social icons graphic

Karen Horney

Karen Horney

In line with Adler in particular, Karen Horney strongly believes in an innately constructive nature of the human condition. There is a natural tendency towards positive growth, or self-realisation. Only when this tendency is frustrated, again primarily by social and cultural forces, does psychological disturbance arise.

My own belief is that man has the capacity as well as the desire to develop his potentialities and become a decent human being, and that these deteriorate if his relationship to others and hence to himself is, and continues to be, disturbed. (Horney, 1945: 19)

Such adverse influences may well comprise disturbed childhood interpersonal relations: especially inconsistency, brutality, humiliation or overprotectiveness transmitted to the child from parents “too wrapped up in their own neurosis to be able to love the child” (1950: 18). Interestingly, Horney considers herself to have been an unwanted, self-doubting and compliant child. The child may come to experience a basic anxiety, feeling small, helpless, isolated, alienated and menaced in a world perceived as truly hostile. Mechanisms subsequently devised as interpersonal coping strategies (or neurotic solutions) may exaggerate traits of helplessness (“moving toward people”), aggressiveness (“moving against people”) and detachment (“moving away from people”). Neuroticism is seen to apply especially if the individual rigidly adopts only one strategy. The person builds around herself an entire protective structure, in the process sacrificing the expression of authentically felt needs and goals for an all-consuming, if counterproductive, sense of safety. The usually spontaneous orientation towards self-realisation becomes swamped by pervasive needs for security.

The person prone to moving toward people seeks safety through the affection and protection of others. The “poor me” syndrome may apply, at least implicitly, as the person seeks to manipulate others into providing for her and submits herself to them. She may be unusually sensitive to criticism, be that real, inferred, imagined or anticipated. Given Horney’s allegiance to Freudian dynamics, a basic hostility may then be repressed, leading to unconscious defiance and exploitation, which may break through into consciousness in destructive ways. In her later work, Horney refers to the strategy of moving toward people as the self-effacing solution. The guiding principle might be expressed as, “If you love me, you will never hurt me”.

He is his subdued self; he is the stowaway without any rights, In accordance with this attitude, he also tends to suppress in himself anything that connotes ambition, vindictiveness, triumph, seeking his own advantage. In short he has solved his inner conflict by suppressing all expansive attitudes and drives and making self-abnegating trends predominant. (Horney, 1950: 216)

The person prone to moving against people protects himself by viewing others as hostile or hypocritical. He may subsequently strive for mastery and domination over them. He will tend to be ruthless and may be incapable of genuine affection.

Any situation or relationship is looked at from the standpoint of “What can I get out of it?” – whether it has to do with money, prestige, contacts, or ideas. The person himself is consciously or semiconsciously convinced that everyone acts this way, and so what counts is to do so more efficiently than the rest. (Horney, 1945: 65)

Whereas the “moving towards” person seeks relationships to ease her sense of helplessness, the “moving against” individual seeks those which enhance prestige, power or wealth. In her later work, Horney refers to the strategy of moving against people as the expansive solution. The guiding principle might be encapsulated as, “If I have power, no-one can hurt me”.

The person prone to moving away from people attempts to ease anxiety by avoiding contact with others as much as possible. He may become detached and overly self-sufficient and independent. Whereas the “moving toward” individual similarly restricts her life within narrow confines, the “moving away from” person shuns being dependent upon anyone. “He is like the person in a hotel room who rarely removes the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign from his door” (Horney, 1945: 76).

What is crucial is their inner need to put emotional distance between themselves and others. More accurately, it is their conscious and unconscious determination not to get emotionally involved with others in any way, whether in love, fight, co-operation, or competition. They draw around themselves a kind of magic circle which no one may penetrate. (Horney, 1945: 75)

Repression of various negative and positive feelings and needs tends to occur: regarding negative experiences, a blocking out of helplessness and aggression; regarding positive experiences, a neglect of affiliation and love. In her later work, Horney refers to the strategy of moving away from people as the resignation solution. The guiding principles might be compressed into, “If I withdraw, nothing can hurt me” or “I don’t care about anything”.

Further consolidation of the chosen neurotic solution and concealment of the resulting painful inner conflicts may be achieved through the formation of an idealised image.  Neurotic misery is exacerbated by a compulsive striving for imaginary and defensive self-excellence. Thus, the “moving towards” person may fantasise about being so unselfish and attractive as to deserve the undying love and affection of others; the “moving against” person may conceive of himself as superior and as living up to the glorified image toward which he continually strives; and the “moving away from” person may see herself as so capable, self-sufficient and unassailable as to never require assistance. In all cases the idealised image becomes self-reinforcing: unattainable standards are set which guarantee failure and a redoubling of efforts to live up to it. The almost inevitable sense of self-contempt intensifies such inner conflicts and fundamental dependence upon the idealised image, as the individual vacillates between his despised real self and ideal self.

Roughly speaking, a person builds up an idealised image of himself because he cannot tolerate himself as he actually is. The image apparently counteracts this calamity; but having placed himself on a pedestal, he can tolerate his real self still less and starts to rage against it, to despise himself and to chafe under the yoke of his own unattainable demands upon himself. He wavers then between self-adoration and self-contempt, between his idealised image and his despised image, with no solid middle ground to fall back on. (Horney, 1945: 112)

In more detail, Horney advocates a four-fold model of the self.

  • The real self is the true core of the person’s being, as subjectively perceived by himself. It contains the potential for personal growth, psychological health and self-realisation: “clarity and depth of his own feelings, thoughts, wishes, interests; the ability to tap into his own resources, the strength of his will power, the special capacities or gifts he may have; the faculty to express himself, and to relate to others with his spontaneous feelings” (Horney, 1950: 17).
  • The actual self is construed as a more objective entity. It is the summation of all physical and psychological attributes of the person, independent of anyone’s perceptions, at one moment in time.
  • The idealised self is more static than the real or actual selves, representing how the person believes he ought to be. It is full of the tyranny of the should, to employ a stock Horneyian phrase – various oppressive demands weighed upon oneself. “The idealised image is a decided hindrance to growth because it either denies shortcomings or merely condemns them. Genuine ideals make for humility, the idealised image for arrogance” (Horney, 1945: 99).
  • The idealised self and the negative evaluations the child may receive from significant others during early experience can easily shape an individual’s despised real self. This comprises false conceptions of one’s competence, worth and capacity to be loved, based on failure to live up to the standards of the idealised self and belief in others’ critical evaluations. It can lead to bouts of self-hate, reflecting a person’s disinterest in her true self, preferring to treat herself as an object.



Recent Posts