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Karen Horney and Her Contribution to Psychology: Literature Review

Xenia J. Kozlov


This paper sets the goal to give a literature review of the academic legacy of Karen Horney within the topic “Unheard Voices in Psychology”. Roughly, the research of Horney’s whole life could be divided into three wide directions: neo-Freudism, feminine studies, and research on self. All of them were reflected in further psychological studies, so the contribution of Karen Horney into modern psychology cannot be assumed as over evaluated.

Keywords: Karen Horney, neo-Freudism, feminine psychology, self-psychology.


Unheard voices in psychology are an important problem of social justice. Informing people about the psychologists who remain unknown is not a part of our job but it is the part of our worldview. Considering the merit recognition of those who worked hard for contributing to the field of psychology and were unfairly forgotten should be considered a task for every socially responsible practitioner. From this point, Karen Horney is one among those whose writings were underestimated. She actually has started women’s psychology studies and contributed significantly to modern concepts of humanism, self-psychology, and psychoanalysis stating that individuals are able to improve their mental health (Cherry, 2018).

Karen Horney's academic legacy is multilateral. First of all, it would be reasonable to mention her personal involvement in her studies. She started as a physician, being one of the first women who enrolled medical classes, and got her M.D. Shortly after, family issues impacted her choice of psychoanalysis: she was looking for help in coping with her parents' death and husband's illness (Langenderfer, 1999).

In this paper, we will explore three main directions in Karen Horney's studies. and, respectively, literature about these studies, These can be divided into three directions: neo-Freudism, when Horney objected Freud’s view on factors impacting on personality (the most famous is rejection of “penis jelousy”), feminine psychology, which is rooted in Horney’s practice as one of the first female psychiatrist, that allowed her to observe and formulate women’s specific problems, and the self-psychology – this one includes theory of neurosis and observing narcissism phenomena. . In this paper, all of them are observed.


Horney’s psychological research started as classic psychoanalysis studies but approximately at the time of rising Nazism and her movement to the United States, Horney moved away from orthodox Freudism. She criticized the main aspects of the Oedipus complex, concepts of sex and aggression as primarily driving forces of human's personality, and “penis envy” Libido theory (Ingram, 2012). In her book, “New Ways of Psychoanalysis” (1939), Horney states that the “womb envy” can be observed in men in the same amounts as “penis envy” can be found in women.

Alfred Adler’s view on individual psychology, which included, among others, socially oriented approaches, have significantly impacted on Horney’s vision (Watts & Critelli, 1997).

Working together with Alfred Adler, Harry Sullivan and Erich Fromm, Horney shifted focus from sex and jealousy towards social and cultural aspects in personality. According to Danto (2005), Karen Horney was one of most influential psychoanalysts who introduced the social culture relativism – the principle regarding the impact of social and cultural factors on individual - in classic Freudian theory.

Feminine Psychology

Pushing off the chauvinistic tenets of classical Freudism and basing her research on practical experience, Horney studied women psychology and psychiatry and, in fact, was a pioneer in this field. Horney argued that women’s psychology had only been viewed from the men’s point of view. She emphasized the role of social pressure, which dictated women's objectification and fixation on marriage, the emerging of mistrust in family and conflicts between parents and children, and, mostly important, in developing of inner conflict. It is theorized that Horney later switched her attention from feminine psychology to the studies on Self and never returned back to feminine issues, but, according to Marcia Westcott, this question is at least controversial (Westcott, 1986).

Horney’s comments about the impact of cultural factors on gender roles and women’s development were very radical compared to the mainstream view on gender in the first half of 20th century. Her questioning about the real roots of “true nature” of women’s conformity seems obvious today, and this is a definite sign of Horney’s contribution to gender studies (Smith, 2006).


Probably, the most appreciated part of Horney's contribution is her research on self and the role of the inner conflict in emerging neurosis. This direction has multiple relations both with Horney's contemporary theories, as well as with later studies (Smith, 2007). According to Horney's theory, the gap between real self and ideal self causes neurotic reactions. Thus, the real self is the source of inner force in each individual while the ideal self arises in response to anxiety, which sprouts from the problematic environment. This environment, usually expressed through non-affirming positive feedback from significant others, also works for alienation of the personality from their real self. The actual self, which is the mixture of strengths and weaknesses, describe person’s current existence in the world. In her book, “Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis” (first published 1945, cited by reissued edition, 1992), Horney states that self is mostly a product of environment impact, especially the early parent-child relationships (Paris, 1999), distinguishes 10 neurotic needs which impact defensive mechanisms, and pays special attention to narcissism as a product of certain social influence (Horney, 1992). According to Horney, individual’s behavior is not naturally destructive (and this was a significant step off the Freudian standpoint) and refers rather anxiety and neurotic conflicts than to destructive instincts (DeRosis, 1991).

Horney’s findings based on her view of selves and neurosis, gave start to our current understanding of psychotherapy, for instance, cultural and interpersonal contributions to neurosis, continued nature of human’s development, self-realization and self-motivation. Heinz Kohut, in a certain way, echoed her view on interaction between self and significant other in his concepts of empathic immersion. We can also see the roots of Horney’s ideas in the attachment theory – the most fascinating, probably, is the notice that with the lack of attachment one’s behaviors loose flexibilityy (Smith, 2006). Modern studies in theory of attachment points that people who experience the lack of attachmentmay suffer from avoidant attachment disorder which is expressed in lack of flexibility in behaviors and failure to develop close relationship (DeGangi, 2017).


Karen Horney was an outstanding personality who, as noted by Susan Quinn, “had a mind of her own,” born a rebel and continuing to rebel through all her life (Quinn, 1987). Horney's works impacted Kohut's studies of the self, Attachment theory, and feminist approaches in psychology. She developed principles of psychotherapy that are relevant today (Smith, 2007).

Speaking about unheard voices in psychology, it is rather controversial why a scientist who had contributed to the field so much stays relatively unknown within wide circles of specialists. This proves that the problem of unheard voices is relevant as ever in our society.


Cherry, K. (2018, December 11th). Contributions of Karen Horney to Psychology: Why She Disagreed with Freud. Retrieved from

Danto, E. A. (2005). Freud’s Free Clinics : Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918–1938. New York: Columbia University Press. Retrieved from

DeGangi, G. A. (2017). Addressing Attachment and Problems of Intimacy: How to Build Healthy Emotional Connections. Pediatric Disorders of Regulation in Affect and Behavior (2nd Ed.). Kensington, MD, Academic Press, pp. 57-115.

DeRosis, L. E. (1981). Horney theory and narcissism. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41(4), 337-346.

Horney, K. (1939). New Ways in Psychoanalysis. Retrieved from

Horney, K. (1992). Our Inner Conflicts : A CONSTRUCTIVE THEORY OF NEUROSIS. (Reissued Ed.). New York, NY. W. W. Norton & Company.

Ingram, D. H. (2012). Who Was Karen Horney? Psychiatric Times, 29(3), 22–23. Retrieved from

Paris, B. J. (1999). Karen Horneys Vision of the Self. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis (59), 157-166. Retrieved from

Quinn, S. (1987). A mind of her own: The life or Karen Horney. Lexington, MA. Plunkett Lake Press.

Smith, W. B. (2007). Karen Horney and Psychotherapy in the 21st Century. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(1), 57–66.

Watts, R. E., Critelli, J. W., (1997). Roots of contemporary cognitive theories in the individual psychology of Alfred Adler. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy 11(3), 147-156. Retrieved from:

Westkott, M. (1986). The feminist legacy of Karen Horney. New Haven, CT, US: Yale University Press.

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