Published 27 Apr 2017

As a reaction to the Freudian theories regarding human personality, contemporary theorists including Karen Horney developed alternative views on explaining human behavior and personality. One of the most celebrated works of Horney is her definition and discussion about neurosis.

In contrast with Freud’s explanation of neurosis which is entirely psychoanalytical and biological in nature, Horney focused on the sociological and cultural aspects of this personality category. As defined in her literature, neurosis is a condition wherein a person suffers from internal and interpersonal conflicts which is considered difficult to resolve or cope with in normative ways as compared to the general population. The qualifier in the definition is the comparison between the coping style of a neurotic individual and the people around him/her. Since there is an established relationship between the individual and the environment he/she lives in, it is seen that culture plays an important role in determining if a person is neurotic or not. Horney saw neurosis as having a very thin delineation from normal life in the sense that everybody, at certain points and situations, experience conflicts which needed to be addressed. However, a neurotic individual is said to be deviating from a cultural pattern because the strategy to which he/she resorts to is not the normal thing that other people would do given the same situation. The usual response of neurotic individuals is to either a) move away from people, b) move against people, or c) move towards people.

Looking at this more closely, Horney discussed about the neurotic needs which are typically the usual needs of every individual. However, personal life events lead certain individuals to look at the situations in a different way and exaggerate the conflict that they bring. These neurotic needs determine the coping style that the individual has when faced with a difficulty. For example, a moving-towards-people person uses compliance as a strategy.

This person has constant need to feel loved and appreciated. He/she is a people-pleaser and always seems agreeable. Furthermore, in relationships, a neurotic individual craves for a romantic partner and thinks that having one would make life better. There is constant fear that they would not be loved or accepted by people. On the other hand, another coping strategy used by neurotics is aggression. The tendency is to push other people away in order to get what they want. There is a need to dominate others and have the power to exploit others. They are usually the ones who get ahead in life in the expense of other people. They use other people and take advantage of their weaknesses. However, deep inside, these people also have worries that they would only be used and laughed at. They fear that they would be ignored and be taken for granted. Lastly, other neurotics use the withdrawal coping strategy in dealing with life problems.

These people separate and isolate themselves from others in the hopes of having independence and being self-sufficient. They constantly avoid any intimate relationships with anybody and would not like to be depended upon or depend on somebody else. Because they want to prove something, they strive to be successful in life even on their own. They are strict with themselves in order to be perfect in everything. They are afraid to make a mistake and appear helpless in other people’s eyes.

Horney further explains this using her self theory which says that neurotic individuals view themselves as a split person having the despised self and the ideal self. Usually, neurotics see the despised self as their real identity and the ideal self is something that they think they should be. However, in a neurotic’s perspective, this ideal self is something that is unattainable and unrealistic. This makes the person unstable and prevents them from functioning well in the society.

Although Horney outlined these main points of her theory, it should still be noted that determining and diagnosing a person as having neurosis would need great understanding of the condition and its criteria. There is a tendency for people to generalize or to extend the application of the term “neurotic” even to people with the slightest manifestations of neuroticism. As mentioned, the conflicts that these individuals face do not differ from average people. Also, it works with the initial notion that the person lives in the same culture where he/she grew up or stayed at for a longer period of time. If a person is in an unfamiliar setting, there is a tendency for him/her to behave differently or defiantly from the culture. This could be grounds for a neurotic diagnosis if not given adequate consideration. However, behavior patterns of the community or civilization must also be studied first before jumping into conclusions. This only means that although the definitions are set, the norms still differ from one culture to another. What could be normal in one place might be neurotic in another.

This work of Horney only tells us that a psychological finding could not be regarded as something generalizable or applicable universally. This is because the presence or absence of a certain psychological condition or abnormality is determined by comparing individuals to a norm population of only a certain culture and found to be different from the same norm only. Thus, the norm standard must change from culture to culture and generalization must not be made.

Because of this realization, psychology is not boxed up into thinking that human behavior could only be solely attributed to medical and physiological factors. As a mental health care professional in modern times, it is common understanding that mental or psychological states also depend on the environment in which a person lives in. Socioeconomic backgrounds and other anthropological considerations could also affect human behavior, affect, and cognition therefore we should always take these things into regard. We could never fully grasp or understand the psychological problem or condition of a certain individual if we do not look at his/her life history which might have contributed to his/her overall personality today.

Overall, Horney’s work opened up the world of psychology to the idea that it is not just psychoanalysis or biological factors that should be considered in explaining a psychological condition. Rather, it paved the way to people’s understanding that it is not limited to the personal and internal forces which motivate every person’s behavior. It is a combination of various factors and this includes the cultural aspect of one’s being.


  • Horney, Karen (1999). The neurotic personality of our time. Routledge.
Did it help you?