Karen Horney’s Theory of Neurotic Trends

The illustrious psychoanalyst Karen Horney has had a marked influence on the field of modern psychology. Horney (1945) developed a psychoanalytic theory of personality and interpersonal relationships characterized by three “neurotic trends”. She suggests a basic anxiety develops during early childhood, arising from awareness of one’s own helplessness in a hostile world. Consequently, a child develops fundamental defenses to this anxiety that eventually crystallize into lasting personality trends. Horney (1945) describes the trends generally as a “basic attitude toward self and others” (p. 14). This attitude development is robust across individuals, for the trends are viable solutions or “tactics” that are essential to adaptation and survival (p. 42). These trends are distinguished by the general pattern of interpersonal movement that allow one to maneuver through various life situations. The three main neurotic trends are: the compliant type, defined by a tendency of moving toward others; the aggressive type, which involves moving against others; and the detached type, utilizes a strategy of moving away from others. Each attitude is rooted in a different experience and acceptance of one’s position in the world, which by extension helps dictate one’s behavior in various situations. For example, the aggressive type believes that others are fundamentally hostile, and therefore engages in behavior that involves neutralizing this hostility by overpowering those around him or her. The three main neurotic trends, as described by Horney (1945) are as follows.

Compliant: Moving Toward Others

The compliant trend is characterized by a desire for feelings of belonging. Individuals identifying with this trend place value on themselves and their experiences based on the quality of their relationships with others. Taken to an extreme, any experience not involving others is seen as meaningless. The compliant trend is born out of need for safety in a hostile world, which is achieved by becoming a friendly and indispensible figure to those perceived to be powerful and capable of providing protection; however, this dependency requires individuals to ignore the possible hostility of others, and rather assume that others possess a basic kindness, which can lead to crushing rejection. The basic needs for affection and appreciation are achieved through reliance on a strong sensitivity to others’ feelings, as well as a general orientation toward befriending other people.

Aggressive: Moving Against Others

The aggressive trend involves a combative attitude regarding others. In contrast to the compliant type, who copes with hostility by moving towards and befriending others, the aggressive type takes hostility for granted and focuses on being powerful enough to overcome it, employing, a “survival of the fittest” mentality. Motivated by a basic need for control over others, the aggressive trend involves a variety of ways in which power is pursued. Superiority in intelligence, strength, and work ethic are some of the strategies used to ensure that safety will not be breeched by hostile others.

Detached: Moving Away from Others

The detached trend is marked by a strong desire to keep emotional distance from others. Individuals with a predominate affiliation to this trend are masters of observation, both when studying others and introspectively; however, they often have a blind spot to emotional details. The prevailing need of this trend is utter independence, resulting in striking resourcefulness as a means of compensating for isolation. Detached individuals are able to interact in social situations, as long as their emotional boundaries are not breeched, although enjoyment of social encounters often is experienced more after the fact during solitary retrospection.