Feminist psychoanalyst Karen Horney was born in Blankenese, Germany, in 1885. Her father, Berndt Danielson, was a sea captain and her mother, Clotilde (“Sonni”), was a housewife. Sonni was Berndt's second wife; Berndt had four children from his previous marriage. Karen's half siblings were never accepting of the new family (Sonni, Karen, and brother Berndt), a source of some pain for Karen.
Karen had complex relationships with her family members. Her father was prone to angry outbursts, for which his children nicknamed him “Bible-thrower.” He favored his son Berndt over Karen, believing that women were inferior to men in intelligence and morality. At the same time, he took Karen on some of his long sea voyages, and these memories were invaluable to Karen. Karen adored and looked up to older brother Berndt, but he did not return the affection in the same way, embarrassed by her open expressions. Her true emotional connection was with her mother, who protected her from her father and who supported her in her aspirations.
While growing up, Karen was unhappy. She was self-conscious, believed she was unattractive, and despised her life at home. At age 12, she was determined to become a medical doctor, an ambition that was virtually unknown for women at the time. Karen's father opposed her goal, but Sonni was able to convince him to pay for Karen's prep school. Karen entered medical school at the University of Frieberg, one of the only medical schools in Germany that admitted women, and was the only woman in her class. After transferring universities twice, she earned her medical degree in 1913 from the University of Berlin. She studied Freudian psychoanalysis in the later years of medical school. During the same years she also met and married Oskar Horney, an economics student who would later graduate from law school. Over the course of their marriage, they had three daughters.
Karen's adult family life mimicked her own childhood in some ways. Oskar was angry and sometimes physically abusive. One Christmas, at dinner, middle daughter Marianne leaned back in her chair and accidentally pulled the tablecloth and the entire dinner to the floor. Oskar beat her aggressively with a dog whip while older sister Brigitte cried in sympathy. Karen did not react emotionally. In a biography of Horney, Rubins (1978) reports that the daughters saw their mother as cold and detached. This is ironic as Karen's theory of personality would be built around the concept of basic evil, which is an attitude of aloofness and indifference that a parent has toward her child. Karen's marriage deteriorated over the next several years, and in 1926 she left Oskar, moving into a small apartment and taking the girls with her. Over 10 years later, she filed for divorce; their divorce became final in 1939.
Karen taught at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in Berlin from 1920 to 1932. In 1932, she and the children immigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, where she became part of an active intellectual community. She practiced psychoanalysis and wrote extensively about personality and neurosis. Her 1937 book, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, was well received and was even popular with the lay public. In 1941, she founded the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis to promote an alternative to traditional psychoanalysis. She began teaching at New York Medical College in 1942 and remained there until her death in 1952.
Horney contributed much to the clinical conception of emotion. She described a concept, basic anxiety, which is a result of being ignored, mistreated, or abused by others in childhood, especially by parents. “It may be roughly described as a feeling of being small, insignificant, helpless, deserted, endangered, in a world that is out to abuse, cheat, attack, humiliate, betray, envy” (Horney, 1937, p. 92). This basic anxiety is not a universal experience but is common. Those who experience this feeling develop a defensive way of dealing with people, a “neurotic personality” that is characterized by “moving toward others” (viewing oneself as saintly; appeasing others and being compliant so that others will not hurt one), “moving against others” (viewing others as dangerous; attacking first before others attack), or “moving away from others” (viewing others as troublesome and demanding; avoiding others because they create hassles). The person with a neurotic personality, having this feeling of smallness and fear of others (basic anxiety), unconsciously chooses one of these three approaches and rigidly applies it in interactions with all people. In contrast, the person with a healthy personality views others in more complex and differentiated ways; this person is flexible in the ways that she relates to others.
Another significant contribution of Horney's was her feminist modification of Freudian theory. Horney, like Freud, believed that many young children experience a clinging possessiveness of one parent and jealousy of the other parent (because the other parent possesses the loved parent). These feelings can be quite passionate, but whereas Freud saw them as sexual, Horney did not. Instead, such a dynamic is an early sign of neurotic conflict; the child feels basic anxiety and hostility toward one or both parents because of their interference, indifference, or abuse. Additionally, as a counterpart to Freud's penis envy (girls' and women's envy of the powerful organ that is associated with great pleasure), Horney identified womb envy. In her psychotherapy practice, she claims that she saw men who envied pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, and women's breasts. Her writings about feminine psychology, which were revolutionary at the time (1930s and 1940s), inspired others to challenge a masculine bias in traditional psychoanalytic theory.
See also anxiety, Sigmund Freud, psychoanalytic perspective, the unconscious mind.
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