Karen Horney: the Feminist Psychiatrist

By Jaime Seltzer

Karen Horney was born in 1885 in Germany to a boat captain father and a well-educated mother. Her household consisted of her mother, her father’s children from another marriage, and she and her older brother, on whom she had a childhood crush. (Ewww, you are probably thinking: but it is pretty common at a certain age.) Unfortunately, Karen never had the time to grow out of it. Her brother either caught on or she confessed, and he denounced her. Karen’s father was away for long periods, but always returned angry and expecting complete obedience. He told Karen many times that she was unattractive and stupid.

At age nine, Karen decided that if she couldn’t change her looks, then she could at least work harder at being clever. In a way, this was good for her, because it gave her young life focus, but in another way, it is very sad: Karen was searching so hard for a way to be seen as valuable because her father and brother – the two ‘men of the house’ – had told her that they found her worthless. She had been told this so many times that she had begun to believe it was true.

Freud believed women were prone to all kinds of psychological difficulties that men did not experience. The primary reason for this was that women were envious of a particular part of the body that men had, and women did not.

The fire that burned through her might have fed on a poisoned fuel, but it still burned bright: Karen was devoted to her schoolwork, and by age thirteen, she had announced her intention to become a doctor. At age twenty-one, without either parent’s support, she became one of the only women enrolled in medical school in Germany, where she met her husband, and for a brief time she was happy.

Then, both of Karen’s parents passed away the same year she gave birth to her first child. Several years later, her husband lost his job and became ill, and took his frustrations out on Karen and their three children: she found out too late that she had married someone much like her father. Karen sought psychotherapeutic help for the first time in her life. As a result (and in a move very unusual for the time) she and her husband separated in the 1920s and eventually divorced.

Her psychotherapist eventually became her teacher, and Karen felt so much better that she longed to help others in the same way. She began to develop a way of thinking about women’s psychology that, if it seems very familiar today, is only because her ideas were so far ahead of their time.

The dominant psychological theories of the time belonged to Sigmund Freud. Freud believed women were prone to all kinds of psychological difficulties that men did not experience. The primary reason for this was that women were envious of a particular part of the body that men had, and women did not.

Yes; this was an actual, honest-to-goodness psychological theory that was widely accepted in its day. In Freud’s mind, women were walking around every day, deeply and profoundly envious of… well.

I’ll wait for you to stop laughing.

Horney found it less funny. What women were truly jealous of was the power that men had in the modern world, she maintained: the ability to buy a house, hold a job, vote, and be seen as a person. Of course women were envious of that power – the same way that men were jealous of women’s wombs and the ability to have babies, she added. “Is not the tremendous strength in men of the impulse to creative work in every field precisely due to their feeling of playing a relatively small part in the creation of living beings, which constantly impels them to an overcompensation in achievement?” she added, just to throw a little salt in the wound.

Horney’s disagreements with Freud didn’t end there. She believed that people could hold unhealthy ideas without being fit for the looney bin, and that people with minor problems could help themselves. “Life itself still remains a very effective therapist,” she said.

She was also deeply opposed to Freud’s idea that mental illness could never be improved, only explored and understood. Instead, Horney believed in potentially limitless personal growth.
In 1932, she scooped up her three children and moved to the United States, mostly because she was concerned about the rise of Nazism in Germany, but also because she had ticked off all the Freudians kind of permanently. She worked for a few years in Chicago before settling in Brooklyn.

Karen’s main contribution to the field of psychotherapy – besides being the first person to laugh in Freud’s face, which is actually more important than it sounds – was to come up with a theory of neurosis. Karen’s idea said that psychological issues arise from poor methods of coping with stress, and could be divided into three main categories: moving toward, moving away from, or moving against. This boiled down to the fact that people can respond to trouble by inappropriately clinging to others, hiding and refusing to connect to others, or fighting to ‘show’ how little they really needs others. Once again, she strongly differed from Freud in that she said that these are totally normal (if not very healthy) coping mechanisms that people use when they are in distress. This contributed to the demystifying of mental illness and encouraged people to seek help when they needed it.

Horney’s ideas were so incredibly, awesomely feminist that they weren’t really well-understood until the much later, when people were ready to really listen. A compilation of her essays was released to the public in the 1960s, and the rest is history.

Cherry, K. (2015). Karen Horney Biography. In Profiles of Major Thinkers in Psychology. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from http://psychology.about.com/od/profilesofmajorthinkers/p/bio_karenhorney.htm
Heffner, C. L. (2015). Chapter 5: Section 5: Karen Horney’s Feminine Psychology. In All Psych: Psych Central’s Virtual Psychology Classroom. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from http://allpsych.com/personalitysynopsis/horney/#.VdSGkZdZOao
Held, L. (2010). Karen Horney. In Psychology’s Feminist Voices. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from http://www.feministvoices.com/karen-horney/
Karen Horney. (2010). In Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved from http://www2.webster.edu/~woolflm/horney.html

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