What It Takes to Grow: Pioneering Psychoanalyst Karen Horney on the Key to Self-Realization
By Maria Popova
The measure of growth is not how much we have changed, but how harmoniously we have integrated our changes with all the selves we have been — those vessels of personhood stacked within the current self like Russian nesting dolls, not to be outgrown but to be tenderly incorporated. True growth is immensely difficult precisely because it requires befriending the parts of ourselves we have rejected or forgotten — what James Baldwin so memorably called “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are”; it requires shedding all the inauthentic personae we have put on in the course of life under the forces of convention and compulsion; it requires living amicably with who we have been in order to fully live into who we can be.
Those delicate and often difficult fundaments of true growth are what the German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (September 16, 1885–December 4, 1952) examined in the final years of her life in her uncommonly insightful book Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization (public library).
A generation before Joan Didion observed that “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Horney writes:
A person can grow, in the true sense, only if he* assumes responsibility for himself.
Noting that a fulfilled and fulfilling life necessitates “the liberation and cultivation of the forces which lead to self-realization,” she considers the well-spring of that ultimate ideal in relation to growth:
You need not, and in fact cannot, teach an acorn to grow into an oak tree, but when given a chance, its intrinsic potentialities will develop. Similarly, the human individual, given a chance, tends to develop his particular human potentialities. He will develop then the unique alive forces of his real self: the clarity and depth of his own feelings, thoughts, wishes, interests; the ability to tap his own resources, the strength of his will power; the special capacities or gifts he may have; the faculty to express himself, and to relate himself to others with his spontaneous feelings. All this will in time enable him to find his set of values and his aims in life. In short, he will grow, substantially undiverted, toward self-realization.
Growth is only possible when the self being realized is the authentic self — “the real self as that central inner force, common to all human beings and yet unique in each, which is the deep source of growth.” And yet it can be maddeningly difficult to discern that real self beneath the costume of shoulds, beneath the armors donned in our confrontations with reality, beneath all the personae learned in the course of adapting to the world’s demands and assaults. E.E. Cummings knew this when he observed that “to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” From the moment we are born, we begin morphing that tender real self to the pressures of our emotional and physical environment — a process of adaptation that is also the beginning of our lifelong process of self-alienation, marked by an ongoing tyranny of shoulds — our parents’, our culture’s, our own. Horney considers the path to liberation and self-possession:
All kinds of pressure can easily divert our constructive energies into unconstructive or destructive channels. But… we do not need an inner strait jacket with which to shackle our spontaneity, nor the whip of inner dictates to drive us to perfection. There is no doubt that such disciplinary methods can succeed in suppressing undesirable factors, but there is also no doubt that they are injurious to our growth. We do not need them because we see a better possibility of dealing with destructive forces in ourselves: that of actually outgrowing them. The way toward this goal is an ever increasing awareness and understanding of ourselves. Self-knowledge, then, is not an aim in itself, but a means of liberating the forces of spontaneous growth.
In this sense, to work at ourselves becomes not only the prime moral obligation, but at the same time, in a very real sense, the prime moral privilege. To the extent that we take our growth seriously, it will be because of our own desire to do so. And as we lose the neurotic obsession with self, as we become free to grow ourselves, we also free ourselves to love and to feel concern for other people.
Growth, then, is not something we do only for and by ourselves, but something we do for and with others — a testament to the fact that human connection is “a root-factor of ordinary human growth.” And yet we alone are responsible — to ourselves and to others — for undertaking the process and following through with its unfolding. A century after Nietzsche considered the path to finding yourself, insisting that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Horney writes:
Only the individual himself can develop his given potentialities. But, like any other living organism, the human Individuum needs favorable conditions for his growth “from acorn into oak tree”; he needs an atmosphere 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. He needs the good will of others, not only to help him in his many needs but to guide and encourage him to become a mature and fulfilled individual. He also needs healthy friction with the wishes and wills of others. If he can thus grow with others, in love and in friction, he will also grow in accordance with his real self.
Neurosis and Human Growth is a revelatory read in its entirety. Complement this fragment with poet, philosopher, and activist Edward Carpenter on love, pain, and growth and poet Robert Penn Warren on the paradox of “finding yourself,” then revisit philosopher Amélie Rorty on the seven layers of selfhood.
Published May 14, 2023