12 julio, 2024

Karen Horney: biography, theory, contributions, works

Karen Horny (1885 – 1952) was a German psychoanalyst famous for being one of the founders of feminist psychology, and for being one of the first women to participate in the study of human behavior. Despite being a follower of Freud, in some respects her ideas were quite different from his.

Karen Horney was born in Germany and lived there for much of her life, but in her later professional years she worked in the United States. She during most of her career had to face the existing prejudices at that time against women who studied higher careers, but even so she achieved quite high recognition.

Karen Horney’s ideas were based on the Freudian vision of the human being, but some of them questioned the classical theories of this thinker. This was especially true in the realm of sexuality, as she believed that the differences between men and women were purely cultural and social rather than biological as Freud thought. Therefore, her ideas are considered neo-Freudian.

In addition to this, Karen Horney was famous in her time due to her theories on neurosis, which even today are considered among the best in history. This psychoanalyst believed that neurosis is a continuous process that appears at certain moments in life, and that it is conditioned above all by childhood and the relationship with the person’s parents.



Childhood and early years

Karen Horney was born in Blankenese, Hamburg, on September 16, 1885. Her father, Berndt Wackels Danielsen, was a Norwegian citizen with a German residence permit. His profession as a merchant shipping captain, and his strong beliefs as a traditionalist Protestant, made him an ambivalent figure in Karen’s life.

On the other hand, her mother Clotilde was of Dutch origin, and despite being more open-minded than her father, she also had emotional problems. According to Karen herself, her mother was depressed, irritable, and tended to try to dominate both her and her brother.

According to Karen Horney’s own diaries, her father was a cruel figure during her childhood, and she felt closer to her mother despite also perceiving her failures.

As an act of rebellion, from a very early age she decided to focus her efforts on becoming a brilliant and successful woman in the intellectual field, something very different from what her father wanted for her.

When Karen was 19 years old, her mother abandoned her father and took her children with her. The effects of Horney’s poor relationship with her family were felt throughout her life, according to her own testimony, and led her to suffer several episodes of depression and emotional imbalances over the years.

Studies and professional practice

Karen Horney studied medicine at various German universities, including Freiburg, Göttingen and Berlin. She got her degree in this subject in 1911, and after two years practicing as a doctor she became interested in the field of psychology, especially psychoanalytic theories.

Between 1913 and 1915 Horney began to train in psychoanalysis with Karl Abraham, a disciple of Sigmund Freud who also began to analyze her. After finishing his training, she was working from 1915 to 1920 in different clinical contexts, acting at all times in collaboration with different German hospitals. In 1920 she became a professor at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute.

Karen Horney largely followed Freud’s theories in her psychoanalytic practice. However, practically from the beginning she began to disagree with her towards this author’s treatment of female psychology. Freud paid little attention to the differences between the sexes, something that Horney did not think was appropriate.

Despite the fact that in the context of psychoanalysis it was highly frowned upon to disagree with Freud’s ideas, Horney rejected some of them outright, such as penis envy. He instead proposed the theory that the differences between men and women were primarily social, and not biological as many others believed.

Transfer to the United States

In 1932 Karen Horney was invited to work as Associate Director of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute, and she moved to the United States to take up this position. However, just two years later she decided to return to practicing psychotherapy independently, and she moved to New York.

In this city, in addition to continuing to see her own patients, she also began working as a professor at the New School for Social Research. There she created most of her theoretical works, The neurotic personality of our time (1937) and New paths in psychoanalysis (1939).

In these works, she supported her ideas about the importance of the environment and social conditions, which for her would have much more weight in our behavior than instincts and biology, as Freud claimed. For Horney, personality is determined by our childhood environment, which would also produce most neuroses and psychological disorders.

During this time Karen Horney opposed many of the major theories of classical psychoanalysis, including those of the libido, the death instinct, and the Oedipus complex. This led to her expulsion from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1941, and led her to create the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.

In his later years Horney founded the magazine American Journal of Psychoanalysisand worked as his editor until his death in 1952. In addition to this he continued to publish works exploring his ideas on neurosis and its origin in relational problems, such as Our internal conflicts (1945) and Neurosis and human growth (1950).

Karen Horney’s theory


Possibly Karen Horney’s most important contribution to the field of psychoanalysis was her theory on neurosis and how this mechanism works. This author dedicated many years to studying the phenomenon based on what she observed in her patients. Her conclusion was that the neurosis occurred continuously, and that it was a normal process in many individuals.

This went against the established ideas about neurosis, which argued that it was a form of severe mental illness and that it appeared as a consequence of an extreme situation such as divorce or trauma during childhood.

For Karen Horney, neurosis appears above all as a consequence of the person’s feeling of abandonment during their childhood. The key to understanding this phenomenon is to study the individual’s own perception, rather than what occurred objectively. If a child feels that his parents show him indifference or do not take care of him properly, neurosis is likely to appear during his adult life.

Ten neurotic patterns

Based on his experiences exercising psychotherapy, Horney described ten patterns of neurotic behavior, which would have to do with elements that humans need to lead a good and meaningful life.

A neurotic person might show all ten, but in practice it is not necessary for all of them to show up to be considered a case of neurosis.

The ten neurotic patterns described by Horney were the following: need for approval, to find a partner, for social recognition, for admiration, for power, for manipulating others, for achievement, for self-sufficiency, for perfection, and for restriction of one’s life.

Other contributions

In addition to her view on neurosis, Karen Horney also developed theories on other elements of human psychology that were very innovative for her time. Next we will see some of the most important ones.


Unlike most of his contemporary thinkers, Horney believed that narcissism is not a primary instinct of all people but occurs only in cases where a specific environment is mixed with a certain temperament. Therefore, narcissistic tendencies would not be inherent to the human being.

female psychology

Karen Horney also went down in history for being one of the first people to investigate the peculiarities of female psychology. Fourteen of her publications made between 1922 and 1937 were collected in a book simply called female psychology.

Being one of the first women to practice psychiatry, she believed that the treatment given to female psychology up to now was insufficient. For her, culture encouraged women to become dependent on men, and therefore most of the differences between the sexes could be explained from this phenomenon.

On the other hand, for this author, all human beings have an innate need to create and contribute to the world; and the fact that men can’t do it while giving birth leads them to try to overcompensate and become more successful professionally. This gave rise to the concept of «uterus envy», which is in contrast to the Freudian theory of penis envy.


The neurotic personality of our time (1937).

New paths in psychoanalysis (1939).

Our internal conflicts (1945).

Neurosis and human growth (1950).

female psychology (1967, posthumous).


«Karen Horney»in: Britannica. Retrieved on: April 13, 2020 from Britannica: britannica.com.
“Contributions of Karen Horney to psychology” in: VeryWell Mind. Retrieved on: April 13, 2020 from VeryWell Mind: verywellmind.com.
«Karen Horney Biography»in: Good Therapy. Retrieved on: April 13, 2020 from Good Therapy: goodtherapy.org.
«Karen Horney»in: Famous Psychologists. Retrieved on: April 13, 2020 from Famous Psychologists: famouspsychologists.org.
«Karen Horney» at: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: April 13, 2020 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.

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