Karen Horney and Basic Anxiety

Karen Horney (1885-1952), a prominent personality theorist, is recognized for contribution to the school of psychoanalysis. Having studied Freud’s body of work extensively, Horney challenges several main tenets of his theory and proposes her own unique theory of feminine psychology. Most notably, she criticizes Freud’s heavy reliance on sexual instinct as a determinant of human behavior and instead emphasizes the importance of culture and personal relationships in personality development. In contrast to traditional psychoanalytic thought, she proposes that the primary forces involved in shaping personality stem from a need for personal security and protection from psychological conflicts resulting from cultural and environmental disturbances.

Basic Anxiety

At the heart of Horney’s theory is the concept of basic anxiety. Basic anxiety is central to the development of deeper psychological conflicts throughout an individual’s lifespan and is typically produced by anything in a child’s environment that disturbs the child’s sense of security in relation to his/her parents. Specifically, the term refers to a child’s feeling of being helpless in a potentially hostile world. In Our Inner Conflicts, Horney names a variety of environmental factors that can produce basic anxiety in a child, including direct or indirect domination, parental indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child’s needs, lack of real guidance, lack of reliable warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, overprotection, isolation from other children, and unkept promises.

Conflicts Resulting from Basic Anxiety

She further proposes that a child’s experience of basic anxiety naturally leads to feelings of resentment toward the parent, a feeling that is in direct conflict with the child’s basic need for parental love and affection. This is known as basic hostility. The child feels isolated and apprehensive because he/she is exposed to an environment that is wrought with unpredictability and lacking in warmth. The presence of basic hostility inhibits the child’s ability to grow with an inner freedom to express his/her true thoughts and feelings. In one of her later works, Neurosis and Human Growth,Horney proposes that feelings of basic anxiety and hostility “boil down to the fact that the people in the environment are too wrapped up in their own neuroses to be able to love the child, or even to conceive of him as the particular individual he is; their attitudes toward him are determined by their own neurotic needs and responses.”

Therefore, the neurotic patterns of behavior exhibited by the parents ultimately lead to the development of a similar neurosis in the child. She further explains that children exposed to unpredictable, harassing, and often hostile parental behavior are forced to develop ways to cope with these stressors and, in all likelihood, will develop unhealthy strategies for living in a similarly unhealthy environment. Horney describes three basic strategies, or neurotic trends, that may emerge as the child grows: moving toward people (the self-effacing, or compliant, type), moving against people (characterized by aggression toward others), and moving away from people (the type who desires much solitude and does not relate well with others).

The particular type of neurotic personality that develops as the child transitions into adulthood is dependent on a variety of factors, including the child’s natural disposition and the specific factors present in the early environment that led the child to develop basic anxiety (i.e., parental indifference, excessive fighting, overprotection, etc.). Basic anxiety, according to Horney’s theory, is crucial not only to the development of early psychological conflicts, but also to the evolution of those conflicts and of personality trends well into adulthood. Basic anxiety, then, is at the core of a neurosis. It creates a disturbance in the personality that can, without therapeutic intervention, lead to a lifetime of unhealthy behaviors and difficulty maintaining satisfying relationships with others.


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.