Chapter 9:  Horney – Shifting Perspectives on Psychodynamic Theory

Part 1: Karen Horney

Karen Horney stands alone as the only woman recognized as worthy of her own chapter in many personality textbooks, and the significance of her work certainly merits that honor.  She did not, however, focus her entire career on the psychology of women. Horney came to believe that culture was more important than gender in determining differences between men and women.  After refuting some of Freud’s theories on women, Horney shifted her focus to the development of basic anxiety in children, and the lifelong interpersonal relationship styles and intrapsychic conflicts that determine our personality and our personal adjustment.

This image shows two separate photos side-by-side. The photo on the left is a black and white image of Sigmund Freud. He is holding a cigar in his right hand and he has his left hand resting on his hip as he poses for the camera. The photo on the right is a color photo of Karen Horney. The photo shows only her head and neck, and she is looking to the right of the camera.
Image Source: Ismail0747. (2016, April 3). Freudhorney. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

On a personal level, Horney was a complex woman.  Jack Rubins, who knew Horney during the last few years of her life, interviewed many people who knew her and came away with conflicting views:

She was described variously as both frail and powerful, both open and reticent, both warm and reserved, both close and detached, both a leader and needing to be led, both timid and awesome, both simple and profound.  From these characterizations, the impression emerges that she was not only a complex personality but changeable and constantly changing. She was able to encompass and unify, though with struggle, many diverse attitudes and traits… (pg. 13; Rubins, 1972)

Karen Clementine Theodore Danielssen was born on September 16, 1885, in Hamburg, Germany.  Her father was Norwegian by birth, but had become a German national. A successful sailor, he had become the captain of his own ship, and his family accompanied him on a few of his voyages, including trips around Cape Horn, along the west coast of South America, and as far north as San Diego in the United States.  Those trips established a life-long interest in travel, foreign customs, and diversity in the young Karen Horney. Although her father was a stern and repressive man, her mother, who was Dutch and 17 years younger than Horney’s father, was a dynamic, intelligent, and beautiful woman who maintained a very happy home for the children (Kelman, 1971; Rubins, 1972, 1978).

From early childhood, Horney enjoyed reading, studying, and going to school.  She was particularly interested in the novels of Karl May, who often wrote about the Native Americans, and Horney would play many games in which she pretended to be an Indian (usually, Chief Winnetou, a fictional character from May’s novels).  Her father believed that education was only for men, but her mother encouraged Horney’s schooling, and in doing so, set an example of independence that greatly influenced Horney’s life and career. Horney followed the traditional education of the day, covering science, math, French, Latin, English, and the humanities.  She also took special classes in speech, and for a time was very interested in dancing, drama, and the theatre. Despite the challenging curriculum, she was an excellent student and often placed first in her class. After being impressed by a friendly country doctor when she was 12, she decided to pursue a career in medicine.  When she began college at the age of twenty at the University of Freiburg-in-Breisgau, her mother came along to get her settled in and to care for her. Horney soon became good friends with Ida Grote, who moved in with Horney and her mother to help offset the costs of attending college. In 1906, Horney also met her future husband, Oskar Horney (Kelman, 1971; Rubins, 1972, 1978).

Over the next few years, Horney began her medical studies at the University of Gottingen, and then transferred to the University of Berlin, where she received her medical degree in 1911.  In 1909, she had married Oskar Horney, who was described as a tall, slim, handsome man, a brilliant thinker, gifted organizer, and possessing great physical and emotional strength. He also attended the University of Berlin, eventually receiving doctorate degrees in Law, Economics, and Political Science.  They soon had three daughters, Brigitte, Marianne, and Renate (between 1911 and 1915). Both Karen and Oskar Horney were successful in their careers during the beginning of their marriage. He worked as a lawyer for a munitions company and he did very well financially. She was actively developing her medical career, but had to work at that much harder due to continued discrimination against women at the time.  Still, the family spent time together on the weekends when her brother’s family often visited and during family vacations. Nonetheless, the Horneys grew apart during these years. In 1923, during the turmoil following World War I, Oskar’s investments collapsed and he eventually went bankrupt. A year later, he was stricken with severe encephalomeningitis and spent 8 months in critical condition. These events radically altered his personality, as he became a broken and depressed person.  In 1926, Karen and Oskar separated and never got back together. It was not, however, until 1939 that Karen Horney legally divorced her husband (Kelman, 1971; Rubins, 1972, 1978).

For Karen Horney’s career, the years in Berlin were important and productive.  She entered into psychoanalysis with Karl Abraham, and later she was also analyzed by Hanns Sachs for a brief time.  Abraham appointed her as an instructor in the Berlin Psychoanalytic Poliklinik in 1919, and brought her to the attention of Sigmund Freud (with high praise).  She came to know many of the candidates for psychoanalytic training, and also became friends with many of them, including Melanie Klein, Wilhelm Reich, and Erich Fromm.  She also had many friends outside psychoanalytic circles, including the existential theologian Paul Tillich and the neurologist Kurt Goldstein (who coined the term self-actualization).  The psychoanalytic scene in Berlin was active and dynamic, and Horney was very much in the middle of it all, never shy about expressing her own ideas and different opinions. One such issue was that of training lay-analysts (psychologists, as opposed to psychiatrists).  She favored allowing the training for the purposes of research, but clearly favored medical training for those who would actually practice therapeutic psychoanalysis. This eventually led to conflict between Horney and her close friend Erich Fromm. Despite the many favorable circumstances in Berlin at the time, in the early 1930s, Hitler was elected and the Nazi regime began.  Although Horney was not Jewish, psychoanalysis was considered a “Jewish” science. So, when Franz Alexander, who had been asked to come to Chicago to establish a new psychoanalytic training institute, asked her to be the Associate Director of the newly established Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis, she accepted (Kelman, 1971; Rubins, 1972, 1978). This dramatic turn of events of her life did not, however, occur without a bit of chance.  Alexander had first asked Helene Deutsch, one of the first women to join Freud’s psychoanalytic group (see Sayers, 1991), but Deutsch was not interested at the time. Thus, Horney was the second choice for the position that brought her to America for the rest of her life (Kelman, 1971; Rubins, 1972, 1978).

Once in Chicago, however, her theoretical differences with Alexander became a clear source of disagreement.  Alexander was not willing, as Horney was, to discard significant elements of Freud’s original theories. So, just two years later, in 1934, Horney moved to New York City and joined the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  A number of her friends from Berlin had also come to New York, including Erich Fromm, Paul Tillich, and Wilhelm Reich. She soon met Harry Stack Sullivan and Clara Thompson, as they were establishing their new training institute in New York.  She also began teaching at the New School for Social Research and the American Institute for Psychoanalysis. Her private practice grew steadily, and Alvin Johnson, the president of the New School (as it is commonly known) introduced her to W. W. Norton, who established a well-known publishing house that produced all of Horney’s books.  Her first book was entitled The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937), which was followed by perhaps her two most radical books, New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939) and Self-Analysis (1942).  Horney had pursued new techniques in psychoanalysis and self-analysis, in part, because of her dissatisfaction with her own results as both a patient and a psychoanalyst.  Later, she published Our Inner Conflicts (1945), Are You Considering Psychoanalysis (1946), and Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization (1950).  After her death, Harold Kelman (who was both a friend and colleague) brought together a number of her early papers in Feminine Psychology (Kelman, 1967), and, as a special tribute, Douglas Ingram published the transcripts of her final lectures, presented during a class she taught in the fall of 1952 (Ingram, 1987).

During the 1930s and 1940s, Horney’s personal life was a social whirlwind.  She entertained frequently, often doing the cooking herself, and when her own home was in disarray, she would arrange the party at a friend’s home.  She bought and sold vacation homes often, including one where Oskar Horney stayed for a time, and she traveled frequently. She enjoyed playing cards and wanted to win so much that she would sometimes cheat.  When caught, she would freely admit it, laugh, and say that her opponents should have stopped her sooner. Sometimes she would gather her friends together and loudly sing German songs, in memory of their homeland (Kelman, 1971; Rubins, 1972, 1978).

At work, however, there was constant tension regarding theoretical and political issues in the psychoanalytic societies.  In 1941, the New York Psychoanalytic Institute voted to disqualify Horney as a training analyst due to her seemingly radical ideas on psychoanalytic techniques.  Half the society did not vote, however, and they soon left to form a new institute. Immediately following the vote, Horney walked out, and a group of analysts led by Clara Thompson followed her.  The very same month, twenty analysts joined Horney in forming the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, and Horney was asked to become the Dean of their soon to be established American Institute for Psychoanalysis.  When Thompson suggested that Sullivan be granted honorary membership, and Horney recommended the same for Fromm, Fromm refused because he was not going to be recognized as a clinical psychoanalyst. The resulting controversy led to a committee review, which voted against Fromm’s membership.  Among others, Fromm, Thompson, and Sullivan left the society. There were other political battles as well, and Horney was routinely torn between her professional beliefs, her need to control the direction of the society and institute, and her personal friendships with the individuals involved.  Although she held strong beliefs (such as opposing therapeutic psychoanalysis by lay-analysts like Fromm), she nonetheless encouraged challenging the original theories developed by Freud, as well as her own theories.

By 1950, Horney seemed to be feeling lonely and isolated.  Perhaps the political and theoretical battles had taken their toll, or perhaps it was her strained relationships with her daughters (they were never really close), or perhaps it was the beginning of the cancer that would eventually take her life.  Although Horney would not consult with her physician about the abdominal pains she was experiencing (thus she did not know that she had cancer), she did begin to develop strong spiritual interests. She occasionally attended Tillich’s sermons at St. John the Divine Church, though she seemed more interested in the philosophical and ethical aspects of religion than the spiritual aspects.  She kept a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy (1945/2004) by her bedside for over a year, reading daily on Huxley’s interpretations of Eastern and Western mystics.  A few years earlier she had met D. T. Suzuki, and she became particularly interested in Zen. In 1951, Suzuki led Horney on a trip to Japan, where she visited a number of Zen temples and had lengthy discussions with Zen monks.  Although she seemed more interested in the practical aspects of being a student of Zen, she nonetheless endeavored to put Zen principles into a context she could understand (such as equating enlightenment with self-realization; Rubins, 1972, 1978).  Late in 1952, her cancer became so advanced that she finally sought medical care. However, it was too late. On December 4, 1952, she died peacefully surrounded by her daughters.

Karen Horney’s career intersected many areas of psychology, relevant both to the past and to the future.  One of the first women trained in psychoanalysis, she was the first to challenge Freud’s views on women. She did not, however, attempt to reject his influence, but rather, felt that she honored him by building upon his achievements.  The most significant change that she felt needed to be made was a shift away from the biological/medical model of Freud to one in which cultural factors were viewed as at least equally as important. Indeed, she challenged Freud’s fundamental belief that anxiety follows biological impulses, and instead, suggested that our behaviors adapt themselves to a fundamental anxiety associated with the simple desire for survival and to cultural determinants of abnormal, anxiety-provoking situations.

Horney was also significant in the development of psychodynamic theory and psychoanalysis in America.  She helped to establish psychoanalytic societies and training institutes in Chicago and New York. She was a friend and colleague to many influential psychoanalysts, including Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm.  She encouraged cross-cultural research and practice through her own example, not only citing the work of anthropologists and sociologists, but also through her personal interest and support for the study of Zen Buddhism.

Although Horney herself abandoned the study of feminine psychology, suggesting instead that it represented the cultural effect of women being an oppressed minority group, her subsequent emphasis on the importance of relationships and interpersonal psychodynamic processes laid the foundation for later theories on the psychology of women (such as the relational-cultural model).  Thus, her influence is still being felt quite strongly today.

Supplemental Materials

Psychoanalytic Feminine Psychology of Karen Horney

This video [3:52] features Dr. Ann-Marie Neale, Professor of Counseling and Psychology at the Graduate Theological Foundation, providing a brief summary of Karen Horney’s work.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.
Graduate Theological Foundation.  (2013, December 3). Psychoanalytic feminine psychology of Karen Horney.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.