In The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937) and New Ways In Psychoanalysis (1939), Horney broke with Freud and developed a psychoanalytic paradigm in which culture and disturbed human relationships replaced biology as the most important causes of neurotic development.

The Neurotic Personality of Our Time made Horney famous in intellectual circles.  It created a heightened awareness of cultural factors in mental disturbance and inspired studies of culture from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Because of her criticism of Freud, New Ways in Psychoanalysis made Horney infamous among orthodox analysts and led to her ostracism from the psychoanalytic establishment. This book led to the establishment of her new thinking and laid the foundations for the development of present-oriented therapies which are more frequently used today.

In the 1940s Horney developed her mature theory, which many feel to be her most distinctive contribution.  In Our Inner Conflicts (1945) and Neurosis and Human Growth (1950), she argued that individuals cope with the anxiety produced by feeling unsafe, unloved, and unvalued by disowning their real feelings and developing elaborate strategies of defense.  In Our Inner Conflicts, she concentrated on the interpersonal defenses of moving toward, against, and away from other people and the neurotic solutions of compliance, aggression and detachment to which they give rise.

In Neuroses and Human Growth, she emphasized intrapsychic defenses, showing how self-idealization generates a search for glory and what she called the pride system, which consists of neurotic pride, neurotic claims, tyrannical shoulds, and self-hate.

The object of therapy for Horney is to help people relinquish their defenses - which alienate them from their true likes and dislikes, hopes, fears, and desires - so that they can get in touch with what she called the real self.

Because of her emphasis on self-realization as the source of healthy values and the goal of life, she is considered one of the founders of humanistic psychology.

Horney’s book, Self-Analysis, was an outgrowth of the breakdown of her relationship with Erich Fromm.  She had known Fromm when he was a student at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (he was 15 years younger than she), and she met him again when he lectured at the University of Chicago in 1933.  

They became lovers when both moved to New York in 1934. Their relationship was intellectual as well as emotional, with Fromm teaching Horney sociology and she teaching him psychoanalysis. The relationship deteriorated in the late 1930s, after Horney sent her daughter Marianne, who was specializing in psychiatry, to Fromm for a training analysis.  This led to her self-analysis and the writing of the book entitled the same.  In the book she tells the story of Clare and Peter which is a fictionalized account of what happened between she and Fromm.

Her book on Self-Analysis (1942) inspired the Institute for Self-Analysis in London and is still the most thorough discussion of the possibilities and techniques of successful self-exploration. Horney felt that Self-Analysis had the best chance of success when it is used in conjunction with therapy or as a way of continuing to work on oneself after termination of therapy.

Fromm became a member of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis founded by Horney in 1941, but she drove him out in 1942, using his status as a lay analyst.

Feminine Psychology

Many attribute the political and theoretical origins of feminine psychology to Karen Horney.  In her early essays on feminine psychology, she attempted to show that girls and women have intrinsic biological constitutions and patterns of development that are to be understood in their own terms and not just as products of their difference from and presumed inferiority to men.

She argued that psychoanalysis regarded women as defective men because it is the product of a male genius (Freud) and a male-dominated culture.  

An important question for Horney is why men see women as they do.  She contended that male envy of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, and of the breasts and suckling, gives rise to an unconscious tendency to devalue women and that men’s impulse toward creative work is an overcompensation for their small role in procreation.

She believed that the womb envy of the male must be stronger than the so-called penis envy of the female, since men need to depreciate women more than women need to depreciate men.

Horney traced the male dread of woman to the boy’s fear that his genital is inadequate in relation to the mother.  The threat posed by woman is not castration but humiliation; the threat is to his masculine self-regard.

As he grows up, the male continues to have a deeply hidden anxiety about the size of his penis or his potency, an anxiety that has no counterpart for the female, who “performs her part by merely being” and is not obliged to go on proving her womanhood.  There is, therefore, no corresponding female dread of men.  The male deals with his anxiety by erecting an ideal of efficiency, by seeking sexual conquests, and by debasing the love object.
( Horney,1967, p.145)
“She is said to be at home only in the realm of eros.  Spiritual matters are alien to her innermost being, and she is at odds with cultural trends.  She therefore is, a Asians frankly state, a second-rate being...[She is] prevented from real accomplishment by the deplorable, bloody tragedies of menstruation and childbirth.  And so every man silently thanks his God, just as the pious Jew does in his prayers, that he was not created a woman. (Horney, 1967,p.114) [Feminine Psychology]

Horney moved steadily away from Freud’s belief that “anatomy is destiny” and toward a gender identity.  She acknowledge that little girls envy the male plumbing but regarded this as psychologically insignificant.  What women chiefly envy is male privilege, and what they need is greater opportunity to develop their human capacities.

She also talks about women having a masculinity complex.

“Our culture, as is well known, is a male culture, and therefore by and large not favorable to the unfolding of woman and her individuality... No matter how much the individual woman may be treasured as a mother or as a lover, it is always the male who will be considered more valuable on human and spiritual grounds.  The little girl grows up under this general impression. (Horney, 1967, p.82)

Horney also wrote an essay entitled “The Overvaluation of Love” (1934).  It is reported to be the culmination of Horney’s attempt to analyze herself in terms of feminine psychology.  The essay draws on the cases of seven women whose family histories, symptoms, and social backgrounds are similar to Horney’s and she may well have included herself in her clinical sample. Most of the essay is devoted to trying to explain why these women have an obsessive need for a male but are unable to form satisfactory relationships.

By 1935, she began to focus on gender neutrality rather than feminism.  She felt that the role of culture in shaping the female psyche makes it impossible to determine what is distinctively feminine.  She indicated that our primary objective must not be to identify what is essentially feminine but to foster “the full development of the human personalities of all (Paris, 1994, p.238- 1935 lecture, “Women’s Fear of Action”).

“We should stop bothering about what is feminine...Standards of masculinity and femininity are artificial standards...Differences between the two sexes certainly exist, but we shall never be able to discover
what they are until we have first developed our potentialities as human beings.  Paradoxical as it may sound,
we shall find out about these differences only if we forget about them. (Horney, 1935, in Paris, 1994, p,238)

New Paradigm: Social and Cultural Factors

Horney rejected Freud’s derivation of neurosis from the clash between culture and instinct.  In Freud’s view, we must have culture in order to survive, and we must repress or sublimate our instincts in order to have culture.  Horney did not believe that collision between the individual and society is inevitable but rather that it occurs when a bad environment frustrates our emotional needs and inspires fear and hostility.  Freud depicts human beings as inherently insatiable, destructive, and antisocial; according to Horney, these are not expressions of instinct but neurotic responses to adverse conditions.
Horney described basic anxiety as anxiety that results from feelings of insecurity in interpersonal relations.  Unlike Freud, she did not believe that anxiety is an inevitable part of the human condition.  It results from cultural forces.  Research on parenting styles and attachment emphasize the importance of an affectionate and warm relationship between children and parents.

There are pathogenic conditions in the family that make children feel unsafe, unloved, and unvalued rather than the frustration of libidinal desires, according to Horney.  As a result of this, children develop basic anxiety, a feeling of helplessness in a potentially hostile world, which they try to reduce by adopting such strategies of defense as the pursuit of love, power, or detachment.

Although Horney devoted much of The Neurotic Personality of Our Time to the neurotic need for love, she gave a good deal of space to the quest for power, prestige, and possession that develops when a person feels hopeless about gaining affection.

Horney’s paradigm for the structure of neurosis is one in which disturbances in human relationships generate a basic anxiety that leads to the development of strategies of defense that are not only self-defeating but in conflict with each other, since people adopt not just one but several of them.  This paradigm formed the basis of Horney’s mature theory.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Horney’s new version of psychoanalysis was her shift in emphasis, both in theory and in clinical practice, from the past to the present.  She replaced Freud’s focus on genesis with a structural approach, arguing that psychoanalysis should be less concerned with infantile origins than with the current constellation of defenses and inner conflicts.

Horney divided defensive strategies into two kinds: interpersonal, which we use in our dealings with other people, and intrapsychic, which we employ in our own minds.

Horney came to see the central feature of neurosis as alienation from the real self because of oppressive forces in the environment.   The object of therapy is to “restore the individual to himself, to help him regain his spontaneity and find his center of gravity in himself” (1939, p.11).  The real self is not a fixed entity but a set of intrinsic potentialities - including temperament, talents, capacities, and predispositions - that are part of our genetic makeup and need a favorable environment in which to develop.  It is not a product of learning, since one cannot be taught to be oneself; but neither is it impervious to external influence, since it is actualized through interactions with an external world that can provide many paths of development.

There are certain conditions in childhood that everyone requires for self-realization.  These include “an atmosphere of warmth” that enables children to express their own thoughts and feelings, the goodwill of others to supply their various needs, and “healthy friction with the wishes and will” of those around them.

When parents’ own neuroses prevents them from loving the child or even thinking of the child as the particular individual they are, the child develops a feeling of basic anxiety that prevents him from relating himself to others with the spontaneity of his real feelings and forces him to develop defensive strategies (1950, p.18).

These defense strategies permits them to cope with the world with a certain amount of gratification.  Many of these strategies continue into adulthood.  We use them to minimize feelings of anxiety and to assist us in effectively relating to others.

Where they become exaggerated or inappropriate, these strivings may be referred to as neurotic needs or trends. Neurotic needs are the result of the formative experiences that create basic anxiety.  The trends are not instinctual in nature but highly dependent on the individual’s formative experiences of being either safe or insecure in the world.

Horney developed 10 neurotic needs or trends, which lead to three ways of relating to others: moving toward people (compliance), moving against people (hostility), and moving away from people (detachment).  These types of behavior, as a result, can lead to three basic orientations toward life: the self-effacing solution, an appeal to be loved; the self-expansive solution, an attempt at mastery; and the resignation solution, a desire to be free of others (1950). Research on attachment patterns in infants suggests a distinct similarity between Horney’s three basic orientations and young children’s behavior.

Normal and mature individuals resolve their conflicts by integrating and balancing the three orientations, which are present in all human relations.


Hypercompetitiveness, a sweeping desire to compete and win in order to believe one is worthy, is rife in American culture.  It leads to anxiety and neurosis and has a negative effect on growth and development.  

As a result of her theory, Ryckman, Hammer, Kaczor, and Gold (1990) developed a Hypercompetitive Attitude Scale to evaluate the soundness of Horney’s concept and found empirical backing for it.


There were three distinct phases in the development of Karen Horney’s thought: 1) Her early essays on feminine psychology.  2) Her recognition that culture and disturbed human relationships are more important than biology as causes of neurotic development.  3) Her study of the interpersonal defenses and the intrapsychic defenses developed to cope with anxiety.

Horney acknowledged that she was deeply indebted to the foundation Freud provided.  However, she came to see the male bias in psychoanalysis as reinforcing and reproducing the devaluation of the feminine.

She proposed a women’s view of the disturbances in the relations between the sexes and the differences between women and men, and suggested that girls and women have patterns of development that are to be understood in their own terms, not simply in relation to those of men.

Horney saw that it was the male privilege more than the penis that women envied, and that greater opportunity to develop their human capacities was needed for both men and women.

Horney’s version of psychoanalysis looks at neurosis as a set of defenses against basic anxiety.  It places a greater emphasis on the role of culture, and shifts the focus from the infantile origins of character structure, as described by Freud.

In contrast to Freud’s view that nothing much new happens after the age of 5, Horney suggested that development does not stop at that point and that the individual’s later reactions or experiences evolve from the preceding ones.

Horney suggests that there are three basic strategies people use to cope with basic anxiety:  by moving toward people and adopting a self-effacing or compliant solution; moving against people and adopting an aggressive or expansive solution; and moving away from people and becoming detached and resigned.

A major cause of neuroses and anxieties in American society is hypercompetitiveness - the need to compete and win at all cost.