Karen Horney was one of the first women trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst. Horney’s theories focused on “unconscious anxiety,” which she believed stemmed from early childhood experiences of unmet needs, loneliness, and/or isolation. She theorized three styles of coping that children adopt in relation to anxiety: moving toward people, moving away from people, and moving against people.

Horney was also influential in the advancement of feminism within the field of psychodynamics. Freud has been widely critiqued for his almost exclusive focus on men and for what some perceive as a condescension toward women; for example, Horney disagreed with the Freudian idea that girls have “penis envy” and are jealous of male biological features. According to Horney, any jealousy is most likely due to the greater privileges that males are often given, meaning that the differences between men’s and women’s personalities are due to the dynamics of culture rather than biology. She further suggested that men have “womb envy” because they cannot give birth.

According to Horney, basic anxiety (and therefore neurosis) could result from a variety of situations including "direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child's individual needs, lack of real guidance, disparaging attitudes, too much admiration or the absence of it, lack of reliable warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, over-protection, isolation from other children, injustice, discrimination, unkept promises, hostile atmosphere, and so on and so on" (Horney, 1945).

These 10 neurotic needs can be classed into three broad categories:

1.     Needs that move you towards others: These neurotic needs cause individuals to seek affirmation and acceptance from others. They are often described as needy or clingy as they seek out approval and love.

2.     Needs that move you away from others: These neurotic needs create hostility and antisocial behavior. These individuals are often described as cold, indifferent, and aloof.

3.     Needs that move you against others: These neurotic needs result in hostility and a need to control other people. These individuals are often described as difficult, domineering, and unkind.

Neurotic people tend to utilize two or more of these ways of coping, creating conflict, turmoil, and confusion.

The 10 Neurotic Needs

Well-adjusted individuals utilize all three of the strategies (toward, away, and against others), shifting focus depending on internal and external factors. So what is it that makes these coping strategies neurotic? According to Horney, it is the overuse of one or more of these interpersonal styles.

1. The Neurotic Need for Affection and Approval

This need​ includes the desires to be liked, to please other people, and meet the expectations of others. People with this type of need are extremely sensitive to rejection and criticism and fear the anger or hostility of others.

2. The Neurotic Need for a Partner Who Will Take Over One’s Life

This involves the need to be centered on a partner. People with this need suffer extreme fear of being abandoned by their partner. Oftentimes, these individuals place an exaggerated importance on love and believe that having a partner will resolve all of life’s troubles.

3. The Neurotic Need to Restrict One’s Life Within Narrow Borders

Individuals with this need prefer to remain inconspicuous and unnoticed. They are undemanding and content with little. They avoid wishing for material things, often making their own needs secondary and undervaluing their own talents and abilities.

4. The Neurotic Need for Power

Individuals with this need seek power for its own sake. They usually praise strength, despise weakness, and will exploit or dominate other people. These people fear personal limitations, helplessness, and uncontrollable situations.

5. The Neurotic Need to Exploit Others

These individuals view others in terms of what can be gained through association with them. People with this need generally pride themselves on their ability to exploit other people and are often focused on manipulating others to obtain desired objectives, including such things as ideas, power, money, or sex.

6. The Neurotic Need for Prestige

Individuals with a need for prestige value themselves in terms of public recognition and acclaim. Material possessions, personality characteristics, professional accomplishments, and loved ones are evaluated based on prestige value. These individuals often fear public embarrassment and loss of social status.

7. The Neurotic Need for Personal Admiration

Individuals with a neurotic need for personal admiration are narcissistic and have an exaggerated self-perception. They want to be admired based on this imagined self-view, not upon how they really are.

8. The Neurotic Need for Personal Achievement

According to Horney, people push themselves to achieve greater and greater things as a result of basic insecurity. These individuals fear failure and feel a constant need to accomplish more than other people and to top even their own earlier successes.

9. The Neurotic Need for Self-Sufficiency and Independence

These individuals exhibit a “loner” mentality, distancing themselves from others in order to avoid being tied down or dependent upon other people.

10. The Neurotic Need for Perfection and Unassailability

These individuals constantly strive for complete infallibility. A common feature of this neurotic need is searching for personal flaws in order to quickly change or cover up these perceived imperfections.

As Horney investigated these neurotic needs, she began to recognize that they can be clustered into three broad coping strategies:

I. Compliance, which includes needs one, two, and three.

II. Aggression, including needs four through eight.

III. Withdrawal, including needs nine, ten, and three. She added three here because it is crucial to the illusion of total independence and perfection that you limit the breadth of your life!

In her writings, she used a number of other phrases to refer to these three strategies. Besides compliance, she referred to the first as the moving-toward strategy and the self-effacing solution. One should also note that it is the same as Adler's getting or leaning approach, or the phlegmatic personality.

Besides aggression, the second was referred to as moving-against and the expansive solution. It is the same as Alder's ruling or dominant type, or the choleric personality.

And, besides withdrawal, she called the third moving-away-from and the resigning solution. It is somewhat like Adler's avoiding type, the melancholy personality.


It is true that some people who are abused or neglected as children suffer from neuroses as adults. What we often forget is that most do not. If you have a violent father, or a schizophrenic mother, or are sexually molested by a strange uncle, you may nevertheless have other family members that love you, take care of you, and work to protect you from further injury, and you will grow up to be a healthy, happy adult. It is even more true that the great majority of adult neurotics did not in fact suffer from childhood neglect or abuse! So the question becomes, if it is not neglect or abuse that causes neurosis, what does?

Horney's answer, which she called the "basic evil," is parental indifference, a lack of warmth and affection in childhood. Even occasional beatings or an early sexual experience can be overcome, if the child feels wanted and loved.

The key to understanding parental indifference is that it is a matter of the child's perception, and not the parents' intentions. "The road to hell," it might pay to remember, "is paved with good intentions." A well-intentioned parent may easily communicate indifference to children with such things as showing a preference for one child over another, blaming a child for what they may not have done, overindulging one moment and rejecting another, neglecting to fulfill promises, disturbing a child's friendships, making fun of a child's thinking, and so on. Please notice that many parents -- even good ones -- find themselves doing these things because of the many pressures they may be under. Other parents do these things because they themselves are neurotic, and place their own needs ahead of their children's

Horney noticed that, in contrast to our stereotypes of children as weak and passive, their first reaction to parental indifference is anger, a response she calls basic hostility. To be frustrated first leads to an effort at protesting the injustice!

Some children find this hostility effective, and over time it becomes a habitual response to life's difficulties. In other words, they develop an aggressive coping strategy. They say to themselves, "If I have power, no one can hurt me."

Most children, however, find themselves overwhelmed by basic anxiety, which in children is mostly a matter of fear of helplessness and abandonment. For survival's sake, basic hostility must be suppressed and the parents won over. If this seems to work better for the child, it may become the preferred coping strategy -- compliance. They say to themselves, "If I can make you love me, you will not hurt me."

Some children find that neither aggression nor compliance eliminate the perceived parental indifference. They "solve" the problem by withdrawing from family involvement into themselves, eventually becoming sufficient unto themselves -- the third coping strategy. They say, "If I withdraw, nothing can hurt me."

Self theory

Horney had one more way of looking at neurosis -- in terms of self images. For Horney, the self is the core of your being, your potential. If you were healthy, you would have an accurate conception of who you are, and you would then be free to realize that potential (self-realization).

The neurotic has a different view of things. The neurotics self is "split" into a despised self and an ideal self. Other theorists postulate a "looking-glass" self, the you you think others see. If you look around and see (accurately or not) others despising you, then you take that inside you as what you assume is the real you. On the other hand, if you are lacking in some way, that implies there are certain ideals you should be living up to. You create an ideal self out of these "shoulds." Understand that the ideal self is not a positive goal; it is unrealistic and ultimately impossible. So the neurotic swings back and forth between hating themselves and pretending to be perfect.

Horney described this stretching between the despised and ideal selves as "the tyranny of the shoulds" and neurotic "striving for glory:"

The compliant person believes "I should be sweet, self-sacrificing, saintly."
The aggressive person says "I should be powerful, recognized, a winner."
The withdrawing person believes "I should be independent, aloof, perfect."

And while vacillating between these two impossible selves, the neurotic is alienated from their true core and prevented from actualizing their potentials.