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A Taste of How It Feels to Be Free: Pioneering Psychoanalyst Karen Horney on Our Inner Conflicts, the Psychology of Hopelessness, and the Path to Wholeness

A Taste of How It Feels to Be Free: Pioneering Psychoanalyst Karen Horney on Our Inner Conflicts, the Psychology of Hopelessness, and the Path to Wholeness

To be human is to be divided yet indivisible — a totality of personhood constantly sundered by conflicting impulses and desires, violently pulling us in opposite directions, paralyzing us with the inability to move ahead toward happiness and wholeness. “When we are in conflict we tend to make such sharp oppositions between ideas and attitudes and get caught and entangled in what seems to be a hopeless choice,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary as she contemplated inner conflict and the measure of maturity, “but when the neurotic ambivalence is resolved one tends to move beyond sharp differences, sharply defined boundaries and begins to see the interaction between everything, the relation between everything.”

The supreme challenge of human life is that we are much more opaque to ourselves than we like to admit — mighty subterranean rivers of emotion and motive course beneath the reasoned surface of our conscious beliefs, values, and desires. Neurosis might be an old-fashioned word, but it is useful shorthand for the tension that arises from these conflicting facets of our experience that leave us unsure of what we want, what to want. For all his groundbreaking contribution to the understanding of those subterranean currents, Freud’s great error was his pessimism about the mutability and treatment of our neuroses — to him, the cards were dealt in early childhood and the game of life played out deterministically. His tragedy was his lack of faith in human growth and human goodness — Freud was the supreme cynic of the psyche.

A counterpoint to his view of human nature and potential comes from the work of the pioneering German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (September 16, 1885–December 4, 1952), nowhere more insightfully than in her book Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis (public library), based on a series of lectures she delivered in 1943, as the world itself was being sundered by human nature’s warring factions. What emerges is a radical effort to allay neurotic hopelessness and contour the route to wholeness, governed by Horney’s conviction that we have both the will and the capacity to develop our potential for happiness and goodness, and that rather than living as victims of some deterministic pathology, we go on changing for as long as we live.

Karen Horney

Horney defines neurosis as “a protective edifice built around the basic conflict.” Concerned with “what unresolved conflicts do to people, how they produce states of anxiety, depression, indecision, inertia, detachment, and so on,” concerned about the immense emotional energy and intelligence we exert on trying to solve our inner conflicts — “or, more precisely, to deny their existence and create an artificial harmony” — she writes:

Neurotic conflicts cannot be resolved by rational decision. The neurotic’s attempts at solution are not only futile but harmful. But these conflicts can be resolved by changing the conditions within the personality that brought them into being.


It is not neurotic to have conflicts. At one time or another our wishes, our interests, our convictions are bound to collide with those of others around us. And just as such clashes between ourselves and our environment are a commonplace, so, too, conflicts within ourselves are an integral part of human life.


To experience conflicts knowingly, though it may be distressing, can be an invaluable asset. The more we face our own conflicts and seek out our own solutions, the more inner freedom and strength we will gain. Only when we are willing to bear the brunt can we approximate the ideal of being the captain of our ship.

Horney observes that most of our inner drives, from the longing for affection to the craving for power, operate by an engine of compulsion fueled by conflicting desires. She writes:

Compulsive drives are specifically neurotic; they are born of feelings of isolation, helplessness, fear and hostility, and represent ways of coping with the world despite these feelings; they aim primarily not at satisfaction but at safety; their compulsive character is due to the anxiety lurking behind them.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to her extensive work with patients, she reflects on the four major attempts to resolve our inner conflicts:

The initial attempt was to eclipse part of the conflict and raise its opposite to predominance. The second was to “move away from” people. The function of neurotic detachment now appeared in a new light. Detachment was part of the basic conflict — that is, one of the original conflicting attitudes toward others; but it also represented an attempt at solution, since maintaining an emotional distance between the self and others set the conflict out of operation. The third attempt was very different in kind. Instead of moving away from others, the neurotic moved away from himself. His whole actual self became somewhat unreal to him and he created in its place an idealized image of himself in which the conflicting parts were so transfigured that they no longer appeared as conflicts but as various aspects of a rich personality… The need for perfection now appeared as an endeavor to measure up to this idealized image; the craving for admiration could be seen as the patient’s need to have outside affirmation that he really was his idealized image. And the farther the image was removed from reality the more insatiable this latter need would logically be. Of all the attempts at solution the idealized image is probably the most important by reason of its far-reaching effect on the whole personality. But in turn it generates a new inner rift, and hence calls for further patchwork. The fourth attempt at solution seeks primarily to do away with this rift, though it helps as well to spirit away all other conflicts. Through what I call externalization, inner processes are experienced as going on outside the self. If the idealized image means taking a step away from the actual self, externalization represents a still more radical divorce. It again creates new conflicts, or rather greatly augments the original conflict — that between the self and the outside world.

Our inner conflicts, Horney observes, are in dynamic relationship with the outside world — we are creatures of culture, and the tumults of our culture invariably magnify our inner tumults:

The kind, scope, and intensity of such conflicts are largely determined by the civilization in which we live. If the civilization is stable and tradition bound, the variety of choices presenting themselves are limited and the range of possible individual conflicts narrow. Even then they are not lacking. One loyalty may interfere with another; personal desires may stand against obligations to the group. But if the civilization is in a stage of rapid transition, where highly contradictory values and divergent ways of living exist side by side, the choices the individual has to make are manifold and difficult.

Art Art from East of the Sun and West of the Moon by kay Nielsen, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The central bind of our inner conflicts, beyond their largely unconscious nature, is the inability to choose one of the contradictory impulses over the other — a metastasis of our general inability to know what we want. Horney observes:

We must be aware of what our wishes are, or even more, of what our feelings are. [And yet] we do not know what we really feel or want.


Even if we recognize a conflict as such, we must be willing and able to renounce one of the two contradictory issues. But the capacity for clear and conscious renunciation is rare, because our feelings and beliefs are muddled, and perhaps because in the last analysis most people are not secure and happy enough to renounce anything.

In a sentiment Joan Didion would echo in her assertion that “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Horney adds:

To make a decision presupposes the willingness and capacity to assume responsibility for it. This would include the risk of making a wrong decision and the willingness to bear the consequences without blaming others for them.

The commonest consequence of this paralysis in the effort to resolve inner conflicts is hopelessness — the debilitating fear that because the resolution is difficult to do, it cannot be done. All hopelessness is a form of fear-based cynicism. As far as our capacity for growth goes, it is a dangerous and self-limiting mindset — perhaps the most pernicious tactic we have for standing in our own way. Horney writes:

Human beings can apparently endure an amazing amount of misery as long as there is hope; but neurotic entanglements invariably generate a measure of hopelessness… It may be deeply buried: superficially the neurotic may be preoccupied with imagining or planning conditions that would make things better… The neurotic expects a world of good from external changes, but inevitably carries himself and his neurosis into each new situation.

Hope that rests on externals is naturally more prevalent among the young… As people grow older and one hope after another fades, they are more willing to take a good look at themselves as a possible source of distress.

Art Art from East of the Sun and West of the Moon by kay Nielsen, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is this paralytic sense of hopelessness that keeps us in untenable situations — situations that can be bettered by some effort and initiative, the motive spring of which is hope. In its absence, we remain stuck. Horney considers the root of this self-limitation:

Hopelessness is an ultimate product of unresolved conflicts, with its deepest root in the despair of ever being wholehearted and undivided. A mounting scale of neurotic difficulties leads to this condition. Basic is the sense of being caught in conflicts like a bird in a net, with no apparent possibility of ever extricating oneself. On top of this come all the attempts at solution which not only fail but increasingly alienate the person from himself. Repetitive experience serves to intensify the hopelessness — talents that never lead to achievement, whether because again and again energies are scattered in too many directions or because the difficulties arising in any creative process are enough to deter the person from further pursuit. This may apply as well to love affairs, marriages, friendships, which are shipwrecked one after another. Such repeated failures are as disheartening as is the experience of laboratory rats when, conditioned to jump into a certain opening for food, they jump again and again only to find it barred.

Echoing Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Horney outlines the deceptively simple psychological mechanism beneath our feelings of hopelessness:

[Your] situation is hopeless only so long as the status quo persists and is regarded as unchangeable… What makes it hopeless is your own attitude toward it. If you would consider changing your claims on life there would be no need to feel hopeless.

As we begin to work on resolving our inner conflicts, we get “a taste of how it feels to be free” — which is the ultimate aim of therapy. Horney writes:

The conflicts can be resolved only by changing those conditions within the personality that brought them into being. This is a radical way, and a hard one. In view of the difficulties involved in changing anything within ourselves, it is quite understandable that we should scour the ground for short cuts.


The most comprehensive formulation of therapeutic goals is the striving for wholeheartedness: to be without pretense, to be emotionally sincere, to be able to put the whole of oneself into one’s feelings, one’s work, one’s beliefs. It can be approximated only to the extent that conflicts are resolved.

In the remainder of Our Inner Conflicts, Horney goes on to explore the antidote to the forces of fear, hopelessness, and impoverishment of personality stemming from our interior divisiveness and the mechanism by which we grow whole. Complement these fragments from it with her equally insightful contemporary Erich Fromm on the antidote to helplessness and disorientation and Marion Milner’s wonderful century-old field guide to knowing what you really want, then revisit Horney on the key to self-realization.

Published June 7, 2023




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