Karen Horney

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Karen Horney (pronounced "Horn-eye", 1885-1952) was a Norwegian-Dutch Freudian psychoanalyst (often classified as "neo-Freudian").

Like Freud, she placed great importance on childhood experiences. However, she was more concerned with social relationships, especially with parents, whereas Freud emphasized internal conflicts. She created the concept of basic anxiety, a child's insecurity and doubt when a parent is indifferent, unloving, or disparaging. This anxiety, according to Horney, leads the child to a basic hostility toward his or her parents. The child may then become neurotic as an adult.

Horney, like many later psychologists, challenged many of Freud's ideas as being misogynist, particularly his concept of penis envy. Horney countered with the claim of "womb envy", that males perceived females as being inferior largely due to males' inability to give birth (this is the converse of "penis envy").

From 1922 to about 1940, Horney wrote from within the Freudian establishment, objecting to concepts of penis envy and the ubiquity of the oedipal complex as lying at the heart of character development. Also, Horney had insisted that Freud was mistaking as biological those matters that are essentially cultural. She hammered away at Freudís endorsement of a conservative cultural belief system that subordinated women to men and that, in her view, provided that endorsement with the authority of biology. Frustrated with the indifferent reception of her ideas in the power centers of the Freudian hierarchy, yet finding support in many other quarters, she stepped up her challenge and moved beyond questions of feminine psychology, throwing doubt on the ubiquity of the oedipal complex, the importance of repetition compulsion, the origin of masochism, and so forth. Figuratively speaking, in New Ways in Psychoanalysisł published in 1939, she nailed on the church door a list of all her objections to Freudian theory. In lectures, articles, and books, culminating with Neurosis and Human Growth in 1950, she developed an alternative set of propositions from which to approach clinical work. Horney contended that it was parsimonious to recognize that cultural factors could better account for personality difficulties and better suggest how treatment of the neurotic should proceed. Otherwise, she retained Freudís basic concept of unconscious process and the essential features of existing psychoanalytic technique.

Essential in both Freudís and Horneyís theories is that the unconscious is characterized by hidden conflict. When unconscious elements are in only mild conflict, all we may observe is mild forgetfulness, occasional moodiness, slight instability in self-esteem, and so forth. But unconscious inner conflict may be of such magnitude that a person is in nearly continual psychological pain, commanded internally to behave compulsively and indiscriminately, or wracked by having lost conviction of possessing a self that is real and true. When there is a sense that oneís self has been lost, all activities, things and relationship with others lose meaning. There is a profound sense of being counterfeit. Horney referred to this as alienation. She used this term to express how a person might feel, but also to indicate that, regardless of how a person felt, the person had lost touch with essential aspects of self.

Alienation is a tragic consequence of the neurotic process. For Horney, the neurotic process means a kind of human development that interferes with the realization of a personís own potential. Whereas favorable conditions permit a person to grow according to h/her own capacities, inclinations, talents, and limitations, in an environment inimical to healthy development a person becomes alienated from h/her real self. Horney used this term to refer to the nucleus within each of us from where growth proceeds. The real self is the source of wholeness and spontaneity, of choosing, developing values, bearing responsibility, of feeling intensity and nuance. Self-realization is the process of allowing the real self to unfold, synonymous with the healthy growth of oneís constructive forces. In order for self-realization to occur, the environment as shaped by parents and other significant figures needs to respond with an appreciation of the child's willingly accepting h/er temperament, abilities, inclinations, and limitations. Additionally, these parental figures are the vectors for acculturation, bringing the child into a world full of complexity, conflicting and ever-changing values, and multiple currents of communication. The pathogenesis of neurotic mental disorder arises when the individual is unable to effectively sort out encounters with the environment. The internalization of certain cultural trends, exaggerated and rigidified, become the organizing principle for patterns of individual neurotic development. This view of the pathogenesis of mental disorder is distinctly different from that of Freud and, even more notably, of Klein, for whom enormous internal conflict is inherent in infancy and childhood with comparatively little reference to the environment. Because she saw neurosis as culturally induced and therefore subject to modification, Horney is often regarded as optimistic.

For the developing child, assurances of security, love, and respect often come in subtle ways. Damage may result through inconsistent regard, indulgence, overprotectiveness, and lack of appreciation for whom the child really is. Parents, grandparents, teachers, and older siblings may have grandiose expectations of the child, exploit her/him, stifle her/his creativity, disparage her/him, mystify and confuse her/him, and in general terms subordinate the child to their own unconscious needs and conflicts. To the extent that the child feels security and genuine self-esteem, s/he grows freely and well. To the extent that s/he falls prey to adverse influences, s/he develops a deep insecurity, what Horney called basic anxiety, the feeling of being helpless and alone in a world experienced as potentially hostile

Basic anxiety is intolerable if it is intense and sustained. The child must act to allay it. S/he may decide to change h/er view of certain things, try to feel differently, and seek to orient h/herself to others in order to reduce the sense of threat. Horney framed these efforts at reorientation as interpersonal moves. The child may move toward others by showing a clinging neediness, dependency and self-effacement if loving submission appears to be the safest strategy. Or the child may move against others by showing aggression, expansiveness, grandstanding behavior, competitiveness, control, contempt, and exploitation of others. Included within this general orientation are tendencies to narcissistic grandiosity, perfectionism, and arrogant vindictiveness. Finally, the child may move away or detach himself from others, showing efforts to disengage from others, and thereby avoid conflict between the tendency to either submit or to dominate.

There are four important points to keep in mind. First, these moves begin in infancy and may be traced to mother-child interactions. Mary Ainsworth and attachment theorists have shown that when infants are placed in a special laboratory procedure known as the strange situation paradigm, observations of infants who are alternately separated and reunited with their mothers fall into categories readily identified as moves toward, away, or against (Feiring, 1983). These early, simple moves are elaborated in a variety of ways as the child matures. With the acquisition of language, style, values, moral capacity, and advanced intellectual ability, the enormous elaboration of these moves will occur.

Second, these moves have intrapsychic correlates. A person may show moves toward, away, or against not only in connection with another person, but also in connection with the intrapsychic image of another person, or of an activity or thing that represents another person. This is crucial to keep in mind because the intrapsychic correlates of what begins as interpersonal moves accounts for a rich understanding of psychic process.

Third, we identify a person as healthy to the extent that he can move flexibly and appropriately in all these directions. A person who can love tenderly, yet in another situation exert control or, in still another, wisely withdraw, is a person capable of constructively choosing her/his behaviors despite conscious awareness of conflicting impulses and feelings. In the ideal, s/he is spontaneously able to experience every kind of feeling, both intensely and with nuance. Likewise, h/her capacity to fantasize freely is substantial. We identify a person as healthy to the extent that s/he can move considerable distances in each of these three directions. When the child suffers from excessive insecurity, these movesótoward, away, and against become increasingly fixed and rigid. Generally, one move is selected and the others are repressed. The entire spectrum of attitudes, beliefs, needs, qualities, and sensitivities that are consistent with the strategy selected becomes organized and valued. The person who learns that security is achieved and basic anxiety allayed by moving toward others comes to value love, charity, kindness, self-sacrifice, and intimacy. S/He may show kindness even when it is evident that the object of her/his kindness sees generosity as a clear sign of weakness and stupidity. The person who feels secure only when in overt control may come to value strength, power, money, and prestige. S/he sulks, perhaps, when failing to win yet another award or when h/her spouse doesnít jump when s/he snaps h/her fingers. The person who feels safe when detached comes to value freedom and serenity. S/he may care about a certain issue, but doesnít want to Ďget involved.í When the neurotic process is underway, restrictions are imposed. Ways of feeling, thinking, and acting that are experienced as at odds with the primary solution are automatically and unconsciously rejected. The person is alienated from them.

Fourth, alternate moves, the ways of thinking and feeling and acting that are at odds with the primary move do not disappear. They remain alive in the unconscious and constantly struggle for expression against the primary move. The constant flux of the pressure created by these alternate moves provide the dynamics that is so crucial to understanding the person in clinical context and making sense of her/his inconsistencies. Hence, for example, the person who rigidly moves against others and endorses strength is likely to experience softer feelings as threatening. S/he rejects such feelings and is alienated from them. Yet they continue to operate unconsciously and result in behaviors, dreams, and errors in daily living that seem very much at odds with the personís preference. It is these opposing strivings that generate much of the inner unconscious conflict that Horney saw as the basis for neurosis. The self-effacing person, for example, may unknowingly exert considerable control by inducing guilt in others. Or the person seeking to control his feelings may feel confounded by their sporadic eruption. The internal conflict generated by these opposing strivings that have become not only rigid and fixed, but insatiable, compulsive and indiscriminate, was called by Horney basic conflict. Elevating one of the basic moves into a dominant position and repressing the others constitute what Horney called a neurotic solution to the underlying problem of basic anxiety. Of course, these solutions are actually pseudo-solutions because the person is relying on a desperate quick-fix.

In neurosis, life becomes narrowed because energy is expended in fulfilling these limited strivings and in repressing anything in conflict with these strivings. Self-realization is supplanted by neurotic process. The person becomes more and more alienated and impoverished. Inherent constructive forces grow weaker and retarding, obstructive, or even destructive forces in the person come to the fore. In order to retain a sense of integration and wholeness, s/he must avoid awareness of conflict. The eruption of what seems like a sudden new feeling, say, of competitiveness in a primarily submissive person is internally rejected or questioned rather than acknowledged as valuable. Often, the person must act immediately to get rid of the feeling, that is then lost and unacknowledged. The personís more strongly affirming h/her neurotic solution is not enough and more radical maneuvers become necessary. What else does the person in the thrall of the neurotic process do to protect the solution?

To bolster the neurotic solution to basic conflict, the person may unconsciously elect to experience internal attitudes, feelings and impulses as occurring outside himself or may respond with disproportionate intensity to certain external events. Horney termed this process externalization, and it has much in common with the better known concept of projection. For example, the neurotically expansive person who has an incipient feeling of tenderness toward another may immediately and automatically repress its awareness, imagining instead that it is the other who feels the tenderness. Because tenderness is threatening to h/her rigid need to dominate and control, s/he may experience the otherís supposed tender feelings as having some ulterior motive. He may take some action to ward off or control the imagined danger perhaps by humiliating or abandoning or even destroying the other. In addition to externalization, there are general measures to relieve tension and to further defend against disruption of the neurotic solution and the sense of wholeness it provides, however fragile. These include compartmentalization, automatic control, streamlining, supremacy of the mind, blind spots, rationalization, arbitrary rightness, elusiveness, cynicism, and narcotization. Through her writings, Horney added and subtracted from this list. These defenses plus externalization plus alienation plus the neurotic solution are like bands of steel holding together the personís psyche, keeping it from exploding outward. That should be enough, but it isnít. Remarkably, it turns out that still more is needed. Yet another structural support is necessary to sustain the increasingly jury-rigged personality of the neurotic.

Horney wrote, ďWhile feelings, because unruly, are suspects to be controlled, the mindóimagination and reason expands like a genie from a bottle.Ē (Horney, 1950, p. 182) In h/her imagination, the neurotic can finally seem to put to rest inner conflict by imagining an idealized version of h/herself. Horney called this an idealized image. Depending on the orientation s/he has selected, s/he elevates the vision of that orientation to a status of utter grandiosity. S/he is not merely a kind person, but the kindest person, not merely a tough person who can negotiate any business deal, but the toughest son-of-a-bitch you can imagine, not merely a person who enjoys freedom, but one who is, like the song says, King of the Road. The person comes to believe in the idealized image, an unconscious structure of the mind. With the idealized image, the neurotic solution becomes a comprehensive solution. Actual statements along the lines of ďI am best there isĒ are poor reflections of the actual grandiosity and power that the idealized image possesses. The neurotic seeks a transformation into an idealized self, a transformation that is, as you might realize, the very antithesis of self-realization.

The quest to actualize the idealized self, like so much else, is unconscious. At any moment, the individual or observer may catch sight only of its shadow. One critical way how we recognize the neurotic process is in the irrational claims the neurotic makes on others and the world and himself. The assumption of entitlement, that one has a right to be loved, to receive a promotion, to be treated fairly, to be left alone, to be understood without needing to communicate (or even with communication!), serves to point up h/her deep conviction that s/he has achieved a certain specialness. Healthy wishes, desires, hopes, and aspirations are strikingly different from neurotic claims. In the latter, there is a clear quality of entitlement. One may feel disappointed when a wish doesnít come true. But when a claim is frustrated, the neurotic reacts as if his very being is threatened. Knowing how much he confuses who s/he is in actuality, with who s/he is in h/her idealized image(and how very dependent s/he is in experiencing himself as at one with that image), we can comprehend h/her profound sense of endangerment.

Closely related to these claims, these unfounded presumptions of how the world should behave, are equally unfounded presumptions of how the neurotic believes s/he should feel, think, behave, look, dream, and so forth. These constitute his inner dictates and comprise what Horney described as a tyranny of the should. Sometimes the should is experienced as entirely from within, sometimes as coming from outside oneself. Guilt, self-recrimination, compulsive behavior, critical attitudes toward others, fear of critical attitudes from others, inhibitedness, and loss of spontaneity in feeling and action emerge as consequences of severe inner dictates. When inner dictates arise from different trends, they may be in conflict and a virtual paralysis may ensue. Not infrequently, the neurotic acts in a way that makes matters worse. Compulsively and indiscriminately, s/he turns the other cheek, for example, gets slapped again, feels distress, but because turning the other cheek is all that is possible within the rigidly fixed neurotic solution, he/she repeats the process. Of course, each time this occurs, the idealized image, of one as a martyr enduring injustice for the sake of ultimate goodness, is endorsed and promoted. The vicious circle that results is often traceable in neurotic patterns of behavior.

To the extent that the neurotic imagines s/he has become h/her idealized self, there is a sense of pride. Horney uses pride in a special way. For her, this sense of pride is not a pride in true achievement or appreciation of real talent or abilities. Instead, it is a false pride rooted in the imagined fulfilment of invented inner dictates, a function of the neuroticís search for glory. Glory is the goal and is sought in vain. The quest is to become oneís idealized self, finally, for once and for all. Catching a glimpse of her/his actual self, perhaps when a claim is frustrated or when a should is not achieved, the neurotic may fill with self-hate. S/he hates h/herself for falling so far short of h/her idealized self, and s/he paints the picture of what s/he sees far worse than s/he deserves.

Not surprisingly, s/he acts in a manner consistent with one who hates. S/he directs hate against h/erself in the form of torment, destructive behavior, contempt, guiltiness, and severe criticism. S/he refuses help, denies h/herself pleasure, and may show depressive symptomatology. In hating h/herself for failing to fulfill inner dictates, s/he further endorses those dictates and the neurotic process. That is, the hate is necessary.

An instructor I admired enormously said to a patient who was berating himself, ďDo you really need to beat up on yourself this way?!Ē He was inviting the patient to relax the torment emanating from the self-hate. He was casting doubt on the necessity of such behavior and suggesting implicitly that the patient stop doing so. I have come to doubt the wisdom of that kind of statement because self-hate indirectly affirms the idealized image, which is in immediate need of shoring up. Probably a better comment is the simple statement, ďYou are in a lot of pain.Ē Self-hate and neurotic pride, far from being at odds, are therefore linked in what Horney called the pride system. The effort to actualize the idealized image leads increasingly to alienation from the real self. The critical conflict between the idealized self and the emergence of the real self is termed central inner conflict.

The patient comes into psychoanalytic treatment because of psychic distress or some difficulty functioning. In Horneyís terminology, the patient seeks help because h/her neurotic solution is not working. The symptom is an unacceptably painful manifestation of desperate measure the unconscious is forced to take. The analyst is supposed to fix the solution and make it work again. Sometimes, that is possible, and may even lead to what passes for an excellent outcome. The person is happier and more productive. But also we must keep in mind that the solution is only a pseudo-solution. The analyst needs to provide relief while at the same time disillusion the patient concerning h/her search for glory, pride system, tyranny of the shoulds, various defensive tactics, and the primary solution. This is done not by a direct assault, but by exploring the issues that naturally unfold in the course of the patientís discourse about daily events, past history, dreams, hopes and imagings. Therapeutic benefit occurs because the disillusionment weakens obstructive forces and enables the activation of constructive forces of the real self.


Feiring, C. (1983). Behavior styles in infancy and adulthood: the work of Karen Horney and attachment theorists collaterally considered, J. Amer. Acad. Child Psychiatry, 22, 1:1-7.

Horney, K. (1937). The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, W W Norton & Co., New York.

(1939). New Ways in Psychoanalysis, W W Norton & Co, New York.
(1945). Our Inner Conflicts, W W Norton & Co, New York.
(1950). Neurosis and Human Growth: the Struggle toward Self-Realization, W W Norton & Co, New York.
(1987). Final Lectures, ed. Ingram, D., W W Norton & Co., New York.

Ingram, D. (1992) Horney theory: an object relations theory, (with co-author: Lerner, J. A.) AMER J. PSYCHOAN. 52:37-44.

Discussion of "Horneyan Developmental Psychoanalytic Theory," by Dr. Henry Paul. AMER. J. PSYCHOAN, 44:97-102, 1984

Paris, B.J. (1991). Bargains with Fate: Psychological Crises and Conflicts in Shakespeare and His Plays, Insight Books.

(1994). Karen Horney: A Psychoanalystís Search for Self-Understanding. Yale U. Press, 1994.
(1999). Karen Horneyís Vision of the Self. Amer. J. Psychoanal. 59(2): 157-167.

Paul, H. A. (1984). Horneyan developmental psychoanalytic theory and its application to the treatment of the young. Amer Journ Psychoanal 44:59-73.

(1989). Karen Horney's Theory of Self in Self Psychology ed. by Detrick, D.W. and Detrick, S.P., The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, N.J.

Quinn, S., A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney, Summit Books, New York, 1987.

van den Daele, L. (1981), The self-psychologies of Heinz Kohut and Karen Horney: a comparative examination, Amer Journ Psychoanal 41:327-337.de:Karen Horney fr:Karen Horney he:קארן הורני ja:カレン・ホーナイ pl:Karen Horney sk:Karen HorneyovŠ


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