Basic Neurosis, The—Oral Regression and Psychic Masochism

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"A most original thinker and prolific writer," in this book Bergler compiled the results from his 130 published papers and 6 books based on 22 years of clinical experience. Renowned for his research on oral neurosis, he discovered there is but one "basic neurosis"repressed masochistic attachment to the fantasied earliest "bad mother"; later neuroses "reformulating" oral masochistic material represent "rescue stations"; psychic masochism (PM), the unconscious pursuit of "pleasure in displeasure," forms the core of oral regression. Thus, neurotic equals psychic masochist. Neurotics cling to and repeat misery, in itself indicating PM. PM unconsciously "sugarcoats" and "neutralizes" pain; but consciously pain remains, felt in symptoms and personality distortions.

To Freud's "genetic picture" of PM (megalomania unavoidably offended by perceived frustration of libido; fury; helpless aggression rebounding; libidinization of guilt), Bergler worked out and added the "clinical picture." He named it the "mechanism of orality":

  1. Unconscious provocation or misuse of "refusal"; casting others as "bad, refusing mother."
  2. Retaliation for the alleged "injustice" by pseudoaggressively fighting in righteous indignation.
  3. Self-pity then unconsciously enjoyed.

With this base, every clinical entity incorporates a unique "specific additional factor"; 27 clinical pictures with case illustrations substantiate this. Psychic masochists unconsciously want refusal, rejection, humiliation, defeat. The genuine "wish to get" of infancy is now a defense. They believe they want normal pleasure, but a person "who unconsciously runs after disappointment cannot be consciously happy." All neurotic aggression is "pseudoaggression," promoting self-damage. Neurotics shift the blame outside, mostly to parents; this Bergler named the "basic fallacy," which must be shown to be a fallacy.

Applying these ideas, Bergler advocated new clinical solutions, such as talking at length to patients to counteract their projection of "bad refusing mother" (facilitating analysis), and more active analyzing, to unearth and interpret all repressed masochistic data and repetitions. He added theory regarding transference/love, creativity, working through, masturbation, money-neurosis, fashion, gambling, homosexuality, and humor. Bergler deduced mechanisms of cynicism, hypocrisy, criminosis; described and/or named alysosis, middle-age revolt, confusionism, 22 visual neuroses, writer's block, psychogenic aspermia, counterfeit-sex, and "pseudo-moral connotation of neurotic symptoms" (ironization of teachings to prop up each symptom). He identified the superego (SE) ("torture for torture's sake") as the "real master of the personality," requiring constant appeasement. Daimonion (the punitive part of SE) uses the ego ideal to torture the ego; also that punishment is masochized. Psychic masochism is disguised from the superego by two defensive alibis (in the five-layer structure of neurotic symptoms and traits). In the normal, the fifth layer is antimasochistic; in neurosis, the final layer "smuggles in" masochism in self-damaging symptoms. Hence, neurotics cannot be helped unless their PM is analyzed. Eighteen further books detail his later discoveries. Growing numbers of adherents are confirming the accuracy and clinical value of his work.

Melvyn I. Iscove

See also: Bergler, Edmund; Masochism; Neuroses.

Source Citation

Bergler Edmund. (1949). The basic neurosisoral regression and psychic masochism. New York: Grune and Stratton.


Bergler, Edmund. (1989). The superego. Madison, CT: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1952)

. (1982). Counterfeit-sex. New York: Grune and Stratton. (Original work published 1958)

. (1992). Principles of self-damage. Madison, CT: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1959)

. (1993). Curable and incurable neurotics. Madison, CT: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1961)

. (1969). Selected papers of Edmund Bergler, M.D., 1933-1961. New York: Grune and Stratton.

Jaffe, Daniel. (1986). Review of the revolt of the middle-aged man. Money and emotional conflicts, and the psychology of gambling. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 67, 507-509.