The Neuroses of New York

75 Years Ago, Karen Horney (a New Yorker) Named 10 Forms of Nuttiness; Time for an Update!

Recently, a woman entered taxi driver Marc Preven’s cab just outside of FAO Schwartz on Madison and East 60th with her “son,” a Jack Russell terrier. “She tells me, ‘It’s his birthday,’” Mr. Preven recalled. “Then she says that every year on his birthday she takes him to FAO Schwarz to pick out a toy. This year the dog picked out a Paul Frank plush monkey. But you know, that’s not even weird to me anymore—it’s like, don’t all dogs get to go to FAO Schwarz on their birthday and pick out a birthday toy?”

In 1936, Karen Horney, a Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst who once had an ill-fated affair with pioneering social psychologist Erich Fromm, published what was then the definitive work on neurosis, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. Naturally, she was a New York City resident at the time. (Brooklyn, actually.)

As long as the terms “neurotic,” or “high strung,” or “nervous breakdown” have been around, they have been inextricably linked with this city. As Evelyn Waugh put it, “There is [a] neurosis in the air which inhabitants mistake for energy.”

For a while, when Woody Allen was really nailing it and Seinfeld topped the ratings, it was all to the good—part of our charm.

Then, in 2008, a Cambridge University study showed that New York was home to “the most neurotic and unfriendly people” in the United States. The study went on to say that people living in eastern states along the “Stress Belt”—especially New Yorkers—are likely to be anxious, stressed, impulsive and prone to heart disease and cancer. Ah, something else to be neurotic about.

Mr. Preven, who described himself as “chronologically 53, but mentally 12 or 19,” was so fascinated by New Yorkers’ nuttiness that he started an alterna-tour for out-of-towners called NEWrotic New York City Tours. “It’s an anti-tour of the city,” he explained.

But what makes us so neurotic? One answer seems to be space. Or the lack thereof. “New York is mental illness, drug addiction and eating disorders served on a silver platter,” Mr. Preven said. “A lot of us are cognitively challenged. There are so many different worlds here and we all overlap and bump up against each other. I call Grand Central a human particle accelerator.”

There do seem to be a lot of neuroses that are particular to our city, some of which might be better described as micro-neuroses. For instance, “Air-conditioning drip,” a condition that was pointed out to us by two separate friends (both of whom, oddly, are employed by Conde Nast), which is a fear of being struck by drips and drops of water from air-conditioners in the apartment windows overhead.

And there’s a common meta–micro-neurosis, of which almost everyone contacted about this article displayed symptoms. One by one, they detailed their personal peccadilloes—followed by the panicked, paranoid cry: “Don’t quote me!,” or “Don’t make me sound crazy!,” or “No, you can not use my full name, people will make fun of me,” or “Shit—I sound nuts right? Can I get quote-approval?”

For our purposes, we will stick to the bigger neuroses, and look at how they’ve changed in the 75 years since Horney published her original list.

1. The Neurotic Need for Affection and Approval

Ever wonder why there are so many small, yappy dogs on the streets of New York? Ever wonder why they have human names and are dressed in human-esque clothes? The fact is, you’ll never get more approval than you will from your small dachshund—I mean, dog.

Alas, dogs aren’t always enough. We hunger for human approval as well. And for a little help, many turn to specialists like Dr. Jon Turk.

“When the economy tanked, people gave up their Birkins but they didn’t give up their Botox,” noted Dr. Turk, a handsome cosmetic surgeon who practices on the Upper East Side. “I’ll give them some Botox and some will come in two weeks later and point to a single, 2-millimeter crease and say, ‘It’s moving!’ I try to point out that faces are supposed to move a little.”

2. The Neurotic Need for a Partner

For men and women, at least in New York, this neurosis manifests differently. Women tend to worry about settling down, whereas men, who are outnumbered and can produce children late into life (sometimes ridiculously so), tend to always be looking for another partner. That’s why he just snuck a peek at the coat-check girl’s ass, the bastard.

According to Matt Titus, a matchmaker and love coach, “In New York City, when a guy is out on a date with a girl he knows in the back of his mind that there is a hotter, better model either around the corner. If the lighting isn’t right or the conversation interesting enough, he, at any moment, will divert his time and energy to extricating himself and finding the next best thing.”

Sure, women often hope to trade up as well, but the guys have an easier time of it. “In New York men become repercussionless daters because of the sheer numbers,” Mr. Titus added. “With 237,000 more single women than single men on the island of man-hattan [emphasis his], men are kings. Women become accustomed to men’s dating habits and become even more desperate to find Mr. Right.”

3. The Neurotic Need to Restrict Life Within Narrow Borders

Holly Phillips is a doctor who lives with her husband and two daughters on the Upper East Side. She has many friends all over the city, but they all know the rules: if they want to see her, they will have to go to Holly.

“It takes too much mental preparedness to leave a 15-block radius,” Dr. Phillips explained. “If I had driver maybe it would be different. As it stands now, if I leave my area, I literally have to prepare myself, physically and mentally. It’s like a voyage—I have to make sure I have all the essentials in my purse, think how I’m going to get there and how I’m going to get back, what the traffic situation is going to be if I can’t walk… I just get stressed out.”

Downtown, Craig Walker agrees. Mr. Walker, an actor who lives on Thompson Street, is also the owner of Local, a coffee shop on Sullivan. “I get a little nervous if I’m outside my hood too long,” he admits of his 26-block neighborhood. “I’m just more comfortable in Soho.”

4. The Neurotic Need for Power

This is an easy one—so commonplace a neurosis that it’s barely considered a personality disorder at all. The drive to dominate others and to value strength practically defines life in the city, where the buildings are bigger, the bonuses fatter and the mayor richer by a factor of hundreds of millions than almost anywhere else. And don’t even think about messing with your co-op board.

The Neuroses of New York