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The Ideas of Theorist Karen Horney Still Relevant Today


Karen Horney: Life

Henley (2018) explained Horney, nee Danielson was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1885. Rendon (2008) noted Horney passed away in 1952 after founding The American Institute for Psychoanalysis. According to, Sterling (2015), Horney embraced three childhood wishes that included to become an actress, a doctor, and a wife and mother. Her father was sea captain and a Lutheran pastor who held fundamentalist views that embraced the idea that women were inferior to men as well as being a source of evil. The researcher noted that Horney had ambivalent feelings towards her father. On the one hand, she found his negative statements about her physical appearance and intelligence, abhorrent. However, on the other hand, she appreciated his wanderlust and the exposure to travel he provided by taking her along on seafaring trips to far flung destinations. The researcher explained that Horney's father developed a reputation for having fits of anger and demonstrated it by throwing the Bible across the room at her mother. As a result, Horney began to experience both religion and authority as anathema. Early on, Horney aspired to become a physician but especially at age 12 when she was treated by one at her village. Horney's mother supported Karen's dream of being a physician bit her father opposed it wholeheartedly. Despite her father's discouragement, Horney started medical school at age 21 at Freiberg, Germany. A few years later, in 1909, she wed a lawyer, Oskar Horney and had three children. In 1913, she finished her medical training at the University of Berlin. She pursued psychoanalytic training the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute while also in private practice from 1918 until 1932. In 1932, she was invited by analyst, Franz Alexander to join him in the United States and become an associate director of the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis which had been just founded at that time. In 1934, she settled in New York to train analysts at The New York Psychoanalytic Institute and also established a private practice. This moved entailed leaving her husband in Germany, divorcing, and taking her two children with her. Although she trained as a Freudian analyst, she eventually left the institute and founded her own organization, The American Institute for Psychoanalysis to promote her theories which differed to that of Freud's. Rendon (2008) pointed it that Horney was instrumental in the emergence of radical movement against the psychoanalytic establishment of the time which came to be referred to a Neo-Freudian, or Culturalist.


Cohen (2001) noted that Honey was an early student of Freud and she was opposed to his theories about feminine development. Some believe she may have been the woman identified in his papers and labeled a dissident. Erkhardt (2005) noted that Horney questioned why Freud asserted that women felt inferior as a result of lacking a penis. Horney did not argue that penis envy did not exist but questioned whether it might be attributed to cultural and social factors instead. Smith (2007) explained that unlike Freud who viewed individuals as driven by the pleasure principle, Horney believed that the individual pursued a need for emotional safety. She viewed powerful internal and external forces at the core of driving human behavior. Horney theorized that each individual has a unique universal inner power which is the fountain of the growth process. She termed this power or force, the real self and believed that each individual requires a combination of love, conflict, and frustration in order to develop in a healthy way. Horney asserted that if individuals cannot love the child or acknowledge the child's uniqueness, the child will become alienated and as a result develop anxiety. In her work, Horney conceptualized the self as having three distinct aspects: real, ideal, and actual. Smith (2007) noted that Horney asserted the real self cannot develop without a positive environment to nurture it. The ideal self emerges in response to anxiety produced in a chaotic or problematic environment.

Horney pointed out that the child becomes alienated when the caregivers cannot produce positive responses that engender growth. Smith (2007) explained the individual seeks then to handle feelings of isolation through fantasies of an idealized self in which a positive identity is present as well as emotional safety. Horney also theorized that the ideal self contains a counterpart, the despised self which fails to live up to expectations. Much of the loathing of the ideal self is targeted towards the actual self for not encompassing all it should be. Horney referred to this phenomenon as the "tyranny of the shoulds" (p. 59.) According to Horney, the actual self represents a blend of strength and weakness as well as seeking for strategies.

Horney also developed schemas for what she termed neurotic trends. Horney believed the neurotic trends are universal and consist of strategies that help the individual cope with life. Smith (2007) noted the first strategy is known as moving toward people and focuses on helplessness and compliance. For example, as Smith (2007) explained the individual seeks to be liked and accepted and thirsts after emotional safety. Quite often, as the researcher pointed out the individual must engage in self-sacrifice to gain approval. The second strategy, moving against people promotes isolation. It is a negative response to handling conflict as it impedes growth. Smith (2007) pointed out that Horney's theory can be seen as compatible to attachment theory and self-psychology. The third strategy is moving away from people which speaks to the individuals need for independence but also tends to lead toward isolation. Morvey (1999) noted that Horney's theory centered around a belief that within the individual's being there exists an inner essence which represents the source of growth (the real self) which in turn is linked to self-realization. She believed man's quest and drive was towards self-realization and this movement was based upon evolutionary forces.

Horney's approach to psychoanalysis was existential and phenomenological in nature. Ingram (2012) explained that Horney's concept of basic anxiety could be described as unbearable to the extent that the child felt driven to act in order to relieve it and decrease the impending threat. Horney theorized that as the child made the interpersonal move she termed moving toward in which the child demonstrates dependency as the child considers this to be the most emotionally safe strategy. On the other hand, the child may engage in aggressive behavior, contempt, or controlling behavior. The child may also become detached in order to avoid conflict by moving away. Coolidge, Segal, Estegal, and Neuzil (2011) noted that Horney's argument with Freud derived from his ideas about, "the driving forces in neuroses were largely instinctual in nature and thus the driving forces were confined not just to neurotic people, but all people" (p. 384).

My understanding of Horney's theory continues to grow as I delve into the literature and I am particularly impressed with her focus on culture as being the aspect that contributes to the appropriate circumstances which in turn help cultivate the real self, as Horney termed it. Rendon (2008) noted that Horney theorized that we all come into the world with, "the quality of being real" (p. 160) and our potential coupled with the favorable circumstances help us to develop towards a real self. This assumes we are born with vulnerability and that favorable circumstances need to be provided by our culture. The researcher noted that Horney theorized that receiving acknowledgement and validation for essentially who we are is a critical component that is instrumental in shaping our character as well as allowing our self- image to be molded further.

Rendon (2008) Horney defined neurosis as having an aspect of fear and described it as assuming a sense of isolation and helplessness.

Further, she theorized that the process of self-realization was natural but that fear interfered with its flowering. I understand this to mean that divesting oneself of fear is an important step to take in embracing self-realization and allowing the real self to be cultivated and emerge. Horney (1958) explained that the concept of neuroses as a psychoanalytic construct was being viewed as the focal point of what she termed "psychic disorders" (p. 450). Horney further theorized that these were part of character disturbances and asserted that symptoms of psychological distress emerged as a consequence of character traits that stood in conflict. She theorized that basic conflicts contributed to problems with character. She affirmed that rivalry was a powerful source of conflict.

For individuals enduring high psychological distress, the conflict would appear to be blown out of proportion. The behavior that ensued would be demonstrated by comparing self with others, often with those they had nothing in common with or who potentially could not have been their competitor. I understood these ideas to mean that conflict appeared to trigger a feeling of lack of self- worth in which the individual lost touch with reality and exaggerated the actual experience. Horney (1958) referred to, "the content of neurotic ambition" (p. 162) as the drive to not only be a success but to surpass the success of others. Horney asserted that ambitions were present in fantasies buried deep in the unconscious and sometimes having the potential to come to the surface. The ambitions of the individual never come to assume a central role in their life but they impact the emotional lives of the individual. They begin to exhibit towards criticism and depression. When the ambitions are not realized, in their grandiosity, the individual experiences failure views the success of others as their personal failure as they become oppressed with a sense that they cannot measure up.

Horney analyzed feelings of inferiority deeply and asserted that these feelings constituted," the most common psychic disorder of our time and culture" (p. 452). She pointed out as the individual cultivates a sense of inferiority, their self-worth diminishes and hostility and anxiety increases. The more demands a culture places on the individual impacts the level of psychological distress an individual experience in life. Horney's exploration of the impact of culture and neurosis appears to still be relevant today. I once heard a therapist talk about how she developed an approach called Rapid Transformation Therapy which consisted of using hypnotherapy to help condition clients in emphasizing their self-worth. She shared case studies of successful people including the very wealthy who benefited from working on strengthening their sense of self-worth.

Endler (1965) noted Horney viewed what she termed neurosis as a disturbance of the psyche driven by fears and defense mechanisms as well as a need to attempt "to find compromise solutions for conflicting tendencies" (p. 189). Horney in like manner to Fromm and Sullivan, as Endler pointed out in terms of the development of behavior, did not accept biological drives were behind behavior.

Instead, Horney focused on the importance of interpersonal and cultural factors in the development of behavior. Horney focused on four therapeutic goals in her work with clients. For example, she asserted the therapist should work towards producing change in the attitudes of the client that would help in the realization in the expression of, "responsibility, inner independence, spontaneity of feeling and wholeheartedness" (Endler, 1965, p. 194).

In terms of the realization of responsibility, Endler (1965) noted the individual views him or herself as a change agent and assumes self-responsibility and responsibility for others. The goal of realizing spontaneity refers to self-awareness and the expression of vitality. Interpersonal relationships nurtured by spontaneity take on the character of love and friendship. Inner independence implies the individual has the capacity to determine individual values and exhibit respect towards others. Horney's ideas are similar to that of Carl Rogers and humanistic in nature. The striving after wholeheartedness refers to being authentic and genuine in one's life and work. This idea is similar to Carl Roger's idea about genuineness as an important expression in the therapist toward the client. Endler (1965) pointed out that the four goals seem to be the opposite of externalization.

For example, spontaneity of feeling appears to be the polar opposite of rigidity and wholeheartedness of being conflicted. The researcher noted that eventually, Horney conceptualized self-realization as another key therapeutic goal. In Horney's view, the individual finds self-realization through the growth process. Endler (1965) noted Horney's ideas stood in stark contrast to Freud's views which were characterized as being pessimistic in nature. Horney embraced an optimistic view in that she believed the human personality had the capacity towards change. Horney theorized that the reason for analyzing patients was not to gain insight but instead to change the patient's attitude. This implies that a change in attitude will result in a change in behavior.

Horney focused on two mistaken approaches to psychotherapy that stood out to her. First, trying to understand the patient's symptoms before focusing on the structure of the patient's character and attempting to discover a link between the patient's childhood experiences and their presenting problems. For Horney, focusing on the structure of the patient's character was most important.

However, she also gathered data about the patient's childhood experiences as she felt this information provided insight into the patient's current problems. In addition, Horney sought to understand the purpose of the patient's neurotic attitudes and the impact on the patient's behavior and interpersonal relationships. In her work with patients, Horney used interventions similar to that of Freud in order to bring unconscious material to the conscious level of awareness. For example, she made use of free association, and dream analysis and interpretation (Endler (1965). It appears Horney believed these approaches could help the patient tap into the unconscious so that she and the patient could explore the underlying meaning. This approach also reminds me of phenomenological psychotherapy in which the patient's experiences and their meaning are the focus of the treatment. Quinn (2010) noted the process of phenomenological work entails a focus in immediacy or here and now experiences between the patient and the therapist. As such, the therapist engages in the experience of being with the patient as well as being for him or her. A phenomenological therapist is not guided by creating a shift in the patient but simply being with the individual in a manner in which they embrace total acceptance of the patient and are able to help the patient understand themselves. I believe for Horney, facilitating the understanding of self was key in her work as I hope it will also be in mine.

Current Status

Karen Horney passed away in 1962 at the age of 67. However, her legacy continues to influence the field of psychology. In New York, The Karen Horney Clinic in Manhattan continues to train emerging psychoanalysts. Before her death, Karen Horney traveled to Japan to immerse herself in Buddhism and meditation. Although during her life she eschewed religion, Buddhism appeared to bring her a sense of peace (Ekhardt, 2005).


Karen Horney's theory aligns well as I essentially use a person-centered approach in my work with marginalized populations such as women with histories of incarceration as well as children who have endured trauma with parents who have been entangled with children services as a result of child neglect. I have found in my work with these clients adhering to Horney's therapeutic goals particularly that of self-realization that can help my clients embrace change and the growth process as they move forward in their therapy.One of the populations that I have worked with have been victimized by trauma and also have endured continue to endure the social problems associated with living in poverty. As such, they often experience a sense of hopelessness and lack of direction.

Horney's approach has been considered optimistic in nature in that it empowers individuals to be autonomous once their inner conflicts and their impact have been explored. Horney believed that life experiences were also therapeutic and that clients have the capacity to change their behavior once they understand their inner turmoil and how it has impacted them.

Engaging in life and finding fulfillment in healthy experiences, Horney considered a form of therapy. Horney explained that individuals can thrive once their fears and anxieties have been alleviated. Applying these ideas to my practice would help engender trust as I work with my clients as encouraging autonomy and self-realization would allow my clients to access the wisdom within. I also believe a person-centered approach encourages the client to become an expert in their lives and destiny. I also think that Horney valued gathering data about her patient's childhoods to see if there was a connection with their presenting problems. This strategy is important in my working with parents and children as often the therapist can discover inter-generational maladaptive patterns that interfere with healthy parenting. I expect I can apply this exploration to help my client's develop insight into how to reduce maladaptive schemas with my guidance and expertise that I hope to further develop in the future.

The sense of encouraging my patients to develop independence is also critical for me as it promotes growth. Like Carl Rogers, Horney viewed the individual as being in a constant state of growing and evolving. Most important of all, Horney did not pathologize her patients but viewed them in a holistic way. Rather than focusing on symptoms, she centered her attention on the whole person, or the structure of their character probably exploring within to find the patient's strengths which would be instrumental in their healing.


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Coolidge, F. L., Segal, D. L., Estey, A. J., & Neuzil, P. J. (2011). Preliminary psychometric properties of a measure of Karen Horney's Tridimensional theory in children and adolescents. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 67(4), 383-390.

Eckardt, Marianne H. (2005). Karen Horney: A Portrait. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 65(2), 95-101. doi:

Endler, N. S. (1965). A behaviouristic interpretation of the psychotherapy system of Karen Horney. Canadian Psychologist/Psychologie Canadienne, 6a(2), 188-200. doi:10.1037/h0083071

Horney, K. (1958). Culture and Neurosis. In C. L. Stacey, M. DeMartino, C. L. Stacey, M. DeMartino (Eds.) , Understanding human motivation(pp. 449-457). Cleveland, OH, US: Howard Allen Publishers. doi:10.1037/11305-044

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Morvay, Z. (1999). Horney, zen, and the real self: Theoretical and historical connections. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 59(1), 25-35. Retrieved from

Rendon, M. (2008). The vicissitudes of affect in Horney's theory. International Forum Of Psychoanalysis, 17(3), 158-168.

Smith, W. B. (2007). Karen horney and psychotherapy in the 21st century. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(1), 57-66. doi:

Sterling, Marianne, H. E. (2005). Karen horney: A portrait. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 65(2), 95-101. doi:

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