A Description of Karen Horney’s Neo-Freudian Theory of Personality

Karen Horney, c. 1952.

Who was Karen Horney?

By all accounts, Dr. Karen Horney was a pioneer in the field of psychology. Reared in Germany at a time when women were excluded from higher education, Horney attended medical school at the University of Freiburg, the University of Göttingen, and the University of Berlin before graduating with her M.D. in 1913. Her clinical and outpatient psychiatric work would position her to join the teaching staff of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, and eventually to become associate director of the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago. Following these engagements, Dr. Horney taught at the New School for Social Research where she wrote The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937) and New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939), texts that directly challenged Freud’s long-accepted theories of personality.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

Horney underwent psychoanalysis over a two-year period and felt it helped her understand her own inner thoughts and behaviors. Though many aspects of Freudian theory accounted for Horney’s “issues,” she felt psychoanalysis was limited by its male bias. Freud believed that feminine experience and psychopathology resulted from “disappointed” male sexuality. Penis envy was another term Freud used to describe this; in short, it is the woman’s desire for a penis that inhibits the development of her superego. Women, according to Freud, would always be psychologically stunted. Horney sought to debunk this view by exposing its lack of scientific evidence and set about constructing her own theory of personality that better encompassed the range of female experience.

Horney was convinced — both by her own experiences and those of her subjects — that children who grow up having their basic needs (e.g. safety, food, love) met develop healthy self-concepts and ways of interacting with others. Conversely, children who grow up feeling unsafe, unloved, and undervalued develop anxiety and consequently adopt maladaptive strategies to cope with this anxiety.

Though Horney’s theory does not exclusively apply to female children, it is significant that many females are born in male-dominated societies wherein they may be limited or oppressed due to their sex. This experience leads many women to develop a masculinity complex, originating from feelings of inferiority, as well as frustration at the disparity between sexes. Horney believed that a girl child’s familial interactions also played a role in how strongly the complex would manifest itself; if a female is intimidated by her own mother or disappointed by her father or brother, she may develop a disdain for the female sex — herself included.

Similarly, Horney posited that a female child may become insecure and grow anxious about her own femininity and desirability if she perceives a loss of her father’s love to another woman. Most often the “other woman” is the child’s mother, who obviously engages in sexual contact with the child’s father and “dominates” the situation. Horney believed two strategies of defense derive from this defeat: the girl will withdraw from the competition or she will become hyper-competitive, attempting to “win” men and prove her desirability through her conquests. The individual’s fervent need for male love — known as the overvaluation of love — is a direct consequence of the real or perceived loss of her father’s love.

Basic Evil, Hostility, and Anxiety

The opposite of having one’s needs met is experiencing basic evil. Basic evil is defined as parental indifference and may refer to any behavior that does not meet a child’s psychological needs. If a child experiences any form of basic evil — abuse, neglect, preference for one sibling over another — it sets the stage for her to grow into a psychologically maladjusted adult. The child believes that if her own parents cannot or will not love and care for her, no one can or will.

The wounds of basic evil form basic hostility: feelings of anger at one’s parents or caregivers and frustration because of one’s dependence on them. Basic hostility develops and presents itself in the following way:

The child’s parents exhibit basic evil -> The child wants to avoid the abuse, but cannot leave because she depends on her parents -> The child cannot express her feelings to her parents and instead redirects her feelings of rage and hostility toward others

Basic anxiety refers to the maladaptive patterns that develop when children are exposed to basic evil or any environment that does not meet their basic needs. Basic anxiety results in the formulation of interpersonal strategies of defense, or rigid ways of relating to others that may be understood in terms of whether they move toward, against, or away from others.

Interpersonal Strategies of Defense

Interpersonal strategies of defense are utilized by neurotic individuals to help them cope with basic anxiety. Those who move toward others manage their anxiety through their dependence. They tend to seek affection and approval from others and refrain from expressing aggression or disagreement. This is known as the compliant solution.

Conversely, people who move away from others respond to anxiety by removing themselves from the source or threat. This detachment results from their belief that the world will disappoint them as their own parents did, so they withdraw from it.

Individuals who move against others adopt expansive solutions. They value power and seek prestige and admiration. Though they desire such attention, they do not value others and instead view people in terms of what they can do for them. The expansive solution is expressed in three ways:

  1. Narcissistic people were often favored as children and believe there is nothing they cannot accomplish. Though they regularly speak of their specialness, these individuals need constant attention and confirmation of their abilities. They seek to maintain their exaggerated view of themselves and break if the image collapses.
  2. Perfectionistic folks hold others to unrealistic standards and look down on them when they fail to meet such standards. Unsurprisingly, most people (including these individuals) cannot meet their exacting standards.
  3. Arrogant-vindictive individuals were often mistreated as children and seek retribution for the ills they suffered. Such individuals believe that only the strong survive. They can be competitive and ruthless in their dealings.


Neurosis is defined as a mental or emotional disorder affecting part of the personality. Most commonly, neurotic individuals experience anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and may experience physical discomfort with no known cause.

Neurotic Needs

Neurotic needs can be understood as coping mechanisms developed to manage anxiety. Horney detailed ten neurotic needs, which are divided into three groups: those behaviors that move toward others, against others, and away from others.

Moving Toward Others

  1. People pleasers need affection and approval at any cost.
  2. Overly dependent people need a partner to take over their life. They pathologically fear being deserted by their partner.
  3. Those with the need to restrict their lives appear to lack ambition. Life is experienced in “safe” and inconspicuous ways.

Moving Against Others

  1. A neurotic need for power is the craving of power and strength for its own sake.
  2. Individuals with a neurotic need to exploit others believe that they can only achieve success by taking advantage of others.
  3. Neurotic need for social recognition or prestige is expressed when people base their self-esteem on the recognition and compliments they receive from others.
  4. A neurotic need for personal admiration means that people desire admiration and have an inflated self-image dependent upon this approval.
  5. The neurotic need for personal achievement derives from a person’s sense of insecurity; they seek superiority in order to prove their worth.

Moving Away From Others

  1. Those who need independence seek freedom from commitment. This need usually follows a disappointing relationship.
  2. With a need for perfection comes the fear of failure and criticism. These people try to hide their flaws to protect their image of infallibility.

Originally published at https://owlcation.com on August 11, 2020.



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Camille Harris

Camille Harris

“The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” https://linktr.ee/compassionate.misanthrope