Karen Horney was a pioneer in psychoanalysis, challenging the widely accepted Freudian theories and creating her own which emphasized cultural influence and potential for growth through self-reflection and self-understanding.  Her fascinating life was the backbone for her research, and her courageous voice still resonates in leadership practices and analysis today.


In brief, Horney set the stage for a mindset that validates self-understanding, self-growth, and cultural and social effects on people’s behavior.  She also provides a framework for self-evaluation. She believes in a real self that we can move toward, away from, or against when we are faced with anxiety. She also supports the idea that neuroses are a result of that movement and are a part of every interaction we have with the world and the people in it.  That idea was a foundation for leadership development, showing that self-awareness and self-growth are important forces in leadership and management environments.  And she did all this in the late 19th and early 20th century while battling her own depression, making her a pretty dang strong woman.

As much of a nutshell of a biography as possible

Karen was born in Germany in 1885.  Her childhood was complicated to say the least, especially for the times.  Karen was the youngest of her mother and father’s 4 children together, and they would go on multi-month long ship voyages as a family because her father captained ships. However, tumultuous sea life was, its instability was nothing compared to her upcoming family life. Karen’s parents divorced when she was young, and her father remarried and had one son with Karen’s stepmother near the same time.  This step brother was undeniably her father’s favorite, Karen was neglected by him, and she developed close relationships with her mother and step mother.  Then, wait for it… when she was 9, she developed a crush on her coveted step brother, was shunned by him, and then fell into depression which reoccurred throughout her life.

When she was 21, she was accepted and attended medical school against the wishes of her family. It was there where she met her husband who she had three children with while she finished medical school, studied Freudian psychological analysis and began working at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Civic Institute where she worked for twelve years. It was there she developed her own theories which importantly (and controversially) challenged Freudian’s theories.

  • In 1930, she published theories about the importance of sociocultural factors in human development.  Freud believed human development was all biological.

In 1932 she moved to the US.  She had divorced her husband, her step brother had died, she had fallen into deep depression, and then she took a job at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. Two years later she was off to New York where she wrote several books, also changing the game for psychological theory.

  • In 1937 she published a book called The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. which claimed neuroses stem from cultural factors and disturbances in relationships. She thought impulses were influenced by emotions.  Freud believed people are at the mercy of their biological makeup, ego, and id and that they are not driven to neurosis but pulled by those forces.
  • In 1939 she published New Ways in Psychoanalysis and was ostracized in the psychological community for her conflict with the accepted Freud view of psychoanalysis
  • In 1942 she published a book called Self-Analysis, an account of her own experiences and how she came to grips with her personal history. The book emphasizes the value of self-reflection and self-understanding. Freud’s practices avoided self-reflection or self-analysis and valued the professional psychoanalyst in therapy.
  • Later in 1942, she founded the American Institute of Self-Analysis.
  •  In 1945 she published a book called Our Inner Conflicts, and in 1950 she published another entitled Neurosis of Human Growth. Both included strategies to deal with pride and put forth the idea that all people can grow and change with deliberate effort. In contrast, Freud believed that people were pretty much wired to destroy and destruct. He believed in repressing those thoughts and urges.

She continued writing and teaching until she died (way too soon) in 1952.  Her work was nothing short of revolutionary. Today growth mindset is much more prominent and popular, but when she introduced it, it went against the grain.  She was a determined go-getter for sure and made huge gains for the field of psychology.

How does it apply today?

Here’s the good part: because self-awareness and self-management are closely associated with effective management, her theories and strategies live on and are applied to the field of leadership development.  She was a part of a movement that moved toward a more optimistic, comprehensive view of psychology which takes a view that mankind has diverse and complex motivations. These views are applied in personal realms to self-understanding and views of leadership analysis.

Some insightful basics:

First, according to Karen Horney, every person has a “real self,” which is basically the self that is loved, encouraged, nurtured, and provided for while nothing acts against it. This the abstract idea of a person who a fully meets their potential.  She describes real self as “the original force towards growth and fulfillment.”

However, if these conditions are not met for a person, a basic anxiety develops. It is characterized by the following:

  • intimidation
  • isolation
  • apprehension
  • fear

Importantly, she asserts that basic anxiety is instigated by cultural and social influences, in contrast to Freud’s claim that anxiety is sexually based. These anxieties underlie all human relationships.

As a result, we can choose to either move toward, away from, or against people in response to anxiety in different situations.

  • toward: sees oneself as loving & unselfish, as result needs affection & approval
  • away: sees oneself as independent, as a result needs privacy & independence
  • against: sees oneself as tough & ruthless, as a result needs power & to exploit others

These movements can be healthy if they can be controlled and appropriately applied, but become unhealthy if one movement is dominant and instinctive. In those cases, the real self recedes and an idealized image of the self is imagined and propagated. It is no matter that we always strive for a better, real self. When an idealized self-image takes over, we get further from realizing that potential.

Compliance becomes goodness, love, saintliness; Aggressiveness becomes strength, leadership, heroism, omnipotence; aloofness becomes wisdom, self-sufficiency, independence.

-Karen Horney

Karen Horney acted as a change agent in psychology.  Many renowned and popular theorists have built on or adapted her ideas to their own work.  Despite modern acceptance of her theories, she has not received the amount of fame that other psychologists of her day like Freud have received.  This could be because she was a woman born in the 19th century  working in a predominately male profession, and dismissed by mainstream psychology in her own time.  Whatever the view then, today her words are inspiring and enlightening.

To use them,  question when you feel/felt anxiety, and work to how you respond (toward, away, or against).  Remember that keen self-awareness is the first step to change.   Constantly work towards your real self by keeping an eye on your self-image and self-understanding.  You can also evaluate your relationships of others by paying attention to how they respond to anxiety and understanding why they do.

References: http://media.proquest.com/media/pq/classic/doc/2233960701/fmt/ai/rep/NPDF?_s=5GWcoRULE2EpFGbtc%2BDr5hpXQ8k%3D