Contributions of Karen Horney to Psychology

Karen Horney portrait
Bettmann/Getty Images

Karen Horney (pronounced horn-eye) was a neo-Freudian psychologist known for her theory of neurotic needs, her research on feminine psychology, and her critiques of Freud's emphasis on the concept of penis envy. In addition to this, she made important contributions to the areas of self-psychology and the role that self-analysis and self-help play in mental health.

This article discusses Karen Horney's life, work, and theories. It also explores some of her important contributions to the field of psychology.

Best Known For

  • Feminine psychology
  • Theory of neurotic needs
  • Neo-Freudian psychology

Karen Horney's Early Life

Karen Horney was born in Blankenese, Germany, a small town near Hamburg, in 1885. She described her father, Berndt Danielsen, as a strict disciplinarian. Her mother, while less strict than her husband, was described as domineering and irritable.

Karen Horney dealt with depression early in life. It was during her teens that she experienced her first serious depressive episode. She was very close to her older brother, Berndt. When he distanced himself from her, Horney became depressed, a problem she would deal with throughout her life.

She was intelligent and ambitious but believed that she was unattractive. Horney devoted herself to school, believing that she would be smart if she could not be beautiful. In 1904, Horney's mother left her husband, taking her children with her.

Horney began medical school in 1906 at the University of Freiburg Medical School. The school was one of only a few that admitted women to its medical program. She later attended the University of Gottingen and the University of Berlin.

In medical school, Horney began studying psychoanalysis, which was still in its early stages.

She went on to marry a law student named Oskar Horney in 1909. The death of her mother and then brother in 1911 and 1923 were extremely difficult for Horney. Her husband's business also failed, and he became ill with meningitis soon after.

Horney became increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage, recognizing that her husband had a domineering, authoritative personality similar to her father's. She experienced another serious episode of depression during this time. In 1926, Horney left her husband, and they divorced in 1927.

In 1932, she moved to the United States with her three daughters, Brigitte, Marianne, and Renate. It was here that she became friends with other prominent intellectuals, including Henry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm, and developed her theories on psychology.


Karen Horney's early experiences played a part in the later development of her theories. She struggled with depression as a teen and was devastated by the death of her mother and brother. After divorcing her husband, Horney moved to the U.S. with her three daughters, where she would become an influential figure in American psychoanalysis.

Theory of Neurotic Needs

Karen Horney developed a theory of neurosis that is still prominent today. Unlike previous theorists, Horney viewed these neuroses as a sort of coping mechanism that is a large part of normal life. She identified ten neuroses, including the need for power, the need for affection, the need for social prestige, and the need for independence.

Horney defined neurosis as the "psychic disturbance brought by fears and defenses against these fears, and by attempts to find compromise solutions for conflicting tendencies."

She also believed that in order to understand these neuroses, it was essential to look at the culture in which a person lived. Where Freud had suggested that many neuroses had a biological base, Horney believed that cultural attitudes played a role in determining these neurotic feelings.

Departure From Freudian Psychology

While Horney followed much of Sigmund Freud's theory, she disagreed with his views on female psychology. She rejected his concept of penis envy, declaring it to be both inaccurate and demeaning to women.

Horney instead proposed the concept of womb envy, in which men experience feelings of inferiority because they cannot give birth to children.

"Is not the tremendous strength in men of the impulse to creative work in every field precisely due to their feeling of playing a relatively small part in the creation of living beings, which constantly impels them to an overcompensation in achievement?" Horney suggested.

In 1941, Horney became the dean of the American Institute of Psychoanalysis. She was dissatisfied with the strict Freudian psychoanalysis of the time, so she also founded an organization called the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.

Because of her departure from Freud's ideas, she eventually resigned from her position at the Institute. She later taught at New York Medical College and founded the American Journal of Psychoanalysis.


Horney is regarded today as a neo-Freudian. While influenced by Freudian theories, she disagreed with several of Freud's ideas and eventually broke from strict psychoanalysis. Her own theories emphasized how neurotic needs served as a way to cope with the challenges of everyday life.

Major Contributions to Psychology

Karen Horney was a psychologist during a time when women's contributions were often overlooked and ignored. She made significant contributions to humanism, self-psychology, psychoanalysis, and feminine psychology.

Her refutation of Freud's theories about women generated more interest in the psychology of women.

Among her significant publications were her books "The Neurotic Personality of Our Time" (1937), "Self-Analysis" (1942), "Our Inner Conflict" (1945), and "Neurosis and Human Growth" (1950). A collection of her papers were also collected and published as "Feminine Psychology" (1967).

Horney also believed that people were able to act as their own therapists, emphasizing the personal role each person has in their own mental health and encouraging self-analysis and self-help. "Life itself still remains a very effective therapist," she suggested.


Despite the many obstacles that she faced as a woman in a field dominated by men, Karen Horney became a prominent thinker who made important contributions to our understanding of human psychology.

A Word From Verywell

Karen Horney became an influential psychologist when women faced considerable obstacles. Her own experiences with depression helped shape her approach to psychoanalysis. Horney's career is notable for her contributions to psychoanalytic theory, her feminist psychology, and her theory of neurotic needs.

Despite the challenges she faced, her work presented a challenge to the Freudian ideas that dominated the field at the time. Her work also focused more attention on the environmental factors that influence development and personality, including parent-child interactions.

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.
  1. Paris B. Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst's Search for Self-Understanding. Yale University Press.

  2. Eckardt MH. Karen Horney: A portrait: celebrating the 120th anniversary of Karen Horney's birth. Am J Psychoanal. 2006;66(2):105-108. doi:10.1007/s11231-006-9008-4

  3. Horney K. The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. W.W. Norton & Co.

  4. Kelman H. Karen Horney on feminine psychology. Am J Psychoanal. 1967;27(1-2):163-183. doi:10.1007/BF01873051

  5. Horney K. Feminine Psychology. Norton.

  6. Horney K. Our Inner Conflicts. Taylor & Francis.

Additional Reading
  • Boeree CG. Karen Horney: 1885-1952. Personality Theories; 1997.

  • Gilman SL. Karen Horney, M.D., 1885–1952. Am J Psychiatr. 2001;158(8):1205-1205. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.8.1205

  • Quinn S. A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney. Summit Books, 1987.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."