Karen Horneyês Perspective: The Emergence of Cultural Influences on the Female Psyche

Courtesy of Renate Horney Patterson.
Courtesy of Renate Horney Patterson.

The work of Karen Horney sheds light on the internal psychosexual conflicts and unspeakable experiences of women who remain subjugated by Middle Eastern and African cultures today. The writings of Horney give an informed understanding of much of the underlying dynamic. Horney’s psychoanalytic revisionism went through three phases. In the 1920s and early 1930s she wrote a series of essays modifying orthodox ideas about feminine psychology while staying within the framework of Freudian theory. A compilation of her papers written from 1922-1937, stressed that culture and society encouraged women’s dependence on men for love, prestige, wealth, protection, and a sense of fulfillment, and that this shaped the female psyche.

Horney (1926) argued that psychoanalysis reflected male bias and did not accurately represent women’s real nature and the woman’s masculinity complex was fundamentally different from the social manifestations associated with masculination. This work denied the inherent inferiority of the female sex and the causal relationship between penis envy and the Castration complex as clearly not universal. Horney (1927) then discussed the psychological phenomenon that encompassed aspects of psychosexual development, in particular the longing, disappointment, and fear of the father independent of culture. She believed that its driving force was the fear of female sexual experience related to phylogenic experiences of male aggression arising from early familial emotional relationships (causing of neurosis, frigidity, and pathogenesis). She related this pathogenesis to menstruation, sexual intercourse, defloration, pregnancy, and childbirth, dependent on a woman’s resistance to the feminine role reinforced by social factors.

Horney (1926) and (1935) clearly emphasized the role of culture in shaping the feminine psyche. She believed that biological factors (especially related to masochistic tendencies) were not inherent to female nature, but manifested according to tradition and environment. Here she emphasized that while the Oedipus complex is clearly non-existent in certain cultural mythology, it was clearly not a universal phenomenon. Horney clearly explained personality change in female adolescents and the psychogenic factors in female disorders as a cultural, not biological, source of repression, neurosis, and masochism.

Horney (1937) and (1939) redefined psychoanalysis, replacing Freud’s biological orientation with an emphasis on culture and interpersonal relationships rejecting his assertion that character disorders derived from disturbances in sexual development. Horney’s (1942) case study of her patient Claire, stressed the stages of psychoanalytic understanding, resistances, and self-awareness. Then, Horney (1945) and (1950) explored a typology of neurotic needs (affection-approval, partnering, satisfaction, power, exploitation, social recognition-prestige, personal admiration, personal achievement, self-sufficiency-independence, and perfection-unassailability) and the intrapsychic defensive coping strategies (compliance-moving toward, aggression-moving against, withdrawal-moving away from), in which she stressed the importance of the child’s social and cultural perceptions of feeling unloved, unsafe, or devalued. Horney’s (1947) stance on self-actualization arose from her experiences with Zen Buddhism and her final work (Kelman, 1967) revealed an inherent humanistic, growth-oriented dimension to personality.

Reframing Freud’s theories of the libido and psychosexual development, Horney emphasized a self-psychology of choice, responsibility, and change. She split the “neurotic self” into an idealized and despised self, which resulted in emotional isolation and the self-effacing character from reaching its potential, while she emphasized that “the real self” or the core of being, was the individual’s self-actualizing potential. As an early neo-Freudian, humanistic pioneer, teacher, and scholar of feminine psychology, the work of Karen Horney continues to have relevance for clinical theory and practice today with its emphasis on sociocultural factors shaping how women have been historically subjugated by men within their society.

Horney, Karen, M.D., (1885-1952) studied medicine at the Universities of Freiburg, Göttingen, and Berlin, entered analysis with Karl Abraham (1910), and graduated from the University of Berlin (1913) completing psychiatric and psychoanalytic training. She was a founding member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (1920) where she taught (1920-1932). Horney served as Director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis (1932-1934), became colleagues with Alfred Alder, Erich Fromm, and Harry Stack Sullivan, and taught at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Dissenting from orthodox psychoanalysis, she established and served as Dean of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis (1941-1952). Horney taught at the New York Medical College and founded the American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Her noted works on women’s development include Feminine Psychology (Kelman, 1967), Neurosis and Human Growth (1950), and Self-analysis (1942). For a full account of Horney’s thought, see Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst’s Search for Self-understanding (Paris, 1994).

Horney, K. (1926). The flight from womanhood. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 7, 324-329.

Horney, K. (1927). The masculinity complex in women. In B. Paris (Ed.), The unknown Karen Horney (pp. 27-38). New Haven, CT: Yale University.

Horney, K. (1935). The problem of feminine masochism. Psychoanalytic Review, 22, 241.

Horney, K. (1937). The neurotic personality of our time. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Horney, K. (1939). New ways in psychoanalysis. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Horney, K. (1942). Self-analysis. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Horney, K. (1945). Our inner conflicts: A constructive theory of neurosis. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Horney, K. (1947). Mature attitudes in a changing world. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 7, 85-87.

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and human growth: The struggle toward self-realization. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Kelman, H. (Ed.). (1967). Feminine psychology by K. Horney. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Paris, B. (1994). Karen Horney: A psychoanalyst’s search for self-understanding. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

— Susan Gordon

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