Karen Horney And Her Career In Psychology

Updated October 1, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In the early days of psychology, women were quite limited in the field. One bright and industrious woman, Karen Horney, broke into the field. She initially practiced under the theories of Freud. However, never one to just follow, she questioned the Freudian Psychoanalytic framework. She set forth with her ideas. This led to some criticism from others in the field. However, her work was influential to the development of the field of psychology and remains influential for scholars even today.

Karen Horney is One Of The Founding Women in Psychoanalysis

Childhood And Family Dynamics

Karen Horney was born on September 16, 1885, as Karen Danielson, in Blankenese, Germany. Her parents were Berndt Wackels Danielson and Clotilde van Ronzelen (nicknamed "Sonni').

Karen's father was a ship captain for the merchant marine. He was also a strict Protestant traditionalist. He was described as "the Bible-thrower" by his children due to his disposition and indeed, the tendency to throw bibles. Karen herself described him as being a cruel disciplinarian. He tended to favor her brother (Berndt). He showed Karen some affection by bringing her gifts from his travels.

Karen's mother was known to be more open-minded, relative to her husband. However, she has also been described as depressed and irritable. Records also suggest she had a domineering relationship towards Karen. Karen was still more emotionally attached to her mother, particularly given her emotionally distant relationship with her father. Her parents later separated.

Historians believe that Karen was an ambitious and perhaps even rebellious child and teen. She did not view herself as particularly pretty, and so she decided to invest her time in intellectual pursuits. She also, like her mother, tended to experience periods of depression. These occurred throughout her life.

Education And Family Changes

Although it was unusual at the time and her parents were not particularly supportive of it, Karen elected to attend medical school. In 1906 she entered the University of Freiburg. She continued her education at the University of Gottingen, starting in 1908. She later transferred to the University of Berlin. This was a common practice at the time to get a medical education. She eventually graduated with an M.D.

Simultaneous to completing her studies, Karen also met a business student named Oskar Horney. The two married in 1909. Oskar was a businessman and went on to work in the industry. The relationship produced three daughters. Around the time that Karen and Oskar had their first child (1911), both of Karen's parents died. She chose to participate in psychoanalysis to help cope with all of these changes.

Interest In Psychoanalysis

After her participation in psychoanalysis with Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs, Karen Horney became personally interested in the field. Although she had been practicing medicine, she decided to turn her attention to studying psychoanalysis. She first studied with Karl Abraham, who was himself a student of Sigmund Freud. Horney was learning Freud's views and techniques.

Starting in 1915, Horney worked in clinical and outpatient settings, where she conducted psychiatric work. Horney was firmly establishing and growing her career path in psychoanalysis. While at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, Horney helped to create a training program. She taught, trained, conducted research, and saw patients.

More Career And Family Changes

Horney's personal life faced some great challenges and changes starting in 1923. Her husband, Oskar's workplace went broke and closed. He shortly after developed meningitis. The financial and health problems left him morose and angry. Around that same time, Horney's older brother, whom she had always been quite fond of, died from the pulmonary infection. Horney's mental health worsened. Records indicate she became very depressed and even considered suicide.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7, or you can text the word “HOME” to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.

These problems contributed to a decline in the relationship between Horney and her husband. In 1926, the two separated and later divorced. Throughout this time, Horney continued to teach at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society. However, she started to question and speak out against some of Freud's views. Freud himself was also not particularly accepting of her. Simultaneously, Nazism was rising in Germany. When the opportunity arose, Horney accepted a position at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Horney worked as the Associate Director for the Institute of Psychoanalysis in Chicago for two years. Then, in 1934, she moved to New York City-Brooklyn to teach at the New School for Social Research. While working there, Horney created her two most significant theoretical works. One was The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937), and the other was New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939).

New Psychoanalytic Theories

During the early part of her career, Horney followed the tenets of Freudian theory. However, she began to disagree with some of his views, particularly those related to female psychology. In contrast to Freud, she broadly believed that it was not biological or instinctual drives that led to neurosis (mental health problems) but rather social and cultural conditions. In particular, Horney argued that women's mental health was negatively affected by the male-dominated culture.

Horney started to make her mark on the field of psychology and psychoanalysis once she began to question Freud's views. She instead put forth her ideas. For example, Freud had stated that women have Penis Envy, wherein they are jealous of the male anatomy, and this causes psychological disturbance. Not only did Horney argue that women were negatively affected by the culture around them, but she also said that perhaps, in fact, but men also experience Womb Envy. She believed that men might feel jealous of the role women have with pregnancy and motherhood (life-giving and sustaining capabilities). She also believed this envy leads men to act superior to women in other arenas.

A New Approach To Clinical Work

As Horney reshaped her views away from the traditional Freudian Psychoanalytic perspective, she started to view anxiety as broadly the product of one's experiences in their environment. She believed, for example, that if a child were not treated well and came to feel helpless or isolated, they would start to experience anxiety. If left untreated, that anxiety could worsen into a personality disorder.

In her clinical work, Horney started to focus on treating the cause of people's anxieties. She believed that psychoanalysis should help to uncover the cause of people's current anxieties. Then, the therapy could help them deal with their present-day symptoms. Horney also believed that with help, patients could learn to analyze themselves to help alleviate their symptoms.

End Of Career And Legacy

Karen Horney was not the only student and early follower of Freud to branch off with her ideas. Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Carl Jung were all a part of a group known as the Neo-Freudians. Each set out their ideas and started to broaden the field of Psychoanalysis away from Freud's tenets.

For Horney, the choice to speak out with her ideas was somewhat costly. Since she would not follow Freud's teachings, she was eventually expelled from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute (in 1941). Being tenacious, Horney just went on to create her group-the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. This has an affiliated teaching center-the American Institute for Psychoanalysis. Horney also established the American Journal of Psychoanalysis and was the editor of the journal until she died in 1952. Throughout that time, she continued to develop her views and write.

Late in her career, Horney expounded upon the role that interpersonal relationships play for neuroses. She wrote two more books on this (Our Inner Conflicts; Neurosis and Human Growth). When Horney died, The Karen Horney Foundation was established to continue her work. This New York-based foundation also allowed for the creation of the Karen Horney Clinic in 1955, which is still active today for research, education, training, and treatment of therapy clients.

Lessons To Be Learned

According to Karen Horney, what causes us to develop a neurotic personality? Karen Horney, a prominent Neo-Freudian, disputed Freud's assumption that women were neurotic due to the tension between their repressed instinctual drives and what was acceptable in society. She believed that all people could be negatively affected by their environment and experiences, which could cause neurosis. She also noted women might be particularly affected due to the way society represses them.

Karen Horney is One Of The Founding Women in Psychoanalysis

If you have been affected by your environment, interpersonal experiences, societal pressures, or oppression, in ways that have left you feeling anxious or depressed, then therapy may be a helpful resource. Today's therapy is usually different from that used by Horney and her contemporaries. Most therapists now consider all the sociocultural factors that might be influencing a person. They consider present symptoms and those past experiences that might have led to the current symptoms.

With today's therapy, counselors typically approach the work with a theoretical orientation or an integrative approach in mind. Their viewpoint may be influenced by some of Horney's ideas and the other psychological findings that grew out of her work. Currently, most psychologists try not to make too many assumptions about a client; rather they use research and psychological teachings to help better understand the client. This allows them to best help you with your unique needs.

Today's therapists also want clients to be able to learn the skills needed to help themselves after they leave therapy. Horney was one of the first to promote self-help through self-awareness. This idea remains prominent. Indeed, you can sometimes help yourself, especially once you have already learned the right skills. However, when things get to be too much, you might again consider using therapy.

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