Horney’s Theory of Neurotic Needs

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Neurosis is an inability to adapt and a tendency to experience excessive negative or obsessive thoughts and behaviors. The term has been in use since the 1700s. In 1980, the diagnosis was removed from the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." While no longer a formal diagnosis, the term is still often used informally to describe behaviors related to stress and anxiety.

Karen Horney (pronounced HORN-eye) was a psychoanalyst and theorist who suggested that people possess a number of neurotic needs that play a role in driving behavior. In her 1942 book "Self-Analysis," Horney outlined her theory of neurosis, describing different types of neurotic behavior as a result of overusing coping strategies to deal with basic anxiety.

This article discusses Horney's theory of neurotic needs, including those for power, prestige, and affection. It also covers the three broad categories of needs and how they contributed to Karen Horney's theory of personality.

Horney's Theory of Neurotic Needs

Psychoanalytic theorist Karen Horney is known for developing one of the best-known theories of neurosis. She believed that neurosis resulted from basic anxiety caused by interpersonal relationships.

Horney's theory proposed that strategies used to cope with anxiety can be overused, causing them to take on the appearance of needs.

According to Horney, basic anxiety (and therefore neurosis) could result from a variety of situations. She suggested that as children, people often have experiences that contribute to neuroticism, including:

  • Excessive admiration
  • Injustice and discrimination
  • Isolation from other children
  • Lack of respect for needs
  • Lack of guidance
  • Lack of warmth
  • Over-protection
  • Parental arguments or hostility in the home
  • Too much or too little responsibility
  • Unkept promises

Three Types of Neurotic Needs

Horney's neurotic needs can be classified into three broad categories:

  1. Needs that move people toward others: These neurotic needs cause individuals to seek affirmation and acceptance from others. People with these needs are often described as needy or clingy as they seek out approval and love.
  2. Needs that move people away from others: These neurotic needs create hostility and antisocial behavior. These individuals are often described as cold, indifferent, and aloof.
  3. Needs that move people against others: These neurotic needs result in hostility and a need to control other people. These individuals are often described as difficult, domineering, and unkind.

Neurotic people tend to use two or more of these ways of coping, which then creates conflict, turmoil, and confusion.

Karen Horney's Theory of Personality

The three broad categories of neurotic needs essentially describe the various ways that people can cope with their social experiences. Horney believed that these coping strategies could affect a person's personality and came up with three types of personalities:

  • Aggressive: Assumes that everyone is the enemy and only looks out for themselves
  • Compliant: Sensitive to the needs of others and spontaneously works to meet others' expectations
  • Detached: Seeks to become self-sufficient, creating emotional distance from others to the point of alienation

Horney's theory is rooted in social psychology and contends that personality is affected by the way people perceive and interact with their environment.

Horney's 10 Neurotic Needs

Well-adjusted individuals use all three coping strategies (toward, away, and against others), shifting focus depending on internal and external factors. So what is it that makes these coping strategies neurotic? According to Horney, it is the overuse of one or more of these interpersonal styles.

1. The Need for Affection and Approval

Horney labeled the first need as the neurotic need for affection and approval. This need​ includes the desire to be liked, to please other people, and meet the expectations of others. People with this type of need are extremely sensitive to rejection and criticism and fear the anger or hostility of others.

2. The Need for a Partner

The second need is known as the neurotic need for a partner who will take over one's life. This involves the need to be centered on a partner. People with this need have an extreme fear of being abandoned by their partner. Oftentimes, these individuals place an exaggerated importance on love and believe that having a partner will resolve all of life’s troubles.

3. The Need to Restrict One’s Life

The third need centers on the neurotic need to restrict one's life within narrow borders. Individuals with this need prefer to remain inconspicuous and unnoticed. They are undemanding and content with little. They avoid wishing for material things, often making their own needs secondary and undervaluing their own talents and abilities.

4. The Need for Power

The fourth need Horney described is known as a neurotic need for power. Individuals with this need seek power for its own sake. They usually praise strength, despise weakness, and will exploit or dominate other people. These people fear personal limitations, helplessness, and uncontrollable situations.

5. The Need to Exploit Others

People with a neurotic need to exploit others view others in terms of what can be gained through association with them. People with this need generally pride themselves on their ability to exploit other people and are often focused on manipulating others to obtain desired objectives, including such things as ideas, power, money, or sex.

6. The Need for Prestige

Individuals with a need for prestige value themselves in terms of public recognition and acclaim. Material possessions, personality characteristics, professional accomplishments, and loved ones are evaluated based on prestige value. These individuals often fear public embarrassment and loss of social status.

7. The Need for Personal Admiration

Individuals with a neurotic need for personal admiration are narcissistic and have an exaggerated self-perception. They want to be admired based on this imagined self-view, not upon how they really are.

8. The Need for Personal Achievement

According to Horney, people push themselves to achieve greater and greater things as a result of basic insecurity. These individuals fear failure and feel a constant need to accomplish more than other people and to top even their own earlier successes.

9. The Need for Independence

This need is described as a neurotic need for self-sufficiency and independence. These individuals exhibit a “loner” mentality, distancing themselves from others in order to avoid being tied down or dependent on other people.

10. The Need for Perfection

People with a neurotic need for perfection and unassailability strive for complete infallibility. A common feature of this neurotic need is searching for personal flaws in order to quickly change or cover up these perceived imperfections.


The neurotic needs described by Horney include the need for affection, partnership, structure, power, control, prestige, admiration, achievement, independence, and perfection.

How Neurotic Needs Affect Behavior

Neurotic needs can lead to different types of behavior depending on the individual, their needs, and the situation. For example:

  • Sometimes neurotic needs can lead to behavior that is aggressive or antisocial. People with neurotic needs for power, prestige, or achievement may engage in behaviors that can be aggressive or exploitative.
  • At other times, neurotic needs may cause people to withdraw. Those with a need for independence, for example, might turn away from others as a way to feel more self-sufficient. 
  • In other cases, neurotic needs cause people to behave in ways that are compliant. For example, people who crave approval or affection may engage in people-pleasing behaviors to ensure that others like them.

Research suggests that people who are high in neuroticism tend to be more prone to negative emotions. This can contribute to a higher risk for feelings of anxiety, self-consciousness, anger, irritability, depression, and emotional instability.

Neuroticism has been associated with physical health issues, including lower immunity, heart problems, and an increased risk of death. It is also linked to lower marital satisfaction, increased worry, work-related problems, and overall lower quality of life.

If you tend to be high in neuroticism or struggle with some of the neurotic needs described by Horney, finding ways to cope can be important for both your physical and mental health.

Coping With Neurosis

If you find yourself engaging in neurotic behavior caused by some of the neurotic needs described by Horney, there are strategies that can help you cope. Remember that being neurotic doesn't mean that you are destined to be unhappy, anxious, or depressed. While neuroticism is linked to a susceptibility to negative emotions, finding ways to understand and manage your emotions can help.

Notice the Effects of Neurotic Needs

Neurotic needs can lead to feelings of stress, rumination, and internalization. Spend some time thinking about how your life might be affected by these tendencies.

Reframe Your Thinking

When you find yourself feeling negative about a situation or engaging in unhelpful behaviors, try to step back and reassess how you think about the situation. Purposely challenging your negative thoughts can be helpful for creating a more positive perspective and mindset. 

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that involves focusing on the present moment. As you practice mindfulness, you become more aware of how you are feeling and what you are thinking. While you observe these feelings, you focus on simply being aware of them without judging them or acting upon them.

Researchers have found that mindfulness might be a useful approach for combating neurotic, negative thoughts that contribute to worry, anxiety, and relationship problems.

Focus on Relationships

Social support is important for mental well-being and can be helpful when you are dealing with difficult emotions. Spend time working on strengthening your relationships, but be aware of how neurotic needs such as the need for affection, approval, power, or other needs might affect your relationships. 

Talk to a Professional

A therapist can help you better understand neuroticism and how it affects your behavior. They can also help you identify and change negative thinking patterns and develop other coping skills that will help you better tolerate distress and anxiety.


Strategies that can help people cope with neurosis include cognitive reframing, mindfulness, and social support. Therapy can also be helpful for changing negative thinking patterns that contribute to neurosis.

A Word From Verywell

While neuroticism is no longer considered a mental health diagnosis, researchers continue to investigate this aspect of personality. While popular culture often paints some neurotic behaviors as quirky, neurosis may play a role in mood and anxiety problems that are detrimental to your well-being.

Recognizing your own neurotic tendencies can help you better understand your own behaviors. By addressing these issues, people can often improve their overall mental health and wellness.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Jung, Adler, and Horney were the key proponents of which personality theory?

    Jung, Adler, and Horney were considered neo-Freudians. All three developed their own theory of psychology. Horney is often considered the founder of feminist psychology. Jung developed an approach known as analytical psychology, while Adler founded an approach known as individual psychology. 

  • How did Karen Horney's perspective as a woman shape her theory?

    Horney's perspective allowed her to recognize the weaknesses in Freud's views of female psychology. She not only vocally challenged the male-dominated theories of the time, but she also turned Freud's own ideas on themselves. She did this by suggesting that it wasn't women to envied penises, but that it was men who envied women's ability to bear children.

  • What part of Freud's theory did Karen Horney disagree with?

    Horney agreed with many of Freud's theories, but disagreed with his notion of that women's psychology was shaped by their experience of penis envy. Instead, she suggested that men were likely to experience feelings of inferiority due to feelings of womb envy. Her disagreements with Freud led to her being expelled from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1941.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Aydin S, Ceylan H, Aydin E. A research on reference behavior trend according to Horney's personality types. Procedia Soc Behav Sci. 2014;148:680-685. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.07.014

  3. Widiger TA, Oltmanns JR. Neuroticism is a fundamental domain of personality with enormous public health implicationsWorld Psychiatry. 2017;16(2):144-145. doi:10.1002/wps.20411

  4. Turiano NA, Graham EK, Weston SJ, et al. Is healthy neuroticism associated with longevity? A coordinated integrative data analysisCollabra Psychol. 2020;6(1):33. doi:10.1525/collabra.268

  5. Ozer DJ, Benet-Martínez V. Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes. Annu Rev Psychol. 2006;57:401-21. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190127

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Additional Reading
  • Horney K. Self-Analysis. Norton.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.