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Karen Horney's Theory

One of the few prominent female personality theorists in the first half of the 20th Century was Karen Danielsen Horney (1885-1952). Horney (pro­nounced HORN-eye) added social factors to Freudian theory.

Horney's approach, called psychosocial analysis, put special emphasis on the emotional relations between parent and child early in the child's life. Horney emphasized the importance of reliable and warm parenting.

portrait of Karen Horney
Karen Horney

Danielsen married Oscar Horney, a Berlin lawyer and economist, in 1909. Early letters to Oskar reflected Karen's interest in the theories of Alfred Adler.

Karen was especially intrigued by Adler's ideas of inferiority and self-confidence. She thought these ideas had special relevance for women in male-dominated societies. Women could be pressured by society to feel inferior and dependent.

What were some life experiences that helped shape Horney's theory?

Oscar and Karen had three daughters, but their marriage was not happy. Karen immersed herself in her work.

She graduated from the University of Berlin in 1915. She joined the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute in 1918, and the following year she started her private practice. Freudians trained her but she never knew Freud personally.

In 1932, with conditions deteriorating in Europe prior to World War II, Karen decided to immigrate to the United States. Oscar stayed behind in Ger­many, and they were divorced five years later. The experience gave her valuable insights into troubled relationships, which she wrote about often.

What did Horney learn from the people in the United States?

Horney found that people in the United States had different problems of living than people in European countries. Horney concluded, "Only the difference in civilizations could account for this." (Horney, 1945)

She concluded that "neuroses are brought about by cultural factors." This was a major departure from Freud's view that neuroses involved universal instinctual conflicts.

How did she rebut the idea of penis envy?

Horney is famous for her response to the Freudian idea of penis envy in women. She said that, to the contrary, her work with male patients had revealed a sort of womb envy in them.

They lacked the women's ability to be productive and creative by having babies. Men compensated by develop­ing a neurotic overemphasis on career success, their only available outlet for productivity.

Horney's Emphasis on Family Life

To Horney, neurotic patterns (persistent, maladaptive behavior) arose from basic anxiety. Basic anxiety was an underlying current of fear and distrust, in a person's life. Horney traced this to insecurities of early family life.

Horney said that healthy personality development resulted in basic confi­dence within a child's personality. Basic confidence was instilled by genuine and predictable warmth, interest, and respect from parents or caregivers.

If a child was neglected or abused, the opposite occurred. The child developed a lack of confidence about life.

What was basic anxiety supposed to feel like?

Basic anxiety, Horney wrote, is "the feeling a child has of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world" (Horney, 1945, p.41). Sometimes this feeling continues into adulthood, resulting in neurosis.

Like other Freudian-based theorists, Horney used the term neurosis and neurotic to indicate a mental disorder of non-biological origin. A neurotic, in Horney's view, was somebody who interpreted the world as threatening to "abuse, cheat, attack, humiliate, betray."

What caused basic anxiety or basic confidence, in Horney's view?

Horney traced basic anxiety to a child's early years. She said parents caused basic anxiety by domination, belittling attitudes, indifference, unkept promises, overprotection, a hostile home atmosphere, encouraging the child to take sides in parental disputes, isolating the child from other children, or failing to respect the child's individual needs.

The most important underlying problem was "a lack of genuine warmth and affection." That was commonly due to the parents' own neurotic incapacity to give it (Horney, 1937, p.80).

Unlike Adler, Horney did not see inferior­ity feelings as inevitable in childhood. Everything depended on the parents.

If parents provided warmth, affection, and consistency, then the child would feel "basic confidence" instead of "basic anxiety." Basic confidence provided a solid foundation for trust, happiness, and productive living.


Horney, K. (1937) The Neurotic Personality Of Our Time. New York: Norton.

Horney, K. (1945) Our inner conflicts. New York: Norton.

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