Karen Horney (Psychoanalysis)

Biographical Overview

“Karen Horney was born Karen Danielsen in a suburb of Hamburg on September 15, 1885.  Her father was a sea captain of Norwegian origin;  her mother was of Dutch-German Extraction (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 2).”  She had an older brother named Bernstein who died at the age of 40, of a lung infection.  Her father was a harsh discplinarian and apparently they were never very close (Boeree, 2006).  However, she had a close attachment to her mother, Sonni, who was 19 years younger than her father, (and his second wife).  They divorced when she was a young adult.

She decided to become a doctor as a young child and was one of the first women in Germany to become a doctor. (Schultz & Schulta, 2016).  While in college, she met her future husband Oskar Horney and married him in 1909.  The had three daughters together.

Karen Horney struggled with mental health problems throughout her life.  After a series of life events including the death of her brother and mom, she was first exposed to psychotherapy.  She eventually decided to enter the field of psychoanalysis and was a co-founder of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute.  In 1932 she moved to the United States, and passed away in 1952.

Horney’s New Psychoanalysis

“Karen Danielsen Horney was another defector from the orthodox Freudian point of view. Although never a disciple or colleague of Freud’s, Horney was trained in the official psychoanalytic doctrine. But she did not remain long in the Freudian camp (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 159).”

Portrayal of Women

Horney criticized early psychoanalysis as focusing “more on men’s development that women’s (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 159).”  Insisting that “anatomy is not destiny” (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 8).”  Additionally, Horney had problem with Freud’s description of women, due to its masculine orientation and in implicit preconception of female inferiority.  In her view, the woman’s psyche was a byproduct of cultural influences and social standards at the time.

The Role of Culture

Like many of Freud’s predecessors, Horney felt his perspective overemphasized the influences of biology on mental health.  This has caused an overestimation of the “universality of the feelings, attitudes and kinds of relationships that were common (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 10), in Freud’s work.  “Horney found that her American patients were so unlike her previous German patients, both in their neuroses and in their normal personalities that she believed only the different social forces to which they had been exposed could account for the variation (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 159).”  On the basis of this, Horney concluded social and cultural factors have a great influence on our overall well-being and prisons, development.

The Cause of Neurosis

Horney felt that neurosis was caused by “disturbances in human relationships (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 11).” In contrast, Freud felt neurosis was caused by something within the subconscious. In response to these varied definitions of neurosis, Horney and Freud utilized divergent approaches.  Freud focused on uncovering infantile origins as a cause for one’s problems.  In contrast, Horney felt it was important to examine defense mechanisms in our relationships.

Focus on the Present

“Perhaps the most significant aspect of Horney’s new version of psychoanalysis was her shift in emphasis…from the past to the present (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 11).” Essentially, Horney rejected Freud’s assertion that the impact of our earliest experiences remain unchanged in adulthood.  Horney felt personal growth is ongoing, and doesn’t end with childhood.  Each successive life experience builds upon previous ones.  In her work, “New Ways of Psychoanalysis”, she differentiated her perspective from Freud’s by labeling his as mechanical-evolutionists  while calling hers evolutionistic, (Fadiman & Frager, 1976).    At the heart of Freud’s neurosis are unconscious fixations.  At the heart of Horney’s neurosis are early experiences that cause us to repeat adaptive responses to certain situational needs.  These defense mechanisms are self-perpetuating until one acknowledges them.

A New Perspective on Neurosis

What is Neurosis?

Horney saw “neurosis as an attempt to make life bearable, as a way of ‘interpersonal control and coping’ (Boeree, 2006, p. 4).” In other words neurosis is a response to basic anxiety [discussed later] caused by “disturbances in human relationships (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 11).”  They are early defense mechanisms in response to interpersonal difficulties that continually evolve as we grow.

Origins of a Neurosis

“Horney agreed with Freud, in principle, about the importance of the early years of childhood in shaping the adult personality. However, they differed on the specifics of how personality is formed. Horney believed that social forces in childhood, not biological forces, influence personality development. There are neither universal developmental stages nor inevitable childhood conflicts. Instead, the social relationship between the child and his or her parents is a key factor in one’s early development (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 162).”

Safety Needs

According to Horney, our earliest childhood experiences are defined by a need for safety and security (Schultz & Schultz, 2016).  Fulfilling these needs requires caregivers to respond in a manner that allows children to be free of for their emotional and physical well-being.   Additionally, Horney felt displays of affection and warmth are especially critical for a sense of security.  In contrast, “If children are kept…excessively dependent…feelings of helplessness will be encouraged (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 163).”  Conversely, They can become fearful of caregiver through excessive intimidation or abuse.  The point is, how caregivers respond to safety needs greatly impacts a child’s early development.

Basic Anxiety

“Pathogenic conditions in the family…make children feel unsafe, unloved, and unvalued” (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 10),  Parental indifference plants the seeds for a neurosis in adulthood and calls this a “basic evil” (Boeree, 2006, p. 5).  Conversely, providing warmth and affection are key in preventing neurosis (Schultz & Schultz, 2016).

As a result of early pathological interpersonal experiences, children can be overcome with a sense of fear, anxiety, helplessness, hostility, and guilt.  Over time they develop repetitive coping styles that condition “how we respond to the world (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 12).   Horney claims these emotions and adaptive coping responses are evidence of basic anxiety, which she defines as an “insidiously increasing, all-pervading feeling of being lonely and helpless in a hostile world” (Horney, 1937, p. 89).

In a nutshell, when parents are ineffective in responding to a child’s safety needs, they develop hostile negative emotions towards their parents.  This is basic anxiety.

Early Coping Responses

When a child’s security needs are not met, they develop a suppressed hostility towards their parents alongside a fear of abandonment and helplessness (Boeree, 2006).  Horney, (1937), describes the feeling of basic anxiety as follows:  “small, insignificant, helpless, deserted, endangered, in a world that is out to abuse, cheat, attack, humiliate, betray” (p. 92).  In response to basic anxiety, children can be found to utilize four common coping responses (Schultz & Schultz, 2016).

COPING RESPONSE #1: “Securing affection and love (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 164).”  The logic here is that if I’m loved by someone, that means they won’t hurt me.  Affection is a form of reassurance.  Conversely, a rejection is feared.  “If you love me, you will not hurt me ((Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p.  164).”
COPING RESPONSE #2: “Being submissive (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 164).”  The logic here for a child is that if I do whatever I’m asked then everyone will be pleased with me.   The goal is not angering or offending someone.  Personal needs are suppressed for the sake of others.  “If I give in I will not be hurt (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 164)”
COPING RESPONSE #3: “Attaining power (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 164)”   This coping skill involves overcompensating for feelings of helplessness.  Achievement and success in areas one has control over provide feelings of superiority.  “If [I] have power no one will harm [me] (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 164)”
COPING RESPONSE #4: “Withdrawing (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 164).” Here children withdrawal psychologically and learn to rely on themselves as much as possible. An aloofness can be observed around others as the child no longer seeks other to satisfy any emotional needs.

Goal of Coping Responses

The singular goal of all these coping responses is simply to avoid basic anxiety.  “They motivate the person to seek security and reassurance rather than happiness or pleasure. They are a defense against pain, not a pursuit of well-being (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 164).”

Consequences of Coping Responses

Horney felt that these coping strategies are “doomed to fail because they generate ‘vicious cycles’ in which the means employed to allay anxiety tend to increase it (Schultz & Schultz, 2016).”  Let’s look at the first coping response mentioned above on a desire to secure affection and love:

This desire for love is motivated by a desire to avoid pain of rejection due to a lack of fulfillment of one’s security needs.
As a result it is magnified by unresolved an unresolved basic anxiety and becomes insatiable, needy, demanding, and unrealistic.
Behaviors such as “demandingness and jealousy that follow make it less likely than ever The at the person will receive affection (Boeree, 2006, p. 11).”
In time, “people who have not been loved develop a feeling of being unlovable…[they] discount any evidence to the contrary (Boeree, 2006, p. 11).”
“Being deprived of affection has made them dependent on others, but they are afraid of that dependency because it makes them too vulnerable (Boeree, 2006, p. 11).”

Neurotic Needs – Interpersonal Defenses

“Horney believed that any of these self-protective mechanisms could become so permanent, a part of the personality that it assumes the characteristics of a drive or need in determining the individual’s behavior. (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 165).”

What are Neurotic Needs?

From her early clinical work, Horney observed ten common distorted interpersonal needs in clients (Boeree, 2006).   These “neurotic needs” (Boeree, 2006, p. 4), as she calls them, emerge as a characteristic drive definitive of one’s personality in adulthood (Schultz & Schultz, 2016).  Finally, she notes that intense anxiety appears to fuel the distorted nature of these neurotic needs and its “unrealistic and unreasonable nature (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 4).”  These ten neurotic needs are listed below (Boeree, 2006; Schultz & Schultz, 2016):

NEUROTIC NEED #1:  A desire for affection and approval emerges as an “indiscriminate need to please others and be liked by them (Boeree, 2006, p. 4)”.
NEUROTIC NEED #2:  “Desire for a dominate partner (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 165)” or “someone who will take over one’s life, [based on] the idea that love will solve all of one’s problems” (Boeree, 2006, p. 4).
NEUROTIC NEED #3:  “The neurotic need for power or control over others for a facade of omnipotence (Boeree, 2006, p. 4).”  
NEUROTIC NEED #4:  A need for exploitation, or “get the better of (Boeree, 2006, p 4)” others.  Underling this neurotic need is the belief in manipulation as commonplace in relationships.
NEUROTIC NEED #5:  A need for prestige and social recognition can present as a result of a neurotic desire for appreciation.  “These people are overwhelmingly concerned with appearances and popularity (Boeree, 2006, p, 4).
NEUROTIC NEED #6:  A need for admiration from others appears in many respects similar to the previous one.  However, it presents more as a desperate desire to be valued and recognized by others (Boeree, 2006).
NEUROTIC NEED #7:  A need for personal achievement can cause individuals to excel in all things they do.  “They have to be number one (Boeree, 2006, p. 5).”
NEUROTIC NEED #8: A neurotic desire for self-sufficiency can present as an aversion to commitment in relationships and refusal to seek help from others (Boeree, 2006).
NEUROTIC NEED #9:  A need for perfection can appear similar to the #7, however here individuals have a fear of being flawed and making mistakes (Boeree, 2006).
NEUROTIC NEED #10:  A neurotic need to limit one’s demands and expectations from life can exist in response to a highly stressful life as a desire to “disappear into routine (Boeree, 2006, p 5)”.

Categorization of Neurotic Needs.

“In her later writings, [Horney] reformulated these needs…she concluded that the needs could be presented in three groups, each indicating a person’s attitudes towards self and others (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 166).”  Essentially, she categorized these neurotic needs into three overarching attitude that can be observed in one’s  interpersonal relationships.  She called them “neurotic trends” and defined this term as a set of behaviors and attitudes that define one’s overall personality.  These neurotic trends are described below:

“THE COMPLIANT PERSONALITY (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 166).”:  Boeree, (2006), notes that this personality type encompasses neurotic needs #1, #2 & #10 listed above.  The compliant personality reflects a “self-effacing solution…[or] moving-toward strategy (Boeree, 2006, p. 5) in one’s interpersonal relationships.”  For example, these individuals display “an intense and continuous need for affection….they usually have a need for one dominant person…who will take charge of their lives and provide protection and guidance (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 166-167).”
“THE AGGRESSIVE PERSONALITY (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 167).”:Boeree, (2006), notes that this personality type encompasses neurotic needs #3 – #7 listed above.  The aggressive personality reflects an “expansive solution…[or] moving-against strategy (Boeree, 2006, p. 5) in one’s interpersonal relationships.”  For example, the aggressive personality perceives the world as a hostile place where “only the fittest and most cunning survive (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 167).”  Consequently, they have a tough demeanor and alleviate basic anxiety by through domination over others.  
“THE DETACHED PERSONALITY (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 168).”: Boeree, (2006), notes that this personality type encompasses neurotic needs #8 – #10 listed above.  The detached personality reflects a “resigning solution…[or] moving-away-from strategy (Boeree, 2006, p. 5) in one’s interpersonal relationships.”   Detached personalities are driven to main an emotional distance from others and are become self-sufficient and independent (Schultz & Schultz, 2016).  

The Self – Intrapersonal Defenses

“In reviewing the evolution of her theory at the end of Neurosis and Human Growth (1950) Horney observed that at first she saw neurosis as essentially a disturbance in human relationships. This disturbance creates basic anxiety against which we defend ourselves by employing the interpersonal strategies of defense….She came to realize, however, that…Neurosis is a disturbance not only in our relationships with others but also in our relationship with ourselves (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p.17-18).”

As the above quote states, Horney notes in her later work, that her description of neurosis is incomplete. Essentially, her later work describes the lasting effects of the neurotic trends listed above.  These neurotic trends affect the development of “the self”.   When viewing neurosis from this perspective, we see a series of fragmented self-images.   These self-images exist in response to the self as”looking-glass images that reflect an internalization of messages from others throughout life.

The Real Self

“According to Horney, people have a real self that requires favorable conditions to be actualized  (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 12).”  Our true “self” is a potential innate to our being, that would represent an accurate portrayal of ourselves minus the influence of a lifetime of interpersonal defense strategies (Boeree, 2006).  Horney, believed that a primary goal of therapy is to restore clients to their true selves  (Fadiman & Frager, 1976).

The ideal self represents our innate potential.
While not a set of acquired or learned abilities, it requires optimal conditions to develop.  
Realizing our true self requires an atmosphere of warmth from one’s caregivers who are responsive to our safety needs.   

The Idealized Self

As a result of an individual’s early experiences with basic anxiety, messages from others become ingrained about what is needed to receive the affection and acceptance one naturally craves.  The lasting impact of these internalized messages are feelings of “weakness, worthlessness, and inadequacy  (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 15).”  These feelings of inadequacy exist as a result of one’s response to a consistent failure of caregivers to respond to our safety needs in the manners described earlier.  To compensate for these feelings we develop an “idealized image of ourselves that we endow with unlimited powers and exalted faculties  (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 15).”  Here are a few examples:

“The complaint person believes ‘I should be sweet, self-sacrificing, saintly’ (Boeree, 2006, p. 6).”  Lovable qualities include humility, goodness, selflessness, and saintliness  (Fadiman & Frager, 1976).
“The aggressive person says ‘I should be powerful, recognized, a winner’ (Boeree, 2006, p. 6).”  For example narcissistics might see themselves as having unlimited capabilities while arrogant and vindictive people might view themselves as tougher, smarter, and able to outsmart others  (Fadiman & Frager, 1976).
“The withdrawn person believes ‘I should be independent, aloof, perfect’ (Boeree, 2006, p. 6).”  Self-sufficiency, freedom from desire, and independence are revered qualities  (Fadiman & Frager, 1976).

The Despised Self

The ideal-self can be understood as a personal goal of who we wish to be.  It is an image we hope to uphold throughout our lives.  Essentially, these ideal-self images represent “should’s” of who we need to be in order to manage unresolved anxiety.  When we succeed in living up to our idealized self-image we feel worthwhile.  However, any personal shortcomings can produce feelings of inadequacy.  Horney utilizes the term “despised self” to represent those denied aspects of ourselves that fail to coincide with who we wish to ideally become.  “People shuttle….between ‘a feeling of arrogant omnipotence and of being scum of the earth’ (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 16).”

The Pride System & Internal Conflicts

So what are the consequences of this divided self, as Horney describes above?

Firstly, as noted above, an idealized self produces a “the tyranny of the should (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 16),”  These idealized images rule every aspect of our lives, and are fueled by an anxiety-riddled emotions that exist as a result of a lifetime of coping with unmet needs.   The problem is, the idealized-self, reflects unresolved traumas stemming from problematic interpersonal experiences and our chosen coping responses to them.  As a result, they are “doomed to fail because they are not based on a realistic appraisal of personal strengths and weaknesses…it is…an illusion, an unattainable ideal of absolute perfection (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 169).”   Horney claims, that the idealized self-image is unhealthy since it is not based on reality and is absolute.  It can cause individuals to either project these standards onto others or “embark on a search for glory (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 16),” as an actualization of the idealized self.

Neurotic pride is a byproduct of the shoulds reflected in our idealized self.

Neurotic pride involves a substitution of pride in who we really are, for pride in who we ideally feel we should be (Fadiman & Frager, 1976).    Threats to neurotic pride are met with “anxiety and hostility…result[ing] in self-contempt and despair (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 16).”  We believe unquestioningly in our idealized self to such a degree that it is a critical determinant of our emotional well being.  When we live up to our shoulds we have neurotic pride, when we fail we have despair.

Neurotic pride causes us to make unrealistic demands on the world.

The shoulds that underlie our idealized self comprise a “bargain with fate (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 16).”  It is our go-to solution to our external reality as a preferred coping mechanism in all interpersonal relationships.  We expect it to work, and demand the world bend to our own version of reality as dictated by the shoulds that comprise our idealized self.  Horney calls this a neurotic claim, in which we expect others to treat us in accordance with the standards defined by our idealized self-image (Fadiman & Frager, 1976).   For example, the compliant personality expects others to accept and love them when they are acting humble and selfless, while the aggressive personality expects a trump-like recognition for his winning attitude.

So what are the consequences of this?

The idealized self systems, and should messages we tell ourselves are intrapsychic strategies of defense, that mirror the interpersonal strategies discussed earlier.  Horney states that self-hatred is a byproduct of this intrapsychic defense mechanism.  Interestingly, while it is intended as solution to our problems, all it does is perpetuate them.  This is because the idealized self is not realistic and we inevitably fail in living up to these should’s.  Overall, Fadiman & Frager, (1976) note that Horney’s conception of the self has a dynamic quality in which the pride system cause a “seesawing between the idealized and despised selves (p. 17).”

Feminist Psychology

“Psychoanalysis is the creation of a male genius and almost all those who have developed his ideas have been men. It is only right and reasonable that they should evolve more easily a masculine psychology and understand more of the development of men than of women” (Horney, 1967, p. 54)”

Horney is a founder of feminine psychology, who “expressed her disagreement with Feud’s views on women (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 170).”   In particular, she rejected Freud’s biological reductionism and asserted that anatomy is not destiny, noting the influence of sociocultural factors on a women’s development.  As noted in the above quote, Horney felt Freud’s psychoanalysis was a byproduct of a male viewpoint reflecting a masculine psychology.  She attempted to expose the lack of scientific evidence underlying the view of women that existed in Freudian psychoanalysis at the time.  She was also critical of Freud’s penis envy notion and provided a description of a male-oriented concept which she called “womb envy” (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 8).  However, in 1935, she abandoned the topic of feminine psychology since “the role of culture in shaping the female psyche makes it impossible to determine what is distinctively feminine (Fadiman & Frager, 1976, p. 10).”

Practical Application

“The object of therapy for Horney is to help people relinquish their defenses – which alientate them from their true likes and dislikes, hopes, fears, and desires, so they can get in touch with what she calls the real self (Boeree, 2006, p. 2).”

Like Freud, Horney utilized free association and dream analysis, however she believed that “Freud played too passive a role and was too distant and intellectual (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 174.”  Additionally, rather than focusing on uncovering repressed aspects of one’s early childhood, Horney believed that clients emotions, attitudes, and behaviors reflected internal conflicts, defense mechanisms, coping tools, and unresolved neuroses from interpersonal issues.  Schultz & Schultz (2016) also mention briefly a few assessments which have been developed based on Horney’s work which I find quite intriguing.  For example, the “HCTI” Horney-Coolidge Type Indicator.  It is a 57-item self-reported assessment that measures for the presence of Horney’s three neurotic trends.


Boeree, G. (2006). Karen Horney.  Retrieved from:  http://www.social-psychology.de/do/pt_horney.pdf
Fadiman, J., & Frager, R. (1976). Personality and personal growth. New York: Harper & Row. Retrieved from:  http://plaza.ufl.edu/bjparis/ikhs/horney/fadiman/fadiman.pdf
Horney, K. (1937). The neurotic personality of our time. New York: Norton.
Horney K (1967). Feminine psychology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2016). Theories of personality. Cengage Learning. Retrieved from: http://cengagesites.com/academic/assets/sites/schultz_ch04.pdf

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