Karen Horney's Theory of Neurosis



Karen Horney (Pervin & John, 2001) believed that interpersonal relationships cause the differences between a healthy and a disturbed personality. Neurosis (Boeree, 2006) is Karen Horney’s theory about the ways in which people attempt to make life bearable for themselves. Unlike other theorists, Horney saw it as “continuous” with normal life. People regularly engage in such tactics for coping, and seem to do fine whereas the neurotic appears to be going under.
Horney’s ten patterns of neurotic needs;



The neurotic need for affection and approval
The near-desperate need to please and be liked by others.


The neurotic need for a partner, for someone who will take over one's life- “love will solve all of one's problems”
Although an apparent harmless and general need, the neurotic’s need is more intense.


The neurotic need to restrict one's life to narrow borders, to be undemanding, satisfied with little, to be inconspicuous
Also appearing quite normal, this need causes anxiety in the neurotic and they become fixated on the need for a simple life.


The neurotic need for power, for control over others, for a facade of omnipotence
The neurotic needs strength and power for the sake of being dominant and appearing strong, and may even detest the weak.


The neurotic need to exploit others and get the better of them
In the neurotic, a need to be heard can evolve into use of manipulation and a belief that people are there to be used. The neurotic may also fear being taken advantage of.


The neurotic need for social recognition or prestige
The neurotic is overwhelmingly concerned with appearances and popularity. They fear being ignored or being thought of as plain.


The neurotic need for personal admiration.
A neurotic fear of being thought nobodies, unimportant and meaningless. Often reminding people of their worth and seeking positive reinforcement.


The neurotic need for personal achievement
An obsession with coming out on top, being number one, and being recognized for it. Usually the neurotic allocates less value to activities or abilities they do not excel in.


The neurotic need for self-sufficiency and independence
This is where the neurotic feels that they shouldn't ever need anybody. They tend to refuse help and are reluctant to commit to relationships.


The neurotic need for perfection and unassailability
The neurotic is driven to be perfect and is scared of being flawed. They have a need to be in control and fear being seen to make mistakes

These needs are based on what people generally need, but are heightened and distorted by difficulties in the life of the neurotic. If these needs are not met, or the neurotic believes they will not be met in the future, the neurotic will experience great anxiety. This leads to an unrealistic nature of the needs to be perceived by the neurotic. For example, the degree to which they need, how often they need, or from whom do they need their specific “need” to be satisfied.

Horney noticed a pattern throughout the ten needs and could subdivide them into three broad coping strategies; compliance, aggression and withdrawal.


Neurotic need

Neurotic trends

Adler’s related
strategy and personality type

strives to be

One Two and Three
Moving-toward strategy
Self-effacing solution
Getting/leaning approach;
Phlegmatic personality
self-sacrificing, saintly
Four through Eight
Moving against
expansive solution
Ruling/dominant type;
Choleric personality
Powerful, recognized,
a winner
Nine, Ten and Three
resigning solution
Avoiding type;
Melancholy personality
aloof, perfect

(Boeree, 2006; Pervin & John, 2001)


Horney suggested that the cause of a neurotic persona is parental indifference; a lack of warmth and affection in the now neurotic’s childhood. Even a well-intentioned parent may display behaviours of indifference toward a child, they may; have preference to one child over another, blame a child when they are not at fault, switch between overindulgence and neglect for the child, leave promises unfulfilled, disturb or disrupt childhood friendships or tease the child’s thinking. Often this occurs as parents are under pressure, or are themselves neurotic and tend to put their own needs before their children’s.

Initially the child feels angry towards the parent or parents, a response Horney called Basic Hostility. If this is successful in getting the child attention or rewards of kind, it may develop into a habit which can lead to an adult with an aggressive coping style.
Horney also identified that children may suffer a feeling of helplessness and a fear of abandonment, which she called Basic Anxiety. This feeling may lead to compliance in the child as a coping strategy; “if you can love me, you won’t hurt me”.
Finally Horney recognized that some children “solve” their problems by retreating, they withdraw themselves from social situations especially at home and become self sufficient, avoiding the problem to avoid the bad feelings.

Self Theory

Horney believed that the self is the core of being. If one has an accurate self conception, called self-realization, they will be free to realize and therefore strive to fulfil their potential. According to Horney, the neurotic has two selves; the despised self and the ideal self. The neurotic struggles between a hatred for themselves and convincing the outside world that they are perfect, pretending they truly are. Horney called this the “tyranny of the shoulds” vs “striving for glory”. Neurotic is alienated from their true core self which prevents them from actualizing their potential.

two selves (Boeree, 2006)


Boeree, C.G. (2006). Karen horney. Retrieved from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/horney.html

Pervin, A. L. & John, O. P. (2001). Personality: Theory and Research (pp. 141 - 144). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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