Karen Horney: Theory and Contributions to Psychology

Key Takeaways

  • Karen Horney (1885 – 1952) was a German psychoanalyst who radically countered the views of the Freudian school. Her views on neurosis, feminist psychology, and the self continue to influence the fields of cultural psychology, interpersonal psychotherapy, and humanistic psychology.
  • Karen Horney was one of the first women trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst.
  • Karen Horney pointed out that the male-centricity of Freudian psychoanalysis derived from the fact that it was largely developed by men. She overturned and reversed the idea of penis envy, stating that it could be overcome by women through their identification with their mothers and, indeed, that men could have “womb envy” as a result of women’s capacity to bear life.
  • Horney believed that environment and social upbringing, rather than intrinsic factors, largely lead to neurosis. She believed that people need warm, supportive environments and strong interpersonal relationships to realize their “real self.”
  • In the absence of these factors, people turn to patterns that undermine their self-affect and relationships with others. These people have basic anxiety.
  • Basic anxiety leads to three main reactions: Moving toward people, when one clings to others and seeks to be loved; moving away from people, when one does not want to become involved with others; and, finally, moving against people, when one sees the world as hostile and acts accordingly toward others.

Early Life

Karen Horney was born in Germany in 1885 and was granted a medical degree from the University of Berlin in 1911.

After practicing medicine for a few years, Horney became fascinated by the emerging field of psychoanalysis and studied under the guidance of Karl Abraham, a personal associate and supporter of Sigmund Freud and his theories.

After researching psychoanalytic theory with Abraham, Horney conducted psychiatric work within Berlin hospitals before moving to the United States to become the assistant director of the Institute for Psychoanalysis (Vena, 2015).

Horney then relocated to New York City to build a private psychoanalytic practice as well as to teach for the New School for Social Research. There, she composed two major works: The Neurotic Personality of Our Time and New Ways in Psychoanalysis.

Critique of Freud

Horney took on views regarding the psychoanalytic theory that proved controversial for their non-adherence to the classical Freudian school of thought. As a result, she was barred from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1941.

Although she was invested in the tradition of psychoanalysis, Horney believed that many aspects of personality and neuroses were determined by environmental and social contexts rather than a person’s inborn, biological drives.

Horney also diverged drastically from Freud’s theories on female psychology, challenging the idea that female mental issues are a product of the male-dominated world (Vena, 2015).

In its initial stages, the field of psychoanalysis was a largely male-dominated school that focused on the human psyche and the underlying emotional disturbances that influenced it.

Karen Horney transformed and expanded the field of psychoanalysis by challenging many prevailing masculine ideologies and is widely considered to be a pioneer in the field of psychoanalysis.

Horney’s beliefs on neurotic behavior challenged the notion that neurotic tendencies were a result of one’s environment and not an intrinsic manifestation of who someone was.

Horney created concepts of female psychology that those who study deviance can use to understand why crime is committed by women — a relatively rare occurrence.

Contributions to Psychology

Horney’s work influenced several branches of psychology. Maslow, for instance, credited her with founding humanistic psychology, influencing him in his creation of the Hierarchy of Needs (Vanacore, 2020).

Horney’s term “basic anxiety” influenced Erik Erikson’s idea of  “basic mistrust,” which became his first stage of psychosocial development.

Horney’s theories on neurosis also helped to inspire the interpersonal school of psychology and the diagnosis of neurotic disorders in psychiatry.

In turn, Horney influenced not only psychoanalytic theory but also cultural psychology, interpersonal psychotherapy, and humanistic psychology (Vanacore, 2020).

Feminine Psychology

One of Horney’s main contributions was her work on feminine psychology, which challenged traditional Freudian psychology’s view of women.

In The Flight from Womanhood, for example, Horney (1932) noted that the phallocentric bias of psychoanalysis stemmed from the fact that its originators — such as Sigmund Freud — were almost entirely male.

Horney proposed that contrary to traditional Freudian theories, girls were aware of their genitalia before puberty and that while girls may experience “penis envy” at a young age, this longing can also apply to boys who want breasts or to be a mother (Horney, 1933; Vanacore, 2020).

Penis envy, according to Horney, comes from disappointment with the girls” father, leading to a “flight from womanhood” — the desire not to be female.

However, for Horney, this was not inevitable, as a girl could overcome penis envy by identifying with her mother.

Horney traced what she called the “distrust between the sexes” through history and culture. She compared the husband-wife relationship to a parent’s relationship with a child, one that breeds mistrust and dislike.

Likewise, she noted that society as a whole simultaneously fears and resents women in a way that forces them into a position that makes them dependent on men.

Horney concluded that the resentment between men and women laid not in penis envy but in men’s envy of women’s ability to produce life: womb envy (Horney, 1967).

This highlights Horney’s most noticeable deviation from psychoanalysis: Freud believed that women were incomplete because they lacked a penis.

Horney saw women as whole beings, deserving to be seen and discussed on their own terms.

Horney’s opposing views on women caused controversy within the world of psychoanalysis (Vanacore, 2020).

As a result, Horney clashed with prominent psychologists at the time, concerned with her deviation from Freud. Freud himself once called her “Able and malicious,” saying that female psychoanalysts, in general, were more likely to devalue penis envy in their patients because they could not detect it in themselves (Vanacore, 2020).

Theories of neurotic needs

Horney, also in contrast to Freud, believed that culture, rather than instinctual drives, largely led to behavior and psychological characteristics, especially in neurosis.

Horney recognized the role of culture in understanding neurosis; cultures, in defining what is normal, shape and define what neurosis is against its own norms.

Horney created a new structure for neurosis. She believed that neurosis stemmed from basic anxiety, which in turn stems from family conditions that make a child feel unwanted.

This basic anxiety causes people to feel helpless or lost in the world, and they try to fulfill their need for love and acceptance through four “neurotic trends”: affection, submissiveness, power, or withdrawal (Horney, 1937; Vanacore, 2020).

In Self-Analysis (1942), Horney listed ten neurotic needs, including:

  1. The need for affection;
  2. The need for a partner who will take over one’s life;
  3. The need for recognition;
  4. The need for personal admiration;
  5. The need for personal achievement;
  6. The need for independence;
  7. and, the need for perfection.

In particular, Horney believed that the need for affection and the need for power were the two driving forces behind neurosis (Vanacore, 2020).

In her later book, Our Inner Conflicts (1946), Horney condensed her ten neurotic needs into three trends that describe how people, in reacting to basic. anxiety, interacting with others.

These were:

  • Moving toward people: when one clings to others and seeks to be loved;
  • Moving away from people: when one does not want to become involved with others;
  • Moving against people: when one sees the world as hostile and acts accordingly toward others.

Horney further developed her work on neurosis in Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization (1950), where she proposed the idea of the “real self:”a self that has developed in a healthy way toward self-realization.

According to Horney, the real or possible self is made of “intrinsic potentialities that can either flourish or wither depending on the person and the circumstances.

According to Horney, people need a warm atmosphere, the freedom to feel and express feelings, and healthy relationships in order to obtain their real selves (Vanacore, 2020).

According to Horney, neurosis arises from one of these three neurotic trends. Rather than self-realization, neurotic people go on a so-called “search for glory” that will allow them to fulfill an “idealized self.” Although self-realization, in Horney’s view, is difficult to achieve, one can do it under the right circumstances.

Meanwhile, the idealized self is an impossible self that will never come to fruition. As a result, neurotic people enter a cycle of self-loathing: the “despised self.”

Meanwhile, the “actual self” exists at any moment, made up of one’s strengths, weaknesses, failures, and achievements.

Horney believed that there are five ways that neurotic personalities deal with the idealized self.

People who move toward others develop compliant personalities whose idealized self is a person who is loved and valued. They try to become what others need and, as a result, self-effacing, subordinate, or weak.

Oftentimes, they suppress aggressive tendencies because they believe these tendencies would cause others to not love or value them.

Meanwhile, those who move away from people become detached personalities who desire freedom and independence from others.

They want to be alone and free from others” desires; however, as Horney points out, freedom from constraints does not mean freedom to grow and be the real self (Vanacore, 2020).

People who move against people are aggressive personalities who are either narcissistic, perfectionistic, or arrogant-vindictive. In contrast to Freud, Horney saw narcissism as a product of one’s environment rather than as an inherent trait.

A child who grows up pampered and admired may grow up to be a narcissist. Narcissistic people are both convinced of their own greatness and insecure, meaning that they may boast of talents without accomplishments or, conversely, experience a breakdown of reality if they fail too often.

Perfectionistic people, according to Horney, have unrealistically high standards for themselves and others. Horney attributed these to authoritarian parents who made them feel worthless as children.

Perfectionists view themselves as superior to others in a strive for perfection that they will never achieve. Because perfectionists believe that they are fair and just — and that the world should treat them accordingly — failure to obtain a goal translates to a failure to achieve perfection (Vanacore, 2020).

As a result, perfectionism often breeds self-hatred.

Arrogant-vindictive people, meanwhile, are those who scorn affection, rather seeking to retaliate against those who have or may have hurt them.

This can result in arrogant-vindictive people being possessive over other people and things as a result of both envying and hating the happiness of others (Vanacore, 2020).


Horney, K. (1932). The flight from womanhood. The Psychoanalytic Review (1913-1957), 19, 80.

Horney, K. (1933). Maternal conflicts. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 3 (4), 455.

Horney, K. (1937). The neurotic personality of our time. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Horney, K. (1942). Self‐analysis. Abingdon: Routledge.

Horney, K. (1946). Our inner conflicts: A constructive theory of neurosis. Abingdon: Routledge.

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and human growth: The struggle toward self‐realization. New York: WW. Norton & Company.

Horney, K. (1967). The distrust between the sexes. Feminine Psychology. W. W. Norton, 107–118.

Paris, B. J. (1996). Karen Horney: A psychoanalyst’s search for self-understanding. Yale University Press.

Rubins, J. L. (1978). Karen Horney: Gentle rebel of psychoanalysis. Dial Press.

Vanacore, S. M. (2020). Karen Horney. The Wiley Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences: Models and Theories, 67-71.

Vena, J. (2015). Karen Horney. Deviance: Theories on Behaviors That Defy Social Norms: Theories on Behaviors That Defy Social Norms, 48.

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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.

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