Horney and Idealized Image

The psychoanalytic theory of Karen Horney seeks to identify the primary factors affecting the development of both healthy and neurotic, or maladaptive, personalities. In fact, the main tenets of her theory are centered on the characteristics of neurotic personality types and the ways in which the psychoanalyst may treat these unhealthy behavior patterns by understanding their roots, most often in the patient’s early childhood.

Neurosis and the Idealized Self

Horney defines the concept of neurosis as a division of the self. That is, neurotic personalities experience an unconscious disparity between their real selves and their ideal selves. The ideal self is an aggrandized version of the self created by the neurotic, typically in childhood, to overcome feelings of inferiority. The ideal self is unrealistic and, while it generally provides motivation for the neurotics striving, its end can never be reached. In Neurosis and Human Growth, Horney describes the function of the ideal self: “Self-idealization always entails a general self-glorification, and thereby gives the individual the much-needed feeling of significance and superiority over others…In this process, he endows himself with unlimited powers and exalted faculties; he becomes a hero, a genius, a supreme lover, a saint, a god.”

Once the idealized self-image is created, it can serve one of two roles within the personality structure. First, the neurotic individual may wholeheartedly believe that he/she actually possesses all of the qualities of the ideal self and is, in essence, already a perfect human being. Conversely, the neurotic may see his/her real self as lacking the superior qualities of the ideal self and engage in excessive self-criticism or self-hate. In the latter scenario, the idealized self image becomes the person the neurotic “should” become and often dictates behavior and self-perception. Regardless which of these two attitudes the neurotic develops toward the ideal self, the result is a hindrance in personality growth, either due to an unhealthy striving toward perfection or the failure to recognize any personal faults.

Impact of the Idealized Self

The idealized image is sculpted out of the individual’s specific experiences, desires, needs, and conflicts. Further, the content of the glorified self-image determines which specific trends in behavior the neurotic adopts in order to get closer to becoming his/her ideal self. In her early works, Horney identifies ten neurotic needs that more or less describe the neurotics strategy for integrating the real and ideal selves. These include: the neurotic need for affection and approval, the neurotic need for a partner who will take over one’s life, the neurotic need to exploit others, and the neurotic need for personal admiration.

The neurotic needs are the sources from which conflicts develop. The aforementioned needs are insatiable; therefore, the neurotics relentless pursuit of perfection is irrational and unsustainable. For instance, a man who believes he is a supreme lover-that every woman he meets should fall madly in love with him-may be expressing his neurotic need for affection and approval. He constantly seeks out women who will show him affection in order to affirm the grandiose image of himself as a supremely lovable. Any rejection he encounters will not be taken lightly, as it contradicts his idealized self-image. When faced with rejection, then, he may work even harder to find another woman who will show him affection. This cycle of behavior only seeks to keep the ideal self intact and widen the gap between the ideal and real selves.

In her later writings, she groups the ten neurotic needs into three distinct categories, coined neurotic trends: moving toward people, moving away from people, and moving against people. Although each represents a different behavioral approach to solving the central neurotic conflict, they have certain characteristics in common. They are compulsive, indiscriminate, and are motivated by a need for acceptance, or belonging.

While neurotic behavior may vary in its expression, it is all aimed at achieving the same end: a feeling of superiority. Because a true integration of the ideal and real selves can never actually be achieved, the rigid, compulsive striving for perfection that is the hallmark of all neurotic behavior can ultimately, without intervention, lead to self-destruction. Thus, in Our Inner Conflicts, Horney describes the importance of understanding the content of the idealized self and the suffering it causes the patient as integral to the success of psychoanalytic therapy.


Hall, Calvin S., Gardner Lindzey, and John B. Campbell. Theories of Personality. 4th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.

Horney, Karen. Neurosis and Human Growth. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1950.

-. Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1945.