Chapter 5.5: Karen Horney’s Feminine Psychology

Ahead of Her Time: Karen Horney & Feminine Psychology

Perhaps the most important contribution Karen Horney made to psychodynamic thought was her disagreements with Freud’s view of women.  Horney was never a student of Freud, but did study his work and eventually taught psychoanalysis at both the Berlin and New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  After her insistence that Freud’s view of the inherent difference between males and females, she agreed to leave the institute and form her own school known as the American Institute for Psychoanalysis.5.4

In many ways, Horney was well ahead of her time and although she died before the feminist movement took hold, she was perhaps the theorist who changed the way psychology looked at gender differences.  She countered Freud’s concept of penis envy with what she called womb envy, or man’s envy of woman’s ability to bear children.  She argued that men compensate for this inability by striving for achievement and success in other realms.

She also disagreed with Freud’s belief that males and females were born with inherent differences in their personality.  Rather than citing biological differences, she argued for a societal and cultural explanation.  In her view, men and women were equal outside of the cultural restrictions often placed on being female.  These views, while not well accepted at the time, were used years after her death to help promote gender equality.

Neurosis and Relationships

Horney was also known for her study of neurotic personality.  She defined neurosis as a maladaptive and counterproductive way of dealing with relationships.  These people are unhappy and desperately seek out relationships in order to feel good abut themselves.  Their way of securing these relationships include projections of their own insecurity and neediness which eventually drives others away.

Most of us have come in contact with people who seem to successfully irritate or frighten people away with their clinginess, significant lack of self esteem, and even anger and threatening behavior.  According to Horney, these individuals adapted this personality style through a childhood filled with anxiety.  And while this way of dealing with others may have been beneficial in their youth, as adults it serves to almost guarantee their needs will not be met.

She identified three ways of dealing with the world that are formed by an upbringing in a neurotic family: Moving Toward People, Moving Against People, and Moving Away From People.

Moving Toward People

Some children who feel a great deal of anxiety and helplessness move toward people in order to seek help and acceptance.  They are striving to feel worthy and can believe the only way to gain this is through the acceptance of others.  These people have an intense need to be liked, involved, important, and appreciated.  So much so, that they will often fall in love quickly or feel an artificial but very strong attachment to people they may not know well.  Their attempts to make that person love them creates a clinginess and neediness that much more often than not results in the other person leaving the relationship.

Moving Against People

Another way to deal with insecurities and anxiety is to try to force your power onto others in hopes of feeling good about yourself.  Those with this personality style come across as bossy, demanding, selfish, and even cruel.  Horney argued that these people project their own hostilities (which she called externalization) onto others and therefore use this as a justification to ‘get them before they get me.’  Once again, relationships appear doomed from the beginning.

Moving Away From People

The final possible consequence of a neurotic household is a personality style filled with asocial behavior and an almost indifference to others.  If they don’t get involved with others, they can’t be hurt by them.  While it protects them from emotional pain of relationships, it also keeps away all positive aspects of relationships.  It leaves them feeling alone and empty.