An Overview Of Karen Horney’s Contributions To Psychology

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated March 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Karen Horney was an influential psychologist who made several important contributions to her field. Horney wrote several books on personality, interpersonal relationships, and neurosis.

While Karen Horney was one of the first women to practice Fruedian psychoanalysis and initially adhered to Freudian theory, she eventually questioned his framework and put forth her own ideas on key aspects of human behavior and mental illness.

Her work has had a major impact on the development of the field of psychology and continues to influence mental health professionals in their work today. What follows is an overview of Karen Horney’s life, work, and legacy.

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Who Was Karen Horney?

Karen Horney was born on September 16, 1885 as Karen Danielson in Blankenese, Germany. In 1906, she elected to attend medical school at the University of Freiburg, despite the fact that very few women pursued medicine at the time. She continued her education at the University of Gottingen starting in 1908 and later transferred to the University of Berlin, from which she graduated in 1913 with an M.D.

While completing her studies, Karen met a business student named Oskar Horney whom she married in 1909 and eventually had three daughters with. Around the time that Karen and Oskar had their first child in 1911, both of Karen's parents died. This led her to seek psychoanalysis from two prominent practitioners, Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs, who were both closely acquainted with Sigmund Freud. This experience led Horney to become personally interested in the field. Although she had been practicing medicine, she decided to turn her attention to psychoanalysis. 

She began by studying with Karl Abraham, focusing on theories and techniques. In 1915, Horney began working in clinical and outpatient settings where she conducted psychiatric work and began establishing her career path in psychoanalysis. In 1923, she co-founded the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute along with Abraham, Sachs, and others. While there, Horney taught, conducted research, saw patients, and developed a training program.

After years of working at the institute, Horney began questioning and eventually speaking out against some of Freud's views. This created conflict between her, Freud, and his followers, and was part of the reason Horney eventually left Germany. When the opportunity arose, she accepted a position at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis where she worked as an associate director for two years. She then went on to write two highly influential books, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937) and New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939). In these books, Horney created new frameworks for thinking about neurosis and further broke away from Freudian theory.

Horney’s Key Contributions To The Field Of Psychology

While Horney followed the tenets of Freudian theory early in her career, she began to disagree with some of Freud’s key points over time—particularly those related to the psychology of women. Contrary to Freud, she believed that it was not biological or instinctual drives that led to neurosis but rather social and cultural conditions. In particular, Horney argued that women's mental health was negatively affected by the male-dominated culture. Horney’s ideas formed the basis of what came to be known as feminist psychology. 

Feminist Psychology

Horney’s questioning of Freud's views stemmed in part from a belief that the field of psychoanalysis was overly influenced by a male-centric view of the psyche. For example, Freud believed that women are jealous of the male anatomy and that this jealousy leads to neurosis. Not only did Horney argue against that view, but she put forth the idea that men may actually experience womb envy. She believed that they might feel jealous of the role women play throughout pregnancy and motherhood, and that this envy leads them to act superior to women in other arenas. In the first half of the twentieth century especially, her views were considered to be quite radical.

A New View Of Anxiety

As Horney reshaped her views and began moving away from the traditional Freudian psychoanalytic perspective, she started to view anxiety as a product of an individual’s experiences in their environment—specifically in relationships. She believed, for example, that if a child was not treated well and came to feel helpless or isolated, they would start to experience feelings of anxiety. If left untreated, that anxiety could escalate into a clinical mental health disorder.

In her clinical work, Horney started to focus on treating the causes of anxiety, believing that psychoanalysis should uncover sources of it that arise in the present. She also believed that with help, patients could learn to analyze themselves to alleviate their own symptoms. Horney built upon her views regarding the source of neurotic behavior in a 1942 book called Self-Analysis, in which she lays out the theory of neurotic needs that she developed. She explains her belief that they emerge as a result of common defense mechanisms that can eventually lead to anxiety. These neurotic needs include the need for approval, power, social recognition, and independence. This groundbreaking work helped advance the understanding of stress and anxiety in the field at the time and is still instructive today.

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Karen Horney’s Legacy

Karen Horney went to medical school and built a highly successful career in the field of psychoanalysis in a time when such pursuits were very uncommon for women. She was one of the first women to become a Freudian psychoanalyst and was one of the first neo-Freudians, a group of psychologists who branched off from his theoretical framework. Her work helped to broaden the field of psychoanalysis and opened the door for further exploration.

For Horney, the choice to speak out against Freudian theory was somewhat costly as she was eventually expelled from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute as a result. However, this created an opportunity for her to establish a separate psychological organization, the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, along with an affiliated teaching center, the American Institute for Psychoanalysis. She also established the official journal of the Association, the American Journal of Psychoanalysis, and served as its editor until she died in 1952. Throughout that time, she continued to write and develop her views.

Late in her career, Horney had expounded upon the role that interpersonal relationships play in neurosis. She wrote two more books on the subject, Our Inner Conflicts and Neurosis and Human Growth. When she died, The Karen Horney Foundation was established to continue her work. This led to the creation of the Karen Horney Clinic in 1955, which is still active today as a hub for research, education, training, and treatment.

Therapeutic Treatment For Anxiety Today

The roots of some modern therapeutic techniques and approaches may be traced back to Karen Horney’s work. Today, treatment for anxiety most commonly involves talk therapy, though medication may also be used. Extensive research on the topic shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular can be a highly effective treatment for those with anxiety disorders. A review of studies on the topic reports that CBT delivered online has also been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

For those who may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety, treatment can help. If you feel more comfortable speaking with a therapist in person, you can locate providers in your area. If you prefer virtual treatment, you can use an online therapy platform like BetterHelp to get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat. Regardless of the format you may choose, it’s important to remember that effective treatment for anxiety and other mental illnesses is available.


Karen Horney was a highly accomplished and outspoken psychologist. Her feminist views on psychology and new theories on anxiety disorders in particular made a significant impact on the field at the time, and this impact continues to reverberate in the world of psychology today.

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