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Horney's Neurotic Needs


Explanations > Needs > Horney's Neurotic Needs

Moving towards people | Moving against people | Moving away from people | Discussion |  So what?


Neuroticism is a tendency to anxiety that particularly affects neurotic, typically to the point of having a significant negative impact on their lives (and often of those around them).

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney described ten 'neurotic needs' that are divided by underlying movement relative to other people into three categories, as below. These are all natural human needs -- the major difference is that neurotic people take them to extreme.

Horney noted that when young and as we develop our sense of identity, we tend to idealize this identity, but then we realize that we are not perfect and so start to hate ourselves. When not resolved, this self-loathing is directly related to the neurotic needs.

Moving towards people

Moving towards people recognizes others as potential resources who can support us and help reduce our anxiety. We hence seek affection, approval and someone close who can save us.

1. Affection and approval

We want other people to love and approve of us. When they do so, they externally affirm our sense of identity. In order to help this social desirability bias, we tend to automatically raise our game when others are watching, with the focus of attention in others more than in ourselves.

Neurotics doubt their own worth and expect and dread criticism from others. They hence value greatly being told they are are worthy. Yet this is only temporary respite as the underlying problem of a lack of self-esteem is not resolved. Hence the need for attention continues.

2. A partner

A partner is a person with whom you can share your problems. In a neurotic relationship the partner may be seen as a person who will also solve all problems, maybe even saving the neurotic person from their issues or themselves. In this, 'love' is seen as a solution to all problems.

The neurotic person may love the partner in a dysfunctional way. If I do not like myself, then perhaps I can project myself into the other person so I can love them as a substitute for loving myself. Partners allow for actions such as projective identification.

To achieve these ends, the person may be highly manipulative within the relationship and very 'clinging' as they fear they partner will leave and that they will be alone with their self-loathing.

Moving against people

While seeking approval and help from others, the neurotic person also may seek to control them and reduce the threat and model of normality that others represent.

3. Power

Power is the ability to dominate others, to impose one's will. Having power gives a sense of control and the feeling of omnipotence. It is something like money: you must first acquire it, and the acquisition and sustaining of power can be an end in itself.

Fearing a lack of control and being helpless, neurotic people desperately seek power. They admire strength and may well be contemptuous of weakness, especially as they achieve power.

4. Exploit and beat others

Concerned first and last for themselves, neurotic people have little respect for others and will callously use the power they have to exploit other people to their own ends, even taking pride in this ability. They value foresight and prediction and may well feel they are better at this than others.

They seek to control both themselves and others often by argument and words rather than more open use of power, particularly where they are not sure of their own power and are anxious about the impact of its use. They will also use money, ideas, sexuality, emotion and any other means at their disposal.

They have a particular need to believe in the almost magical omnipotence of willpower and may hence be obsessive in its pursuit, wearing down other people with sheer persistence and reacting strongly to any frustration of their wishes.

5. Social recognition

We all enjoy the boost to our sense of identity when we are recognized by others. Neurotic people have a lesser view of themselves and so value prestige and recognition somewhat more highly than others.

Everything they own may be assessed and honed in terms of the social value and how they may be perceived by others, including their jewels, friends, clothes, activities and all aspects of the self. In doing this they seek to understand how others value and admire things and will then play to this standard.

6. Personal admiration

We all seek the esteem of others as another boost to our sense of identity. The neurotic person not only wants recognition or basic esteem, they want to be recognized as being their ideal self, both internally and externally.

The want not just for people to tell them they are ok, they want constant reassurance that they are perfect. Of course they do not get this and so are never content with any admiration or recognition that they do get.

An effect of this is that they work hard to get the admiration, which can make them successful in some ways, although their extreme desires means they are never satisfied and continue to dread the humiliation of losing admiration.

7. Personal achievement

It is normal to have personal goals and take pleasure when hard work leads to achieving these. The neurotic person seeks not just achievement but superiority to all others. They want to be the best in every areas. Not achieving this makes them feel like a failure, a thought which fills them with dread.

This can drive them to seeking to ensure they win, by fair means or foul, although their need for recognition and admiration from others means they must do this subtly, in a way that avoids blame falling on them for the failure of others.

Moving away from people

Fearing criticism and the harm that other people may bring, the neurotic person may well pull back from them or hold parts of themself at a safe distance.

8. Self sufficiency and independence

We all need independence in order to manage our own lives without having to be dependent on others. This is the basic force that drives many of us into work about which we care little but which pays enough to keep us independent of others.

In their drive for perfection, the neurotic person seeks control and being in charge of their own destiny. With their self-focus, they may decide that others are just too problematic and reject them from parts of their life, other than when they need things such as affection and praise.

What they fear in particular is becoming too attached to others such that others will gain control of them or will reject and so terribly hurt them.

9. The need for perfection

Neurotic people are motivated by the gap between idealized image they think they should be and the reality and fear that they are far less than perfect. This creates deep anxieties about imperfection and an obsessive drive for perfection.

Although they know they are not perfect, they may well feel superior to others. They hate criticism and dread finding flaws in themself or making any kind of mistake.  

10. To restrict life within narrow borders

Feeling threatened and undeserving, the neurotic person will be content with relatively little, restricting their own ambitions and material desires. Feeling unworthy, they keep their heads down and put themselves last in the queue for life's rewards.

As a part of this, they avoid making demands or expressing wishes, playing down any talents or abilities they have under the guise of necessary modesty. Fearing loss, they save rather than spend.

So what?

While Horney's neurotic needs are less applicable to the average person they may be useful in diagnosing those who have a more neurotic tendency and so give you the basis for a more effective response.

A notable aspect of the neurotic person is the obsession with the self and a similarity to the narcissistic personality. Based on an early inability to transition to a healthy self, they are trapped by the desire for a false and unattainable perfection.

This self-based tension makes it hard to related well to others and take a successful place in society. Their best way of finding success is through the hard work they do to seek the perfection they crave. Their relationships with others are often asymmetric and unhealthy, with their focus on the self.

Influencing neurotic people can be helped by an understanding of the factors described above.

See also

Kahler's Drivers, Narcissistic Personality, Ellis' Irrational Beliefs


Horney, K. (1942). Self-Analysis, NY: Norton

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and Human Growth, NY: Norton


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