Neurotic Personality (Horney)
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KeywordsInternal Coherence Personality Structure Neurotic Patient Neurotic Personality Neurotic Individual
Karen Horney’s theory of neurotic personality structure provides a rich conceptual framework for understanding psychopathology and human development. Horney’s theories have had a lasting impact on the psychoanalytic landscape and can be recognized in contemporary thought, often without sufficient credit given to the importance of her contributions. Rather than writing about specific behavioral symptoms, Horney described neurotic personality in terms of underlying character disturbances resulting from social and cultural circumstances. She argued that all neurotic patients, while possessing unique neurotic personalities, shared the same fundamental disruptions in their personality structure. Different personality “types” or “styles” were thus understood as permutations of a basic underlying conflict rather than as conceptually distinct conditions (Horney 1945). This understanding of neurosis, a radical departure from the prevailing theories of the day, provided a new lens through which to understand the human experience and can be viewed as an early example of what is now called relational theory.
Horney’s Theory of Neurotic Personality
In a time when few theorists dared to deviate from the doctrine of classical psychoanalysis, Horney reformulated almost all of the major tenets of Freudian theory. Horney de-emphasized libidinal drives and infantile sexuality; instead she placed the formation of self, human relationships, and cultural processes at the center of her theory. In her theory of neurotic personality, Horney described character pathology in terms of the whole personality and enduring patterns of being in the world rather than in terms of specific symptoms. Although her ideas evolved considerably over time, she remained committed to elucidating major character styles as defensive approaches to managing anxiety. Horney posited that all neurotic patients shared the same fundamental disturbance in their character formation (Horney 1937, p. 33). For Horney, the underlying disturbance, rather than being rooted in sexual and aggressive biological impulses, was rooted in relational conflict and disruptions in the process of self-realization.
Horney emphasized early developmental processes in the formation of character neurosis. She writes that when caregivers are too consumed by their own neurotic needs, they are unable to provide a safe, warm, and constructive environment for the developing infant. As a result, the child experiences a state of profound anxiety, unease, and apprehensiveness. Horney refers to this frightening state as basic anxiety, which she describes as a feeling of isolation and helplessness in a potentially hostile world. The child desperately searches for a way to lessen this anxiety and achieve a state of felt security in a world that is frightening and unpredictable. Horney posited that the individual will tend to adopt one of three defensive relational orientations that determine her neurotic personality type; she will move toward, against, or away from others (Horney 1945).
When moving toward people, the individual accepts her own helplessness. This individual becomes overly dependent, compliant, and unable to assert her own wishes and desires. When moving against people, the person accepts the hostility in her environment and decides to fight, to rebel; she is mistrustful of others and sets out to defeat them. When moving away from people, the individual becomes increasingly distant in an effort to feel independent and self-sufficient. However, she instead become progressively more isolated, withdrawn, and inhibited. Horney originally referred to these three styles as compliant (moving toward), aggressive (moving against), and detached (moving away). In later writing she used the terms self-effacing (toward), expansive (against), and resigned (away) in her efforts to emphasize intrapsychic as well as the interpersonal experience (Horney 1950). In some ways, Horney’s distinctions of neurotic types are similar to what are now termed dependent personality, narcissistic personality, and schizoid personality.
For healthy individuals, the three moves – toward, against, and away – are not in conflict and can operate simultaneously. The healthy individual is capable of depending on others, of asserting their needs, and of keeping to themselves when appropriate. However, when the individual is consumed by basic anxiety, they adopt a stance of neurotic rigidity in their interactions with others. Rather than being experienced as synergistic and complimentary, the three moves are experienced as antithetical to one another, leading to an intense state of conflict and anxiety. The person attempts to navigate this conflict by consistently and rigidly emphasizing one of the moves in their relations with others. People who rigidly move against others, for instance, form a neurotic personality in which they become aggressive and confrontational, while having difficulty asking for help, expressing their love, or separating from others when necessary. The individual’s degree of rigidity directly corresponds to the severity of their neurosis (Horney 1945).
Because of their intense basic anxiety, neurotic individuals develop an encrusted personality structure and are entrenched in rigid patterns of relatedness. This rigidity inevitably undermines their ability to maintain healthy relationships with others and integrate new experiences. Horney (1945) refers to this as the basic conflict, a conflict which underlies the observable expressions of character neurosis and often gives rise to a vicious and self-defeating relational cycle. Consumed by feelings of helplessness, an individual may rigidly move toward others in order to achieve felt security. The person then becomes intensely dependent on others, often to a degree that begins to push the other away, which inevitably reinforces the initial feelings of helplessness. This type of rigid approach thus intensifies the threat that it was initially intended to manage. Neurotic individuals who rigidly move toward, against, or away from others may differ in their habitual behaviors, fears, and defensive constellations. However, their neurotic character structures are understood as permutations of the same underlying conflict. Horney’s basic conflict is fundamentally a relational conflict, one which results from rigid and contradictory attitudes toward others (Horney 1945).
While her earlier writings focused on the interpersonal aspects of the neurotic personality through the lens of the basic conflict, Horney’s later work also integrated a more intrapsychic perspective. At the center of Horney’s theory of intrapsychic development was the process of self-realization and the potential conflict between the real self and the idealized self. Horney argued that, under favorable conditions, human beings strive toward self-realization. We all strive to become our authentic selves, actualize our intrinsic potentialities, and attain a sense of coherence and meaning. She writes that an individual will naturally and spontaneously attempt to develop their own resources, unique capacities, and ability to relate to others in an authentic and spontaneous manner. Through this constructive process of growth, one moves toward self-realization and lives in accordance with their real self. However if a child meets an unfavorable environment, one in which their caregivers are harsh, intrusive, inattentive, or indifferent, the person’s natural striving toward self-realization may be thwarted, and she may not be able to develop in accordance with her individual needs and potentialities. The individual may also become aware of a threatening sense of hypocrisy in her environment as she notes the frightening contradictions in her caretakers’ behavior (Horney 1950).
When these adverse environmental conditions lead to basic anxiety, i.e., the profound feeling of helplessness in a potentially hostile world, this anxiety not only contributes to a rigid pattern of relatedness though the basic conflict but also impedes the process of self-realization. The neurotic individual, consumed by anxiety, struggles with feelings of inferiority, helplessness, and deficits in self-esteem. As a result, she develops a need to elevate herself in order to foster a sense of identity, confidence, and internal coherence. She creates an idealized self-image, where she imagines her ideal self as powerful and superior. The idealized self is absolute and unattainable, but can serve to bolster self-esteem and provide a fleeting sense of security. In Neurosis and Human Growth (1954), Horney writes that self-idealization “gives the individual the much-needed feeling of significance and of superiority over others” (p. 22). The neurotic individual works tirelessly to live up to their idealized self-image. Instead of striving toward self-realization, the neurotic personality embarks on a quest for glory, seeking perfection, adulation, and sometimes vindictive triumph over others. However, in their futile attempt to actualize their idealized self, the neurotic patient becomes increasingly cutoff from their real self and their authentic feelings and wishes. They thus fail to achieve a sense of internal coherence and fulfillment.
Horney notes that neurotic individuals pay a heavy price for their persistent efforts to live up to their idealized self. The nature of the idealized self is such that it can never truly be achieved – the person will inevitably fall short in some way. As a result of this inevitable failure, they come to be dominated by harsh inner dictates, internal reminders of everything they should be. A particular person might feel, for instance, that she should always exhibit the highest degree of generosity, intelligence, resilience, and discipline. In other cases the inner dictates may take on a negative quality, with the individual believing that she must exhibit the highest degree of aggression, defiance, or psychopathy. In either case, the inner dictates are absolute, unrelenting and, by their very essence, always unattainable.
Horney (1950) describes the effect of these inner dictates as “The Tyranny of the Shoulds.” The “shoulds” reflect the individual’s intense striving toward self-idealization and are experienced as harsh and unending self demands to be perfect. Horney notes that individuals may respond to the “shoulds” in different ways; they may tirelessly attempt to actualize them, torment and hate themselves for their inevitable failure to actualize them, or openly rebel against them. More often, individuals experience conflict and may oscillate or exhibit signs of each orientation. Regardless of which stance one adopts, the “shoulds” exert a coercive and insidious influence on one’s life and personality development. Further, when the individual experiences contradictory “shoulds,” she is prone to intense anxiety, inhibition, and psychic conflict. The tyranny of the shoulds and the quest for self-idealization impair spontaneity, inhibit social development, and lead the individual to become further alienated from their real self and constructive striving toward self-realization (Horney 1950, p. 21).
Along with interpersonalist theorists such as Sullivan and Fromm, Horney played an important role in the emergence of culturalism in the 1930s. Horney argued that the neurotic individual could not be understood independently of her cultural context. Cultural norms and values are transmitted to the developing child through the caretaker environment and continually shape the child’s developmental trajectory. Instead of focusing only on a one-person psychology, Horney located the individual within a cultural matrix and emphasized the complex impact of cultural norms, gender roles, and social pressures on development.
Perhaps owing to the fact that Horney established her own psychoanalytic school in 1941, she is rarely cited by contemporary psychoanalytic theorists. However, her theory of neurotic personality has clearly influenced current thinking about character structure and psychopathology. Horney’s language is jargon-free, and her descriptions of internal conflicts and character types are vivid and penetrating. Her concepts are “experience near” and are accessible to readers with varying degrees of familiarity with the psychoanalytic literature (Rubin and Steinfeld 1991). Horney’s theories provide a framework for understanding a wide range of clinical conditions across a broad continuum of health and pathology. While many theorists have emphasized either the intrapsychic or the interpersonal, Horney has managed to integrate the two. The conflict between the real and idealized self reflects the complex intrapsychic striving for internal coherence and meaning, while the basic conflict is fundamentally a conflict in human relationships. Horney located the individual within a complex interpersonal matrix, consisting of concentric circles of self, other, and cultural trends more broadly. She put forth a comprehensive and compelling theory of how one’s relational and cultural environment shapes both the development of a neurotic personality and the expression of it.
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