Karen Horney: Biography of the Woman who Confronted Freud

Karen Horney worked against the theories that maintained the masochistic nature of women, their dependence on love, money and the protection of men. Some theories that forced women to look for the meaning of their lives through a husband, children and the care of their family.


Karen Horney is one of those figures that deserves to have its own space in history, not only in the scientific field. A woman ahead of her time and who dared to question the foundations of the psychology of her time.

His revolutionary theories confronted her with the most conservative fractions of science. But, in addition, to this confrontation would be added the difficulty that supposed to be a woman in a world of masculine theories.

Karen Horney was a German psychoanalyst of the early twentieth century. Founder of feminist psychology and co-founder of neofreudian psychology. He was one of the most critical voices with the theories of Sigmund Freud. The repeated pictures of depression suffered during her youth led her to train in Medicine, consolidating, finally, as a psychoanalyst. He developed revolutionary theories about personality and neurosis, which ended up triggering his expulsion from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.

She was an extremely influential woman in psychological advances. He not only made great contributions in the areas of neuroticism, but also in the psychological attitude towards women. Let’s not forget that the field of psychology was dominated by men, in the early 1900s, and many depended on Freud’s advances.

On the contrary, Horney defended the idea that men were the ones who felt inadequate and jealous of women’s ability to create and develop life. That was the reason why men sought to dominate in all other important areas of life. Horney called this phenomenon, as opposed to Freud’s beliefs, “belly envy.”

Early years

Karen Danielsen was born on September 16, 1885 in Blankenese, Germany. His childhood was marked by a very severe father who imposed a strict education. Since she was a little girl, she took refuge in her older brother, to whom she felt very close. When her brother distanced himself from her, Karen fell into a deep depression that would repeat itself more often throughout her youth. He devoted himself body and soul to his studies. Karen Horney would remember years later that, by then, she decided that if she could not be pretty, she would be smart.

In 1906, he enrolled in the School of Medicine of the University of Freiburg. One of the few universities that accepted women back then. Later, he passed through the University of Gottingen and, finally, in 1909, at the University of Berlin, he chose to train in psychoanalysis, a psychological school emerging at that time, graduating in 1915. In 1910, he married a fellow student, Oskar Horney; fruit of this marriage were born his three daughters.

Professional life

During her first years of professional career, Karen Horney practiced as a professor and analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute in Berlin. However, despite his good professional situation, his life begins to falter personally. His marriage did not work and his older brother died of a lung infection. As a result, Karen was again submerged in a prolonged depressive state.

In 1932, Karen Horney moved to the United States, where she served as Associate Director of the Institute of Psychoanalysis of Chicago. Two years later, she moved to Brooklyn and established herself as a professor at the New School for Social Research and at the Psychoanalytic Institute in New York.

During those years, Karen Horney begins to develop her theories about neurosis and personality; in this period, he comes in contact with other authors of the moment such as Erich Fromm and Harry Stack.

The theories developed by Horney turn out to be quite critical and opposed to the original Freudian theories; criticism that cost him his expulsion from the Psychoanalytic Institute of New York. That is when he founded, along with other dissidents, the American Journal of Psychoanalysis and the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, where he worked until his death in 1952.

Karen Horney and her contribution to psychology

Karen Horney argued that differences between men and women are manifested through differences in education and socialization; not in biology, as he had been defending himself for

weather. It was the forerunner of feminist psychology that maintained that it was the differences in gender power that affected the mental health of women.

Horney dared to contradict Freud’s view of penis envy. Breaking with tradition, he defended the idea that what women envied was male power and privileges, not the penis.

She also criticized Freud’s Oedipus complex, which she considered a product of insecurity in the relationship of parents and children. He defended the fundamental role of environmental influences in psychological development and considered that narcissism was the result of low self-esteem and excess of indulgence in childhood, not a psychological disorder.

A legacy of weight

Karen Horney worked against the theories that maintained the masochistic nature of women, their dependence on love, money and the protection of men. He felt that this way of thinking had got women to put too much emphasis on qualities such as charm and beauty and to look for the meaning of life through their husbands and children.

Revolutionary in various aspects: from her contribution to psychology, with her theories about neurosis or personality, to her passing through the university in a period in which women were relegated to the domestic sphere. His statements and criticisms, especially those linked to Sigmund Freud, produced rejection in a world that, perhaps, was too small.

In 1967, the 14 articles that composed her work Female Psychology were published posthumously. His work and his work influenced the humanistic and Gestalt psychology, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, Ellis’s emotive rational therapy, existentialism and feminism.

Undoubtedly, Karen Horney left a unique legacy, whose path was not easy and was marked by constant struggle. An internal struggle, linked to her depression, and an external struggle as a result of being a woman and how difficult it was to be heard in a world of men.