Contributions of Karen Horney to Psychology

Karen Horney portrait
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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.

Life itself still remains a very effective therapist.Karen Horney

Best Known For

Brief Timeline of Karen Horney's Life

  • September 16, 1885 - Born in Germany
  • 1906 - Entered medical school
  • 1909 - Married law student Oscar Horney
  • 1911 - Horney's mother died
  • 1926 - Left her husband
  • 1932 - Moved to the U.S.
  • 1942 - Published Self-Analysis
  • December 4, 1952 - Died

Early Life

Karen Horney dealt with depression early in life. She described her father as a strict disciplinarian and 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.

Horney devoted herself to school, believing that, "If I couldn't be beautiful, I decided I would be smart."

She began medical school in 1906 and married 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. In 1926, Horney left her husband and in 1932 moved to the United States with her three daughters, Brigitte, Marianne, and Renate. It was here that she became friends with other prominent intellectuals and developed her theories on psychology.

Career, Theories, and Critique of Freud

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.

She 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.

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.

Major Contributions to Psychology

Karen Horney 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.

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.

Horney was a psychologist during a time when women's contributions were often overlooked and ignored. Despite the many obstacles that she faced as a woman in a field dominated by men, she became a prominent thinker who made important contributions to our understanding of human psychology.

Selected Works

  • Feminine Psychology. W. W. Norton, 1967.
  • Self-Analysis. W.W. Norton, 1942.
  • The Collected Works of Karen Horney (Volume II). W.W. Norton, 1942.


  • Hitchcock S T. Karen Horney: Pioneer of Feminine Psychology. Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Quinn S. A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney. Summit Books, 1987.
  • Rubins JL. Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis. Dial Press, 1978.

Further Reading

  • Kelman H. Karen Horney on feminine psychologyAm J Psychoanal. 1967(27):163–183.
  • Paris B. Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst's Search for Self-Understanding. Yale University Press, 1994.
  • Sayers J. Mothers of Psychoanalysis: Helene Detsch, Karen Horney, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein. W.W. Norton, 1991.
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  • 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.