Karen Horney

From New World Encyclopedia

Karen Horney

Karen Horney (September 16, 1885, – December 4, 1952) was a German psychoanalyst of Norwegian and Dutch descent. Although originally a Freudian, her theories questioned traditional views, particularly Freud’s theory of human sexuality. She also made significant contributions to the development of a psychology of women, proposing that rather than viewing woman as jealous of men's sexual organs, feeling incomplete, that men are in fact envious of women's ability to bear children and their determination to succeed in work and society is to compensate for their perceived inadequacy. Horney's most significant contribution to psychoanalysis is her theory of anxiety as the basis of neuroses, and her view that such disorders can be best understood in the context of the individual's responses to life's challenges rather than focusing on in-depth analysis of their childhood experiences. She regarded poor parenting as the root of neurotic responses to life, a significant insight into the foundational nature of the parent-child relationship in human life.

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Id, ego, and super-ego
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Important Figures
Sigmund FreudCarl Jung
Alfred AdlerOtto Rank
Anna FreudMargaret Mahler
Karen HorneyJacques Lacan
Ronald Fairbairn • Melanie Klein
Harry Stack Sullivan
Erik Erikson • Nancy Chodorow

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Analytical psychology
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Karen Horney was born Karen Danielsen on September 16, 1885 in the German city of Hamburg. Her father, Berndt Wackels Danielson, was a ship's captain, an authoritarian and religious person. Karen’s mother, Clotilde (known as "Sonni") was very different, being much more urbane than Berndt. Karen's elder brother was also named Berndt, and Karen cared for him deeply. She also had four elder half-siblings from her father's previous marriage.

Karen's childhood was marked by difficulties in her family relationships. She perceived her father as a cruel disciplinarian figure holding his son Berndt in higher regard than herself, despite the fact that he bought her gifts and even took her for sea voyages on his boat. Karen, however, always felt deprived of her father's affection, instead becoming attached to her mother, who referred to Karen as her "little lamb."

From the age of nine Karen became ambitious and somewhat rebellious. She felt that she could not become pretty and instead decided to vest her energies into her intellectual qualities, stating her intentions as such despite the fact she was seen by most as pretty. At this time, she developed a crush on her elder brother, who became embarrassed by her attentions, soon pushing her away. It was then she suffered her first of several bouts of depression, an issue that would plague her for the rest of her life.

In 1904, Karen's parents divorced, her mother vacating their residence with both children. Soon thereafter, in 1906, Horney entered medical school at the University of Freiburg, despite the fact both parents were unsupportive of the idea, as was opinion within contemporary society at the time. The University of Freiburg was, in fact, one of the first institutions throughout Germany to enroll women in medical courses. In 1908, Horney had transferred to the University of Göttingen, and transferred once more to the University of Berlin before her graduation in 1913 when she received a medical degree.

It was during her time as a medical student that she met Oskar Horney, whom she married by 1909. The following year, Horney gave birth to a daughter, Brigitte, who was to be the first of three daughters. By this time, Horney had refined her interests and was keen to pursue the then pioneering field of psychoanalysis.

Her mother died in 1911, an event which put much strain on her. Her marriage with Oskar also proved stressful; he was just as authoritarian and strict with his children as Horney's own father was with his. During these years, Horney was receptive to having her children raised in this atmosphere; it was only later, during the 1920s, that her attitude towards child rearing changed.

Career and Work

Horney was associated with the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute from 1918 to 1932. In 1920, she took up a position within the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Berlin, where she was to lecture on psychoanalysis for several years. Karl Abraham, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, regarded Karen Horney as an extensively gifted analyst and teacher of psychoanalysis.

By 1923, Oskar Horney's firm had become insolvent, with Oskar developing meningitis soon thereafter. Oskar rapidly became embittered, morose, and argumentative. In the same year her brother died. Both of these events contributed to a worsening of Karen's mental health.

In 1926, Karen and her three daughters moved out of Oskar's house. Four years later, they immigrated to the United States. Horney quickly set about establishing herself. Her first career posting in the United States was as the Associate Director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. She eventually settled in Brooklyn, which at that time was home to a large intellectual community. This was due in part to a high influx of Jewish refugees from Europe, particularly Germany. It was in Brooklyn that Karen became friends with notable psychologists and scholars such as Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan.

While living in Brooklyn Horney developed and advanced her composite theories regarding neurosis and personality, based on experiences gained from working in psychotherapy. In 1937, she published the book The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, which had wide popular readership. By 1941, Horney was Dean of the American Institute of Psychoanalysis, a training institute for those who were interested in Horney's own organization, the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. Horney founded this organization after becoming dissatisfied with the generally strict, orthodox nature of the psychoanalytic community.

In the end, Horney's deviation from Freudian psychology led to her resigning from her post, and she soon took up teaching at New York Medical College. She also founded a journal, named the American Journal of Psychoanalysis. She taught at the New York Medical College and continued practicing as a psychiatrist until her death in 1952.

Theories on neurosis and personality

In her theories, Horney stressed basic anxiety arising from childhood insecurities that continue throughout life. She viewed neurosis in a different light from other psychoanalysts of the time. She argued that humanity has lost the security of medieval society, and neurosis is the natural product of industrialization. Accordingly, psychology is intimately linked with cultural determinants. Thus, she regarded neurosis as resulting from, and continuous with, one's experiences of life.

She placed significant emphasis on parental indifference towards the child, believing that a child's perception of events, as opposed to the parent's intentions, is the key to understanding a person's neurosis. For instance, a child might feel a lack of warmth and affection should a parent make fun of the child's feelings, thereby underestimating the significance of the child's state. The parent may also casually neglect to fulfill promises, which in turn could have a detrimental effect on the child's mental state.


From her experiences as a psychiatrist, Horney named ten patterns of neurotic needs. These ten needs are based upon things which she thought all humans require to succeed in life. However, in the neurotic, these needs are exaggerated such that they become overpowering and the person is not able to function in a balanced, "normal" fashion in social situations. A neurotic person could theoretically exhibit all of these needs, though in practice much fewer than the ten need be present to constitute a person having a neurosis. The ten needs, as set out by Horney, (classified according to her so-called coping strategies) are as follows:

Compliance: Moving Toward People

  • 1. The need for affection and approval; pleasing others and being liked by them.
  • 2. The need for a partner; one who can love and solve all problems.
  • 3. The need to restrict life practices to within narrow borders; to live as inconspicuous a life as possible.

Aggression: Moving Against People

  • 4. The need for power; the ability to bend wills and achieve control over others—while most persons seek strength, the neurotic may be desperate for it.
  • 5. The need to exploit others; to get the better of them. To become manipulative, fostering the belief that people are there simply to be used.
  • 6. The need for social recognition; prestige and limelight.
  • 7. The need for personal admiration; for both inner and outer qualities to be valued.
  • 8. The need for personal achievement; though virtually all persons wish to make achievements, as with No. 4, the neurotic may be desperate for achievement.

Withdrawal: Moving Away from People

  • 9. The need for self sufficiency and independence; while most desire some autonomy, the neurotic may simply wish to discard other individuals entirely.
  • 10. Lastly, the need for perfection; while many are driven to perfect their lives in the form of well being, the neurotic may display a fear of being slightly flawed.

Upon investigating the ten needs further, Horney found she was able to condense them into three broad categories.

Needs one, two and three were assimilated into the compliance category. This category is seen as a process of moving towards people or self-effacement. Under Horney's theory children facing difficulties with parents often use this strategy. Fear of helplessness and abandonment occurs—phenomena Horney refers to as basic anxiety. Those within the compliance category tend to exhibit a need for affection and approval on the part of their peers. They may also seek out a partner, somebody to confide in, fostering the belief that, in turn, all of life's problems would be solved by the new cohort. A lack of demanding and a desire for inconspicuousness both occur in these individuals.

Neurotic persons may employ aggression, also called the moving against people, or the expansive solution. Needs four, five, six, seven and eight comprise this category: Neurotic children or adults within this category often exhibit anger or basic hostility to those around them. That is, there is a need for power, a need for control and exploitation, and a maintenance of a facade of omnipotence. Manipulative qualities aside, under Horney's assertions the aggressive individual may also wish for social recognition, not necessarily in terms of limelight, but in terms of simply being known (perhaps feared) by subordinates and peers alike. In addition, the individual has needs for a degree of personal admiration by those within this person's social circle and, lastly, for raw personal achievement. These characteristics comprise the "aggressive" neurotic type. Aggressive types also tend to keep people farther away from them. On the other hand, aggressives only care about their wants and needs. They will do whatever they want to do to a person if it makes them happy. They don't care if they hurt anyone, as long as they're getting what they want. They think that everyone is there for their own convenience and to bow down to them.

The third group of needs is withdrawal. This category encompasses the final two needs, and overlaps with the "compliance" trait. "Withdrawal" is often labeled as the moving-away-from or resigning solution. As neither aggression nor compliance dispense with parental indifference, Horney recognized that children might simply solve the problem by becoming self sufficient. The withdrawing neurotic may simply discard others in a non-aggressive manner, regarding solitude and independence as the way forth. The stringent needs for perfection comprise the other half of this category; those withdrawing may strive for perfection above all else, to the point where being flawed is utterly unacceptable. Everything the withdrawal type does must be unassailable and refined.

As implied, while non-neurotic individuals may strive for these needs, neurotics exhibit a much deeper, more willful and concentrated desire to fulfill the described needs.

Near the end of her career, Karen Horney summarized her ideas in Neurosis and Human Growth, her major work published in 1950. It is in this book that she summarized her ideas regarding neurosis, clarifying her three neurotic "solutions" to the stresses of life: self-effacing, expansive, and resigned. She argued that people adopt these methods of dealing with feelings of being unsafe, unloved, and unvalued.

Self-effacing people use dependency, humility, and helpfulness to others to attempt to fulfill their need to avoid mistreatment. The expansive solution is a tripartite combination of narcissistic, perfectionist, and arrogant-vindictive approaches to life. (Horney had previously focused on the psychiatric concept of narcissism in a book published in 1939, New Ways in Psychoanalysis). Generally, these people believe in their own power to dominate the situation and others, and demand retribution when hurt. Resignation, or detachment from others, involves seeking peace and self-sufficiency, and the hope that by not expecting anything they will not be disappointed.

Basic evil, basic anxiety, and basic hostility

Horney did not just describe neurotic behavior; she also addressed its causes.

Basic Evil is the term she used to explain what may cause neurosis. Basic evil refers to poor parenting to the point in which it is child abuse. It incorporates various inappropriate behaviors parents exhibit towards their children: indifference toward the child; rejection of the child; hostility toward the child; obvious preferences for a sibling; unfair punishment; ridicule; humiliation; erratic behavior; broken promises; and isolation of the child from others.

Horney also described two resultant conditions: Basic Anxiety and Basic Hostility.

Basic Anxiety is a term she used to explain the ramifications of poor parenting. Basic anxiety is deep insecurity and fear that developed in the child because of the way they were treated by their parents. It is developed because of the conflict with dependency and hostility towards mother, father, or both. Horney argued that a child is tied to his or her parent because of dependence, not sex (as Sigmund Freud argued). The child is dependent on the mother and father for food, shelter, and other basic needs. However, the child realizes that no matter how terribly the parents treat him or her, he or she has nowhere to go because of such dependency on them. Anxiety generalizes and everyone becomes a potential threat. What was initiated as anxiety towards the parents becomes anxiety towards everyone. “If mom and dad can treat me so badly, and they are my parents, how much worse is everyone else?” The world is seen as hostile and unreliable. Everyone is perceived as a threat and it is just safer to avoid people because everyone causes anxiety.

Basic Hostility is also an effect of Basic Evil. Horney described it as a bad attitude which develops in the child as a result of Basic Evil. The child is mistreated and becomes angry, but can do nothing as he or she is dependent upon the very persons who perpetrated the mistreatment. The pattern of Basic Hostility is thus:

  • The child wants to leave, but cannot. Although the child wants to avoid the abuse, his parents are perpetrating it.
  • The child cannot move away or fight back against his parents because he is dependent on them.
  • The child therefore redirects his feelings and expressions of hostility toward people he does not depend on for support.

According to Horney, some children develop basic hostility as an aggressive coping strategy and continue using it to deal with life's problems.

In effect, Horney argued that bad parenting is the root of all our problems.

Theory of self

Following from her views on the individual psyche, Horney postulated that the self is in fact the core of one's own being and potential.[1] Horney believed that if one has an accurate conception of oneself, then one is free to realize one's potential and achieve what one wishes, within reasonable boundaries. Thus, she believed that self-actualization is the healthy person's aim through life, as opposed to the neurotic's clinging to a set of key needs.

Horney believed that we have two views of ourselves. The "real self" and the "ideal self." The real self is who and what we actually are. Examples would be parent, child, sister, and so forth. The real self contains potential for growth, happiness, will power, gifts, and so forth. The real self, however, has deficiencies that we do not like. The ideal self is the type of person we feel that we should be and is used as a model to assist us in developing our potential and achieving self-actualization.

It is important to know the differences between one's ideal self and real self. Since the neurotic person's self is split between an idealized self and a corresponding despised self, individuals may feel that they lack somehow—that they are not living up to the ideal. They feel that there is a flaw somewhere in comparison to what they "should" be. The goals set out by the neurotic are not realistic, or even possible. The despised self, on the other hand, has the feeling that it is despised by those around them, and assumes that this incarnation is its "true" self. Thus, the neurotic is like a clock's pendulum, oscillating between a fallacious "perfection" and a manifestation of self-hate. Horney referred to this phenomenon as the "tyranny of the shoulds" and the neurotic's hopeless "search for glory".[2] She concluded that these ingrained traits of the psyche forever prevent an individual's potential from being actualized unless the cycle of neurosis is somehow broken, through treatment or otherwise.


While Horney acknowledged and agreed with Sigmund Freud on many issues, she was also critical of him on several key beliefs. Freud's notion of "penis envy" in particular was subject to criticism by Horney.[3] She thought Freud had merely stumbled upon women's jealousy of men's generic power in the world. Horney accepted that penis envy might occur occasionally in neurotic women, but stated that "womb envy" occurs just as much in men: Horney felt that men were envious of a woman's ability to bear children. The degree to which men are driven to success may be merely a substitute for the fact that they cannot bear and nurture children.

Horney was bewildered by psychiatrists' tendency to place so much emphasis on the male sexual organ. Horney also reworked the Freudian Oedipal complex removing the sexual elements. She suggested that the clinging to one parent and jealousy of the other was simply the result of anxiety, caused by a disturbance in the parent-child relationship.

Despite these variances with the prevalent Freudian view, Horney strove to reformulate Freudian thought, presenting a holistic, humanistic view on individual psyche which placed much emphasis on cultural and social differences worldwide. She shared Abraham Maslow's view that self-actualization is the ultimate pinnacle of human achievement.

Horney developed her ideas to the extent that she released one of the first "self-help" books in 1946, entitled Are you considering psychoanalysis?. Those, both male and female, with relatively minor neurotic problems could, in effect, be their own psychiatrists. She continually stressed that self-awareness was a part of becoming a better, stronger, richer human being.

Feminine psychology

Women, according to Horney, traditionally gain value only through their children and the wider family. She touched further on this subject in her essay "The Distrust Between the Sexes" in which she compared the husband-wife relationship to a parent-child relationship—one of misunderstanding and one which breeds detrimental neuroses. Most notably her work The Problem of the Monogamous Ideal addressed issues in marriage. Her essay "Maternal Conflicts" attempts to shed new light on the problems women experience when raising adolescents.

Horney believed that both men and women have motivation to be creative and productive. Women are able to satisfy this need by becoming pregnant and giving birth. Men satisfy this need only through external ways. Horney proposed that the striking accomplishments of men in work and society can be viewed as compensation for their inability to give birth to children.

As a woman, she felt that the mapping out of trends in female behavior was a neglected issue. In her essay entitled "The Problem of Feminine Masochism" Horney felt she proved that cultures and societies worldwide encouraged woman to be dependent on men for their love, prestige, wealth, care, and protection. She pointed out that in society as a whole a will to please, satiate, and overvalue men had emerged. Women were regarded as objects of charm and beauty—at variance with every human being's ultimate purpose of self-actualization.


While Karen Horney has not received significant recognition amongst those within the psychiatric community, she nonetheless has followings within certain circles within the medical community and academia. Her major works are still in print and continue to have a wide readership.

Horney was also a pioneer in the discipline of feminine psychiatry.[4][5] As one of the first female psychiatrists, she was the first of her gender to present a paper regarding feminine psychiatry. The 14 papers she wrote between 1922 and 1937 were amalgamated into a single volume titled Feminine Psychology, a foundational work that continues to inform the field.

The Karen Horney clinic opened on May 6, 1955 in New York City, in honor of Horney's achievements in her field. The institution seeks to research and train medical professionals, particularly in the psychiatric fields, as well as serving as a low cost treatment center.

Works by Karen Horney

  • Horney, Karen. 1937. The Neurotic Personality of our Time. New York: Norton. ISBN 0393010120
  • Horney, Karen. 1939. New Ways in Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton. ISBN 0393001326
  • Horney, Karen. 1942. Self-analysis. New York: Norton. ISBN 0393001342
  • Horney, Karen. 1945. Our Inner Conflicts. New York: Norton. ISBN 0393001334
  • Horney, Karen. 1946. Are You Considering Psychoanalysis? New York: Norton. ISBN 0393001318
  • Horney, Karen. 1950. The Collected Works of Karen Horney (2 vols.) New York: Norton. ISBN 1199366358
  • Horney, Karen. 1950. Neurosis and Human Growth. New York: Norton. ISBN 0393001350
  • Horney, Karen. 1967. Feminine Psychology. New York: Norton. 1967. ISBN 0393006867
  • Horney, Karen. 1980. The Adolescent Diaries of Karen Horney. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 1158494243
  • Horney, Karen. 1999. The Therapeutic Process: Essays and Lectures. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300075278
  • Horney, Karen. 2000. The Unknown Karen Horney: Essays on Gender, Culture, and Psychoanalysis. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300080425


  1. Karen Horney. Neurosis and human growth, Chapter 6. Alienation from self.
  2. Horney. Neurosis and human growth, Chaps. 1-5.
  3. Bernard J. Paris. Karen Horney: a Psychoanalyst's Search for Self-understanding. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), Chapter 10. The masculinity complex
  4. Paris. Karen Horney: a psychoanalyst's search. Part 2. The Freudian phase and feminine psychology.
  5. Marcia Westkott. The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ben-David, J. & R. Collins. 1966. "Social factors in the origin of a new science: The case of psychology." American Psychological Review 31: 451-465.
  • Brennan, J.F. [1982] 2002. History and systems of psychology, Sixth ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 013048119X
  • Horney, K. 1939. New ways in psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
  • Koch, S. 1941. "The logical character of the motivation concept." Psychological Review 48: 15-38 and 127-154.
  • Leahey, Th. H. [1991] 2000. A History of Modern Psychologym, Third ed. Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0130175730
  • Paris, Bernard J. 1994. Karen Horney: a Psychoanalyst's Search for Self-understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300068603
  • Quinn, Susan. 1987. Mind of Her Own: the Life of Karen Horney. New York: Summit Books. ISBN 0333463935
  • Rubins, Jack L. 1978. Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis. New York: Summit Books.ISBN 0803744250
  • Stevens S. S. 1935. "The operational definition of psychological concepts." Psychological Review 42: 517-527.
  • Westkott, Marcia. 1986. The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300042043

External links

All links retrieved October 5, 2022.


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