Karen Horney: Short Biography and Contributions to Psychology

Karen Horney was a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst born in Germany in September 1885. Horney was a student of medicine in Germany, graduating with her M.D. degree in 1911 from the University of Berlin. Karen Horney married a lawyer, Oskar Horney, in 1910. After practicing medicine for a couple of years, from 1913 to 1915, she began to study psychoanalytic theory under Karl Abraham, a disciple and close associate of Sigmund Freud. In 1915, Horney worked in the domain of clinical and outpatient psychiatry before becoming a member of the teaching staff at Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute in 1920.

Karen Horney kept diaries during her adolescence, from which we learn that her father was a strict disciplinarian who favoured her brother Brendnt over her. Horney cared deeply for her brother and eventually developed a crush which resulted in him distancing himself from her. Her tumultuous childhood triggered her depression at a young age and later grew into frequent suicidal thoughts in adulthood.

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After her marriage to Oskar Horney failed in 1926, Karen Horney moved to the United States of America in 1932 to work as Associate Director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. In 1934, she moved to New York and began teaching at the New School for Social Research, where she worked on her two most famous works – The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937) and New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939). It was also in New York that she met Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm, both psychoanalysts, and worked on developing her theories on neurosis and personality. Horney’s work starkly differed from Freud’s teachings in several respects which led to her being dismissed from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Later, in 1941, along with other rebels, Karen Horney founded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis and worked with the organisation until she died in 1952. She is also credited with establishing the American Journal of Psychoanalysis.


Karen Horney rose to fame because of her open criticism of certain aspects of Freudian psychology. Despite being a follower of Freudian teachings, Horney strongly disagreed with his views on female psychology, especially the notions of penis envy and the various manifestations of male bias proposed by Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. In contrast to Freud’s proposition of penis envy, Horney introduced the idea of womb envy, which referred to the male envy of pregnancy and motherhood that pushed them to assert their superiority in other fields. She also argued that the roots of female psychiatry disturbance lay in male-dominated cultural influences rather than instinctual drives. Hence, she is considered a pioneer in the field of feminine psychiatry. Feminine psychiatry is a domain that focuses on the psychiatric treatment of women and studies how power imbalances between men and women have a significant impact on mental health and how psychological theories are developed and understood within the discipline of psychology.

She rejected many of Freud’s ideas and instead based her theories and understanding of human psychiatry on her vast clinical experience. In her works The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937) and New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939), she asserted that neurosis and personality disorders are primarily a result of social and environmental conditioning rather than biological and instinctual principles as suggested by Freud. She objected to his ideas on the Oedipus Complex, death anxiety and libido, which she felt could more accurately be explained using social and cultural influences.

Horney further challenged Freud’s notion that human beings are primarily motivated by sex and aggression. Instead, she approached human motivation from a humanistic perspective and identified the need for love and security as primary motivators.

Also Read: Sudhir Kakar and His Contributions

Karen Horney’s Theory of Neurotic Needs

Horney’s most notable contribution to psychoanalytics is her Theory of Neurotic Needs. The theory, outlined in her book titled “Self-Analysis”, is one of the most popular theories of neurosis that identifies and describes the various types of neurotic needs and behaviour that arise from the overuse of coping strategies used to combat primary anxiety.

Horney argues that basic anxiety, and therefore neurosis, can be a result of various factors that include too much or too little responsibility, too much or the absence of admiration, lack of guidance, discrimination, violent environment, over-protection, lack of respect, etc.

While all individuals experience some form of basic anxiety throughout their lives, an excessive need for anything leads to neurosis. With this in mind, Horney outlines Ten Neurotic Needs

  1. The Neurotic Need for Affection and Approval: This refers to the desire to please other people and live up to their expectations. It often leads to people being terrified of failure and sensitive to criticism and rejection.
  2. The Neurotic Need for Over-Reliance on a Partner: This refers to being over-dependant on one’s partner and constantly fearing that they may leave. It causes people to rely on their partners for decision making.
  3. The Neurotic Need for Restriction of One’s Life: This causes people to be undemanding, and they generally tend to undervalue their own worth.
  4. The Neurotic for Exploitation of Others: This need causes people to exploit others and often think of other people in terms of what they can gain from them. This could be in terms of power, money, sex, etc. Such individuals tend to be manipulative.
  5. The Neurotic Need for Power: This refers to the need to be dominating. Such individuals value strength and despise weakness, and fear losing control. 
  6. The Neurotic Need for Prestige: This refers to the need for recognition and fame. People with this need evaluate everything based on its prestige value and fear loss of status or public embarrassment.
  7. The Neurotic Need for Personal Admiration: People with this need tend to be narcissistic and have an exaggerated sense of self-worth.
  8. The Neurotic Need for Personal Achievement: This refers to the need to continue to achieve greater things in order to avoid insecurity and combat their crippling fear of failure.
  9. The Neurotic Need for Self-Sufficiency and Independence: Such individuals tend to distance themselves from other people to avoid being dependent or tied down by attachments.
  10. The Neurotic Need for Perfection and Unassailability: Such individuals strive to be infallible and constantly evaluate themselves to correct their perceived flaws.

Here, Horney recognised three broad categories that the neurotic needs fall under –

  • The first two needs are those which move us towards people.
  • Needs numbered three through eight are those which move us against people.
  • And finally, the final three needs are those which move us away from people.

These neurotic needs lead to feelings of helplessness, hostility or isolation based on which category they fit into and these may result in social maladjustment.

Horney opined that all individuals feel a need to be loved and admired, and this need becomes a cause of insecurity and anxiety. While it is common for individuals to give in to their insecurities and seek such approval, being obsessed with external gratification is extremely unhealthy and causes neurosis.


Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2020). Karen Horney. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Karen-Horney.

Cherry, K. (2020). Why Karen Horney Is Important to Feminine Psychology. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/biography-2795539#brief-timeline

GoodTherapy. (2015). Karen Horney (1885-1952). Karen Horney Biography. https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/karen-horney.html.

Cherry, K. (2019). The 10 Needs of Neurotic People. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/horneys-list-of-neurotic-needs-2795949.

Kinder, J. (n.d.). Basic Anxiety & Neurosis: Karen Horney’s Theory. Study.com | Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers. https://study.com/academy/lesson/basic-anxiety-neurosis-karen-horneys-theory.html.

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Pragati is an undergraduate student currently pursuing her BA/BSc in Psychology at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune. She displays a keen interest in the social sciences and is passionate about writing. She wishes to apply her education in the domain of social work in the future. Reading, swimming and travelling are some activities that keep her going.