Karen Horney: A Key Figure in Psychoanalysis and Personality Theory

Alexander Tokarev, PhD
Updated on: March 14, 2024
Reviewed by:
Yelnur Shildibekov, PhD
Karen Horneye – PSYCULATOR
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Karen Horney was an influential Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst. Her ideas deviated from Traditional Freudian views. This held especially true for her perspectives on sexuality and the focus of psychoanalysis. Karen Horney is credited with originating feminist psychology as a counterpoint to Freud's concept of penis envy.

Horney’s divergence from Freud centered on rejecting the inherent psychological differences between men and women, aligning more with Adler in attributing such differences to societal and cultural influences rather than biological factors.

Fast Facts: Karen Horney

  • Born: September 16, 1885, in Blankenese, German Empire
  • Died: December 4, 1952, in New York City, USA
  • Nationality: German
  • Education: Medical degree from the University of Freiburg
  • Known for: Feminist Psychology, Theory of Neurosis, Challenging Freud’s Theories
  • Notable Works: "The Neurotic Personality of Our Time," "Our Inner Conflicts"
  • Legacy: Dean of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, reshaped psychoanalytic theory

Early Life

Karen Horney was the second of Clotilde and Berndt Wackels Danielson's six children. Despite being born into a culturally rich and intellectually stimulating environment, Horney's childhood was marked by familial tensions. Her parents' strained marriage, coupled with her father's stern demeanor and her mother’s neurotic and domineering nature, left a lasting impact on young Karen.

These early experiences fueled Horney's interest in understanding the complexities of human relationships and behavior. Her observations of familial dynamics would later influence her groundbreaking theories in psychoanalysis.


Despite her parents’ wishes, Karen Horney's intellectual curiosity led her to pursue a medical degree at the University of Freiburg. In 1906, she became one of the few women of her time to attend medical school. While at Freiburg, Horney encountered psychoanalysis, a burgeoning field spearheaded by Sigmund Freud. This encounter marked the beginning of her lifelong engagement with the study of the human mind.

Horney continued her education in Berlin, and graduated with an M.D. in 1913. At that time, under the mentorship of Karl Abraham, a prominent figure in the psychoanalytic community, and then later Hanns Sachs, she honed her skills and expanded her theoretical perspectives. This period of education laid the foundation for Horney's future contributions to psychoanalysis.

Karen Horney: Theory of Neurosis

At the core of Karen Horney's influential work is her theory of neurosis, which revolutionized traditional psychoanalytic thought. Central to her theory are the "10 Neurotic Needs,"

Ten Neurotic Needs

1. The Need for Affection and Approval: The need for love and acceptance from others.

2. The Need for a Partner: Seeking control or yielding in relationships.

3. The Need for Prestige: The pursuit of recognition and social status.

4. The Need for Personal Admiration: Craving validation and admiration from oneself.

5. The Need for Power: The desire to manipulate others and control one's environment.

6. The Need for Exploitation: The inclination to take advantage of others for personal gain.

7. The Need for Personal Achievement: The need to accomplish and excel.

8. The Need for Independence: Self-sufficiency and avoiding dependency on others.

9. The Need for Perfection: Striving for flawlessness and avoiding mistakes.

10. The Need to Restrict One’s Life: Narrowing life experiences to avoid potential disappointments.

Related: What is Neuroticism in Psychology: Definition, Benefits, Examples

How Neurotic Needs Affect Behavior

According to Horney’s theory, Neurotic Needs represent coping strategies and can affect behavior in three broad ways.

Moving Toward People (Compliance)

According to Horney, when children encounter challenges with their parents, they frequently employ compliant and agreeable tactics to resolve and alleviate the fear of abandonment and helplessness, a phenomenon coined by Horney as "basic anxiety." Individuals falling into the compliance category typically display a requirement for affection and approval from their peers.

Moving Against People (Aggression)

Individuals categorized as neurotic, whether children or adults, frequently display anger or fundamental hostility towards those in their vicinity. This involves a desire for power, a craving for control and exploitation, and the upkeep of a façade of omnipotence.

Beyond manipulative tendencies, according to Horney's propositions, individuals in the expansive category may also desire social acknowledgment, not necessarily in the context of the spotlight but, rather, in terms of being recognized, perhaps even feared, by both subordinates and peers.

Moving Away from People (Withdrawal):

For example, the Need for Perfection and The Need to Restrict One’s Life, are associated the withdrawal or detachment, alternately known as the moving-away-from solution or a detached personality.

Recognizing that neither aggressive nor compliant approaches address parental indifference, Karen Horney acknowledged that children might opt for self-sufficiency. The withdrawing neurotic may, in a non-aggressive manner, overlook others, viewing solitude and independence as the chosen path forward.

Understanding these needs provides profound insights into the complexities of human behavior and interpersonal relationships.

Departure From Freudian Psychology

Karen Horney's departure from Freudian psychology was marked by her critique of Freud's emphasis on biological factors and the concept of penis envy.

Horney believed that social and cultural influences played a crucial role in shaping human psychology. Her views challenged the prevailing notions of the time, paving the way for a more holistic understanding of neurosis and personality development.

Further, Horney held a distinctive perspective on narcissism compared to Freud, Kohut, and other prevalent psychoanalytic theorists. In contrast to prevailing biological roots of Narcissism, she perceived the Narcissistic Personality as a result of specific early environmental influences on a particular temperament. In her view, narcissistic needs and inclinations are not inherent aspects of human nature.

Major Contributions to Psychology

1. Cultural and Social Influences

Horney's focus on cultural and social factors significantly expanded the scope of psychoanalytic theory. By integrating these influences into her work, she provided a more comprehensive understanding of the forces shaping human behavior and psyche.

2. Establishment of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis

As a co-founder of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, Horney played a pivotal role in bringing psychoanalytic thought to the United States. This institution became a hub for the development and dissemination of psychoanalytic ideas in the American context.

3. The Theory of Neurosis

Horney's Theory of Neurosis was a groundbreaking contribution to psychoanalysis as it introduced a comprehensive and structured framework of the human Needs. Specifically, it explained how they influence our behavior by using compliant, aggressive or withdrawal-based coping mechanisms. Understanding of neurotic needs rooted in social and cultural factors, and established a foundation for a more inclusive and nuanced approach to human psychology.

4. Integration of Feminist Perspectives

Karen Horney's contributions were instrumental in integrating feminist perspectives into psychoanalysis. By challenging Freud's theories, she paved the way for a more inclusive and gender-sensitive understanding of human behavior.


In the annals of psychology, Karen Horney stands as a transformative figure whose intellectual courage reshaped the landscape of psychoanalysis. Her exploration of neurosis, emphasis on cultural influences, and departure from Freudian dogma marked a paradigm shift in psychological thought.

As we reflect on Karen Horney's legacy, it becomes evident that her work transcends its historical context. The enduring relevance of her theories and the institutions she helped establish highlight the lasting impact of her contributions to the field of psychology.

Through her pioneering efforts, she not only deepened our understanding of human behavior but also imparted wisdom that continues to guide psychologists and scholars to this day. In the words of Karen Horney herself,

"Understanding others is knowledge, understanding oneself is wisdom."

Karen Horney