Horney, Karen

views updated May 21 2018

Horney, Karen



The work of Karen Homey (1885–1952) influ enced the course of development of psychoanalysis decisively. Although her revisions of psychoanalytic principles resemble those of Alfred Adler—which has led some to label her as no more than an updated Adlerian—she went well beyond his innovations to formulate a theory of psychopathology that was at once more comprehensive in its scope and more penetrating in its insights. Her ideas, grounded in clinical experience, are almost totally devoid of the dramatic speculation that frequently marked the writings of the man she always acknowledged to be her indispensable forerunner, Sigmund Freud.

Karl Abraham, Freud’s student and close adherent, supervised Horney’s psychoanalytic training in Berlin. After completing her training in 1915, she spent five years in clinical and outpatient work in Berlin hospitals and 12 years as instructor at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, supplementing her work with private practice. In 1932 Franz Alexander invited her to become associate director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanal ysis; two years later she moved to New York to pursue her own practice. Her dissatisfaction with orthodox psychoanalytic theory is stated most explicitly in New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939). This was such a thoroughgoing critique of the rigidities of Freudian doctrine that it placed her in the forefront of that wing of psychoanalysis which has since become known as the Neo-Freudian movement.

Critique of orthodox Freudianism. Horney took exception to several components of Freud’s system. The feature she found most objectionable was the libido theory. She could not accept the notion that an allegedly somatic, yet imperceptible, source of erotic instinctual energy called libido could account not only for individual personality traits and individual behavior but also for the character development of a lifetime. She thought that this theory made most human relationships exclusively sexual relationships; that it explained adult behavior as a mere repetition of the experiences of infancy, to the virtual neglect of the influence of later experiences; that it made fixed and ineradicable instincts the controlling forces of human destiny. Horney deplored the psychic determinism Freud’s libido theory inflicted on psychology, as well as the excessive orientation of that psychology toward biology and anatomy. Thus, Freudian, or orthodox, psychoanalysis gave the Oedipus complex a strictly sexual interpretation—that is, the child’s relationships with his parents, later transferred to others, are to be understood as symbolic of sexual desires and frustrations —while Horney’s clinical experience led her to claim that this did not correspond to the facts of psychopathology. Again, Horney disagreed with the orthodox view that deprived the ego of its directive and discretionary role, reducing it to a sentinel eternally on guard against instinctual excesses and dependent on the id (representing instincts) or the superego (representing conscience) or objective reality for its activation and purpose. Finally, orthodox psychoanalysis considered man to be doomed by the “death instinct” to destructive im pulses which must be turned against others if he is to avoid self-destruction; Horney countered that the prevalence of destructiveness or hostility did not prove its instinctual nature and that hostility might be an appropriate reaction to a provoking social environment. These and other of Horney’s objections amounted to a revision of accepted psychoanalytic principles and led, in 1941, to her disqualification as training analyst by the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and an abrupt severance from the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Independence, however, brought the opportunity to found the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, whose very name indicates her insistence on pushing forward the frontiers of the still young science.

Anxiety. Crucial to Horney’s thought is the concept of anxiety. Conditions of life in infancy may generate a basic anxiety in which the child feels himself helpless and isolated in the face of a world conceived of as hostile and as jeopardizing his safety and security. The sources of all anxiety are to be found in interpersonal relations, chiefly those encountered in early family life, but at all events those resulting from the culture in which one lives. The unconsciously developed neurotic trends in personality—trends which enable the individual to cope with a demoralizing array of conflicting values presented to him by the patterns of his culture—assume a compulsory character, deflecting him from bringing his real self to maturity and substituting the vain pursuit of fantastic and unrealizable images of himself.

Contemporary Western society’s contradictory demands of success (obtaining power) versus love (obtaining affection), of the arousal of desires versus their frustration, and of individual freedom versus the limitations imposed on freedom by reality, produce, as Homey described vividly in all her writings, an almost incredible variety of neurotic behavior patterns. The value given to individualistic achievement makes competition pervasive and leaves a heritage of isolation, fear, insecurity, hostility, and anxiety, which continually undermines self-esteem. The experience of the inade quacy and falsity of love is especially likely to turn healthy affection into neurotic defensive patterns. Clearly, the etiology of neuroses must be referred not to instincts and their vicissitudes, but to interpersonal relations and cultural exigencies. Psychoanalysis must become more a social than a medical science, Homey implied, and so make itself available as a basis for social and economic reform. The writings of her closest colleagues, Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm, point in the same direction; the three comprised the nucleus of the Neo-Freudian school of psychoanalysis, with Sullivan developing the concept of anxiety and its roots in interpersonal relations and Fromm exploring the deficiencies and incongruities in modern capitalist society that make it what he considers an insane society.

Alienation. The concept of anxiety enabled Homey to connect psychopathology with culture, thereby giving her work the dimension of a social philosophy. The concept of alienation, prominent in her later writings, coupled with that of conflict, strengthened the connection of psychopathology with the inner dimension, the psyche, which some critics hold to be the true, if not the exclusive, concern of psychoanalytic psychology. Alienation refers to a condition in which the individual is divorced from his real self, a condition in which not only his standards and values but also his capacities for judgment, initiative, and self-direction, his very feelings and thoughts, are imputed to a false image of himself which he manufactures unconsciously to allay his basic anxiety. His psychic energies are diverted to the realization of this phantom ideal of himself, which is happily free of conflicting neurotic trends, while his real self comes to be regarded as an indwelling stranger who is to be hated and repressed. An internal numbness to genuine feelings, compounded into a loss of identity, supplants the vital dynamism of psychic development. Concealed from awareness are conflicts among neurotic trends, such as compliance, aggressiveness, and detachment, or the central inner conflict between the idealized image and the real self, whose healthy trend is to strive for its unfettered growth. As Horney’s conception of neurosis matured, she saw neurosis not simply as a conflict among neurotic trends but as a process, culminating in alienation, in which these neurotic trends are pitted against healthy ones.

With her unusual insight into psychic malfunctioning, Homey saw that a neurosis, far from being a temporary maladjustment, has a dynamism of its own: it dominates the whole personality and becomes a way of life. The conditions of life in contemporary Western society, as often as not, compel the individual to relinquish his true identity if he is to survive and have any identity at all, to maintain an inferior type of psychic activity rather than undergo a total breakdown. Neurosis, in other words, has become virtually equivalent to “nor mality,” by virtue of social conditions largely beyond individual control. But if mental illness has become a way of life, mental health may be attained not so much by sponsoring a crusade for social reform as by a reintegration of personality that enables each person to rely on his own inner capacities for psychic development. For therapeutic purposes, having satisfactory interpersonal relations in general takes second place to resolving intrapsychic conflicts by intensive self-analysis. Ultimately, psychoanalysis had for Homey more of a clinical than a political application, so that, surprisingly enough, this most outspoken of rebels against the conservatism of orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis in the end accepted its more conventional uses in psychotherapy.

Psychic growth. Implicit in the foregoing is the idea of psychic growth, the postulate that under favorable circumstances—notably interpersonal relations featuring warmth and cordiality—the real self emerges, stabilizes, and develops; that is, the latent potentialities for constructive change in the personality are able to bring about a condition of inner freedom, unity, happiness, and self-direction that for want of a better term may be called normality. In a world where normality is an ambiguous standard, Homey believed that this tendency toward psychic growth provides the most nearly absolute criterion for human values. It is a morality of evolution, as she called it, an evolution of human personality whose terminus ad quern, however, can neither be prescribed uniformly for all people nor specified for any single individual. If, as critics charged, psychic growth provides a nebulous standard for ethics and if, as was also charged, it gives psychoanalysis an unwarranted— meaning unwonted—optimistic bias, Homey could retort to the first charge that a preconceived notion of what is good or bad presumes a universality of cultural norms that is contrary to fact, and to the second that clinical experience confirmed repeatedly the existence of a drive toward mental health making possible the liberation of developmental forces in the personality. Without it, psychoanalytic therapy itself could not proceed.

Psychotherapy. Homey was led by both theory and practice to revise the principles of psychoanalytic therapy. A return to mental health in volves more than bringing unconscious conflicts to the level of consciousness and more than the removal of overt symptoms, as Freud had thought. Since every neurosis is a disorder of personality, she held, therapy requires the reorganization of personality and the analysis of the entire structure of the neurosis and the current conditions necessitating it. While this idea also stems from the earlier work of Franz Alexander, Homey made it the linchpin of her innovations in therapy. Psychotherapy that proceeded by seeking a direct causal connection between infantile experiences and the present neurosis, on the assumption that the neurosis is an elaborate repetition of early instinctual life, tended to neglect the function performed by anxiety and neurotic trends in the current psychic situation, as well as the ramifications of the neurosis in all facets of the patient’s daily life. Homey sought to return the individual to his own sponta neous self-direction and cognizance, free of the grip of neurotic trends and idealized illusions, by developing his emotional self-awareness as well as by rational or intellectual introspection. The interaction between patient and analyst, known technically as transference, also received a significant modification in Horney’s hands. Since it is but one type of interpersonal relation, and since all interpersonal relations involve feelings, the inevitable emotional confrontation of analyst and patient should not be avoided by constructing a facade of professional impersonality, as recommended by Freud, but should be used to obtain a more intimate understanding of the pervasive character of the neurosis. Love, hostility, defiance, pride, self-accusation, and so forth, permeate the analytic session; under the guidance of an alert and sensitive analyst they can be studied intensively and fruitfully. Homey accepted, without appreciable modification, free association and the interpretation of dreams and parapraxes, the other conventional tools of psychoanalysis.

Feminine psychology. Not the least of Horney’s contributions to a revised psychoanalysis was her reappraisal of feminine psychology. Unwilling to accept Freud’s opinion of it as an offshoot of masculine psychology, an accidental, inferior, and necessarily warped by-product of women’s genital differences from men, Homey argued that Freud had ignored the impact of cultural conditions on the psychic orientation of women. In a predominantly masculine culture women are deprived of considerable conjugal and maternal fulfillment by the undervaluing of love, and consequently they have neurotic problems peculiar to their sex. More than anything else, this protest against Freud’s negative attitude toward women and their Psychology seems to have been responsible for driving Homey from the Freudian fold and for giving her thought its characteristic turn. If women could and should have lives of their own, once the distorting pressures of culture were relaxed, by the same token other culture-produced neuroses might be eliminated, by reducing cultural pressures.

The goal of mental health and growth during a lifetime of psychic integrity and independence persisted in Horney’s thought and received ever more resonant expression in her writings. To the blasé and world-weary generation of the 1920s her affirmation of positive and humanistic values was refreshing. The years of economic hardship and international tension that followed created an audience for her writings that responded to her sympathetic understanding of its plight. She gave a renewed impulse to the psychoanalytic movement and by her rebellion reaffirmed the principle of scientific inquiry free of the confines of dogma. The value of her work will be estimated in terms of the reduction of human suffering and the expansion of human living that it made possible.

Martin Birnbach

[For the historical context of Horney’s work, seePsychoanalysisand the biographies ofAbraham; Adler; Alexander; Freud. Directly related areAnxiety; Neurosis; and the biography ofSullivan.]


1937 The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. New York: Norton.

1939 New Ways in Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton.

1942 Self-analysis. New York: Norton.

1945 Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis. New York: Norton.

1950 Neurosis and Human Growth. New York: Norton.


Alexander, Franz 1940 Psychoanalysis Revised. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 9:1–36.

Birnbach, Martin 1961 Neo-Freudian Social Philoso phy. Stanford (Calif.) Univ. Press.

Karen Homey Memorial Issue. 1954 American Journal of Psychoanalysis 14:5–133.

Portnoy, Isidore 1951 [Review of] Neurosis and Human Growth. American Journal of Psychoanalysis 11:63–71.

Robbins, Irving. 1958 An Analysis of Horney’s Concept of the Real Self. Educational Theory 8:162–168.

Thompson, Clara (1950) 1957 Psychoanalysis: Evolution and Development. New York: Grove.

Weiss, Frederick A. 1954 Karen Homey: Her Early Papers. American Journal of Psychoanalysis 14:55–64.

Karen Danielsen Horney

views updated May 29 2018

Karen Danielsen Horney

The German-born American psychoanalyst Karen Danielsen Horney (1885-1952) was a pioneer of neo-Freudianism. She believed that every human being has an innate drive toward self-realization and that neurosis is essentially a process obstructing this healthy development.

Born in Hamburg on Sept. 16, 1885, Karen Horney received her medical and psychiatric education in Berlin. Her medical practice began in 1913, and then she taught in the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (1918-1932). She participated in many international congresses in which Sigmund Freud was the leading figure, but being influenced by the new currents of 20th-century science, she increasingly questioned some of Freud's ideas.

In 1932 Horney went to Chicago, III., where she served as associate director of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute until 1934. Then she taught at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute until 1941, when she made her definitive move away from the Freudian group. She took the lead in founding the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis; she was the founding dean (1941-1952) of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis and the founding editor (1941-1952) of the American Journal of Psychoanalysis.

In Europe Horney contributed to psychoanalysis in papers dealing mainly with the field of feminine psychology. She opposed Freud's idea that penis envy and the rejection of femininity were the basic factors in woman's psychology, that her wishes for a child and for a man were merely a conversion of her unsatisfied wish for a penis.

Between 1937 and 1951 Horney, a person of remarkable aliveness and dedication, was at the peak of her creative life. While practicing and teaching psycho-analysis, she wrote many articles and five books in which she presented the development of her psychoanalytic concepts.

In The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937) Horney expressed the view that neuroses are generated by cultural disturbances and conflicts which the person has experienced in accentuated form mainly in childhood, in which he did not receive love, guidance, respect, and opportunities for growth. She described the neurotic character structure as a dynamic process with basic anxiety, defenses against anxiety, conflict, and solutions to conflict as its essential elements.

In New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939) Horney presented her major differences with Freud. While continuing to adhere to the fundamental importance of unconscious forces, inner conflicts, free association, dreams, the analytic relationship, and neurotic defenses in psychoanalysis, she rejected Freud's concepts of the role of instincts in health and emotional illness. She saw aggression and sexual problems as the result of neurotic development rather than its cause.

In Self-analysis (1942) Horney indicated the possibilities, limitations, and specific ways in which people can change through increasing self-awareness.

Horney focused on the central position of conflict and solutions to conflict in neurosis in Our Inner Conflicts (1945). She saw the neurotic child feeling helpless and isolated in a potentially hostile world, seeking a feeling of safety in compulsive moves toward, against, and away from others. Each of these moves came to constitute comprehensive philosophies of life and patterns of interpersonal relating. The conflict between these opposed moves she called the basic conflict and recognized that it required the individual to resort to means for restoring a sense of inner unity. These means she called the neurotic solutions.

Neurosis and Human Growth (1950) was Horney's definitive work, in which she placed her concept of healthy development in the foreground. She viewed the real self as the core of the individual, the source of inherent, constructive, evolutionary forces which under favorable circumstances grow and unfold in a dynamic process of self-realization. She presented "a morality of evolution, " in which she viewed as moral all that enhances self-realization and as immoral all that hinders it. The most serious obstacle to healthy growth was the neurotic solution, which she called self-idealization, the attempt to see and to mold oneself into a glorified, idealized, illusory image with strivings for superiority, power, perfection, and vindictive triumph over others. This search for glory inevitably leads the individual to move away from himself (alienation) and against himself (self-hate). "At war with himself, " his suffering increases, his relationships with others are further impaired, and the self-perpetuating neurotic cycle continues.

Horney died in New York on Dec. 4, 1952. She had helped to lay the groundwork for the Karen Horney Clinic, which was established in 1955.

Further Reading

Analytic and critical discussions of Karen Horney's ideas are in Ruth L. Munroe, Schools of Psychoanalytic Thought: An Exposition, Critique, and Attempt at Integration (1955); "The Holistic Approach" by Harold Kelman in Silvano Arieti, ed., American Handbook of Psychiatry, vol. 2 (1959); and "Karen Horney" by Jack L. Rubins in Alfred M. Freedman and Harold I. Kaplan, eds., Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (1967). An important background study is Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry (1970).

Additional Sources

Horney, Karen, The adolescent diaries of Karen Horney, New York: Basic Books, 1980.

Paris, Bernard J., Karen Horney: a psychoanalyst's search for self-understanding, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Quinn, Susan, A mind of her own: the life of Karen Horney, New York: Summit Books, 1987; Reading, Massachussetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1988.

Rubins, Jack L., Karen Horney: gentle rebel of psychoanalysis, New York: Dial Press, 1978. □

Horney, Karen

views updated May 09 2018

Karen Horney

German-born American psychoanalyst who was among the leading theorists of psychoanalysis in the United States, and cofounder of the American Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Karen Horney was born in Hamburg, Germany, and educated at the University of Berlin and the University of Freiberg. She emigrated to the United States in 1932, after having taught for two years at the Berlin Institute of Psychoanalysis. From 1932-34, she was assistant director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis; she then left for New York City. In 1935, she was elected to the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Horney believed that personality is significantly affected by the unconscious mind, but she also theorized that both interpersonal relationships and societal factors were key factors contributing to mental development. She became increasingly outspoken in her disagreements with the theories developed by Sigmund Freud on the nature of neuroses and personality. Where Freud advanced a biological basis for neuroses, Horney believed that the environment of childhood played a key role in personality development . She felt strongly that negative experiences in early childhood could trigger anxiety in adulthood. In 1936, Horney published her first book, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, a highly readable work. This was followed in 1939 by New Ways in Psychoanalysis, and Self Analysis in 1942.

In 1942, Horney cofounded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis. She is best known for broadening the perspective of psychoanalysis to consider childhood, environment, and interpersonal relationship. In 1955, three years after her death, the Karen Horney Clinic was established in New York City in her honor. The Clinic provides psychoanalysis and training for analysts.

Further Reading

Rolka, Gail Meyer. 100 Women Who Shaped World History. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1994.

Sayers, Janet. Mothers of Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.