Horney, Karen (1885–1952)

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Horney, Karen (1885–1952)

German-American psychoanalyst who argued that women's development had to be viewed on its own terms, not seen as a derivative of male development. Pronunciation: HORN-eye. Name variations: Karen Danielsen. Born Karen Clementine Danielsen on September 15, 1885, in Eilbek, Germany; died on December 4, 1952, in New York; daughter of Berndt Wackels Danielsen (a sea captain) and Clotilde (von Ronzelen) Danielsen; married Oskar Horney (an economist), in 1909 (separated 1920); lived with Gertrude Lederer-Eckardt (a physical therapist); children: Brigitte Horney (1911–1988, an actress); Marianne Horney Lederer Von Eckardt (b. 1913, a psychiatrist); Renate Horney (b. 1915).

Studied medicine at the University of Berlin (1909–13); entered analysis (1911); received medical degree (1913); trained at Lankwitz Sanitarium (1914–18); taught at Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (1920–32); separated from husband (1920); served as assistant director of Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago (1932–34); taught at New York Institute for Psychoanalysis (1934–41); founded American Institute for Psychoanalysis and Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (1941); Karen Horney Clinic founded in New York (1952).

Selected writings:

The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1927); New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939); Self-Analysis (1942); Our Inner Conflicts(1945); (editor) Are You Considering Psychoanalysis? (1946); Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization (1950); (edited by Harold Kelman) New Perspectives in Psychoanalysis (1965); (edited by Kelman) Feminine Psychology (1967); The Adolescent Diaries of Karen Horney (1980); (edited by Douglas Ingram) Final Lectures (1987).

A theorist and author on psychoanalysis and human psychology, Karen Horney was among the most influential of 20th-century psychologists through her critiques and revisions of Freudian theory. Born in a small village near Hamburg, Germany, in 1885, Karen Clementine Danielsen was the eldest child of an authoritarian Lutheran sea captain and his liberal second wife. It was in some ways a difficult childhood; her parents' marriage was unhappy, and Horney felt that her parents favored her older brother. She attended elementary and secondary school in Hamburg, where her intellect and curiosity made her an excellent student.

Horney's diaries, kept throughout her teen years, provide a unique source for her maturing views and her ultimate rejection of most of her father's values. Having adopted her mother's religious freethinking and tolerant attitudes, Horney resented the strict discipline and conservative religious thinking of her high school; by her late teens, she had become agnostic. Karen was drawn to the sciences and wanted a career where she could help others. As she recorded in her diary, she decided to become a physician around age 12, though she also considered careers in the theater and in teaching. Although her father was opposed on principle to women achieving a higher education, he agreed to let her go to college after she promised not to ask him for financial support.

By the early 1900s, most colleges and universities in Germany had been opened to women. Though there were still few female students, Horney could choose from a number of good medical schools because of her strong preparation. She began her medical education at the University of Freiburg, but as her interests in psychology developed, she transferred to Göttingen and finally to the University of Berlin, the most prestigious of Europe's medical schools. In Berlin, she set up a household with her mother, who had separated from her husband in 1904.

For the most part Horney's early college years were demanding but contented. She worked hard and enjoyed an active social life. In 1909, she fell in love with and married a fellow university student, Oskar Horney, who was studying political science and economics. Horney soon found the demands of being a wife and completing medical school exhausting. Her responsibilities increased with the birth of her first daughter, Brigitte Horney , in 1911. In that year Karen also faced two other deeply emotional events—the unexpected death of her mother Clotilde , and the beginning of serious marital problems.

She soon sought psychoanalytic treatment for depression. Her analyst was Karl Abraham, one of Sigmund Freud's followers and the first practicing analyst in Berlin. At that time, Freud's theories of human psychology were revolutionizing the mental health profession in Germany and across Europe. The field of psychoanalysis had only recently emerged as a viable scientific occupation. Since Horney had always been interested in the emotional and psychological causes and manifestations of illness, she felt drawn to the psychoanalytic explanations of the unconscious motivations of behavior. Although she terminated her own psychoanalysis after a year, she had found her calling in psychiatry and became a founding member of the newly formed Berlin Psychoanalytic Society. After completing her medical degree and passing her examinations in 1913, Horney served an internship in the Urban Hospital of Berlin. There, she treated both physically and mentally ill patients, finding the work challenging but rewarding.

The internship was followed by residencies in the Neurology Clinic of Berlin and in a private psychiatrist's practice where she assisted in the treatment of veterans experiencing psychoses following the trauma of war. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Horney began to train in psychiatry at the Berlin-Lankwitz Sanitarium, assisting the professional psychiatrists. She remained there until 1918. Becoming a licensed medical practitioner in Germany required a doctoral thesis in addition to clinical training after college, and Horney completed her thesis on post-traumatic psychosis in 1915. In that year her third and last child, Renate Horney , was born; her second child Marianne (H. Von Eckardt) had been born in 1913.

The problems in her failing marriage and the burden of raising three small children did not deter Horney from her determination to go into practice as a psychoanalyst. This caused considerable tension in the Horney household; as adults, her daughters resented what they perceived as their mother's detachment and the series of governesses who raised and educated them in Karen's absence.

Following Germany's defeat in World War I, Berlin psychoanalysts saw a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking psychiatric treatment. Horney finally felt ready to go into practice in 1919 and became the first female analyst at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Clinic and Institute. She was one of only a handful of women analysts in Germany but generally found acceptance among her male peers; this acceptance may have been due to the positive reception of her thesis on post-traumatic psychosis by Sigmund Freud himself. She was affiliated with the Berlin Clinic for over a decade, as both an instructor and analyst. Yet while she enjoyed considerable professional success in the early 1920s, her personal life was unhappy, and she re-entered analysis under Dr. Hans Sachs in 1921.

Oskar Horney had prospered as a manager in a Berlin investment firm until the general postwar economic downturn and rapid inflation caused the firm to collapse. Following this and some poor investments of the family money, he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1923. The sudden end to his career and fortune led to an emotional breakdown in 1924 from which he never fully recovered. The couple lived apart after 1920, formally separated in 1926, and finally divorced in 1937. Horney did not remarry. Although in the 1930s she was involved in numerous love affairs with male colleagues, none of the relationships were serious or lasting.

Fortunately, analysis is not the only way to resolve inner conflicts. Life itself still remains a very effective therapist.

—Karen Horney

In 1922, Horney presented her first paper at the Psychoanalytic Congress in Berlin. Her presentation drew the largest audience at the conference and generated considerable controversy when she strongly criticized the widely accepted theory of penis-envy (that all girls subconsciously wish to have a penis, which affects their emotional development). It was one of the basic tenets of Freudian theory, and, as Freud himself was chairing the Congress, Horney was making a bold and possibly risky statement in presenting her paper. While she did not reject the concept of penis-envy entirely, she did deny Freud's insistence on its primacy in a woman's psychological development. Instead Horney argued that women's development had to be viewed on its own terms, not seen as a derivative of male development. Horney further surprised her audience by suggesting that there was evidence that women's primary role in reproduction caused "womb-envy" in men. She continued to publish articles which further developed her theory of feminine psychology and sexuality through the 1920s. She also came to question Freud's biological determinism in terms of sexual development, and challenged the male-centered view that patterns of women's psychic growth are the products of their physical difference from men. Although modern-day analysts commonly recognize these ideas as valid, most of Horney's colleagues were unwilling to deviate from Freud's views of women's inferiority, and she often found her ideas rejected by other analysts. In 1931, Horney quit the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society by mutual consent with its members, who saw her ideas as revolutionary and unacceptable.

By 1932, Horney's ideas had spread to the emerging psychoanalytic community in the United States, and she was offered the position of assistant director of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. The director of the Institute was a former colleague and friend, Franz Alexander. She accepted and left Berlin with her two younger daughters, hoping to find in the United States a more open professional atmosphere in which she could develop her theories. Horney also hoped to escape the worsening economic crisis in Germany and the growing threat of National Socialism, which attacked psychoanalysis as a "Jewish science." She served in an administrative and teaching role until she passed the American medical exams in 1933, which allowed her to practice psychiatry, and she began to see patients in addition to her other duties. In this period, Horney's modifications to Freudian theory continued to evolve beyond her critique of his views on feminine psychosexual development. Although her work would always remain rooted in Freudian psychology, her publications began to discuss the possible origins of psychological problems in the patient's social and cultural milieu instead of looking for the source of disorders only in childhood development, as Freud did. Again her ideas generated controversy among her peers.

After only two years, Horney left the Chicago Institute to join the faculty of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Her decision to leave Chicago was primarily the result of disagreements with the administrative and psychiatric practices of Franz Alexander, who had come to reject Horney's emphasis on the social origins of mental illness. Settling in New York, Horney also accepted a faculty position at the New School for Social Research, and started a flourishing private psychoanalytic practice as well.

Horney's first book was published in 1937. The Neurotic Personality of Our Time outlined her theory of the social origins of neuroses. Aimed at a non-professional audience, it offered a strongly worded critique of Freud's emphasis on the role of instinctual drives in child development. Horney believed that socialization, especially treatment by the parents, was more influential than instinct in determining a child's adult personality and behavior. In this book, Horney pioneered the use of supporting evidence from fields outside psychiatry to support psychoanalytic theory; she drew not only on the cases of analysis patients but on anthropological studies which emphasized the role of culture in an individual's life. The Neurotic Personality of Our Time presented a significant challenge to traditional Freudianism by suggesting that the processes of psychic growth which Freud had seen as universal to humanity were really variable and culturally determined.

In 1939, Horney published New Ways in Psychoanalysis, a collection of essays which continued her critique of Freudianism but focused on new methods and techniques of therapy. At no point in her career, however, did Horney reject Freudian psychology entirely, or consider her work destructive of its principles; indeed she admired Freud immensely and considered herself a follower. Instead, Horney saw herself as refining Freud's ideas, working within a basic Freudian framework but discarding parts of his theories which had proven themselves, in her opinion, to be fruitless or invalid.

Despite the controversy these two books generated, or perhaps because of it, both were widely read by psychologists and students for years after they were issued. However, Horney again faced considerable opposition from her peers, and in 1941 she resigned her position at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute after the disapproving administration curtailed her teaching duties.

Together with fellow analysts Erich Fromm and Clara Thompson , Horney then organized the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, with an affiliated educational institution, the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, of which Horney would serve as dean. These actions upset the membership of the American Psychoanalytic Association, which voted to expel Horney. In part, this move was a reaction to her unorthodox views. More important, the APA saw the new professional organization as a threat, for in founding a rival association of analysts, Horney was essentially splitting the psychoanalyst community into two camps.

Undaunted by the APA's expulsion, Horney and her supporters launched a new scholarly journal, The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, to provide a forum for like-minded psychiatrists to discuss new theories and techniques. In addition to her duties as dean of the institute, she also served as editor of the journal from 1941. The 1940s were characterized by the maturing of Horney's theory of neurosis. In her next three books, Self-Analysis, Our Inner Conflicts, and Neurosis and Human Growth, Horney also began to develop a model for the individual's growth towards what she called "self-realization," the fulfillment of one's innate potential. Yet again Horney inspired both criticism and admiration from colleagues. Some endorsed her theory of treating the "total self" and the benefits of self-analysis; others saw as unrealistically optimistic Horney's positive view of the potential to overcome neurosis through analysis, which could bring out creative, constructive forces.

During the years of World War II, Horney, now approaching 60, divided her time between New York and her daughter Renate's home in Mexico. This was a period of personal change for Horney, and a period of reconciliation with her grown daughters. As all of her adult life had been devoted to her work, Horney had not developed close relationships with her children. Her priorities appear to have changed after 1940, however; although she remained remarkably active as a teacher, writer, and private analyst, she made efforts to reestablish relationships with her children, especially Marianne, who had followed her into psychiatry. Horney also developed an intimate friendship with Gertrude Lederer-Eckardt , a twice-married physical therapist; they met when Marianne Horney married Lederer's son. Lederer and Horney became friends, and by 1942 their relationship had become so close that they decided to live together. The two women bought houses together and traveled frequently, sharing a home until Horney's death. Although some biographers have seen Lederer as merely a secretary to Horney, the length and intimacy of their relationship shows a genuine devotion and emotional connection unlike any of Horney's previous attachments. Lederer was a companion and confidante whom Horney depended on emotionally. Her obvious importance in Horney's life challenges the conclusion of biographers that Horney did not form close emotional attachments to others as an adult.

The later years of the decade were for Horney a period of spiritual, artistic, and philosophical learning. Her search for personal "self-realization" led her to explore painting and the arts as well as the Eastern religions, particularly Zen Buddhism and existentialist philosophy. Although she never practiced any religion, she hoped to derive from Zen philosophy a spiritual dimension to enrich her scientific, psychoanalytic theory. Despite failing health in 1950 and 1951, she continued her internal effort to connect her own spiritual, physical, and psychological selves. In the summer of 1952, she traveled to Japan to study the ideas of Zen Buddhism in more depth, although she confessed that reconciling its complex principles with her own theories proved more difficult than she had expected.

After returning to New York, Horney became critically ill with liver cancer. Despite the care she received from doctors, Gertrude Lederer-Eckardt, and her daughter Brigitte, her health failed rapidly. She died on December 4, 1952, at age 67. Although Horney's intellectual influence waned for a period following her death, many of her theories have now become commonplace in our understanding of human psychology and behavior. The publication in 1967 of her collected essays on women's psychosexual development, Feminine Psychology, brought Horney to the attention of the emerging feminist movement in the United States and Europe, and her works have been widely rediscovered in the past several decades. Her American Journal of Psychoanalysis is still a leading publication, and her Institute is still in operation as well. The Karen Horney Clinic in New York, founded in 1952, and the International Karen Horney Society also testify to ongoing professional recognition for Horney's originality and insight into the human psyche.


Quinn, Susan. A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Rubins, Jack. Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis. NY: Dial Press, 1978.

suggested reading:

Horney, Karen. The Adolescent Diaries of Karen Horney. NY: Basic Books, 1980.

——. Feminine Psychology. Edited by Harold Kelman. NY: W.W. Norton, 1967.

Mitchell, Stephen. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. NY: Basic Books, 1995.


Correspondence of Karen Horney, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York.

Papers of Karen Horney, Brill Library, New York Psychoanalytic Institute, New York.

Laura York , freelance writer in women's history and medieval history, Riverside, California

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Horney, Karen (1885–1952)

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