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What is "failure neurosis" in psychoanalysis, and who coined the term?

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Pauline Sheehan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The French psychoanalyst, Rene Laforgue, coined the term "failure neurosis" (échec névrose) in 1939. It is characterized by an individual's absolute desires and his or her inability to achieve those desires or a guilt for having those desires in the first place; whereupon the individual, feeling undeserving of success, almost or actually sabotages his own accomplishments. The self-fulfilling prophesy of the individual  becomes an obsession as he or she expects to fail, driving himself or herself towards that outcome. Laforgue recognizes Sigmund Freud's contribution to discussions on the subject of failure neurosis although Freud does not, in Laforgue's opinion, explain or deal with it sufficiently. Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, places much emphasis on the unconscious and Laforgue expands on Freud's concepts of the superego such as it has the potential to over-extend itself in suppressing the ego, resulting in an individual ruining his own chances of success or purposely, but subconsciously, preventing any further success.  

Freud found that a neurosis is most likely to occur in an individual who does not manage stress well and, although the term, "failure neurosis" was not coined by him, Freud recognizes its existence when discussing the resistance of patients to his findings, some patients rejecting his conclusions, in favor of their own self-defeating principles. Resistance found in patients who suffer from "failure neurosis" is not determined from observations by other participants or observers but by the patient himself, as he strives to assert what he sees as his superior knowledge of his own perfection or lack thereof and the reasons for the anticipated failure.

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Failure neurosis, a term for a nosographical category, was coined by French psychoanalyst René Laforgue in Psychopathologie de l'échec in 1941 (in English, The Psychopathology of Failure). This is a psychoanalytical diagnostic category that drew criticism and seems to have fallen out of favor in psychological analysis along with Laforgue's other concept of family neurosis. Yet, educators still discuss and put emphasis on students with "failure syndrome" who believe that they will fail so give up at the first sign of difficulty while social workers continue talk about dysfunctional families built upon psychological disorders, like neurosis. Thus, while Laforgue's concepts may not have carried currency in diagnostic psychology, his general concepts seem to still influence perception and therapeutic interventions in failure/success neuroses and in family environments, an environment that Laforgue emphasized as being important.

"Nosography" is defined as the systematic description of disease. The psychological disease condition Laforgue described as failure neurosis was defined by him as a neurosis in which a person responds to a failure in activity or in emotional expression, interaction or connection with a negative affect (negative emotional reaction of depression, sadness etc) and that negative affect itself provides the "strength and the voluptuousness that transforms the unhappiness into happiness" (Laforgue, 1941). In other words, the negative feelings resulting from the failure in social or emotional life provides the impetus to generate a new affective response of happiness from the unhappiness of failure. Thus the neurosis traps an individual in acceptance of, striving for, expectation of failure, which is secretly, neurotically welcomed, because from the failure generated affective response will grow another response of happiness: the individual with failure neurosis strives for happiness but finds that happiness as the outcome of the unhappiness engendered by failure. This contrasts with an individual who is not neurotic and derives happiness from succeeding and derives motivation to try again, to be persistent, to try harder from the negative affect resulting from failure.

While sometimes confused with "fear of success neurosis," this is not the same thing and of much later date of origin (Matina S. Horner, 1968) than Laforgue's failure neurosis. The symptoms Laforgue describes are in two categories: psychological and physical. Psychological symptoms may include depression, a feeling of being "frozen" or "stuck" in the face of some decision, inhibitions of actions, possibly even delusions. Physical symptoms may include uncharacteristic clumsiness and being prone to accidents, possibly even fatal accidents. These symptomatic disorders may manifest after a significant success and represent self-generated punishment for transgressing some imagined or neurotically established prohibition on action or behavior. These symptomatic disorders may also manifest in the face of the sense of impregnable impossibility of successfully completing an action, behavior of task required by the individual's inner, subconscious ego Ideal. These may also manifest as what is termed survivor guilt after the death of an individual in whom the survivor is highly emotionally invested, the death of a highly cathected individual (cathected: for a person to have emotion or feeling highly invested in an idea, object, or a person). While these manifestations of symptomatic states are accompanied by depressed tones, it is incorrect to classify the sates as masochistic since masochism is defined as being inherently psycho-sexual and inherently dependent upon psycho-sexual suffering. As Laforgue stated: "Freud was the first to speak of this syndrome in a short article on Those Wrecked by Success but he did not accord to the question all the importance it deserved."

Several things worked to Laforgue's disadvantage after he applied the concept of failure neurosis in the earlier L'echec de Baudelaire (1931) and Clinique psychanalytique (1936) (in English, The Defeat of Baudelaire and Clinical Aspects of Psychoanalysis), then defined it in The Psychopathology of Failure (1941/1944):

  • Criticism from Edward Glover (1939) that Laforgue had not performed the necessary analysis to systematize the failure neurosis syndrome (that of a specific disease) into a broad general category of psychological pathology.
  • The disappearance from Clinical Aspects of Psychoanalysis of chapters on Napoleon and Hitler.
  • Confusion with the vague notion of "fate neurosis."
  • Development of the idea of "love of suffering" around the concept and example of love of suffering being "characteristic aspects of the Jewish psychism, as it developed in the ghettoes": following World War II, "love of suffering" being "aspects of the Jewish psychism" helped to discredit Laforgue's theory of failure neurosis.
Walter Fischer eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"Failure neurosis" simply refers to a phenomenon in which an individual is psychologically predisposed to fail at any given task and consequently condemns him- or herself to making failure a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Some people are so fearful of failing that they subconsciously cause themselves to fail by sabotaging their own efforts, and others are so afraid of succeeding that they similarly bring about their own demise.  A phrase attributed to French psychoanalyst Rene Laforgue (1894-1962), it is used to describe individuals who obsess over failure and generally suffer from anxiety as a result.  The exaggerated fear of failure that paralyzes some individuals usually requires psychological treatment to resolve.  Sometimes, individuals afflicted with this condition are considered to walk around with a metaphorical "black cloud" over their heads -- a metaphor made famous by the late cartoonist Al Capp, whose comic strip, "Lil' Abner," had a recurring character named Joe Btfsplk who was always depicted with a dark cloud over his head symbolizing his utter hopelessness.  

"Failure neurosis," as mentioned, can be debilitating.  A constant sense of failure with no expectation that one's fortunes will turn around, individuals suffering from this form of mental illness are associated among their peers with disaster.

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