Born Karen Clementina Theodora Danielsen in 1885, Karen Horney (HAWR-ni) is known for her pioneering work as a psychiatrist, and she was one of the earliest critics of Sigmund Freud’s work with women. In 1974, psychologist Robert Coles described Horney as “a prophet” who “dared look with some distance and detachment at her own profession.”
She was raised in a home with one sibling (her older brother Berndt) and four stepsiblings from her father’s previous marriage. Her mother was quite a bit younger than her father, and their uneven and difficult marriage provided a backdrop for Horney’s own feelings about how women and men coexist.
Horney began her writing early in life, at the age of thirteen, and continued her diaries until she was twenty-six. The Adolescent Diaries of Karen Horney provide a glimpse into Horney’s innermost early feelings about womanhood, morality, religion, and culture. In 1899, Horney wrote in her diary that she intended to “serve mankind through curing diseases” by becoming a doctor, in spite of the cultural proscriptions about women attempting such a profession. Horney’s plan was very clear from the start: In that same year, she set forth a five-point plan in her diary, detailing her future in five steps and ending with the entry, “you see, dear Diary, fate will have an easy time with me, for I plan everything for him.”
In 1901, the Hamburg Gymnasium became open to girls for the first time, meaning that Horney would be able to realize her dream of a medical education. Attending this school was a time of experimentation and differentiation from her family. Horney began to form opinions regarding the nature of sexuality and female sexual expression that informed much of her later work. During this time, she showed her willingness to challenge the ideas of morality prescribed by the church and by society. Horney clearly wished for a more progressive view of herself as an individual.
She did her medical studies at Freiburg from 1906 to 1908, where she met Oskar Horney. They married in 1909 and settled in Berlin, eventually having three daughters. Oskar Horney rose quickly in the ranks of the government. Karen, now a doctor, pursued psychiatry as a specialty and, in particular, psychoanalysis, which had begun to be popularized by Freud in Vienna.
Her discovery of psychoanalysis led her on an intense and relentless examination of her own inner life. She kept “Ego” notebooks, with notes on a wide range of subjects that affected her inner life. In 1920, she became a founding member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. Eventually, extramarital affairs and unconventional behavior caused her much strife with the social establishment in general, and with Freud in particular. She argued with Freud and with her own analyst on basic issues regarding Freud’s theory of femininity. Specifically, she believed that the male-dominated world of psychiatry was not properly serving female patients. She challenged much of Freudian orthodoxy, for example, the idea of masculinity as “active” and femininity as “passive,” and eventually the rift with Freud sent her in new directions.
Horney published Self-Analysis in 1942. Her own experiences, combined with her psychoanalytic training, led her to radical conclusions about the overestimation of, and exaggerated expectations placed on, romantic love. An example is her description of monogamy as a “revival of the infantile wish to monopolize the father or the mother.”
Having divorced Oskar Horney, she emigrated to Chicago in 1932, both to remove herself from the institute and to escape the rise of Nazism. There she helped to found the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. Rumors that she seduced a student sixteen years her junior may have led to her move to New York in 1934. She joined the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, staying there until 1941, when her tempestuous nature caused her to resign in protest of the institute’s expressed disapproval of her theories.
Karen Horney formed her own institute, the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, with several other notable analysts, and she published several books during this period. For political reasons, those books—Are You Considering Psychoanalysis?, Our Inner Conflicts, and Neurosis and Human Growth—went unrecognized by the psychoanalytic establishment at the time because of Horney’s criticisms of Freudian orthodoxy, but they remain important works which offer a differing view of Freudian analysis. The latter two books marked a departure for Horney in that they represented a distillation of her observations over the years into general principles. She talks of security as a motivator for human behavior and of a “basic anxiety” that is the cause of “neurotic trends.” She talks of four “solutions” to conflict and of the negative consequences of rigid, neurotic adherence to the solutions.
In 1952, Horney became interested in Zen Buddhism, traveling to Japan to study at Zen monasteries. Several months after returning to the United States, she was discovered to have cancer of the gallbladder, and she died on December 2, 1952. She is buried in Ardsley, near New York City; the Karen Horney Clinic, a treatment center founded in her name, continued after her death.