Karen Horney: Her Life and Work

Allison Scheer

EDP 180.K, Fall 2001

Professor Lawrence Sherman

November 26, 2001


Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst perhaps best known for her ideas regarding feminine psychology, faced much criticism from orthodox Freudian psychoanalysts during her time.  Robert Sternberg said that creativity is always a “person-system interaction” because many highly creative individuals produce products that are good, but that are not exactly what others expect or desire.  Thus, creativity is only meaningful in the context of the system that judges it.  If this is true, I believe that Karen Horney made truly creative contributions to the field of psychology, and particularly to the domain of psychoanalysis.  She broke rules in a domain that was itself fairly new, and in doing so presented ideas that have been in use to this day.  She did so in a system that bombarded her with a fair amount of criticism because her ideas were different from those that Freud and his disciples supported.  However, she made her mark as a master in her domain and has managed to have a number of her ideas incorporated into ego psychology, systems- theory, and a number of self-actualizing schools of psychotherapy. 

     Howard Gardner has studied many creative masters within the context of his theory of the three core elements of creativity.  These include the relation between the child and the adult creator, the relation between the creator and others, and the relation between the creator and his or her work.  Karen Horney’s childhood and adult life have been reflected in much of her work.  She was born in 1885, the end of the Victorian era.  Horney’s father was a “God-fearing fundamentalist who strongly believed that women were inferior to men and were the source of all evil in the world” (Hergenhahn & Olson, 1999, p.128).  He sometimes threw the Bible at his wife in fits of anger.  Horney developed a negative attitude towards religion and a skepticism towards authority figures that was to manifest itself later in life.  She always felt that she was treated differently than her brother and wondered if it was because as a boy he was built differently, if people simply felt differently about boys and girls, or if it was because he had qualities she lacked; it didn’t help that her father allowed his son freedom, privilege and education and denied his wife and daughter these things (Rubins, 1978, p. 10).  Horney’s mother disagreed with this and supported her daughter’s quest for education.  This presence of a strong female role model is likely to have affected her later ideas on feminine psychology.  Horney felt rejected by her father and was very competitive with her brother.  She used her intellect to surpass him and became a rebellious child. 

     When Horney was in medical school at the University of Berlin, she was psychoanalyzed by Karl Abraham, one of Freud’s most ardent supporters.  She was also trained in the Freudian tradition.  Horney’s ambivalent feelings toward her father, dependence on her mother, resentment of playing a secondary role to her brother, and the conflict within herself between the roles of professional woman and homemaker were all confronted in her analysis.  However, she was unhappy with the analysis because she wanted the childhood issues fixed, not just brought back up.  She was still troubled by depression and asked, “Does not the real work begin after the analysis?  The analysis shows one her enemies but one must battle them afterwards, day by day” (Rubins, 1978, p. 39).  This raised the question that prompted her search for a new form of psychoanalysis.  Horney did not intend to build a new school of psychoanalysis, but wished to build on the foundation Freud had laid.  She believed that “neither thorough recall of infantile experiences nor the explanation of one’s attitudes in terms of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories was sufficient to eliminate one’s distress” (Rubins, 1978, p. 39).  Karen Horney’s childhood experiences made an obvious impact on her psyche and encouraged her to develop a new way to help people who were suffering from mental illnesses.

     Karen Horney suffered from recurring depressions throughout her life.  She not only had many problems that stemmed from her childhood, but she was disillusioned by her own marriage and had difficulties in raising her three daughters.  These were things she often addressed in her work.  She married Oskar Horney in 1909, and by 1912 they had an open marriage.  They were discreet in their affairs, and they upheld an image of a happy marriage for their children.  Image was something Horney was perpetually concerned with.  She seemed to pride herself on not showing her feelings, and had a strong need to separate her private self from her public self (Rubins, 1978, p. 172).  She was incisive and certain of her own ideas, yet she had a tendency toward needing love and admiration that sometimes, especially in her early years, prevented her from speaking up in protest of other’s ideas or criticisms she received.  Also, although Horney felt “essentially unloved and unwanted as a child, she was viewed by her own children as having a laissez-faire attitude toward them” (Hergenhahn & Olson, 1999, p. 129).  She rarely spoke up when her husband was disciplining them.  Horney had a natural tendency to avoid conflict that was exemplified in many areas of her life.  This carried into her professional life.  Though her ideas made her an ideal and symbol of a liberated woman to many, active conflict was repellent to her.  She couldn’t understand the strife between various analytic groups or between the others in the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute and herself, and frequently commented, “Why can’t we be friends in spite of our differences?” (Rubins, 1978, p. 93).     

The main differences that she was referring to included problems with agreeing on whether or not medical training was necessary for psychoanalysts and what, if any, advances in psychoanalysis broke with Freudian tradition.  Horney’s supporters believed that her contributions were acceptable and necessary to further psychoanalysis and help it evolve to meet the demands of a changing society.   Horney disagreed with the Oedipal complex and Freud’s division of the personality into the id, the ego, and the superego.  She felt his theory was for another place and time and did not fit people’s needs during such events as the Great Depression and World War II.  She believed that sexual problems were secondary to the problems that were created by these environmental conditions, and that conflicts were not caused by the opposing components of the mind.  Karen Horney’s personality theory had several similarities to Freudian theory that are often overlooked.  They both stressed the developmental importance of early childhood, but Horney did not agree with the psychosexual stages.  She believed that conflict was rooted in basic anxiety, which is caused by childhood feelings of insecurity, so both theories have their basis in repressed hostility.  Horney’s auxiliary approaches to artificial harmony are similar in concept to Freud’s ego-defense mechanisms.  Some supporters say that since she did not refute the Oedipus complex, just interpreted it differently, she is still a Freudian analyst.

Karen Horney was a strong presence in the field of psychology for many years.  She became a practicing psychoanalyst in 1919 and much of her work was completed during the 1920’s and 1930’s; by the mid 1920’s she was becoming associated with women’s problems, both within the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society and outside of it.  She was an influential teacher, and was very proud to be a training analyst at the Berlin Institute and to be able to share her love of healing people with others.  She also allowed herself to be taught by many of her colleagues.  She learned principles of sociology from Erich Fromm, religion and morality from Karl Muller-Braunschweig and Paul Tillich, and was highly influenced by Georg Groddeck, the father of psychosomatic medicine.

     Karen had a strong intrapersonal intelligence which enabled her to incorporate new ideas and things she was exposed to into her own theories to develop innovative therapeutic methods that she truly believed in.  She was probably helped by the fact that she herself suffered from recurrent depressions throughout her life and attempted suicide once.  This helped her have more insight into the wants and needs of her patients and their desires for recovery.  She was often described as intuitive, and she had a tendency toward self-analytic questioning (Rubins, 1978, p. 23).  Of herself, Horney said:

I really shouldn’t read anything, no books but only myself.  For one half of my being lives, the other observes, criticizes, is given to irony.  Things look so devastated in me that I myself cannot burrow my way through the labyrinth.  And yet: I am beginning to burrow.  I often think I see the light toward which I am struggling.  Then again I get deeper into chaos.  Before my confirmation, I made my last attempt to pray.  The same words came: Lord, give me truth.  I now know no one can give me this, but only through my own work will I get a clear view.

(Rubins, 1978, p. 23).


At a personal level, Horney always questioned her own motives and actions.  This began with her keeping a detailed diary all the way from age thirteen to twenty-four and continued on throughout her life.  Another evidence for the strength of Horney’s intrapersonal skills is shown in her strong advocacy for self-analysis.  This is one of the areas in which she disagreed with Freud.  Freud and many others at the time believed that one needed intense training and to undergo analysis oneself to become proficient at analysis, whereas Horney thought that, while success was dependent on one’s self-discipline and determination, self-analysis could be done with the proper knowledge and skills.  Controversially, she once said, “We must not, however, forget that life may be the best therapist” (Rubins, 1978, p. 153).

     Horney was also very curious from a young age.  This began with her persistent questioning of the moral and religious beliefs that she was trained to believe by her father.  She was passionate about literature, drama, and philosophy, and eventually literature and philosophy were used in her theories.  She advocated the use of literature in self-analysis, and late contributions to her theory had their basis in Zen and the ways of Eastern philosophy.  Eastern philosophy interested her because of its foundation in an “uplifting, spiritual power close to her concept of self-realization” (Rubins, 1978, p. 324).

     Interpersonal and verbal/linguistic intelligence were other skills Horney possessed.  She was said to have had excellent speaking skills, and while she spoke with calmness and restraint and always focused on psychology, she radiated enthusiasm and touched many emotionally as well as intellectually.  She was a strong writer who was able to put complex concepts into simpler terms, using little terminology but emphasizing the human involvement of her work.  However, she admitted that writing did not always come easily to her.  When it did, it could be attributed to her tendency to surrender total involvement to whatever she was involved with at the moment (Rubins, 1978, p. 16).

     While Horney was not particularly strong in bodily/kinesthetic intelligence or visual/spatial intelligence, she did recognize their importance, both in her own life and in the lives of her patients.  She was very impressed by the expressionistic motion pictures that the postwar artistic renaissance brought about.  Also, her daughter Brigitte became an acclaimed actress in Germany, something that Horney encouraged and was very proud of, though it was far removed from her own career choice.  In 1942, Horney took up oil painting.  Her teacher, Richard Hulbeck, said, “…her painting was realistic and conservative. She had difficulty with the abstract…even then, she had talent and great intelligence” (Rubins, 1978, p. 256).  Horney understood the importance of being in tune with one’s body, because she often sent patients to a physiotherapist for concurrent exercise, dance therapy, relaxation work, or massage.  She also did this because she accepted that many somatic symptoms, like muscle tension, were caused by conflict.

     Horney was motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors.  Her curious personality compelled her to ask questions and find answers, and her personality prompted her to want to help and nurture people.  Her personality also told her that if she had an idea that she thought would benefit society, she should not hide it for fear of criticism.  Though she was strongly influenced by Freud, Horney disagreed with him about most of his conclusions on women.  She stressed the positive aspects of femininity and believed that women felt inferior to men because they were culturally inferior.  She rejected the Freudian notion of penis envy by saying that it was not penises women envied, rather it was the ability to influence and participate in their culture freely (Hergenhahn & Olson, 1999, p. 144).  She understood that Freud’s ideas were a product of his time and the mentality of his time, and that feminine psychology was necessary because “…the psychology of women hitherto actually represents a deposit of the desires and disappointments of men” (Hergenhahn & Olson, 1999, p. 145).  Disagreeing with Freud at the time when Horney did was difficult because those who did were “excommunicated just as if they had violated religious dogma” (Hergenhahn & Olson p. 152).  Horney learned from her father as a child how devastating blind belief in religious dogma could be, which could be one reason why she refused to let Freud go unchallenged. 

     Other differences between Freud and Horney that were criticized involved her optimism and her psychotherapeutic goal.  She followed therapeutic techniques of Freud, including dream analysis, transference, and free association, but used them differently.  She used them to find out which major adjustment technique a patient was using, not their repressed memories.  Horney believed that humans are born with a tendency toward growth, or self-realization, but that it may be interfered with by social factors.  She advocated the use of psychotherapy as a way to change her patients’ focus from their idealized selves to their real selves.  Freud essentially believed that humans are innately bad and unchangeable. 

Horney’s ultimate criticism occurred in 1940 when she was dismissed as a training analyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute because it was believed that she and her liberal group had a self-serving reason for training students in their methods without first emphasizing Freudian technique.  She resigned from the Society and took a group of people with her, including Clara Thompson, Bernard Robbins, Harmon Ephron, and Sarah Kelman.  They, along with fourteen of Horney’s students who graduated from the Institute, formed the American Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.  Her determination to share her ideas in the face of criticism and conflict is notable.

 Horney was motivated by extrinsic factors that included her surroundings, her removal from her esteemed position, and her supporters.  She was educated in Berlin and did much of her work there.  Berlin was the center of European medicine in the early 1900’s.  This provided Horney with a strong academic atmosphere, with many critics and supporters and many peers to learn from.  She began work there at a time when women were just being allowed to enter academia and were becoming respected for their intelligent ideas.  When Horney moved to America in 1932, she began to work less as a reaction to Freud and more as a reaction to her own cultural experiences.  Another extrinsic factor that obviously affected her work was her problem with the Institute that resulted in the formation of her own organization to train psychoanalysts using her techniques.

Karen Horney made innovative contributions to the domain of psychoanalysis during a time when psychoanalysis was a relatively new and controversial field already.  She not only refuted some of Freud’s major theories, but she attempted to move from biological to cultural determinism at a time when there was much controversy between medicine and psychoanalysis.  By adding another factor, that of social and environmental influences, Horney made her mark on the field.  Had she not had the strong intrapersonal intelligence necessary to become a respected analyst and the interpersonal intelligence to clearly and convincingly convey her ideas and attract supporters, little would have been made of Horney’s theories.  Horney can obviously be understood as a creator through Gardner’s triad model.  Her childhood experiences obviously shaped her personality and later influenced her psychoanalytic theory.  In turn, her personality affected her relations with others in her domain, her family, her peers, her critics, and her supporters.  It allowed her to obtain and hold prominent positions in psychology and to help countless patients.  Horney took much pride in her work; she refused to allow orthodox Freudian doctrine and its supporters to prevent her from voicing the theories that she carefully constructed from years of personal introspection integrated with observations of societal influence.




Gardner, Howard (1993).  Creating Minds.  New York: Basic Books.


Hergehhahn, B. R. and Olson, M. H. (1999). An Introduction to Theories of Personality.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall.


Rubins, Jack L. (1978). Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis.  New York: The Dial Press.