people feel so keen an intolerance of responsibility and/or failure, the one who exposes them is always the one at fault in their eyes. Their very deep self-hatred is often directed outward. If they are made aware of their lack of courage, or their negative traits, they become disturbed, vindictive, and hateful, and all the more so because they feel that such traits will prevent them from reaching their irrational goals.

Vindictiveness and vindicativeness are closely associated in these cases. The only thing that vindicates them in their own eyes is attaining the idealized image. That, however, justifies anything. If they can believe in that image as something already reached, they feel cleared past question. It is on the basis of such a belief that many of the most excessive demands are made, in the most fantastic pseudo-logical rationalizations erected. There is a feeling that their wonderfulness should not require evidence, but be accepted as a proven reality, and they expect to be lavishly nurtured for their remarkable qualities. Promises they consider enough, and no fulfillment should be required. A promise gives them the sense of something already accomplished, a bit of accomplished largesse. These exaggerated and inflated notions of the self differ from the conscious delusions of the psychotic — namely, of the insane — in that these exaggerated and inflated notions of self are unconscious. But many of us who function fairly well, and are not severely neurotic, also have some of these exaggerated and inflated notions of ourself.