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Neurosis and Human Growth

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Karen Horney’s books, Neurosis and Human Growth: The struggle toward self Realization depicts the process by which a person becomes neurotic. She describes this process as a unique type of development in human beings that is in many ways “antithetical” to the normal development process usually found in people. Yet it does constitute a development on the part of the person who has this problem as the special characteristics developed by any neurotic person will be one that is a given for him (or her).

Therefore, no one particular trait is characteristic of any neurosis.

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Much of what is contained within such neurotic behavior constitutes what Horney refers to as an alienation from the self. Neurotics will often become consumed with a given aspect of their personalities and spend time-consuming hours, days, or indeed their entire lives adhering to a “rigid system” that must fulfill and ideal that they have created for themselves. This feeling or perception has been described by Horney as “an idealized image of himself” which compels him to “satisfy his pride in exalted attributes which (so he feels) he has, could have or should have” (1951, p.


The belief that Karen Horney presents about neurosis and schizophrenia is that it is strongly related to morality—and this morality is tied in because it too involves the personal drive toward perfection and the attainment of a higher order of behavior that exceeds the actions of the common individual. The fact that self discipline and control of one’s behaviors stems from an inward ability to control one’s desires and one’s will is what unites schizophrenia with morality in Horney’s opinion. She even quotes the biblical adage “be ye perfect…” and argues that such perfection is in line with the neurotic person’s desire to control a particular action.

She poses a number of questions along these lines as well, querying the necessity of such perfection for the health of people’s moral and social lives. To what extent does such a drive for perfection in any area aid morality and social inclusion? She continues that “one of the essential factors upon which the answer hinges is the quality of our belief about human nature” (Horney, 1951, p. 14). Here it is identified that perhaps the nature of human beings may or may not allow for perfection, and thereby she hints that the details will be discussed later in the book.

Horney goes on to outline three ideas concerning objectives into which morality might been placed, and further points out how these categories are essentially dependent upon our views of human nature. One idea of morality’s goal is that it serves to place constraints upon the natural development (status naturae) of human nature. However, this goal is modified for those persons who view human nature as having at least some inherent good in it. A second goal of morality would in this view be an aide in the inner struggle between good and evil and as a method of insuring against the triumph of the evil over the good. Therefore, this second goal of morality is not just of suppressing evil but of enhancing the good—yet the method of enhancement is what correlates well with neurosis, as it requires “superhuman aids of some sort or upon a strenuous ideal of reason or will” (Horney, 1951, p. 14)

The third goal of morality is contingent upon the idea of evolution as a force that works to construct certain desirable traits within the human. This evolutionary construct aligns with neurosis (as described above) as it encourages him to fully realize his potential. Horney writes, that this third goal of morality “means that man, by his very nature and of his own accord, strives toward self-realization” (1951, p. 15). Here she describes the idea that such striving toward perfection of the human species occurs in accordance with the actions of man himself and thereby connects this to the idea that neurosis occurs as a result of the desires of the person in which it occurs. Such a person is determined to be true to himself, as true self-actualization (in his/her opinion) cannot occur without it. This results in a sort of cult or what she terms a “dark idolatry of self,” which is evident in neurotics. Such a person must always be “active and productive” and therefore is imperfect only because others have been (Horney 1951, p. 15).

The neurotic-schizophrenic asks the question of whether a given attitude is conducive to the growth and development as a human being. These questions seem legitimately answered in the affirmative for such a neurotic, and therefore such a person becomes driven even in the performance of trivial actions. Such a course is regularly followed by humans in the world, and this is demonstrated in the frequency with which neurosis is detected within the human population. According to Horney, what really takes place within a neurotic is that “all kinds of pressure […] divert constructive energies into unconstructive or destructive channels” (1951, p. 16). She considers such inner “strait jackets” to be ultimately injurious to the overall growth of the individual as improvement of one’s character may be equally achieved through outgrowing one’s destructive tendencies. Neurosis is therefore essentially an obsession with the self and its problems that is antithetical to personal growth and development even as it strives precisely toward that goal.

Horney goes on to speak of the concept of socialization and how it bears on the schizophrenic or neurotic person. She identifies that fact that it is inevitable that any child learn how to behave and to cope with his social environment, provided that mental retardation or other brain damage does not exist within that child. However, many of that same child’s development processes are not (and cannot be) learned. Certain developmental processes are intrinsic to the child and his/her species and would occur whether the child learned of them or not. Therefore, a human person will by default tend toward the development of his or her own individual potentialities, regardless of the environment in which he/she is placed. These potentialities include interests, quirks, feelings, wishes and thought patterns. Horney speaks of these as being an indication of an individual’s real self, and this self she identifies as the “inner force” that drives, directs and is the source of his or her growth. Growth is therefore the healthy and unobstructed development of one’s potentialities inherent to one’s nature.

Despite the fact that a human being will strive toward the development of his/her potentialities in any environment, the most desirable form of human growth occurs only in favorable environments. Environments which are conducive to such growth can be described as being ones of “warmth to give him both a feeling of inner security and the inner freedom enabling him to have his own feelings and thoughts and to express himself” (Horney, 1951, p. 18). The presence of good will in others is key in allowing the human individual to grow to health maturation. However, such an individual also requires that there exist a certain amount of friction between his will and the will of others, so that “he will grow in accordance with his real self” (1951, p. 18). The idea here is that such friction indicates a contrast between the individual and others around him, so that their personalities throw his/her so much into relief that he/she is able to recognize the boundaries of his/her own self.

Despite what is known about self development and maturation, it is sadly the case that many children are not given the chance to grow and mature in a healthy way. Horney sums up the unfavourable conditions as depending upon the fact that the surrounding adults are often too self involved or neurotically “wrapped up in themselves” to offer the kind of love and support that favors health growth and maturation. She goes on to offer a list of adjectives that often describe the persons within the environment responsible for rearing the neurotic child. These descriptions include hypocritical, irritable, dominating, indifferent, over-indulgent, intimidating, overprotective, and even “partial to other siblings” (Horney, 1951, p. 18).

The result of this is that the neurotic or schizophrenic child feels a sense of alienation or ostracism from the environment in which he/she lives and harbors a sense of insecurity and even one of foreboding. This Horney refers to as “basic anxiety.” The neurotic considers the world to be basically hostile and therefore must develop certain defensive mechanisms against it. Such a neurosis manifests itself in these initial stages as a basic anxiety which prevents the child from “relating himself to others with the spontaneity of his real feelings.” In fact, this child must find a method of coping with these feelings, as it is precisely these that set him apart from others and make him (in his environment) unwanted or unloved. He/she is therefore unconsciously forced to deal with these feelings through the use of methods that allay his/her fears and lessen the general anxiety being constantly experienced.

Temperament plays an essential role in the development of neurosis at this point—though the resources available to the child within the environment will also play a role. If the temperament of the child predisposes him to be clingy or solicitous of help, then that child will try to cling to the person who has the strongest personality within the environment. It is evident, however, that the environment must be conducive to this by actually possessing a strong and willing person for the neurotic to cling to. Temperament may also lead the neurotic in an alternative direction that involves rebellion and fighting. Other alternatives include withdrawal and aloofness—yet all these occur briefly at this point in the development of the neurotic personality. Horney suggests that it is important to note that these characteristics manifest themselves also in healthy growth and development, “but for the child who feels himself on precarious ground because of his basic anxiety, these moves become extreme and rigid” (Horney, 1951). She goes on to express that the degree to which the child expresses violence, rebellion, and aloofness will depend on the degree to which his environment encourages this basic anxiety.

Mental illness results not necessarily because such a child is driven in one of the directions mentioned above. Rather, this occurs as a result of a child’s being driven in all of these directions. Movement toward, away from, and in conflict with others place the neurotic in such a conflicting situation that the only defense against it is to cause one of the traits to rise in dominance over the rest. Horney goes on to defend this solution to the problem of neurosis against any accusation of superficiality, as (she argues) it certainly contributes to the further development of neurotic behavior. She argues that the child who is predominantly compliant will also strive toward subordination as well as unselfishness and goodness. Predominant aggressiveness tends toward the belief in the necessity of enduring. Such persons would derive satisfaction from pursuing perfection in unselfishness and endurance.

However, in search for such glory and perfection, the neurotic individual strays toward fantasy. Despite the appearance of normality, through following usual routines and participating in family life, a neurotic person leads a fantastic private life, in which all his desires play out. These two lives are not compatible with each other, and this exposes the neurotic to the undesirability of reality to the extent that he is compelled (or at least tempted) to move further and further away from it. Even the gifted neurotic is constantly bombarded with the realities that present to him daily the fact that he is human and plagued with the limitations that come with that office. Horney writes, “His actual being does not jibe with his godlike image” (1951, p. 40), and reality (as well as other people) do not automatically treat him/her the way s/he believes s/he should be treated. Horney goes on to relate an anecdote in which a girl, dreaming she was a fairy princess, is suddenly interrupted by an uncle who proceeds to comment on the dirty state of her face. While she felt herself lofty in her position as a princess, his comment obtruded upon this reverie and reminded her of her baseness and humanity.

This idea points toward the schizophrenic person’s delusions of grandeur. Such a person, rather than adjust his/her own notions of himself according to the way nature and his surroundings treat him, expects his environment to conform to his own view of himself. In other words, “instead of tackling his illusions, he presents a claim to the outside world” and this claim demonstrates that he/she “feels entitled to special attention, consideration, and deference on the part of others” (Horney, 1951, p. 41). In addition to this, the neurotic believes that none of his actions or tendencies can or should have any adverse effects. Therefore, no real need exists for him to change or ameliorate his attitudes. Horney then goes on to identify the works of other psychologists such as the German Harald Schultz-Hencke who was instrumental in identifying the claims harbored by neurotics—which he termed Riessenanspreuche (gigantic claims). While some of these claims are obviously fantastic, others do appear to be quite reasonable. The anecdote of the man who expects the train schedules to fit his own is brought up here. Certainly schedules should be realistic—this is reasonable, but the extent to which the neurotic desires this is what is unreasonable. Rather than understand that the train runs for the convenience of the population, the neurotic desires that the train fit precisely to his own schedule and (apparently) that everyone else’s schedule be adjusted to fit his as well.

In the chapter entitled “The Tyranny of the Should,” Horney identifies how the neurotic elevates him-/herself so much that his life borders on fiction. Neurotics are focused constantly on what should be rather than what is reality itself, and therefore are confined to a world in which they also behave according to what they feel should be rather than what really exists. Neurotics therefore become Pygmalion-like creatures. Except, rather than mold another person to become what their perception of the human being should be, they mold themselves toward the particular brand of perfection that they believe all human creatures should embody. Neurotics say to themselves, “Forget about the disgraceful creature you actually are; this is how you should be; and to be this idealized self is all that matters. You should be able to endure everything, to understand everything, to like everybody, to be always productive—” or whatever the case may be (Horney 1951, p. 64).

According to Horney, what does seem unmistakable—yet which is missed by the neurotic—is that the goals that neurotics set for themselves are not feasible ones. No human on the planet are able to fulfill many of these objectives to which neurotics stringently hold themselves. Despite the fact that the neurotics are inevitably confronted by the impracticability of their wishes when intellectual analysis takes place, nothing changes in their motivation and actions because they still desire that the reality change around them. They still have a strong desire for the very attributes that have been deemed impossible by their intellect. She writes that this inner drive “exactly like political tyranny in a police state, operates with a supreme disregard for the person’s own psychic condition—for what he can feel or do as he is at present” (Horney 1951, p. 67). Horney goes on to speak of one patient who berated herself at not being able to provide the answer to a friend’s failing marriage. When Horney herself pointed out precisely why this was unfeasible in the first place, the patient proceeded to demonstrate that she too had always been aware of the impossibility of the task, but thought she should possess some sixth sense that would allow her to get past those impossibilities.

These traits and behaviors, Horney mentions, are based on the pride of the neurotic whose self-value collapses in the unfavorable environment and cause self confidence to become twisted and to morph into self pride. Self esteem become based not upon real but upon imaginary merits, and this leads to an over-abundance of them—and therefore to an elevated sense of self worth which manifests itself as pride. This sense of imaginary being is in effect an alienation from the true self of the individual that suffers from neurosis. Neurotic persons shift their focus from a real to an imagined or idealized self, and in extreme cases such self-alienation manifests itself in “people who lose their feeling of identity, as in amnesias and depersonalizations, etc.” (Horney, 1951, p. 155). Neurotics also display a “morbid dependency” upon others that stems from expectations that they have of these third parties. These expectations are also generally based on how these neurotics expect to be treated given their elevated opinions of themselves. Horney finally identifies the methods and measure through which psychoanalysis attempts to treat such a disease that, in her description, “grows by its own momentum” (Horney, 1951, p. 333).

The idea that neurosis grows by its own momentum I find to be a rather interesting one, and Horney has certainly demonstrated how this begins during the childhood stages and then develop unchecked even by the subsequent realities that fly in the face of neurotic delusions. However, one does wonder whether or not every person is predisposed to being neurotic. One finds even in oneself tendencies to do many of the things that have been described as neurotic in this text. However, Horney does address this when she points out that the difference lies in the security that a person feels within his or her environment, especially as a child. Overall, Neurosis and Human Growth: The struggle toward self Realization has proven to be a very interesting text that presents a coherent and convincing method of the development of neurosis.


Horney, K. (1951). Neurosis and Human Growth: The struggle toward self Realization. London: Routledge.


Cite this Neurosis and Human Growth

Neurosis and Human Growth. (2017, Apr 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/neurosis-and-human-growth/

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