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Liquid Modernity and its role in Neurosis

Liquid Modernity and its role in Neurosis

The concept of Liquid Modernity was first adopted by the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017. He was a genius and was able to capture our current historical era and its values perfectly with those two words. What Bauman wanted to picture through this definition is the difference between the recent past of our parents and grandparents: a past made up out of solid, lasting realities, of absolute truths, which has had to give in to a more precarious, volatile world. A world that obliges people to quickly adapt to impermanence. The so-called “liquids or liquid people” are capable of adapting themselves instantaneously to any kind of surface. They evaporate quickly, and do no manage to grapple themselves to anything safely. These characteristics are widespread in the people who make up our current society.

Our external structures have slowly disappeared, and our points of reference change as quickly as fashion tendencies, leaving space to everybody’s free will, however not without consequences, as we’ll soon see. In this context, the individual becomes the center of everything, a kind of isolated microcosm, obligated and at the same time constantly wishing to redefine their own reality, the only thing that actually matters to them.

In this context, the only possible values are:

  • Relativism (nothing is truly good or bad, it all depends on our personal momentary criteria).
  • Permissiveness (if nothing is good or bad, then everything goes).
  • Self-indulgence (everything is justifiable, if I merely exist I don’t have to judge myself for who I am).
  • Rejection of responsibility and guilt (nothing or nobody has the right to limit my freedom by making me feel guilty).

This society forces us to be more and more flexible and to care less and less about true bonds with either things or people.

Interpersonal relationships have to be fluid, smooth, made up out of atomized moments of shared pleasure. According to Bauman, tradition, moral integrity, loyalty and commitment, have become values that represent a failure to adapt to current standards, and in some cases even embarrassment and suffering. The reasons for all this, something that oftentimes happens throughout history are economical as well: in a society that is configured in this way, objects and experiences easily lose value, and need to be replaced by more innovative and stimulating elements. In this way the economy keeps on regenerating itself continuously. Nowadays, due to social networks and our way of interacting, a trip only has value when you can brag about it, a dinner only when you make a beautiful picture of it and a person only when he represents an “interesting experience”.

What is the relationship between Liquid Modernity and Anxiety?

The vision of the author is implicitly very critical about this society. However, it is not my intention to simply join his criticism, but to analyze some of the psychological implications of the Liquidness which characterizes Modernity.

Actually, we have fought a lot to reach this current moment, and with very noble and legitimate intentions; we have rebelled against oppressive structures, strict protocols and moralistic dogmas. Even though we still need to fight for certain rights, we are freer to express ourselves, both verbally and sexually, and to choose our path in life.

So, if all this is true, why then has the level of suffering of so many people who live in postmodern societies increased disproportionally? Why has it been estimated that about a 40% of the population will suffer a clinically significant episode of anxiety throughout their life?

Why has depression become the number one illness in adolescence? And finally, how is it possible that this society of (apparent) complete freedom of choice, for which we have fought for years and years, seems to be debilitating our psyche in such a noticeable way?

The risks of Liquidity for our psyche and personality

The answer to this question is obviously full of nuances but in general, in my opinion, it can be summarized in a statement that nowadays is not easily accepted: the psyche of the human race needs stable structures, limits and commitment in order to function correctly. I’ll explain myself better:

As we’ve seen before, postmodern societies put the individual in the centre of everything as opposed to the community, from the very infancy on. For instance, children have become the kings/queens of the house, as opposed to the apprentices they used to be. Everything revolves around them, and they are able to modify the life and equilibrium of the family completely, by imposing their decisions in any moment. Nowadays setting limits to a child is perceived as a lack of affection towards them and something that impedes their freedom rather than something crucial for their development.

A short while ago I treated a 13-years-old girl with a serious anxiety disorder who told me that she was really scared because she still didn’t know what she wanted to be in the future. This was the result of overprotective parenting which caused the girl to belief she was the best girl on earth. Every year she was supposed to choose different activities in order to “discover her true personality”. She had to frequently switch schools or activities when a small misunderstanding arose, since this was perceived by the family as an offense to their little princess.

The results of all this: when she was 13-years old the girl had switched schools three or four times, had played the violin, the guitar, the piano, and she had been in a swimming, volleyball, dancing and football club. All this without being stimulated to remain in any of those activities, causing her to be frustrated with not fitting into this world and developing a panic disorder with agoraphobia in consequence. This is an extreme and simplified example, but I think that it clearly shows how an excessive focus on the individual and the individuality that is typical in our current society, can generate neurosis when these children become adults.

We could define neurosis as a conflict between internal elements of the person, for example between pleasure and obligations, instinct and interiorized norms. The personality of man is shaped through the contrast between external authorities, norms, limits and “the socially accepted”, and this contrast is absolutely necessary in order to form our character. As Baumann mentions, all these elements have disappeared or become “liquid” (inconsistent) in the modernity, with the result that the individuals can be ruled less and less by secure external structures. Thus the contrast the psyche needs in order to grow starts to occur within the individual in the form of neurosis. That is: humans need structure, if they don’t find it in the society they live in or in the relationships with other people; this oftentimes creates a dysfunction in their inner world, which in this way starts to generate a conflict.

In this panorama there seem to be two possibilities:

  • The person adapts to the liquid modernity of the society and lives with an apparent lightness in a permanent search for new stimuli.
  • The person, due to a lack of external stability and fear, construes a rigid internal structure which he eventually enters in conflict with.

In the first scenario the risks are lack of commitment, frivolousness, constant insatisfaction and poor tolerance to frustration and guilt. In the second scenario, as we’ve seen before, the internal conflicts that can lead to neurosis. And in both cases the sensation of loneliness or depression are a serious possibility, as is shown by all statistics on the rise of psychological problems. Not everyone is exposed to these risks but direct observation suggests that these two possibilities manifest themselves with a worrying frequency.


The importance of the existence of limits in the molding of character

The relativism of the liquid society, the excessive self-indulgence, the lack of commitment and unwillingness to deny oneself something, don’t do more than to produce highly inflated, or very thin-skinned when frustrated, personalities. This favors the absence of true relationships, and in turn pathology. What is paradoxical is that the high level of exaltation of the individual ends up fomenting conformism instead of a true search of the self.

If you have the need of being constantly admired by others, you will feel sad when you’re stuck in a routine, because you´re not “special”. If experiences only have temporal value, you will need more and more of them, and those who cannot afford them, will easily suffer and despise their life. If what’s new is the only thing that has true value, then it is impossible to commit oneself to anything or anybody, because this would imply that you would renounce other possibilities. I don’t consider that this can truly be called liberty.

I couldn’t be more happy and thankful for all the liberties we have managed to acquire, and that I myself have been able to enjoy (and a lot) throughout my life. However, I consider that once a structure that human kind didn’t feel quite comfortable with has been brought down, it is important to construe another one. What is impossible is to live without any kind of structure, while thinking that this won’t have any psychological or social consequences. Personally, I think we’re in a period of transition in which we are catching a glimpse of diverse attempts to construe something different from what we had, but that causes people to feel unstable internally. There is still a long road ahead of us, but we are already able to see the first signs.

It is ok to temporarily escape structure and limits, to avoid them or even modify them; it is not recommendable to summit to them without opinionating, but their presence is essential for the stability of the psyche. To want to rebel and break free from the established limits are processes that are absolutely necessary in order to shape one’s personality through contrasting the existing structure:  if we take the possibility away for people to fight for something, these people will never “feel” why it is worth it to fight for a cause, and nothing will have any value to them.

If we take away the possibility that wrong and right exist and we fall into an absolute relativism (anything goes), the person will never be able to construe their own moral criteria. If we never have to experience guilt or sacrifice, or if we’re never denied anything we can never fully experience satisfaction or the pleasure of reaching a goal, and we will constantly need new stimuli or entertainment. It can seem contradictory, but what can really create a strong and above all free character, is exactly to learn to relate to life with limits, which therefore need to exist.

Having said this, let’s go back to the actual present. Knowing the aspects of the liquid modernity and its risks for the psyche, what can we do to avoid said risks? Which strengths do we possess if we’re the part of the population that suffers from the environment we’re living in?

Our Essence as our main Structure

In the absence of a solid and lasting model of society and, while we’re waiting to construe another, more functional one, that combines personal freedom and commitment to the people around us, the only possible road to go is the road of true, intimate and profound connection to our true essence, so that this can serve as a guide and structure in life. One’s essence is not linked to external structure, fears, social hedonism, appearances, and volatile experiences. To come in contact with it requires a dedication to self-knowledge and self-awareness, a process that is not necessarily pleasurable, since it obligates us to face our shadows. As much as this might sound as an advice from a self-help guide, it doesn’t require one much reflection to understand that this is a complex process that involves time and dedication. The following tools and steps can help in the process:

– Roots. A person who doesn’t know where he’s from or who is in conflict with their roots can easily lose themselves in this liquid modernity. To know our history, the history of where we grew up, to enjoy our traditions and cultural nuances allows us to find a space in which we can relish psychological peace in a world as volatile as ours. From the moment we’re children our central nervous system, whether we want to or not, becomes impregnated with sensations that are intimately linked to our traditions, which we then start to perceive as a safe place. Our roots are linked to the past, and represent a fundamental anchor in a society that is continuously linked to the future.

– Role models.  The culture of the individualism causes all the weight of our decisions in life to be based on our personal criteria, criteria that most of the times are not even properly formed yet. To look for people who can serve as an example to us, and who we can identify with, allows us to form solid personal criteria, independently of emotional reactivity of the moment and superficiality. To listen to people who have more experience, to read literature, philosophy, biographies, to study cinematography, to get to know historical figures, these are all elements that are considered old-fashioned and conservative: another reason why we can firmly state that we need them in the process of discovering our personal solid essence.

– Reduce passive entertainment. Simple distractions, the constant diversion, the culture of permanent enjoyment, are exactly the opposite of our true essence. If we constantly need to be entertained and comfortable, we develop a poor tolerance of boredom, of frustration, and of any kind of glimpse of an emotion or negative situation. In this way our relationships become superficial and unstable, due to the fact that the only thing that’s shared is pleasure. In the absence of the latter, the relationship is in danger. To invest time, energy and above all passion in what we do, can help to interiorize and accept that relationships with activities and people consist of light as well as shadow. Hence, they are like our essence.

– Renounce and sacrifice. If you have noticed you feel rejected by these two concepts, this is because you live in the liquid modernity. The perception of these two concepts as negative is a deformation of our current society, seeing that in reality they are no punishment but skills that can lead you to a lot of interior peace. To renounce doesn’t mean to abandon, but to choose: to invest in something that is congruent with your essence, which automatically implies to renounce something more superfluous. To sacrifice oneself for something doesn’t mean you have to renounce yourself, it means that you have to fight for something that has true meaning to you.

– Learn to be alone. To spend time with yourself and to find the way in which time starts to “fly”, helps to construe a more significant self and obliges you to implicitly ask yourself what you really want to do with your time. Without somebody else observing you and without sharing what you are doing on any social network, ask yourself: when do you truly feel complete? That is complete, not simply distracted or entertained.

– Spirituality. This concept is not necessarily linked to religion. Spirituality refers to a personal construction of beliefs that go further than the observable reality, or beliefs about reality but pondered from a more elevated perspective. As Elizabeth Kubler Ross said, mankind needs to know how to move itself between the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual world in order to feel complete and grounded. A person who gets in contact with their more spiritual dimension is a person who’s clearly anchored to their essence, able to both reject rigid structures of the past as well as the superficial volatility of the present.

– Therapy. A good therapeutic process has the objective of bringing the person closer to their essence. Jung understood suffering and symptoms through a person being distanced from their true nature. The essence, in his opinion, is predetermined when we arrive in this world and we can only strive for it and accept it. That’s why he defined therapy as a process of “individuation”, that is, the search of the individual in order return to their center. I like this definition especially, since the typical individuality of the liquid modernity is the opposite of the individuation of the therapeutic process that focusses on the search of one’s essence. Moreover, it is important to say that all the aforementioned elements are concepts that a good therapist will include in the therapy process, and they will make us connect with them, something that can be difficult to reach without professional help.

Summarizing what has been explained in this article, we could conclude that there are many people who feel comfortable and who are able to move themselves with agility in the Liquid Modernity that Baumann described. However, the number of people who suffer due to this model of society keeps on growing. Since there is no external stability the individual finds themselves obliged to move themselves in the volatility/impermanence/superficiality, or on the contrary to construe rigid internal structures which they end up getting in conflict with.

Nowadays, the only possible alternative to this dichotomy is a process of personal growth that leads one to its essence, with which they have to establish a firm and stable commitment. This process would occur with age and experience in the old days but nowadays we find that this becomes an earlier requirement due to the fact that many people already find themselves facing anxiety or depression at a young age.

This is the reason why IPITIA we do not merely focus our work on the symptoms a client might present but also on all those elements in their environment that might be causing them, including their social context, whose internal representation is capable of conditioning the central nervous system of many people in a profound way.

Marco De Colle

Clinical Psychologist