International Karen Horney Society Home
  Home About the IKHS About Karen Horney Bulletin Board Links

Personality Development: The Only Child

By Bella Steinberg Van Bark

[In this lecture, “Dr. Bella Steinberg Van Bark discusses the only child,” and challenges the assumption that the condition of being an only child itself leads to more significant maladjustments than in children who are not only children. She discusses “neurotic tendencies among only children” and “Specific examples of types of neurosis among only children.”

These form part of her “larger discussion of how parents impart their own neurotic tendencies on their children,” and her “discussion of how positive influences can improve upon negative tendencies at any point in an individual’s life.” Because this lecture ends abruptly, I have added some comments at the end for closure. (quotations from - AKS]

Personality Development: The Only Child
Monday, December 12, 1949

Transcribed from NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, December 12, 1949

In discussing the only child, I shall consider the effect of onliness on personality development. My findings will be presented from the standpoint of modern psychoanalytic theory. Since popular opinion persists in maintaining that the only child is more likely to be maladjusted than the child from a larger family, I believe this subject merits investigation. It is also timely in view of the increase in one-child families.

Recent census statistics in the past 150 years show a decrease in the number of children per family — from three to one, approximately. They show a preponderance of singletons among the educated, and those in the higher income brackets, while the middle class seems to have lost the most ground in its birth rate. Many factors have contributed to this decreasing trend. Some of the general ones are economic and social changes, alterations in family habit patterns, world chaos, and the extension and increased acceptance of birth control information. More specific individual factors influencing family size are personal organic or functional disorders and the enormous increase in personality disturbances. The latter disturbances affect personal attitudes towards marriage, children, and responsibility in general.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, the problem of the only-child has received attention from theorists and from research workers. Opinion on this subject has been divided: theorists have been pessimistic about the outlook for the only-child. They have agreed that onliness inevitably leads to unfavorable personality traits and maladjustments in school, social life, and marriage. Onlies had been considered to be characterized by their selfishness, hypersensitivity, self-centeredness, lack of initiative and self-reliance, and social awkwardness. Theorists have attributed these maladjustments to attitudes they consider are displayed specifically by parents of only children, such as excessive solicitude, overprotectiveness, and tendencies to be too restricting. These opinions of the theorists were based upon observations of selected only children, and investigated by the questionnaire method, without any consideration of control groups of not-only children. The deeper dynamics of personality structure and the influence of the parent-child relationship were not investigated.

On the other hand, research workers found no support for the gloomy aspect of the above views. From their studies of representative groups of only-children, and non-onlies in child guidance clinics, schools, colleges, and among delinquents of all ages, they gathered no proof that the only-child was more seriously maladjusted than the child from a larger family. No distinguishing personality traits for only-children were observed. They found no evidence, in addition, that parents of only-children display attitudes in any way different from the attitudes exhibited towards non-only children. In these studies, also, the deeper dynamics of the interpersonal relationship existing between parent and child was not developed. However, these research workers have agreed that the parent who spoils one child is just as likely to spoil more than one, and you have, no doubt, heard that the only-child is always a spoiled child. That is not true.

Now, let us turn our attention to my material. It has been gathered from my analytic practice and includes composite data on onlies, adults who were only children, and children and adults who occupied various birth positions in the family. This material is being considered in light of the theory of personality development elaborated by Horney. I might well begin with a brief introduction to the basic concepts involved: First, the basic assumption rests on our belief that every child who is born without physical or mental handicaps has potentialities for healthy personality development. Since personality acquires structure in a human environment, and in response to this environment, the psychological help of the adults in it exerts a decisive influence on the direction of the child’s personality development.

Each child has its own unique personality requirements of growth and development, and its own capacities in striving. Also, in each human being there appears to be a deep basic need to establish satisfactory relations with people. This need expresses itself in three ways of moving in relation to people: toward people, in friendliness and for help; against people, to ward off harm, or domination, or in competition; and away from people, to pursue one’s goals, and for solitude. In an environment favorable to normal personality development, the adults are spontaneous and natural in their relation with people as a whole. Therefore, they can accept the child as he is: a factually immature human being, and appreciate his needs to develop, slowly and naturally. Not driven by conscious and unconscious, unfulfilled personality needs, such adults are not disturbed by the child’s uneven tempo of learning and the child’s attempts to develop his capacities for reasoning and judgment. They are not compelled to interfere, and can differentiate between conscious desires to be good, kind, and helpful to the child, and what is real assistance, guidance, and support for the child.

The results, for the child, are that he acquires a solid inner feeling about his own importance as a human being, and a balanced picture of his assets and liabilities. He can also develop initiative and self-reliance, and the ability to become responsible for his decisions. Since the child is then equipped with the guideline for differentiation between friend and foe — between what is in his true self-interest and what is opposed to it, the child’s personality development is more likely to be healthy, and has a better chance for survival in the face of later, adverse influences. Since early childhood is the crucial period, for determining the direction of personality development, let us see what occurs adverse conditions, generally.

First of all, in such a setup, the adults have personality difficulties or disturbances which interfere with establishing good relations with other people. For example, they may be driven by excessive ambition, or intense needs for affection or detachment, or influenced by their idealization of what a good parent should be. Unconsciously, such parents use the child to satisfy these needs — or at least some of them — and the child’s needs are actually disregarded. It is important to bear in mind that adults who have conscious or unconscious, unfulfilled, compulsive needs, although basically well-intentioned, cannot avoid having an impact about those around them, and unwittingly use their human relationships — whether with a child or with other adults — in the service of these compelling drives. Consequently, the child is not accepted as he is, and his capacities for normal development are stifled. For example, the child may not be accepted for himself, but becomes, unconsciously, a tool for the reflected glory he sheds on his parents, the vicarious neurotic satisfaction they may attain from his beauty, brilliance, health, or good manners. In other respects, his development and his needs may be taken for granted or partially neglected. In the unfavorable family milieu, where parents are disturbed in their human relations, the child must of necessity sacrifice and neglect his own strivings for growth and development to the end of finding ways to relieve his anxiety in relation to his parents. This is the origin of neurosis in childhood.

All movements, then, of the child in his human relations, become invested with compulsiveness and indiscriminateness. Under some circumstances, one form of movement predominates, and the others are repressed, but also operate, and determine feelings, and patterns of behavior and traits. If, for example the predominant movement of the child to relieve his anxiety is towards people, most of his energies are diverted in this direction, to win them over, at the expense of total personality development. Now, in the service of these movements, special needs are developed as well as special qualities. So you see, now, that the personality traits which are most in evidence in children — whether they are only-children or non-onlies — are merely representative of the predominant character trend; that is, the predominant way to cope with life and with people. Since both onlies and non-onlies are likely to be exposed to early adverse influences, we would not expect to find any one set of personality traits more characteristic of onliness than another set of traits. Wherever one form of movement predominates, we find corresponding traits. The selfishness and hypersensitivity which theorists consider characteristic of onliness are, in reality, characteristic of distorted personality development or neurotic difficulties. So they are [a] neurotic phenomenon common to all neurotic individuals. These traits are also, therefore, common to only-children. For instance, lack of self-reliance or excessive aggressiveness, or shyness and withdrawal, can be seen in the population as a whole. I have not noted that only-children display one form of movement in relation to people any more than another. The understanding of personality is considerably deepened by viewing separate aspects in the sphere of reference of the total personality structure. In the same way, we get a broader view of the factors influencing personality development if we keep in mind the totality of factors. I believe that, as in the case of personality traits, so you shall see, in what follows, that onliness in and of itself is just one factor, and a secondary one, in comparison to the effect of the adult’s personality strivings which influence the personality development of the child.

Before focusing on the nature of the later adjustments made by the singleton, we shall retrace our steps to the period where the normal direction of the child’s personality development has been blocked by environmental pressures. This is the origin of the development of the neurotic personality. The neurotic structure elaborated has a force of its own, in opposition to the healthy strivings in the personality, toward self-fulfillment. The operation of the neurotic forces further impairs the individual’s functioning. This becomes more evident in one area or another — disturbed human relations may result, or lack of productivity in work, or psychosexual disturbances.

With this understanding, let us proceed to look at the profiles of some only-children, with a view to investigating some of the sources of their maladjustments. I shall stress the family tone, and the feeling-tone between parent and child, both of which, I feel, far outweigh the factor of onliness in affecting personality development. Eve came into analysis at age of thirty because of dissatisfaction with her career adjustment and unsatisfactory relations with men. She was an only child. Her mother was a gentle, loving, and dependent person, with strong tendencies to subtle domination under the guise of self-sacrifice and felicitude. The mother focused endless attention on the physical welfare of the husband and child. Although she idolized her husband, and effaced herself for him, she was openly rejected by him. He was humiliating and belittling through his continual sarcasm and criticism. Eve’s mother then began to use Eve as her sole reason for living and main source of affection. To gain this affection, although unconsciously motivated, she assented to Eve’s every wish, catered to her and never found fault with her. Eve’s father, on the other hand, focused on Eve’s scholastic work, in which he expected top-notch performance. He gave her some human direction, in the form of pat, moralistic formulae; he preached respect and consideration for others and tolerance. The family tone, as you see, was sadly lacking in these qualities. Eve unconsciously registered these contradictions, as well as the parents’ lack of genuine interest in her real right to self-development. Her mother’s self-sacrificing trends were really domination, and her excessive attention to Eve was interference. Secretly fearing her father, Eve tried to woo him by her successes in school, developing intensive needs for approval which deprived her of real pleasure in studies, made her extremely competitive, and impaired her later success in school. Her neurotic need to succeed interfered with satisfactory relations with people, even though outwardly, she was compliant and submissive. Eve was entirely unaware of her hostile aggressive trends and dependency drives. After college, she became self-supporting and self-reliant, but felt unfulfilled.

In her attempt to find a solution to her emotional problems through love, she married a weak, dependent man whom she dominated and secretly despised. The marriage ended in divorce. Subsequent relations with men were also unsatisfactory. She admired and feared strong men, who increased her feelings of inferiority. Until analysis, she was neurotically attached to her father, although he rejected her. This trend was analyzed. It was then found to be not on an instinctual basis, but found to stem from anxiety and guilt-feelings in having failed her father in his ambitious goals for her. This basis for Eve’s attachment to her father seems to be a sounder explanation than attributing it to an Oedipus-complex. Analysis helped Eve to see that she was worthwhile in herself, reduced her approval-needs, freed her for more productive work commensurate with her capacities, and improved her human relations.

I am well aware that there were additional influencing factors. Those I have highlighted appeared to me of major importance. The mother’s subtle domination and self-sacrifice crushed Eve’s capacity for sharing, produced an inner feeling of not belonging, and also contributed to an exaggerated notion of her own importance. Her father’s subtle disparagement and overemphasis upon scholastic achievement, with frequent reference to the success of others, contributed to just as false a picture of inferiority. These factors played a large part in her impaired human relations, her intensive need for approval, and her lowered accomplishment in school. Her total personality development suffered under these influences more than from just the fact that she was an only-child. We might speculate that another child in this family milieu of friction and disrespect for human rights would also have been adversely influenced, even with the best consciously-avowed intentions on the part of the adults.

Eve was overtly self-reliant, as we’ve seen. Now, Nan — another only-child — was openly helpless, clinging, awkward, and dependent. She was predominantly detached, with strongly repressed aggressive drives. Her mother was cold, perfectionistic, over-critical, and self-sacrificing, with a marked sadistic streak. Her father as a very kindly, non-interfering person, who had married mainly to have a home and good housekeeper. However, he provided for his family, and there his participation in the family group ended. He gave Nan practically no personal support or guidance. Nan’s mother subtly contributed to undermining the child’s self-confidence by being too helpful. She was unconsciously driven by her won impatience, and rarely allowed the child to complete a task at her own tempo. This was one of the major factors in crushing Nan’s incentive to persist in the face of obstacles. At the same time, Nan’s mother expressed disappointment that Nan was no great help in the house. The mother set great emphasis, as you see, upon a girl’s need to be a good housewife for future marriage. Nan’s lack of initiative and self-reliance, together with a horror of the consequences of making a mistake, contributed to mediocre work in school. Her actual accomplishments were below her capacities. She had deep inner feelings of stupidity, worthlessness, and having no right to live. Her primary early solution to environmental pressures was to submit, withdraw, and let her mother take over.

Popularly, this might be regarded as “selfishness.” You see that it is not “selfishness,” but a neurotic phenomenon. In her choice of friends, she chose weak women and men, thus unconsciously satisfying her needs for superiority. She was unaware of her excessive expectations from life, and people, although she consciously felt very ill-treated. Before analysis, she had begun a search for a man who would literally put her in his vest pocket and thus provide protection for life. She had no realization of how she was blocking her own power to gaining satisfaction from living. When the need for helplessness was analyzed, strongly repressed ambitious strivings came into focus. Nan’s mother, also, would not have treated another child much differently. Her values, goals, attitudes, and patterns of behavior would not have been altered by another child. This example, again, bears out the thesis, that onliness in and of itself becomes relatively unimportant in comparison with the family tone and the feeling-tone between parent and child.

It is true, hwoever, that the only-child is at a disadvantage, in that the only-child receives the full impact of the personality difficulties, neurotic needs, and distorted values of its parents, who unconsciously are driven to foist their needs and ideologies on the child. Realizing these points, you can easily see the fallacy of adding a neurotic brother or sister to mitigate the disadvantages that full parental impact has on onlies. It is mere coincidence that I have used two female adult onlies for illustration. Male onlies, and male adults who were onlies, are also affected adversely in proportion to the crushing parental influences, and present no striking differences in maladjustment from the females.

Both male and female only-children may also suffer personality disturbances. For purposes of comparison, let us briefly consider Robert, who is the youngest of three. Both parents were overambitious, over-devoted to their children, self-sacrificing, and over-valued intellectual achievements. Robert was very bright and physically somewhat frail. On both scores, he received excessive attention — the rest of his personality development being taken for granted. Exposed to constant emphasis upon his brilliance, and repeatedly-expressed high expectations of extraordinary achievement, Robert developed an excessive need for success and admiration. Inwardly, he felt weak, since he had been unable, because of their outer and his inner pressures, to develop the stamina to persist in the face of obstacles. His success in school was far below his actual capacities. As he progressed, his accomplishments steadily decreased. He was entirely unaware of his fantastic demands upon himself and other people. His horror of producing work with any flaw contributed, in part, to his actual failure in fulfilling his potentials. He became progressively more unable to act on his own behalf, more hopeless, helpless, and dependent. Even when he did accomplish something, he was unable to get any satisfaction from this accomplishment because of his enormously high standards. This, in part, contributed to his feeling of being an utter failure. Again, he was unaware of his strong exploitive tendencies and his dependency drives. His energies were directed towards gaining approval and admiration, particularly from his parents, who condoned every deficiency. Similar attitudes were displayed toward the other children, but not to the same degree. Robert’s relationships with people were unsatisfactory. He was driven to select those who feed him admiration and permit exploitation. Secretly, he despised these weak people on whom he leaned, and to whom he gave little of himself. He had contradictory pictures of himself — as a person entitled to very special privileges, and a person without capacities for success.

Although not an only-child, Robert, too, was unable to share or contribute to a relationship, and secretly expected to be accepted as he was, without realistic proof of his abilities, and to be protected. When the dependency trends and fantastic compulsive strivings were analyzed, Robert became productive, and fulfilled some of his own chosen standards, since he had the potential actually. He could allow himself to write, to work toward his goals, without a driving need for success, and a paralyzing fear of failure. Yes, Robert’s parents were very self-sacrificing, and they indirectly sacrificed Robert’s total personality development by focusing on one facet of the personality, and unconsciously neglecting the other needs of the growing individual.

A survey of other material on only-children and non-onlies reveals a common thread in the family milieu and the parental attitude. In all instances, the adults were disturbed in their human relations, and the family tone was lacking in a spirit of mutuality and sharing. There was an absence of reliable warmth and friendliness, overemphasis upon one aspect of personality development, with disregard of other assets, and an unconscious disregard for the rights of human beings — whether children or adults — to be themselves and to choose their way of life. The parents were basically well-intentioned. Unaware of their own compulsive drives, they interfered with the child’s development either by impatience, excessive urging to live up to their expectations, inconsistent appreciation, being too helpful, too devoted, too self-sacrificing, too perfectionistic, or setting no goals for the child. Such attitudes and behavior result in the child’s feeling worthless, lacking in capacities, and rejected as he is. Natural incentive and initiative for growth and development, natural curiosity and courage, are crushed and buried under such influences.

When one aspect of the child’s personality, or one goal, is stressed to the exclusion of others, as, for example, beauty, popularity, or scholastic achievement, the child feels he is no good as he is, and develops no feeling of significance as a total person, since he must devote his energies to gaining acceptance and approval in the particular area emphasized by the adults. Now, as to the feeling of not belonging, this is not particularly characteristic of the only-child. Self-sacrificing, interfering parents frustrate a child, prevent its participation in the activities of the family group, and inhibit the child from experiencing its own resources. They also prevent the participation of the child in his own activities. This feeling of isolation in later life is a further outgrowth of a total neurotic structure. Self-sacrificing parents also contribute to the child’s forming a dual picture of itself, as unusual, and also as inadequate. As one only-youngster said, “If they thought I could do it, they would not come along and help me so much when I’m trying to get it myself. I guess I should have done it. I guess I just can’t. Oh, I’m afraid to try.” Another adult, who was the sixth of nine children, recalled, “They always suggested what I should do, and said the others could do it. They asked me, why couldn’t I? It made me feel so stupid and worthless. So I gave up — it was no use.”

On the other hand, unrealistic reassurance has its detrimental effects also on the child development of persistence and stamina. One boy, the younger of two children, reacted to the often-repeated, well-meant encouragement of his mother “Oh, you can do it if you want to” with the impression that his mother meant him to do anything, anytime, without preparation. When, later, he actually attempted a task, and found initial learning difficulties, he quickly became discouraged and disillusioned. He had believed wanting was enough for doing. How often parents fail to recognize that the child’s interpretations do not coincide with the meaning they intended — and then they become vexed with the child. I feel that I cannot express sufficiently the importance of the child’s reaction to the feeling behind the spoken word — whether hostility over optimism, or pessimism, disbelief, or lack of appreciation. The composite picture of the school adjustments of onlies and non-onlies show various degrees and types of maladjustment, ranging from excessive striving for scholastic success to a complete lack of interest in studies.

The importance of maturity has long been recognized by workers in the field of mental health. Recently, workers in allied fields, such as education, religion, and sociology, have emphasized the urgent need for worldwide maturity in the interest of preserving our civilization. It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate the various views of maturity. We shall limit our consideration to individual maturity, from the standpoint of a dynamic theory of human motivation. Using such a theory as a basis for psychoanalytic therapy, we dispense first with a static concept of maturity as a finite goal attained at a specific period in a person’s lifetime. Maturity now assumes the position of an absolute goal, toward which an individual continually strives, in the course of maturing and self-development. This concept implies human capacities for continuous change and development, from birth to death. In the process of such development, a human being becomes increasingly conscious of his own inner resources, and steadily proceeds to strengthen and integrate them to the end of becoming a more really independent individual.

At this point, the question may arise: Don’t we all, in the natural course of events, develop ourselves as we grow older? It is much too commonly believed that our intellectual and emotional maturing keeps pace with our physical growth and automatically increases with age. It is only under ideal conditions — which are rare in our culture — that this belief might be validated. Most of us are acquainted with some of the evidence belying this belief. Before considering some of this evidence, we shall describe the characteristics of a person who has been maturing in a healthy way. First, such a person has achieved a solid basis of inner unity. He is not thrown into a panic when he asks himself the question, “Who am I?” He is sure of his own identity. The opposite occurred in a boy of twenty-three, who had lost an awareness of his identity as a result of severe inner conflicts. This bewilderment about himself became apparent to him while reading the satire, “The Bear Who Wasn’t There.” This boy actually became terror-stricken. The story deals with a bear who wanders into a factory built over the cave where he had been hibernating. The factory personnel tried to persuade him that he is not a bear, but a man in a fur coat who is in need of the shade.

Now, how is a healthy person conscious of his own identity? To being with, he experiences his own inner aliveness of feeling and is aware that these feelings arise from within himself. He knows that he contributes to his own fear, his anger, and his joy, and realizes to some extent that he initiates these feelings — he acknowledges them to himself and others. He can admit, with inner conviction, “I feel affectionate; I am hostile; I am tired; I am dissatisfied; or I am pleased.” A young woman who was beginning to find her own center of gravity within herself, after a long period of dependency on others, described her first experience of spontaneous emotion for her fiancé in this way: I became aware of a warm feeling of affection arising from the pit of my stomach. I felt so alive. It occurred when Harry was not near me. Previously, only his presence near me could make me feel warm towards him.

In the sphere of thinking, a strong individual is able to recognize and acknowledge the thoughts arising from within him. He can formulate and express them, and assume responsibility for them. He can say to himself, or to others, “I think this, I mean this, and these thoughts are mine, whether or not others think in a similar manner or different manner.” He uses his capacities for reason, judgment, and discrimination to evaluate the facts in a situation or the facts about a person. He draws his conclusion from the facts as they are, and does not distort them for his own satisfaction or for the satisfaction of others. He accepts responsibility for the consequences of his conclusions. He is able to accept criticism and uses it to change or improve his ideas. He also can evaluate the criticism offered to him. He knows his own value, he is aware of his beliefs, and accepts ownership for them. A healthy, mature person has also achieved a basic self-confidence as a result of being connected with his own feelings and thoughts. The basic confidence permits him to feel, think and act as a unit, and to be conscious of this unity.

Since he is aware of his resources, and has been developing them, he can afford to test their limits and take the risk of making a mistake or even failing in a pursuit. He is capable of visualizing goals of his own choosing, which are commensurate with a true evaluation of his own resources. Since he does not impose unreasonable demands on himself in this matter, he can actively strive for the goal. He responds to successes and failures with a certain equanimity, and realizes his share in one or the other. He acknowledges openly, “I did this, I did it this way, these were my objectives, these are my mistakes.” In the event of failure, he has suffictient tolerance and respect for himself to learn from his mistakes and make renewed efforts toward his goals. He has an inner strength which he uses to separate the factors in a situation that can be attributed to the actual limitations inherent in it from the factors within himself which might be contributing to such limiations. For example, he does not expect himself to work well when he is fatigued, nor to overcome the limitations set by time, space, and difficulties with co-workers. He can work fairly comfortably within these limitations.

A healthy person has a true evaluation of his resources, and his center of gravity lies within himself. Such an inner organization contributes immeasurably to satisfactory human relations. Since such an individual is on friendly terms with himself, he feels basically friendly toward people. He can show his friendliness and receive the friendship of others. He feels welcomed, and welcomes others, particularly since he decides when he wants to be with people and with whom he likes to be. He is also able to be with himself, and pursue his own interests. When the situation warrants, he can reject friendship and tolerate rejection by others. He can agree, disagree, and express antagonism or hostility if he sees fit. He can ask for, receive, and give help when the occasion demands. He is able to compete with others merely for the pleasure of testing his own resources. He is not unconsciously driven to compete, for the satisfaction of compulsive needs for success, revenge, admiration, or power. He can defend himself when attacked or insulted. He knows when decisions are necessary. Healthy self-development enables a person to recognize and tolerate the similarities and differences that exist between himself and others, without losing sight of his own individuality. This helps him respect the individuality of others. He can make honest comparisons which do not appreciably disturb his inner equilibrium. Such observations are used in the interest of his further self-development, rather than as a gauge of his relative superiority or inferiority. A strong, mature individual maintains a well-balanced respect for his rights and dignity as well as a respect for the others’ and dignity of others — as well as a respect for the rights and dignity of others.

A person maturing in a healthy way gains possession of himself. He is aware of his motivations, and can predict his responses in certain situations. He is also sufficiently flexible to meet new situations and unexpected stress with a minimum of anxiety and insecurity. Since he belongs to himself, he can feel his relatedness to other human beings. He knows that his destiny is, in large measure, in his own hands. He also realizes the interdependence of humans, and the importance of mutuality for individual and total social welfare. He is sincere and genuine. A large number of such healthy beings contribute immeasurably to the perpetuation of a truly democratic society.

With this description of the characteristics of a strong, healthy self, it becomes clear that few of us have ever attained this degree of self-development. It is true, however, that some of us function more adequately in some spheres than in others. More often, we make the mistake of accepting the appearance of self-integration for really solid integration. For example, we tend to regard outer self-control as an indication that an individual is really in full control of himself. We praised those who display an unruffled calm and poise. Some of us are even likely to label a less-controlled person “infantile” or “childish” and tell him to act his age. Very often, this outer control is merely a thin, protective covering which defends the individual against awareness of deeper emotional conflict.

There were many instances of breakdowns in the armed forces among men who were previously considered well-integrated in civilian life. On what basis were they considered well-integrated and mature? Well, these men were considered good providers for their families; rarely if ever did they disagree with anyone, at home or outside the home. They were loyal, conscientious, responsible employees, and worked actively in community organizations. Few people knew of their frequent episodes of insomnia, or their persistent need for patent remedies to relieve headaches and stomach distresses. We now know that these symptoms are, in many instances, the physical expressions of inner emotional turmoil, and the patent-remedy manufacturers have many customers in our society. It would be well for each of us to become more alert to these signs of internal emotional disturbances, and then search within ourselves for the ways in which we contribute to our own difficulties.

Later, favorable influences contribute to greater independence, a healthy self-evaluation, and a genuine feeling of friendliness. He proceeds on a fairly straight course of constructive self-development into adolescence and adult life, on the foundation of his basic self-confidence. Tolstoy has said that the most important event in the life of a man is the moment when he becomes conscious of his own ego. Exactly at what age the first awareness of self occurs, we do not know. Some of us never have this happy experience. But in healthy self-development, it is probably realized in early age. I know of a four-year-old who was enough of an individual in her own right to tell a stranger visiting her home, “I like you. I can like you even if you do not like me.” How many of us can be so direct, assertive, and clear about our feelings?”

In this abbreviated picture, it becomes apparent that there is little basis for characterizing behavior as “infantile” or “childish” when an adolescent or adult displays a relatively strong reliance on others for security which is appropriate for the individual in the earlier phases of self-development. However, excessive dependency on others for security is characteristic of impaired self-development, and they occur at any age. A child who is exposed to influences detrimental to healthy maturing carries his individual impairments into adolescence, and an adolescent whose inner psychic organization is shaky cannot be expected to develop, by magic, into a healthy adult merely by growing older. Nor do the additional responsibilities of adult life force a person to grow up. Becoming a healthy grown-up is a long-term process covering a period of years. Just growing older does not strengthen a person’s awareness of his inner resources.

In view of these, I would like to point out cultural fallacy inherent in using chronological age as the main gauge of an individual’s preparedness for assuming responsibility. Is it valid to regard a person as criminally responsible because he is eighteen, or ready for marriage on the basis that he or she has lived eighteen, or twenty-one years? Does the twenty-first birthday make a person aware of his civic responsibility? Some of us may have heard youngsters in their teens admonished by their parents this way: “Act your age! You are old enough to know better! It is time you acted like a grown-up!” Note the use of the word act. It often becomes an act which is accepted for a fact.

At the other end of the chronological scale, we find that some industries retire the person who has reached his sixty-fifth birthday on the assumption that he becomes too old to be useful — merely because of his age. We tend to ascribe enthusiasm, courage, flexibility to the young, and inertia, or rigidity to the older person. From analytic experience, we have ample evidence indicating that rigidity in a person’s responses is related to the strength of the neurotic defenses necessitated by basic anxiety, and these defenses can be as powerful in the very young as in those who are considered old. We can conclude, therefore, that chronological age is not a valid criterion for the adequacy of an individual’s capacity to understand the nature of responsibility. We need to establish better criteria for determining the extent to which a person is able to assume responsibility for himself and actions.

To this point, we have sketched the maturing process under favorable influences. Analytic experience provides us the valuable data about the subsequent development of the individual whose earlier experiences were detrimental to healthy growing-up. In childhood, such a person would develop dependent on adults whose own self-development was impaired. As a result of their compulsive needs and unresolved conflicts, such adults were unable to appreciate the real need and factual weakness of the child. In various ways, they frustrated his attempts to develop his own resources. They may have expected too much of him or too little. They may have given him too much praised and encouragement, they may have ridiculed or disparaged the child’s efforts to earn and grow. Instead of allowing the child to develop his own resources, they imposed their decisions, views, feelings, and prejudices on him. As a result of these unfavorable influences — it would take too much space to elaborate on them — the child develops basic feelings of worthlessness and unacceptability. He also feels without resources in this environment, which is actually inimical to his real needs, and does not accord him the right to develop himself. These feelings are covered by the term “basic anxiety,” which also includes feelings of hostility toward the grown-ups on whom the child is dependent. The distorted picture of his own value and of the nature of others influences the course of his self-maturing in adolescence and adult life.

To function as an individual among other individuals, a human being must achieve some semblance of inner unity. Just as the healthy child can integrate himself, on the base of solid self-confidence, so the child we have been describing above attempts to achieve a false sense of inner unity on a basis of anxiety. He has to use his resources in the interest of safety. Original, neurotic defenses against basic anxiety necessitate reinforcement and false illusions to further developing conflicts — both within himself and with his environment. The neurotic structure which is developed to protect the maturing individual against basic anxiety — that is, against experiencing it consciously — is enlarged during adolescence and adult life as his own needs expand and more demands are made on him. The ultimate result of this protective defensive structure are an increase in basic anxiety, greater distortion of an individual’s self-evaluation, and further impairment in human relations. In short, the very defenses needed in early life that retard impairment of self-development only serve further to weaken an individual’s strength as long as he continues to maintain his neurotic defenses in later life, when original unfavorable influences are no longer operating. Adverse influences may operate in the home, among friends, in school, or in other community relationships.

On the other hand, healthy influences may assist the individual, at any age, to develop his inner resources toward better integration. Ameliorating factors are no doubt more effective during the earlier years, or at least, before the person has had the need and time to reinforce his neurotic defenses against anxiety. However, we have sufficient substantiating evidence from analytic experience for our belief that a person can begin to develop a healthy self at any age after dispensing with the destructive forces which he has been perpetuating. Naturally, the more time and need we have had to strengthen our neurotic defenses, the more work will be required to dispense with them. The outlook is brightened by the fact that many of us can and do function fairly realistically, and even successfully, in some areas, despite internal emotional disturbance. Few of us, indeed, have had the earlier ideal conditions which promote healthy self-development. As a result, most of us have, in the course of time, built up a strong protective structure to defend ourselves, both against ourselves and others. As we have said before, such a structure further impairs healthy maturing. Such impairment may vary in degree, and at times produce only minor inhibitions in functioning here or there. The greater the impairment in maturing, the more extensive is a subsequent paralysis in functioning, as seen in the severe neuroses and the psychoses. In the psychoses, the paralysis is decidedly marked.

Now, what are the more common characteristics of an individual whose self-development has suffered as a result of neurotic involvement? The question “Who am I?” usually creates at least a mild confusion. Where the extent of impairment in function of the self is more severe, panic may be felt at the questioning of identity. One man recently told me that for one year, in his late teens, he went around feeling as if he were in a maze, absolutely unaware of his identity. What does this range of reactions indicate? First of all, inability to identify oneself implies alienation from an awareness of one’s feelings. A neurotic individual is unaware of an inner spontaneity of feelings. Of course he has feelings, but he does not experience them as stemming from within himself. He attributes them to others, or regards them as reactions to external experiences, pressure, and events. For example, the weather is responsible for his rise in spirits. The partner makes him angry. The recession in business has caused his depression. Insufficient sleep makes him irritable. Or some misdemeanor on a child’s part becomes the main cause of parental friction, irritation, and anger. So believes the individual who has no identity for himself. This estrangement from an awareness of one’s own feeling contributes to a person’s feeling of helplessness, and inability to assume responsibility for them, and excludes him from a sense of participation in living. The perpetuation of false illusions of conflict increases the alienation from himself and diminishes the capacity for enjoyment. A woman of forty, for example, insisted for many months in analysis that what her husband did and said was the main source of her anger at him. She could not see that she contributed in any way to the constant friction between them, or to her extreme vulnerability to his remarks and actions. Analysis revealed her irrational, compulsive needs to regard herself as a sacrificing goddess and to be treated in that manner.

[Lecture ends abruptly here]

[Were the account of this patient extended, it would probably show that through analysis, the patient was able to let go of some of the rigidity of her defenses against anxiety, that she was able partially to get back in touch with her feelings, to understand that her need to to see herself as a sacrificing goddess was self-reinforcing and enabled her to maintain this way of regarding herself — however, it was not only hostile toward her husband, it also sabotaged her enjoyment of being recognized for the real contributions that she was trying to make.

Supposing that the lecture ended on this point, a closing passage might reiterate that no matter how adverse the earlier influences, and even at a fairly advanced agae after a long period of reinforcement of the neurotic defenses in operation, it is still possible, under most circumstances, for neurotic persons to get partially back in touch with the alive center of their own healthy, genuine feelings. One can partially reverse the progress of self-alienation and to regain one’s center of gravity, one’s sense of “This is who I am.” Here it would be appropriate to quote the paragraphs below, by Karen Horney. - AKS]

« I feel that with regard to these difficulties experiences of the kind reported in the chapter on occasional self-analysis are encouraging. In several instances reported there the persons concerned had little if any experience with analytical treatment. To be sure, they did not go far enough in their endeavors at self-examination. But there seems no good reason not to believe that with a more widespread general knowledge of the nature of neurotic troubles and the ways of tackling them attempts of this kind can be carried further—always provided the severity of the neurosis is not prohibitive. The structure of personality is so much less rigid in milder neurotic entanglements than in severe ones that even attempts that are not carried very far may help considerably. In severe neuroses it is often necessary to do a great deal of analytical work before any liberating effect is achieved. In milder disturbances even a single uncovering of an unconscious conflict may be the turning point toward a freer development. But even if we grant that a considerable number of people can profitably analyze themselves, will they ever complete the work? Will there not always be problems left that are not solved or not even touched upon? My answer is that there is no such thing as a complete analysis. And this answer is not given in a spirit of resignation. Certainly the greater the degree of transparency and the more freedom we can attain, the better for us.

But the idea of a finished human product not only appears presumptuous but even, in my opinion, lacks any strong appeal. Life is struggle and striving, development and growth—and analysis is one of the means that can help in this process. Certainly its positive accomplishments are important, but also the striving itself is of intrinsic value. As Goethe has said in Faust:

“Whoe’er aspires unweariedly,
Is not beyond redeeming.” »

   - Horney (1942), Self-Analysis, pp. 302–303