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Finding Inner Harmony: The Underappreciated Legacy of Karen Horney

“To learn how to listen to the delicate vibrations of my soul, to be incorruptibly true to myself and fair to others, to find in this way the right measure of my own worth.”


— Karen Horney’s New Year’s Eve resolution in 1904 at the age of 18 (from Adolescent Diaries of Karen Horney)

I believe Karen Horney (1885-1952) is one of the most underappreciated psychologists of all time. Many of Horney’s ideas about personality development are backed by modern personality psychology, attachment theory, and findings on the effects of traumatic experiences on the brain. Horney was truly a pioneer in psychology, not only for challenging Freud’s ideas about women (see her book Feminine Psychology) but also for reconceptualizing the fundamental source of our inner conflicts, and for offering hope that the hard work of self-analysis can lead to growth and development.

From Freud to Wholeness

Freud believed that our basic conflict was between our “primitive egocentric drives” and our “forbidding conscience” that prohibits full expression of those urges. His was an incredibly pessimistic view of human nature, to say the least. While agreeing with Freud that our inner conflicts can be highly disruptive, Horney did not believe that “underneath it all”, we all were just a cauldron of destructive urges like anger and sexual frustration. Sure, they were parts of us but far from the whole of us.

Instead, Horney saw the basic conflict as arising from “the loss of capacity to wish for anything wholeheartedly because his very wishes are divided, that is, they go in opposite directions.” At its core, Horney believed that humans have the capacity as well as the desire to develop their potentials and become a decent human being, but that these potentials deteriorate as our relationship to others and to ourselves is disturbed.

Horney also radically departed from Freud in emphasizing the power of environmental forces to shape our enduring personality. Horney sought to understand the genesis and driving forces of our whole personality: “Any neurotic attitude or conflict that crystallizes during analysis must be understood in its relation to the personality as a whole,” she noted.

Horney believed that “most of us want and appreciate affection, self-control, modesty, consideration of others,” although she recognized a neurotic counterpart to every basic human need, arising from a combination of temperamental and environmental influences. According to Horney, “neurotic trends” are attitudes toward life that provide a feeling of safety and security under times of confusion and distress but which ultimately stunt growth.

“If the spirit at home is one of warmth, or mutual respect and consideration, the child can grow unimpeded,” Horney explained. “Unfortunately, in our civilization there are many environmental factors adverse to a child’s development… Harassed by these disturbing conditions, the child gropes for ways to keep going, ways to cope with this menacing world. In doing so, he develops not only ad hoc strategies but lasting character trends which become part of his personality.”

Horney includes a long list of adverse environmental factor that influence the development of our neurotic trends, from well-meaning parents who exert too much pressure on the child to succeed; to parents who are unpredictable and constantly shift back and forth between smothering love and intimidation, tyranny and glorification, comradeship and authoritarianism; to parents who force the child to take one parent’s side over another; to parents who make a child feel that his or her entire purpose on the planet is to live up to their expectations, enhance their prestige, or blindly serve their needs—keeping the child from recognizing his/her existence as an individual with distinct rights and responsibilities.

In her writings, Horney provides extraordinarily precise and clear distinctions between our basic human strivings and their neurotic counterparts. “[T]he neurotic pursuits are almost a caricature of the human values they resemble,” she observes. The biggest indication that a basic need has developed in a neurotic direction is the compulsive nature of the need. In the grip of a neurotic striving, we are often unaware of the extent to which it is determining and taking over our life. The compulsive nature of neurotic trends often has two main characteristics:

  • Neurotic trends are often pursued indiscriminately (e.g., we must have everyone like us, even if we don’t like a person),
  • Thwarting of the neurotic trend in any situation often leads to panic and anxiety (e.g., a person with a compulsive need for unlimited freedom panics at the slightest hint of a tie, whether it’s marriage or the need to sign a contract for a gym membership).

As Horney points out, neurotic trends serve an immensely important function in maintaining a sense of safety and security, which is why such individuals feel great terror if their neurotic trend is threatened in any way. They are soothing illusions. The deep implication of Horney’s work is that, when in the grip of a neurotic trend, we are so hung up on our “tyrannical shoulds” that we aren’t actually moving in the direction we truly value. Horney gives the example of the neurotic counterpart of the basic human striving for affection:

“A wish for affection from others is meaningful only if there is affection for them, a feeling of having something in common with them… But the neurotic need for affection is devoid of the value of reciprocity. For the neurotic person his own feelings of affection count as little as they would if him were surrounded by strange and dangerous animals. To be accurate, he does not even really want the others’ affection, but is merely concerned, keenly and strenuously, that they make no aggressive move against him. The singular value lying in mutual understanding, tolerance, concern, sympathy, has no place in the relationship.”

What are the main neurotic trends in humans? While initially proposing a list of 10 neurotic trends, Horney astutely observed that many of them cluster together; they are compatible with each other and don’t lead to inner conflict. For instance, a compulsive craving for power often goes along with a craving for prestige as well as the tendency to exploit others; a compulsive craving for affection often goes along with the compulsive need for approval from others, as well as the need for a strong romantic partner who will “solve all problems” and provide one with an identity.

However, she also noted that some clusters are at odds with each other. Taking a more panoramic view of human nature, Horney proposed three main directions in which a person can move: toward people, against people, and away from people.

What is Your Neurotic Trend?

“Moving Toward People”— Compliance

Having what is known as the “compliant” personality, these people appease others at any personal cost including self-subordination and the shedding of individuality. They evaluate themselves by what others think and become overly dependent on other people for love and safety. Horney believed that these people gain a feeling of support and belonging which minimizes their feelings of weakness and isolation. However, in doing so, they accept their own helplessness, and can only feel safe and secure when they win the affection of others and their support. If there are dissenting parents, the child will often attach themselves to the most powerful person or group to create an increased sense of belonging, which makes the child feel less weak and less isolated. The element of basic anxiety, helplessness, is overemphasized in this way of living.

In modern research, this approach to others has been shown to be positively correlated with dependent and histrionic personality disorders, as well as an anxious attachment style. Below are some items adapted from a scale created by Frederick Coolidge and his colleagues that measure the compliant neurotic trend. See how much you agree with each item and treat this as an opportunity for some honest and authentic self-analysis:

1. I need to be liked by everyone.

2. I am completely self-sacrificing.

3. I’d almost always rather be with someone else than be alone.

4. I care very much what other people think of me.

5. I feel crushed if I am rejected.

6. I feel weak and helpless when I’m alone.

7. I try to avoid fighting or arguing.

8. I tend to feel it’s my fault if something goes wrong.

9. I tend to be the one who apologizes first.

10. I need the company of others.

“Moving Against People”— Aggressive

Having the “aggressive” personality, these individuals automatically distrust other people’s feeling and intentions, and rebel in whatever way they can. They accept the hypocrisy and hostility around them, and determine, consciously or unconsciously, to fight. They distrust the feelings and intentions of others toward themselves, tend to have a “jungle” worldview, and are prone to an authoritarian personality.

They want to be the stronger person at all times and defeat others, partly for their own protection, and partly for revenge. The element of hostility is overemphasized in this way of living. Modern research correlates this type with antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, paranoid, and passive-aggressive personality disorders.Here are some items adapted from a scale created by Frederick Coolidge and his colleagues that measures the aggressive neurotic trend:

1. It’s a hostile world.

2. Life is a struggle.

3. I like to be in command.

4. Only the strongest survive.

5. I enjoy feeling powerful.

6. I enjoy outsmarting other people.

7. Other people are too sentimental.

8. I am uninhibited and brave.

9. To survive in this world, you have to look out for yourself first.

10. It’s a fact of life most successful people step on others to get ahead.

“Moving Away From People”—Detached

Finally, having the “detached” personality, these people do not have feelings of belonging or the desire to fight, but prefer to be kept apart from other people. Instead, they are more concerned with distancing themselves from others, but in doing so they are also estranged from themselves. They consciously and unconsciously avoid emotional involvement with others and display an exaggerated need for self-sufficiency. They build up a world of their own with nature, dolls, books, and dreams. The element of isolation is emphasized in modern research, and this type is positively correlated with avoidant personality disorder as well as an avoidant attachment style. Here are some items adapted from a scale created by Frederick Coolidgethat measures the detached neurotic trend:

1. I am self-sufficient.

2. I don’t really need people.

3. I could live quite well without anyone.

4. I avoid long-term obligations.

5. I resent people trying to influence me.

6. I try to avoid advice from others.

7. I could live fine without friends or family.

8. I like it better when people do not share their thoughts or feelings with me.

9. I feel I’d be better off without people than with people.

10. I try to avoid conflicts.

Finding Inner Harmony

Let’s be clear: It is perfectly normal and healthy to value solitude, to want to express frustration and anger when your needs are thwarted, and to desire the affection and adulation of others. Neurotic trends are defined, specifically, by their compulsive nature and ability to seize upon the whole person. The healthy personality is able to flexibly switch between various strivings, and regulate behavior in a productive manner that actually moves the person toward fulfillment. Horney argues there are two ways in which our neurotic trends create “artificial harmony”:

  • We repress certain aspects of our personality and bring their opposite to the fore (e.g., we overemphasize our ability to be a kind, caring person who would never, ever, under any circumstanceact aggressively toward others; we overemphasize our ability to control our environment and dominate others and make it clear that we will, under no circumstances, back down, apologize, or look ‘weak’ by showing kindness), or
  • We put such a distance between ourselves and others that we don’t even allow the conflicts to arise in the first place (e.g., we value solitude so much that we will never engage in anything that may jeopardize that space and bring attention to our inner conflicts).

Both strategies induce a false sense of unity that may allow a person to function in the moment, even if at the long-term cost to oneself and others. Ultimately, however, Horney believed in the great potential for growth and development. In fact, she referred to her theory as a “constructive” theory, and believed the highest goal of therapy is the striving for wholeheartedness: “to be without pretense, to be emotionally sincere, to be able to put the whole of oneself into one’s feeling, one’s work, one’s beliefs.” As Horney notes,

“Our daring to name such high goals rests upon the belief that the human personality can change. It is not only the young child who is pliable. All of us retain the capacity to change, even to change in fundamental ways, as long as we live.”



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