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Horney & Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Non-Clinical Applications of Horney

Karen Horney's theories have proven to be of value not only clinically but as an explanatory system that can be used in other disciplines. In recent years, they have been increasingly employed in the study of literature, biography, culture, and gender. They are also applicable to religion (Zabriskie, 1976; Wood, 1980; Rubins, 1980; Huffman 1982; Paris, 1986) and philosophy (Tigner, 1985; Paris, 1986; Mullin, 1988).

Literary Study

Bernard Paris has argued that Horney's theories are especially appropriate for the analysis of literary characters. One of the chief objections to the psychoanalytic study of character has been its reliance on infantile experience to account for the behavior of the adult, since such experience is rarely, if ever, presented in literature. But Horney's theories focus on the kinds of adult defenses and inner conflicts about which literature often provides a great deal of information. In addition to being used in character study, Horney's theories have been employed in the analysis of thematic inconsistencies, tensions between theme and characterization, the relation between authors and their works, and the psychology of reader response (see Paris 1974, 1978, 1986, 1989, 1991a, 1991b, 1991c). They have helped to illuminate works and authors not only from most periods of British and American literature, but also from ancient Greece and Rome, and from France, Russia, Germany, Spain, Norway, and Sweden in a variety of centuries. They have been employed in the study of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian literature as well.


Horney's emphasis on the present structure of the psyche has also proved to be valuable in psychobiography. Like the literary critic approaching a character or an author, the biographer usually has much information about youth and adulthood but little or none about very early experience. Biographical studies of Robert Frost (Thompson 1966, 1970, 1976), Charles Evans Hughes (Glad 1966), the Kennedys (Clinch 1973), Stalin (Tucker, 1973, 1985, 1990), Woodrow Wilson (Tucker 1977), Jimmy Carter (Glad 1980; see also 1973), Felix Frankfurter (Hirsch 1981), and Lyndon Johnson (Huffman 1989) have fruitfully employed Horneyan analysis.

The biography of Frost exemplifies how Horney can be used. Named official biographer twenty-four years before Frost died, Lawrance Thompson became aware of the poet's many cruelties, self-contradictions, and inner conflicts. After completing a draft of his first volume, he read Neurosis and Human Growth and found in it the analytic concepts he needed to make sense of his bewildering subject. Had Horney's book mentioned Frost on every page, Thompson wrote in his notebook, "it couldn't have come closer to giving a psychological framework to what I've been trying to say" (Sheehy 1986, 398). He revised what he had written to reflect his new understanding of Frost as a man who developed a search for glory in response to early humiliations and who longed to triumph over and retaliate against those who had hurt him. Frost's contradictory accounts of his life were a product of both his inner conflicts and his need to confirm his idealized image by mythologizing himself. Frost sometimes used his poetry to "escape from his confusions into idealized postures," while at other times it served "as a means of striking back at, or of punishing" those he considered his enemies (Thompson, 1966, xix).

Cultural Study

Several writers have used Horney in the analysis of culture. David M. Potter (1954) was particularly struck by her analysis of the character traits, inner conflicts, and vicious circles created by the competitiveness of American culture. We trade security for opportunity and then feel anxious and insecure. Paul Wachtel (1989, 1991) also argues that there is something compulsive, irrational, and self-defeating in the way Americans pursue an ever-increasing wealth. We promote competition rather than mutual support and behave aggressively in order to avoid being perceived as weak. James Huffman (1982) emphasizes the sense of threat and feelings of inferiority that have influenced the American character from the beginning of our history, resulting in a compensatory self-idealization and a search for national glory. We make exaggerated claims for ourselves and are outraged when they are not honored by other nations. Like Potter and Wachtel, Huffman sees the American character as predominantly aggressive. We like our leaders to be belligerent, and we glorify people who fight their way to the top. Bernard Paris (1986) has discussed Victorian culture from a Horneyan perspective and has correlated conflicting cultural codes found in Elizabeth culture (as reflected in Shakespeare's plays) with Horney's strategies of defense (1991a).

Gender Study

Horney has been rediscovered in recent years by feminists, many of whose positions she anticipated. Although most attention has been given to her early essays, her mature theory also has important implications for understanding gender identity and masculine and feminine psychology.  Impressive work has been done along these lines by Alexandra Symonds, a Horneyan analyst, and Marcia Westkott, a social psychologist. Horney's mature theory has also been used to address gender issues in popular books by Helen De Rosis and Victoria Pellegrino (1976) and Claudette Dowling (1981).

Symond's essays (1974, 1976, 1978, 1991) are based largely on her clinical experience with women who were suffering from their feminine role, or who were trying to escape that role but finding it difficult, or who seemed to have escaped but were having trouble dealing with the consequences. In every case the starting point was a culture that conditioned girls to be self-effacing and dependent, while boys were encouraged to be autonomous and aggressive. While focusing on the plight of girls, Symonds recognized that boys develop difficulties of their own as a result of cultural stereotyping.

In The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney (1986), Marcia Westkott explored the implications of Horney's mature theory for feminine psychology, with chapters on the sexualization and devaluation of women and the dependency, anger, and detachment they feel as a consequence. In addition, she developed a Horneyan critique of a major strand of feminist theory. Jean Baker Miller, Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan, and the Stone Center group associate an array of personality traits specifically with women. These include a need for affiliation, a nurturing disposition, a sense of responsibility for other people, and a relational sense of identity. Westkott observed that although these traits are regarded in a positive way, they emerged from "a historical setting in which women are less highly valued than men" (Westkott, 1986, p. 2). She proposed that these traits are defensive reactions to subordination, devaluation, and powerlessness and that, however desirable they may seem from a social point of view, they are inimical to women's self-actualization. Westkott thus demythified the celebration of female relationality, arguing that is has provided "a contemporary theoretical justification for traditionally idealized femininity" (Westkott, 1989, p. 245). She contended, with Horney, that being deprived is not ennobling but damaging and that the self-effacing qualities many women develop in order to cope with devaluation are destructive.

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Last updated: 06/18/2002