What is neurosis? It is simply a way of relating to people that stems from our experiences in early childhood. A neurotic person is someone who has learned to cope with the world in a certain way. They carry with them strategies as adults that were useful in dealing with their parents, or other significant people in their early years. Some of these strategies actually helped them survive difficult circumstances, and allowed their ego to withstand abusive and hostile reactions by the people around them.
The problem is that some of these strategies may no longer apply as far as promoting a healthy and balanced outlook in adulthood. We may not be aware of the ways neurotic behaviors disrupt our lives and prevent us from being happy and fulfilled. We may also not be cognizant of the fact that our neurotic tendencies lead us to suffer and prevent us from growing to our potential.
In other words, because of our neurosis, we may be conspiring against our selves. We may be holding back, lacking confidence, afraid to take initiative. We may be sabotaging our relationships, demanding too much of others, trying to control the behavior of others, or closing ourselves off to intimacy and affection. We thus impose serious restrictions on our ability to lead mature and happy lives. We are trapped in patterns of behavior which lead us to anguish and despair. Neurosis is the most widespread "psychological" cause of human suffering on the planet.
Neurosis has other causes aside from coping strategies we learned as children. The first relates to modeling behavior. We learn to be neurotic by being exposed to it in our early years. If our parents were nervous, controlling, possessive-- some of their behaviors likely rubbed off on us. People often look back and are shocked to realize that much of their conduct as adults actually reminds them of their parents, especially when they examine how they interact with their own children.
The importance of modeling in learning behavior should not be underestimated. Children are like sponges and they will quickly adopt many features of the interpersonal landscape around them. They are also sensitive to subtle cues: double messages and subtle forms of emotional blackmail. They learn how to manipulate others. They learn that playing the role of victim, harping on physical pains, having people feel sorry for them by complaining, gets them what they want in life.
A final factor which contributes to neurotic tendencies is genetic. Neurosis runs in families not only because of the factors mentioned above, but also because it is programmed in the genes. We come into this world with certain tendencies that are already wired into our brain. We can easily see such differences in young infants. Some are irritable and high-strung, whereas others are calm and good-natured. This may or may not reflect future tendencies, because a lot depends on the type of nurturing provided by the parents.
The genetic aspects can be seen in the ways children deal with parents who are authoritarian, intolerant and abusive. Some react by trying to please their parent, becoming passive, trying to desperately conform to the rigid standards of the latter, and never contradicting their parent. Other children resist their parent's attempts at control by rebelling, getting angry, throwing tantrums and becoming aggressive themselves. Whereas still others withdraw into a fantasy world rather than deal with the situation, or grow up to be bitter, cynical or anti-social. Many of these reactions depend on our genetic predispositions.
The above models imply a certain determinism. That's not good news if you are neurotic and whish to change your approach to life. Between genetic predispositions and developing rigid and habitual behavior patterns as a result of childhood abuse, it seems that the neurotic adult will be fighting an uphill battle to conquer their fears and inhibitions. This is true up to a point. The fact is that the human mind is a remarkable mechanism with built-in features of adaptation.
The bottom line is that no one likes to suffer, and when they become aware enough that it is not the "outside" world that is responsible for their frustration, but rather their own fears and the limitations that these impose, they will then take steps to rectify the situation. It might take the better part of a lifetime to jump through such hurdles, but the alternative is a greatly diminished quality of life.