A Karen Horney Glossary
Craig Chalquist, MS PhD

Karen Horney (pronounced "horn-eye") nee Danielssen (1885-1952) was the daughter of an often-absent, authoritarian ship captain his own children called "the Bible-thrower" and a narcissistic mother who openly despised her husband. She grew up in Hamburg and entered medical school against her parents' wishes in 1906. There she met Oscar Horney and married him in 1910. Around the time the first of her three daughters was born, Horney suffered a bout of depression and started psychoanalysis with Karl Abraham, forgetting her handbag in his office after her first visit. The analysis didn't cure her depression, but it did interest her in becoming an analyst herself, something her medical degree now made possible. She later became a cofounder of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute while eeing low-fee patients there and charging on a sliding scale.

In 1922, she read her first paper at a psychoanalytic conference, attacking her former analyst's and Freud's denigration of women as inherently discontented with their sex. 1923 was a tough year for her: her husband came down with meningitis, his occupation fell through, her brother Berndt died of pneumonia, and all three of her daughters rebelled against going into therapy with Melanie Klein. 1930 saw the four of them moved to Brooklyn sans husband, who eventually divorced her; a year later she began an affair with Erich Fromm, whom she later found detached and withdrawing; other affairs followed but she never remarried. In 1941, she resigned from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute--where she'd taught since 1934--after repeated criticisms of her attacks on Freudian patriarchy (Freud called her "mean" and "malicious") and helped found the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. In her spare time she read detective stories, threw parties, doted on her daughters, and flirted with younger men. Throughout her life she remained a popular lecturer. She died of cancer in 1952.

Alfred Adler quotations, and glossaries of Freudian and Jungian terms are also available at this site.


Actual (or Empirical) Self: the total of everything we are in the present, body and psyche, healthy and neurotic, including the original core constituted by the real self.

Anxiety: the emotion found in all neuroses. Includes helplessness before an invisible danger, irrationality, and an indicator that something's wrong internally. In our culture we tend to rationalize it, deny it, narcotize it, or avoid anything internal or external that arouses it rather than probing its sources. Its source is not a sexual impulse, as Freud thought, but a hostile one perceived as threatening and therefore repressed into unconsciousness. (Example: people who "don't get angry" because they've "evolved beyond it"--but not beyond their inhibitions, compulsios, restlessness, or phobic reactions.) Contempt and envy are two common forms of hostility.

Four main groups of anxiety: danger is felt to come from oneself and be directed at oneself; to come from oneself and be directed at others; to come from outside and be directed at oneself; to come from outside and be directed at others.

Auxilliary Solutions: these shore up a neurosis when the basic solutions (neurotic trends) become shaky. They include self-alienation, externalization of inner experience, compartmentalizing (Kohut, after Freud, called this "disavowal"), automatic control of emotions, belief in the supremacy of the mind (especially its imaginative and reasoning-rationalizing powers), blind spots, arbitrary rightness, elusiveness, and cynicism (a manic defense according to Klein).

Basic Anxiety: the anxiety caused by emotional neglect in childhood whereby the child feels helpless and isolated in a hostile world. In our culture we tend to evade feeling it via protection throug winning affection, submissiveness to people or institutions, power, or withdrawal. It forms the core of neurosis.

Castration Complex: in women, castrative tendencies are not about penis envy but about a desire to humiliate men in order to compensate feelings of being humiliated or defeated.

Central Inner Conflict: that between the self-idealizing pride system and the constructive, health-aspiring forces of the real self it hates.

Conscience: not a superegoic function (Freud) but a reaction of the real self to our health or malfunctioning. (Fromm referred to it as the "humanistic conscience.") By contrast, self-accusations stem from neurotic pride.

Death Drive: the Thanatos hypothesis is an excuse for not analyzing the deeper dynamics of one's aggressive tendencies. Also, for analysts, an excuse not to question whether anger in the transference is an appropriate expression of the patient's frustration with the analyst. For Horney, Klein's thesis that all children have sadistic, destructive phantasies thanks to the death drive relieved parents of the necessity for wondering whether something less theoretical--such as conscious or unconscious aggression, envy, or a lack of honesty or understanding--was responsible for such fantasies.

Dreams: to be linked up to the driving forces in the patient. The emotions felt in the dream are key clues.

Ego: an agency pushed by the id and pulled by the superego, the ego described by Freud is a neurotic structure, not ahealthy one capable of warmth, spontaneity, creativity, and healthy aggression.

Externalization: seeing something inner as occurring outside instead. A broader term than projection; in externalization, all feelings, even positive ones, are experienced as an aspect of someone or something else, consciously eliminating them from oneself (similar to Klein's concept of projective identification). Active externalization directs the repressed emotion at other people; passive externalization experiences it at coming at oneself from them. Externalization supports and strengthens the idealized image.

Hopelessness: a crucial end product of all neurosis, caused by failures to live up to one's "shoulds" and the partially or wholly unconscious knowledge of being thoroughly entangled in psychic conflict. At bottom, the mood that accompanies our failure to be who we are. (See sadistic trends.)

Human Nature: it isn't either "good" or "evil," but, as with all forms of life, striving inherently for self-realization. See morality of evolution.

Idealized Image: a rigid, unrealistic picture of what one ought to be. It substitutes for genuine ideals, negates inner conflicts, and provides the neurotic trends a tool for fulfilling their needs, if only via imagination. It can function even in people with very low self-esteem, some of whom take a certain pride in how awful they can appear to be. For all these reasons it's a comprehensive solution to basic anxiety that seems to promise a minimization of neurotic conflict while actually increasing it while sucking up energy that could be used for self-realization.

Idealized Self: the phony self that eventually evolves from the idealized image. It comes to be experienced as more real than what one intrinsically is. Compare real self.

Instinct: to reduce drives and behaviors to instincts is like reducing a car to one of its wheels. The fact that instincts correlate with mental life does not prove that one causes or is comprised by the other. The "instinctual" drives described by Freud were actually neurotic trends, strivings for safety.

Morality of Evolution: based on a view of the person as capable of evolving toward greater freedom and wholeness, its key value question is: does such-and-such attitude or action of mine aid or curtail the growth of my capabilities? For this view, self-knowledge isn't an aim in itself but the means to liberate spontaneous constructive forces.

Neurosis: a form of psychological suffering involving unconscious inner conflicts around basic anxiety and partially determined by cultural factors. All neuroses include anxiety, the defenses against it, numerous fears, a dissipation of energy, pretense, and impairment in vitality, spontaneity, freedom, enjoyment, and achievement. "The neurotic personality of our time" refers to the similarities in neuroses in a given culture; in ours, they include an excessive dependence on affection or approval, feelings of inferiority or inadequacy, inhibited self-assertion, hostility, inhibited or compulsive sexual activity, and competitiveness. Origin: lack of warmth and affection in childhood (children who feel wanted can healthily endure trauma and frustration) kept alive and urgent by present-day defenses.

The essence of a neurosis is the neurotic character structure whose focal points are neurotic trends organized around the central inner conflict between neurotic and healthy dynamics. These in turn constitute three early relationship-management strategies: moving toward people (emphasizes the helplessness aspect of basic anxiety), against people (hostility), or away from people (isolation). The first tend to be dependent personalities, the second narcissistic, and the third schizoid. These attempts at solution gradually harden into personality traits and pervade the entire character structure.The healthy counterpart is growing with people.

Three later, more internal solutions to conflict correspond with the three earlier ones and provide a rough diagnostic typology: the self-effacing solution, in which love is sought via "morbid dependency"; the expansive solution, in which one identifies with the glorified self (includes narcissistic, perfectionistic, and arrogant-vindictive types); and the resignation solution, in which one withdraws, becomes an onlooker, and resists closeness (subgroups include persistent resignation, rebellion, and shallow living).

Unless treated, neuroses tend to worsen over time because 1. whatever is repressed tends to call forth reinforcing reactions from the environment, and 2. defenses create vicious circles that increase the underlying anxiety.

Neurotic Claims: rooted in unhealthy imaginative fantasies, they are largely unconscious expectations that reality should conform to one's neurotic needs. They are wishes and wants that turn into entitlements. For that reason they tend to be unrealistic, egocentric, sometimes vindictive (especially when frustrated), and fulfillable without an effort on one's own part. Although they come with a high price tag in terms of energy, realism, and authenticity, they are clung to because they help the realization of the idealized self in its search for glory.

Neurotic Conflict: the battle between either two neurotic trends or sets of needs or, more fundamentally, between the growth-oriented and pathological sectors of personality (see central inner conflict).

Neurotic Trends (or drives): normal strivings exaggerated by inner conflict to the point where they fragment the self. Unlike normal strivings, these seek a particular object not because doing so is satisfying but in order to repress basic anxiety; for that reason they gradually become techniques or solutions for dealing with life in general. The two most frequent are strivings for affection (and a corresponding incapacity to love or to accept affection as genuine) and strivings for power and control (prestige, possessions, etc.); both involve a discharge of unconscious hostility. Their compulsivity makes them indiscriminate and anxiety-arousing when frustrated. Also, they shape one's image of oneself and create subsidiary needs, feelings, inhibitions, sources of pride, and behaviors. Symptoms arise when neurotic trends are incompatible.

When secondary defenses have been analyzed enough for a trend to become conscious, its origins, manifestations, consequences, and interrelations with other parts of the personality must also be traced. No collection of insights will help if they remain scattered.

Oedipus Complex: not universal, but prevalent in families that suffer various kinds of neurotic conflict--for instance, emotional incest or parents who encourage children to side with them against the other parent.

Penis Envy: a woman's envy, not of the penis (Freud), but of the power and privileges males enjoy in a patriarchal culture. (See womb envy.)

Pride System: the complex of factors involved in neurotic pride and self-hate, both of which go together. What's hated is the hidden real self; not just its failure to live up to the demands of the idealized self but, on a deeper level, its constructive impulses (see central inner conflict).

Six forms of self-hate: relentless demands on self, merciless self-accusation, self-contempt, self-frustrations, self-tormenting, and self-destruction.

Real Self: that sector of the original personality which comes forth when defenses, rationalizations, comparisons, and other forms of cover dissipate. Given the proper warmth and care and optimal friction through early relationships, the real self can unfold, much as an acorn becomes a oak. Compare idealized image and actual self.

Reaction Formation: a defense described by Freud whereby we strive in the opposite direction of an unacceptable impulse (e.g., being very nice to conceal one's underlying hatred). While some strivings are reaction formations, Horney pointed out that some acts of kindness, generosity, and affection ought to be taken as genuine rather than reducible to a defense.

Register: knowing what's going on within us without being fully aware of it.

Resistance: the sum of forces seeking to preserve the status quo and to improve the functioning of the neurosis. They maintain those aspects of the neurosis that have present subjective value.

Sadistic (or Vindictive) Trends: one possible outcome of prolonged hopelessness. To muster at least a feeble sense of power, the hopeless neurotic may turn destructive, covertly or overtly. Not necessarily sexual in coloring, it's really about a craving for some kind of strength and triumph over a chronic sense of defeat. Horney later identified vindictiveness as a core dynamic of sadistic behavior and so preferred the term "vindictive."

Search for Glory: self-realization of the idealized, rather than the real, self. The search for glory is a drive that self-idealization eventually grows into when neurotic conflicts go unaddressed. This compulsive, indiscriminate, insatiable and imaginative urge to express the idealized self is also accompanied by the need for perfection, neurotic ambition, and the need for vindictive triumph. Like any neurotic drive, it causes intense anxiety when frustrated. One of its outcomes is neurotic pride, the mood felt when one lives up to the "shoulds" of the idealized self; it should be looked for in any position tenaciously clung to (see pride system).

Secondary Defenses: the self-justifications that keep neurotic trends from being looked at too closely. (Example: the self-righteousness that safeguards an unconscious drive to dominate others. "Good," "right," and "unalterable" are characteristic themes of such defenses. The most common may well be, "It's my nature.")

Self-Analysis: feasible through free associations, dream analysis, and watching one's behavior and affect. The key issue is whether resistances can be overcome; ruthless self-honesty is required. Self-analysis won't help with a really severe neurosis.

Shoulds: these back up the development of the idealized self: "You SHOULD be smarter (better, braver, prettier, etc.)." Also called "the tyranny of the shoulds." Shoulds tend to be absolute and unrealistic, very often not even asking the right question: "Am I attractive?" for example often means, "Am I lovable?" When the idealized self's inner dictates are not fulfilled, the person feels like a failure. This is why rigid shoulds can cause self-hatred.

Situation Neurosis: a relatively mild neurosis developed as a result of a conflictual situation. They represent a momentary lack of adaptation.

Success, Fear Of: very often at bottom a fear of being envied and hated by retaliatory others and thereby losing their affection. It can also indicate an unconscious competitive impulse in need of repression, especially in people who are intensely ambitious in areas of life not related to career. Often accompanied by self-belittling.

Superego: what Freud described as a mental agency is actually, for Horney, a neurotic drive toward an appearance of perfection. As for conscience, following an internalized set of rules is NOT the operation of conscience, but the obedience to "oughts" and "shoulds" that makes massacres possible (example: Eichmann).

Symptoms: from incompatible neurotic needs. Curing the symptom--when there is one--doesn't rearrange the underlying personality dynamics.

Vicious Circles: protective devices have a way of creating more of the anxiety they try to repress. Vicious circles are an important process in the development and worsening of neuroses. The resulting hopelessness can be paralyzing, as though one were caught in a net, and create a lot of generalized envy.

Wholeheartedness: a prime goal of therapy and the opposite of neurotic inconsistencies (what other analysts call "splits" and Jung "opposites"). The capacity to act sincerely as a whole personality. Also a prerequisite for doing good therapy (along with comprehensiveness of attention and productive listening to and use of the patient's material). Other therapeutic goals include a capacity for assuming responsibility for oneself, inner independence, and spontaneity of feeling.

Womb envy: men's envy of women's ability to bear children; it is compensated by cultural achievements. Symptoms aren't always present and so can't always be relied on diagnostically.


Psychoanalytic psychiatrist Karen Horney came along at a time when psychoanalysis sorely needed to hear from marginalized feminine voices--and she had the courage to be kicked out of more than one analytical institute rather than retract her criticism of Freud's view of women as castrated men. Her awareness of social forces and agents of socialization brought context back into a discipline which located conflict and pathology only in the person's body and psyche. Although metapsychology was not, according to her, one of her strong points, her illumination of feminine psychology, the irreducibility of genuine strivings for wholeness, and the vicious circles and secondary defenses that perpetuate suffering have proved indispensable, as has her assertion that our inner conflicts are, at bottom, not about instinct so much as about the troubles in our past and present relationships.