Karen Horney's Contributions To Psychology

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 8, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Karen Horney was an influential psychologist who made several important contributions to the field of psychoanalytic theory. 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. For example, Horney believed that womb envy resulted from men overcompensating for their inability to bear children, of which they were unconsciously jealous. While her accomplishments and ideas may place her as a pioneer of feminist psychology, her theories on the development of the neurotic personality in connection with anxiety are considered noteworthy and influential. 

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?

Early life and education

Karen Horney was born on September 16, 1885 as Karen Danielson in Blankenese, Germany. In 1906, she elected to attend the University of Freiburg Medical School, 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.

Interest in psychoanalysis

While completing her studies in medical school, Karen met a business student named Oskar Horney whom she married in 1909 and eventually had three daughters with. Around the time that Karen gave birth to her first child in 1911, both of her 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 of psychology. Although she had been practicing medicine, she decided to turn her attention to psychoanalysis, eventually becoming a member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society. 

Psychiatric practice and Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute

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.

Move to United States and New York Psychoanalytic Institute

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 with her three daughters. Previously, her personal life with Oskar Horney had deteriorated and she sought a new life elsewhere. In 1932, Horney relocated to the United States.

When the opportunity arose, she accepted a position at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis where she worked as an associate director for two years. After her post as Associate Director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, she moved to New York City, where she began teaching at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. During this time, she became acquainted with influential psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, with whom she discussed a view of emphasizing human personality development in connection with interpersonal relationships. 

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Published works

Horney 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. Later, she wrote Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization, a work that encapsulated her theories on the development of neuroticism, a process resulting from tension between what Horney referred to as one’s ideal self and real self. Horney recognized this inner conflict between an idealized self and authentic self as an obstacle to one's human growth. Another book titled Self-Analysis focused on how a person can learn to understand the source of their conflicts and help themselves in the process. The Unknown Karen Horney: Essays on Culture, Gender, and Psychoanalysis was posthumously published by Yale University Press. In addition, a book of compiled lectures on analytic techniques and therapeutic processes can be found by the same press. 

Horney has had several books published about her life and work. These include Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst’s Search for Self-Understanding (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994) and Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis (The Dial Press, New York, 1978).

Later career and expulsion from New York Psychoanalytic Institute

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.

Horney eventually became Dean of the American Institute of Psychoanalysis. However, as Horney's ideas departed from Freud's theories, she eventually left this post and began teaching at the New York Medical College. 

In honor of her influential life achievements, the Karen Horney Clinic opened in 1955. It presently offers training opportunities for mental health professionals and psychoanalytic services to patients. 

Horney’s key contributions to the field of psychology

While Karen 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, Horney proposed 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. 

Feminine 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. Noted for her contributions to an understanding of feminine psychology, she challenged Freud’s theory of female psychosexual development, which explained neuroticism in women based on the notion of penis envy. Freud believed that women are jealous of the male anatomy and that this jealousy leads to neurosis. Not only did Horney argue against the belief of penis envy, 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. 

Horney outlined her beliefs regarding feminine psychiatry in several articles, including “Maternal Conflicts” and “The Problem of the Monogamous Ideal”. In the first half of the twentieth century especially, her feminine psychology views were considered to be quite radical.

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A new view of anxiety

As Horney reshaped her views and began moving away from orthodox Freudian doctrine, she started to view anxiety as a product of an individual’s experiences in their environment. Horney explained that neurosis is related to how one responds to interpersonal challenges throughout their lives, particularly difficult interactions in the parent-child relationship. In her view, a neurotic person was likely to have experienced parental indifference to the child's perception of actions and words. 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, such as a need to maintain self-sufficiency, that can eventually lead to anxiety. These neurotic needs include the need for approval, power, social recognition, and independence. She believed, for example, that narcissism was a neurotic need for personal admiration. This groundbreaking work helped advance the understanding of stress and anxiety in the field at the time and is still instructive today.

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.

Horney also established the official journal of the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, the American Journal of Psychoanalysis, in 1941. She served as the editor of the American Journal of Psychoanalysis until she died in 1952. Throughout that time, she continued to write new articles and develop her views on anxiety, personality, and human growth.

Late in her career, Horney had expounded upon her belief in the importance of the role that interpersonal relationships play in neurosis. After publishing The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, she wrote two more books on the subject, Our Inner Conflicts and Neurosis and Human Growth. Neurosis and Human Growth, which is often considered the magnum opus of Horney’s work, is illustrative of Horney’s optimistic perspective on human nature.

Karen Horney Clinic

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. 

Further reading

As discussed above, several books have covered Karen Horney’s life, psychoanalytic theories, and views on female psychology. These include Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst’s Search for Self-Understanding and Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis. A Psychoanalyst’s Search for Self-Understanding provides a thorough biography of Horney and discusses the ways her personal life informed her own theories. It also describes how Horney influenced later personality theories. Gentle Rebel explores Horney’s personal life—including her friendship with Erich Fromm, marriage to Oscar Horney, and experience with motherhood—and divergence from the ideas of Freudian psychology. 

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.

Takeaway

Karen Horney was a highly accomplished and outspoken psychologist. She published several influential books on human psychology including The Neurotic Personality of Our Time and Neurosis and Human Growth. 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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