Brief Overview

The study of mental health and the feminist movement are deeply indebted to Karen Horney for offering the world innovative and alternative views of psychodynamic theories. She influenced society and the treatment of the mentally ill in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ironically, Horney never perceived herself as a feminist, and many aspects of her lifestyle—especially her dependence on having a man in her life—appear to make that label problematic. In Europe, where Horney was born and began her career, the study of the mind was completely maledominated, and came to be firmly under the sway of three men that were her contemporaries: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler. Yet despite these three disparate voices, Karen Horney was also able to make her voice heard.

Horney is often described as a neo-Freudian, but her view of neurosis is markedly different from Freud's. She became convinced that neurosis was much more a normal component of life than it was in Freud's universe. Where Freud perceived neurotics made sick by forces beyond their control in the subconscious, Horney saw people termed neurotic attempting to make their lives bearable. She called their symptoms a means of "interpersonal and intrapsychic control and coping." Where Freud viewed culture as the necessary bulwark for survival pitted against the primitive desires of the id, Horney saw culture as the problem. Culture provided bad environments that caused frustration of people's




Karen Horney. (Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced by permission.)

emotional needs and created hostility, fear, and insecurity, leading to neurosis.

Freud believed that sick patients could be saved by healthy doctors. Horney, however, came to believe something that was anathema to Freud and the rest of the psychological community of her time: People suffering from mental illness could take responsibility for the illness and help themselves. The concept that people dealing with minor problems caused by neurosis could be their own psychiatrists was far from a popular view among the providers of psychiatric care. Though the concept of self-help is not consistently given credence by mental health professionals today, self-help programs for a wide variety of emotional, social, and physical problems have become a standard facet of treatment. Karen Horney was far ahead of her time when, in 1942, she published Self-Analysis, one of the earliest self-help books ever written. Much of her work was based upon her own terribly personal and painful experiences, and yet from that pain she gave birth to optimism. Karen Horney was, in herself, living proof that human beings, even neurotic, depressed human beings, can do great things. Her honesty and unflinching ability to look inward and use that vision became the tools that she used to help others. Sadly, for most of her life, she was unable to help herself.

Horney's unique vision of the treatment of mental illness didn't stop with self-help. One of the leading feminist thinkers in the psychological world of her time, Horney was an early critic of Freud's penis envy and Oedipus complex hypotheses. One of her earliest published works, a collection of essays titled Feminine Psychology, went into print in 1936. Though she agreed that such a phenomena as penis envy could and did exist among little girls, she was convinced that it was far less significant an issue among adult women than Freud and his followers believed. Horney could accept that it was possible for penis envy to be a component of some neurotic females' psyches, but adamantly disputed that it was as universal as Freud believed. Much of her early writings suggest that what Freud called penis envy may instead be the justified resentment that women feel as they attempt to survive as second-class citizens of a male-dominated world.

It is unclear if Horney was thumbing her nose at Freud when she developed a premise that indeed there may be a male version of penis envy. Horney called this "womb envy." Womb envy, she stated, was the unexpressed inadequacy some men felt because they could not bear children. She suggested that womb envy manifests itself in two ways: men trying to dominate women, and in over-achievement and the drive to succeed.

In reviewing Horney's theories over the span of her life, there are marked changes in those beliefs. It could be said that she was inconsistent—at first espousing Freud's theories regarding childhood sexual conflict and transference and later attacking them. But this change demonstrates one of Horney's great abilities: to hold nothing sacrosanct. Horney seems to have received this gift from living with a fanatically religious father and a sanctimonious mother. It gave her a unique aptitude to critically look at her own ideas as well as the viewpoints of others, and to revise her own tenets as they needed changing, due her life experiences. This open-mindedness—this refusal to become rigidly orthodox—it appears, was for Horney the reason her beliefs and approach to psychoanalysis have remained a part of mental health treatment decades after her death.

Horney's critics also called her politically incorrect. There is some evidence to support that criticism. Surely her ongoing attacks against Freud within months after his death might have been avoided by a more circumspect person. Her statements about the "pious Jew thanking his God.. .that he was not created a woman," made in Germany in the years that the Nazis were fighting to gain control of the country, sound anti-Semitic and inflammatory. Yet early on, Horney equally expressed anger at her family's discrimination against (the first of several) Jewish lovers. In her decades-long battle with Freud and his followers, Horney certainly wore no velvet gloves. Neither did her critics. However, for all the evidence of political incorrectness, there is at least as much substantiation that Horney was among the most courageous, honest, and forthright of the analysts of her time.

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