The third major neurotic adjustment strategy is to turn away from the real self toward some seemingly better (less helpless, less angry) idealized self. The real self is "the alive, unique, personal center of ourselves" (Horney, 1950, p. 155) and is involved in healthy psychological growth. It is the self that would have developed if we had been nurtured properly as we were developing or that we may become once we overcome our neurosis (Paris, 1999). For clarity, Horney offered a different term to describe everything that we really are at a given time (neurotic as well as healthy): the actual self (p. 158). The neurotic turns away from growth potential (the real self), not from reality (the actual self).
A healthy adult who is neglected or rejected can turn to other relationships, confident in his or her own self-worth, but the young child does not have the resources to do so. Consequently, the sense of self, which is just in the process of developing, emerges already wounded. The child develops a low self-esteem. The person may feel like a counterfeit, having "lost touch with essential aspects of self," that is, alienated from the true self (Ingram, 2001). Instead, the neurotic turns to an imagined idealized self, which would not be despised. The idealized self varies depending on the interpersonal orientation of the individual. "Perhaps if I am veiy, very good and kind, I will be lovable," thinks one child. "Or," imagines another, "if I impress people with my achievements and power, they will not be able to hurt me, and they may even admire me." "Or," muses a third, "maybe I don't need people after all; I can manage alone."
The idealized self may become the basis for intense striving; for example, Lyndon Johnson's idealized self channeled his political career, ultimately leading to the presidency (Huffman, 1989). Some incest victims form an idealized self that denies their help lessness by emphasizing their special power over the abusing parent (Price, 1994). However, it is a struggle to maintain the pretense that one is like one's idealized self, rather than like one's rejected real self. When the effort fails, a person must confront the underlying conflict, and anxiety or even panic may result.
The profoundly disturbing consequences of turning from the real to the idealized self are suggested by the comparison Horney (1950) makes. The process corresponds to "the devil's pact . . . the selling of one's soul" (p. 155). The neurotic is like Faust, who sold his soul to the devil for a bit of fleeting pleasure and power. The healthier choice is to turn away from false pride and instead to accept the "ordinariness" of one's real self (Horner, 1994).
However, neurotics try instead to strengthen the idealized self and avoid painful confrontation with the repressed real self. "I should be kind to everyone" or "I should be able to do the work better than anyone else" or "I should not have to depend on other people." These are the sorts of demands, often not fully conscious, that people make of themselves. Horney called these demands the tyranny of the shoulds. They urge us ever closer to the idealized self, but at the expense of increased alienation from the real self. Perfectionism causes people to strive vigorously toward high standards, and it can produce the sort of high performance that many jobs reward, but the cost is great. When people ruminate over unobtainable goals, they become anxious, depressed, dissatisfied with life (Flett, Hewitt, Blankstein, & Gray, 1998; Hewitt, Flett, & Ediger, 1996; Minarik & Ahrens, 1996; Shafran & Mansell, 2001), and sometimes suicidal (Blatt, 1995; Chang, 1998; Hewitt, Newton, Flett, & Callander, 1997; Orbach, 1997). The poet Sylvia Plath, who tragically committed suicide, has been described as a perfectionist (Schulman, 1998; Van Pelt, 1997).
Not all perfectionists are suicidal, of course. Some have high self-esteem and are able to strive successfully for achievement, and they are not at risk (Adkins & Parker, 1996; Rice, Ashby, & Slaney, 1998). It is when perfectionism is accompanied by other indicators of dysfunction, such as mood disorders, anxiety, and substance abuse or dependence, that it may turn self-destructive (Dean & Range, 1996; Gould et al., 1998). For example, exercise is healthy, but the extreme exercise patterns of some eating-disordered patients and male body-builders is not (Blouin & Goldfield, 1995; Davis et al., 1998; Shafran & Mansell, 2001). Even if they succeed, perfectionists may feel like "impostors" (Henning, Ey, & Shaw, 1998). Bernard Paris (1999) conveys wise advice: "Horney recognized that the absolute best is the enemy of the good, that we must not disregard our accomplishments because we have failed to attain perfection."
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