Karen Horney's Theory of Neurotic Needs

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Have you ever known someone who seemed to have a pathological need to be liked by others? According to theorist Karen Horney, this behavior is due to a neurotic need for affection and approval.

In her book "Self-Analysis" (1942), Horney outlined her theory of neurosis, describing different types of neurotic behavior as a result of overusing coping strategies to deal with basic anxiety. These behaviors include such things as the neurotic needs for power, prestige, and affection. Horney identified three broad categories of needs in her theory.

An Overview of Horney's Theory of Neurotic Needs

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

Horney's theory proposes 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 including "direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child's individual needs, lack of real guidance, disparaging attitudes, too much admiration or the absence of it, lack of reliable warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, over-protection, isolation from other children, injustice, discrimination, unkept promises, hostile atmosphere, and so on and so on" (Horney, 1945).

These 10 neurotic needs can be classed into three broad categories:

  1. Needs that move you towards others: These neurotic needs cause individuals to seek affirmation and acceptance from others. They are often described as needy or clingy as they seek out approval and love.
  2. Needs that move you 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 you 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 utilize two or more of these ways of coping, creating conflict, turmoil, and confusion.

The 10 Neurotic Needs

Well-adjusted individuals utilize all three of the 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 Neurotic Need for Affection and Approval

This need​ includes the desires 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 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 suffer 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 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 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 Neurotic Need to Exploit Others

These individuals 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 Neurotic 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 Neurotic 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 Neurotic 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 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 upon other people.

10. The Neurotic Need for Perfection and Unassailability

These individuals constantly 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.

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 neurotic behaviors as quirky and cute, neurosis may play a role in mood and anxiety problems.

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

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  1. Drake MM, Morris DM, Davis TJ. Neuroticism's susceptibility to distress: Moderated with mindfulness. Pers Individ Differ. 2017;106:248-252. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.10.060

Additional Reading
  • Horney K. Self-Analysis. Norton; 1942.