There are few books that I read (fortunately) that hit me with what I can only describe as “explosive force.”
In fact, Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth is one of the first books I can remember that I could not finish until I had set it aside for a while (nearly two months) to digest what I had read. For a time, it turned my life inside out and left me staring at the broken remnants of what I might previously dignify with the label “self-understanding.” That is, it called into question my understanding of humans and their relationships with such power that I wondered whether I ever had a sensible thought on the subject prior.

As a “Neo-Freudian,” Horney eventually rejected several core tenets of Freud’s teachings. At the end of Neurosis and Human Growth, she describes the central difference between them as a difference between optimism and pessimism. While for Freud, the deepest impulses of human life are destructive and libidinal, for Horney the deepest impulses are creative and oriented toward self-fulfillment.

I’ll address the relationship between Horney’s work and Christianity below. Needless to say, it is complex. But Neurosis and Human Growth is provocative because it is so hard to distinguish where it goes awry. Horney’s theory has extraordinary explanatory power.

The work begins with a fundamental distinction between a person’s real self–that is, a “central inner force” that allows him to feel and express his spontaneous feelings and drives him to cultivate his “particular human potentialities”–and the corruption that occurs to this real self when a young person feels “isolated and helpless in a world conceived as potentially hostile.” That is, when parents reject, inappropriately fawn over, or otherwise mistreat a young person, the basis for their life shifts away from their real self to what Horney calls a basic anxiety. The basic anxiety that now drives the person’s sense of self distorts the young person’s sense of proper relationships: “Affection, for instance, becomes clinging; compliance becomes appeasement.”

The alienation from his real self, however, leads to an initial attempt to compensate that underscores three needs for the young neurotic: integration, an “urgent need to lift himself above others,” and a “feeling of identity.” Having been disassociated from his real self, the only place he can meet these needs is in an “idealized self-image.” This is what Horney terms a “comprehensive neurotic solution–i.e. a solution not only for a particular conflict but one that implicitly promises to satisfy all the inner needs that have arisen in an individual at a given time.” It promises the end of unhappiness and a sense of fulfillment and, as a result, it becomes compulsive.

Here, then, is the difference between the healthy person and the neurotic person: the energies that were supposed to be directed toward the fulfillment of the real self are “shifted to the aim of actualizing the idealized self.” Rather than experiencing the inner spontaneities of the real self, the neurotic person is driven by the necessities of his neurotic structure. They have, as it were, no other alternative.

The force of Horney’s case is that it is, on the one hand, quite simple. Our problem is that we are driven to actualize an idealized vision of ourselves. That is, we suffer from the “search for glory.” On the other hand, however, the “search for glory” expresses itself in a variety of ways, which may be present in differing degrees in different people. A person may have a “need for perfection” and aim at nothing less than leading a morally perfect life. Others may be driven to seek external success, regardless of their activity. Others may seek a “vindictive triumph.” What’s more, because the neurotic has glorified himself, he ignores any sense of his own limitations.

In a key paragraph, Horney writes:

The difference, then, between healthy strivings and neurotic drives is one between spontaneity and compulsion; between recognizing and denying limitations; between a focus upon the vision of a glorious end-product and a feeling for evolution; between seeming and being, fantasy and truth. The difference thus stated is not identical with that between a relatively healthy and a neurotic individual. The former may not be wholeheartedly engaged in realizing his real self nor is the latter wholly driven to actualize his idealized self. The tendency toward self-realization operates in the neurotic too; we could not in therapy give any help to the patient’s growth if this striving were not in him to begin with. But, while the difference between the healthy and the neurotic person in this respect is simply one of degree, the difference between genuine striving and compulsive drives, despite surface similarities, is one of quality and not of quantity.

In other words, there is a difference in kind of motivations–the real self operates on healthy motivations, while all others are neurotic. However, such motivations may be present in more or less degrees.

The rest of the book unpacks the dynamics of actualizing our glorified self-image. We impose “neurotic claims” on ourselves an others. When these go unfulfilled, we feel frustrated and angry. We think that we are entitled to them, so we don’t work hard for them. What’s more, we impose on ourselves “the tyranny of the should.” In other words, we have inner dictates that keep us in line with our glorified self-image. Regardless of whether or not such dictates are realistic (they almost certainly are not!), they drive us. And in order to find a stable sense of self-confidence, we invest our activities with a sense of pride. The one thing the neurotic can not admit is that he is driven by his needs, so he turns these needs into virtues. His drive for ambition, for conquest become the aspects of which he is most proud. But at bottom, because he knows the attainment of his glorified self-image is impossible, he is filled with a destructive and ravaging self-hate and self-contempt.

Horney then describes the dominant solutions and coping strategies that people employ, before turning to how neurosis affects human relationships in both intimate and work environments.

The summary fails to do justice to the complexity and flexibility of Horney’s analysis. Her insights into how humans behave are astounding. Her analysis is laced with examples that both reveal the universality of her claims and the manifold way neurotics function. While human dysfunctions look diverse, they are more similar than we initially think. This is what makes Horney’s work so challenging and powerful.

How should a Christian, though, appropriate–or reject–Horney’s scheme? There is room, I think, for understanding the effects of sin as separating us from our “real selves.” Augustine’s conception of human personality is similar to this. But Horney’s conception of the “real self” lacks substance, if you will. The value of her work–like so much of psychology–is in demonstrating how and why humans are broken. When it comes to her positive conception of what humanity is, she is only able to point to a vague source of “energy” that leads us to fulfill our “human possibilities.” Though I can’t provide a more full account (pointing at Jesus and saying “Him, look at him!” isn’t quite satisfactory as an account), it seems one is needed to know that toward which we are returning as individuals.

In addition, the notion that when the “real self” is released it becomes the source for spontaneous growth seems almost right, but problematic in a deep and important way. Under Horney’s conception, it seems such a release can be effected here and now–there is no groaning for the redemption that is to come, nor sense that “it has not yet been revealed what we shall be.” The revealing of the sons of God as sons of God happens ultimately in the eschaton–we are given glimpses here, but they are only “through a mirror darkly.”
What’s more, the Christian has more to offer than Horney with respect to the solution. At the end of the book, Horney can point only to the process of “analysis,” which is ultimately insufficient as a means to change. We are changed when the Spirit of God speaks the Word of God to our hearts, making us new creations. From there, it is a matter of practicing the spiritual disciplines and imitating the Godly. While there is clearly room for something like analysis in the Christian life, it cannot stand on its own.

Yet Horney’s book is a challenging and provocative interpretation of the human experience. Her account of human behavior runs deep–that is, it plunges the depths of the human soul. She is, as it were, shining light into the darkness and encounters the same truth the Psalmist knew: the inmost self of the wicked is destruction. For those with enough courage to look along with her, Neurosis and Human Growth is an excellent flashlight.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Working with and carefully observing 8th graders this year has made it all too clear that human beings do something like Horney suggests by trying to actualize an idealized form of themselves. I wonder if many adults have truly gotten over that Jr. High urge…

    Does Horney suggest a path to self-realization? What is the self for her? While you, Matt, have been honest in your lack of understanding of what the self is, I think the same criterion should be aimed at Horney, as well.

    Thanks for the summary of a very interesting perspective that I wouldn’t have looked in otherwise. The whole “search for glory” motif makes me think about the Iliad. How would that be for a study? “Achilles’ Neurosis: the Search for Glory as Abandonment of the True Self.” ;)


  2. Matthew Lee Anderson September 28, 2007 at 12:02 am


    To be fair to Horney, I haven’t read anyone who has been able to articulate a persuasive and clear notion of our “real selves.” Augustine’s attempt is interesting, but leaves key questions open, I think.

    That said, her work is particularly deficient on the “path to self-realization,” as you put it. Her only answer: Analysis! I’m sure analysis helps, but I can’t believe (given what I think about sin and its power and effects) that it is a sufficient solution.

    I think you should write that analysis of Achilles. Then post it here. : )


  3. Also, to advance an argument put forth by Peter Kreeft in his lecture on the Problem of Identity, the self cannot know the self anymore than the eye can see the eyeball. The seer cannot see the seer. The intellect cannot intellectualize itself. Perhaps it can see an image of itself in a mirror, but this is not as pure a perception as it has of other things. So to ask of a comprehensive definition of the true self might be too much to ask, not just practically, but on principle.

    Anything you see and think is you, you can be sure, that you are not! Either you are seeing everything about you except the “seeing part,” or you are seeing nothing about you, since your “seeing part” is so essential.

    The identity of the self is a tough nugget to crack.


  4. I realize I’m extrapolating from the last comment, but is it worth mentioning that a disembodied soul, which by all accounts possesses the faculty of sight, would be unable to see itself in a mirror? I find it a fascinating paradox, even if the insight is primarily metaphorical.

    It’s also one of the reasons why I love movies, filmed as they are from the perspective of the unseen seer, indeed the unseeable seer.


  5. Matthew Lee Anderson October 10, 2007 at 8:06 am


    I’m not sure the problem is the same. After all, while I may not be able to know my own “true self” (given the problem you raise), it seems like I should be able to know what constitutes *a* true self by looking around at other people.

    Also, I’m not sure what I think about Kreeft’s argument. “For then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.” Does our knowing include ourselves or not? For Calvin and Augustine, the knowledge of ourselves is inseparable from the knowledge of God, which suggests that we can someday know our “true self,” but not yet. So I’m not sure I buy Kreeft’s argument.


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