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Karen Horney

Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis

About Karen Horney

Karen Horney Biography, In Brief

By Giselle Galdi, PhD

Several biographies have been written about Karen Horney over the years. Please see citations below. This brief summary cannot possibly give a full account of all the historic events, all of Horney’s accomplishments and the way her life was an integral part of the first half century of psychoanalysis.

Karen Danielsen was born on September 16 1885, in Blankenese, now a suburb of Hamburg, Germany. Her father, the sea captain Berndt Wackels Danielsen came from Bergen, Norway, and her mother, Clotilde (Sonni) Ronzelen descended from a prominent Dutch-German family. Karen’s father was a stern religious man, accustomed to being obeyed, while her mother was considered a free-thinker intellectual, and a well-educated woman.

Karen was the younger of two children, her brother Berndt, a handsome and charming boy and the father’s favorite, was four years her senior. Karen was exceptionally intelligent and curious, and was encouraged by her mother to excel in her studies. From age thirteen on Karen dreamed of becoming a doctor, nearly impossible in 19th century Germany, and especially difficult, considering the firmly held beliefs of her father: that girls should prepare themselves for marriage, for raising children and for living a pious life. Fortunately, both her mother and her brother supported Karen’s goals and after she completed the Realgymnasium in Hamburg, she enrolled in the university in Freiburg, in the state of Baden in southwestern Germany in 1906. Karen was one of the first women to enter a German university. She completed her medical education and received her medical degree from the University of Berlin in 1911.

In 1909 Karen married Oskar Horney, a social scientist and economist. In 1910 she entered psychoanalysis with Karl Abraham, an early disciple of Freud, and completed with him about 500 hours of treatment, six times a week. Psychoanalysis, the revolutionary theory of the mind, came to fascinate Karen Horney. In 1911 she joined Abraham’s psychoanalytic discussion meetings, which eventually became the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society, and she held the office of secretary after 1915. In 1920 the Berlin Society opened its Policlinic and later the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, with Horney as one of the founding members. She helped design the training program and then directed it, treated patients both in her private practice and at the Policlinic, taught students, wrote on psychoanalytic technique, and conducted research in psychoanalysis, especially in feminine psychology. As a woman doctor, a wife and a mother of three girls, Horney was fascinated with female sexual development, and wrote extensively on the subject, starting with the seminal “On the genesis of the castration complex” in 1923. In these papers, writing in the Freudian idiom, she started to differ from Freud’s views on female sexuality, asserting that the actual treatment of little girls by their fathers and mothers was the real source of penis envy, which she called secondary penis envy. She also recognized the importance of the mother-daughter relationship in the psychosexual development of girls, as opposed to Freud’s emphasis of the father’s role. Between 1923 and 1935 she wrote a total of thirteen important feminist papers, in which she discussed the complexities of motherhood, feminine masochism, envy towards women, marital difficulties, masculinity complex in women, etc. For a more complete list of her feminist papers see her Bibliography.

Although Freud initially was supportive of Horney’s expanding on his feminine psychology, in 1931 he became cooler to her increasingly bold ideas. Horney found herself more isolated in Berlin, and was also worried about the growing prominence of the Nazis in Germany. When she received Franz Alexander’s invitation to help him set up the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Horney gladly agreed. She immigrated to the United States in 1932 and worked with Alexander in Chicago. In 1934 she moved to New York, and joined the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. She taught courses on clinical technique, had a thriving private practice, volunteered her time as a psychiatrist at the United Jewish Aid Society, and wrote papers on technique, and transference. Her prominence solidified when she began teaching at the New School for Social Research, at the University in Exile, in 1935. Her lecture series on Culture and Neurosis was very popular, and drew huge audiences. Her interest in culture was stimulated by her close relationship with Margaret Mead, Paul Tillich, Ruth Benedict, Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Dollard, Abraham Kardiner and other sociologists and anthropologists. This interest culminated in the publication of The Neurotic Personality of Our Time in 1937, in which she countered Freud’s emphasis on the biological determinants of human behavior. In 1939 she published New Ways in Psychoanalysis, a discussion of the indisputable importance of Freud’s revolutionary work as well as her differing views.

In 1941, Horney, along with Clara Thompson and others, left the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Harry Stack Sullivan and William Silverberg joined them from the Washington-Baltimore group, and together they formed the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis and founded the American Journal of Psychoanalysis in May, followed by the establishment of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis a month later, in June 1941. William Silverberg, the first president of the AAP, eloquently described the Association’s guiding principles: a commitment to honesty and sincerity, respect for human dignity and scientific freedom. The new group offered a considerable alternative to classical Freudian psychoanalysis, with more focus on the importance of culture in the formation of the personality. In 1942 Horney published Self-Analysis. A dispute over the teaching privileges of Erich Fromm, a lay-analyst, which Horney opposed on the grounds that the scientific community did not accept non-medically trained analysts, led to the resignation of Fromm, Thompson and Sullivan in 1943 and they then went on to establish the William Alanson White Society and Institute.

Although Horney was deeply affected by the loss of those colleagues she focused her energies on writing a new book, Our Inner Conflicts, published in 1945, and on the workings of the new group and the Journal. Horney published her last book in 1950, Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization. The two books, Our Inner Conflicts and Neurosis and Human Growth, elaborate on Horney’s theory of the origins of psychological difficulties, the resulting self-structure and character difficulties. In her view, the environment, a mixture of damaging and constructive forces, powerfully impacts on the child’s inborn qualities, the potentials for the real self. The resulting complex and conflicting interactions of self-idealizations, self-hatreds, and entitlements bring about various splits in the personality. In addition to these works, she published numerous articles in the AJP and organized many AAP Symposiums, with the participation of prominent clinicians and academics on various topics such as psychoanalysis and moral values, constructive forces, and the belief that human nature can change.

By foregoing outdated metapsychology, Karen Horney’s contributions decidedly advanced both the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. The initial reaction of the classical school toward her work in the early years was fervently negative and often offensive, but her ideas have proven remarkably prescient. Without question she has stood the test of time and provided the essential framework for much of the current ferment in psychoanalytic study. She brought to the fore a consistently phenomenological receptivity to human development which has led to major advances in treating character, dissociation, trauma, and a wide spectrum of narcissistic disturbances. Until her death, Horney continued to expand upon her dynamic views of the forces that block the person’s innate desire for growth. She died on December 4, 1952, following a brief illness, at the age of 67 and she is buried in Ardsley, at the Ferncliff Cemetery, a short drive from New York City.


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

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

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

Horney, K. (1945). Our inner conflicts. New York: W.W. Norton.

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

Horney, K. (Ed.) (1962). Are you considering psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton.

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

Horney, K. (1980). Adolescent diaries. M. Horney Eckardt & R. Horney (Eds.), New York: Basic Books.

Horney, K. (1987). Final Lectures. D.H. Ingram (Ed.), New York: W.W. Norton.

Ingram, D. H. (1985). Karen Horney at 100: Beyond the frontier. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 45, 305-309.

Jones, C. (1989). American women of achievement: Karen Horney, psychoanalyst. N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers

Karen Horney Papers, Manuscripts and Archives. Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University

Martin, A.R. (1975). Karen Honey’s theory in today’s world. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 35, 297-302

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

Paris, B. (1999). Karen Horney. The therapeutic process. Essays and lectures. New Haven & London: Yale University Press

Paris, B. (2000). The unknown Karen Horney. Essays on gender, culture, and psychoanalysis. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. (This work contains the comprehensive Bibliography of Karen Horney’s works.)

Rubin, J. (2010). Introduction: Karen Horney at 125 Building on Solid Ground. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 70, 3-9

Rubins, J. (1978). Karen Horney: Gentle rebel of psychoanalysis. N.Y.: The Dial Press

Quinn, S. (1987). A mind of her own: The life of Karen Horney. N.Y.: Summit Books

Sayers, J. (1991). Mothers of psychoanalysis: Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein. N.Y.: W.W. Norton

Silverberg, Wm. V. (1942). Advancement in Psychoanalysis. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 2, 21-23.

Westcott, M. (1986). The feminist legacy of Karen Horney. New Haven: Yale University Press

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