Karen Horney - Psychotherapy - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Karen Horney
The Canon


BORN 1885, Schleswig-Holstein, Prussia, German Empire


DIED 1952, New York City, New York


Educated at the University of Freiburg, the University of Gottingen, and the University of Berlin



Another member of the Commonly-Mispronounced-Last-Name Club, along with Carl Jung, is Karen Horney (that’s Hor-nigh), who bridged the seemingly unbridgeable gap between Freudian theories and feminist psychology. Prior to her big breakthrough, she focused on neurosis, an area where her influence remains.

At its most basic, the term neurosis refers to emotional distress, often in the form of depression or agitation. In modern-day thinking, it has become more closely aligned with anxiety. Horney viewed neurosis as a human condition, distinct from a person’s one-time reaction to a single stressful or traumatic encounter; instead, she felt that neurosis follows us everywhere and represents our attempts to get by in day-to-day life. According to Horney, some of us manage to do this quite functionally, but others develop fundamentally maladaptive traits as we attempt to cope with the pressure of living.

Horney put forth the idea of basic anxiety, which refers to a child’s perception of being helpless and alone in a scary and dangerous world. When a child’s relationship with his or her parents is problematic, this anxiety spikes. Horney theorized that parental inconsistency, lack of warmth, or failure to consider a child’s emotional experience threaten the parent-child bond, and that the child then tries to minimize the resulting anxiety by developing defense mechanisms. Eventually, this pattern can make its way into the child’s personality and lead to the development of more permanent traits.

This theory led to Horney’s hypothesis of 10 neurotic needs, which she saw as so overwhelming and all-encompassing as to define a person. She classified the neurotic needs into three categories: those that compel us to comply (the need for affection, the need for a partner, and the need for simplifying life), those that lead us to withdraw (the need for independence and the need for perfection), and those that make us aggressive and turn us against other people (the need for power, the need to exploit, the need for prestige, and the need for personal achievement). These needs become neurotic only when they exist at dysfunctional levels or come into play too indiscriminately and too extremely in daily life. Most of us, Horney believed, can navigate these needs in healthy ways and reduce our interpersonal conflicts. And the more secure, tolerant, loving, and respectful our family life has been, the greater our chances of doing so. On the other hand, for a person who has developed neurotic needs, dysfunctional behavior can beget still more dysfunctional behavior and lead to the creation of vicious circles (or cycles). Moreover, Horney felt that healthy people see themselves as they are, while a neurotic person’s identity is split into a despised self and an ideal self. It’s the gap between these two concepts of self that continues to perpetuate anxiety and neurosis.

Horney accepted several aspects of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, including the importance of the unconscious. But she disagreed with how much focus should be placed on biology and on sexual drives. She was more interested in the social roles and relationships that might underlie some of Freud’s observations. For instance, she reworked Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex, removing its emphasis on sexuality and making it about a struggle for attention. Similarly, she discarded Freud’s theory of penis envy, saying that any such feelings are less about the male organ itself than about the relative power and cultural acceptability of males as compared to females.

Horney was one of the first female psychiatrists, and her 1946 book Are You Considering Psychoanalysis? is considered by some to have been the first self-help book, and the first to have brought psychological interventions to those who were not in therapy.


Horney’s reworking of psychoanalytic theories to focus more on the relationship between parent and child was crucial for later explorations into attachment. This work led to giant leaps in the study of parent-child bonds, such as the explorations of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (the latter became known for classifying types of parent-child attachments in the “strange situation” task; see here). Horney is often considered a neo-Freudian, a member of a school of thought that revised and adapted classic psychoanalytical constructs.



Let’s examine Horney’s concept of neurotic needs further, through the need for social recognition or prestige. Everyone needs some validation and acknowledgment; it’s a fundamental part of being human. But why and how does it become a neurotic need in certain people?

Let’s say that as a child you really blended into the crowd—or, worse, that you stood out for the traits you didn’t possess more than for those that you did possess. You didn’t feel particularly good about who you were; you never seemed to have any qualities that people noticed in a positive way. Maybe you were an overweight kid in a classroom full of fit ones; maybe you were a struggling student in a home full of straight-A achievers. Or maybe your friends’ parents knew interesting people, threw parties, and took trips, whereas you felt that you were missing out on a fuller life as your own parents chowed down on chips in front of the TV.

Perhaps you found ways to deal with your discomfort. Some kids immerse themselves in art, music, or sports, or they’re saved by a couple of particularly good friendships. Or maybe you had an exceptionally solid and loving relationship with your parents, no matter how far outside the elite social scene they were. Perhaps you had a teacher who was particularly nurturing and helped you find your unique path in the world. If you had any of these things, you may have ultimately grown to feel recognized and valued for the person you are, not for who you are not.

But what if you didn’t have any of these things? You grew more and more frustrated, and more and more defined by your perceived lack of social prestige. This preoccupation with what you lacked began to take over your personality, and you became obsessed with plotting ways to be popular in middle school. You worked two jobs in high school so as to have more money, and then you spent every dime on the latest fashions. You hung around only with people who were part of the in-crowd, pointedly ditching your next-door neighbor who had known you since you were four. You even started acting out in ways that were just edgy enough to get you noticed and win you a seat at the cool kids’ table. When you eventually got a job and were living your own life, you became a bona fide social climber, name-dropping left and right and trying to wrangle your way into the hottest clubs and the most exclusive parties. You couldn’t stand not being in the know about a new product or trend, and your relationships remained rather superficial and shallow. Your social media accounts read like your unconscious: “Look at me! I am special and popular and exclusive!”

At this point, we’re clearly looking at a neurotic need. It defines you and preoccupies you, getting in the way of your living your healthiest possible life on a day-to-day basis. It also represents what has probably become a hair-raising level of constant anxiety. Yes, most of us will get a jolt of pleasure from having a conversation with someone famous, or from getting to try a majorly hyped product before anyone else does. But only those with the neurotic need for social prestige will let the search for those jolts take over their lives.