Karen Horney’s Influence on Fritz Perls & Gestalt Therapy

Karen Horney (1885-1952) was a pioneering German-American psychoanalyst who challenged traditional Freudian views and made significant contributions to our understanding of personality, neurosis, and feminine psychology. Horney was also Fritz Perls’ analyst, who made an impact on him. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, was deeply influenced by various thinkers, including psychoanalysts Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich. Karen Horney, a significant figure in the Berlin psychoanalytic scene during Perls’s formative years, left a profound imprint on his intellectual development and shaped his therapeutic approach. This article delves into Horney’s influence on Perls, examining the historical context of their interaction, the key theoretical tenets Horney espoused, and their lasting impact on Gestalt therapy.

Why Perls Chose Horney

Several factors likely drew Fritz Perls toward Karen Horney as a psychoanalytic trainer. Firstly, Horney embodied an accessible and less jargon-laden style of psychoanalysis compared to many of her contemporaries. Perls, with his rebellious spirit and disdain for intellectual abstractions, would have found her approach refreshing. Her emphasis on “human involvement without terminology” (Perls 1981, 50) would have resonated with him.

Secondly, Horney was a rare female voice in a field dominated by male theorists, particularly Freud. Her groundbreaking work on feminist psychology challenged the patriarchal biases prevalent in traditional psychoanalysis. This perspective offered Perls a counterpoint to the dominant Freudian discourse.

Thirdly, Horney’s interest in the impact of culture on the human psyche would have aligned with Perls’s later emphasis on the here-and-now and the individual’s interaction with their environment. This focus on social and cultural forces represented a shift away from the purely instinctual drives emphasized by classical Freudian theory.

The Nature of Their Relationship

The book by Bocian, Fritz Perls in Berlin, describes the relationship between Perls and Horney as positive and influential. Perls felt a “kind of love” for Horney and viewed her as one of the few trustworthy people in his life. He admired her warmth, pragmatism, and commitment to a human-centered psychoanalysis. They shared a passion for theatre. In Horney, Perls said that he found “human involvement without terminology” as opposed to most psychonalytic trainers.

Key Influences: Values and Concepts

Karen Horney’s impact on Fritz Perls can be distilled into several crucial points:

  • Growth-Oriented Therapy: Horney’s belief that analysis could not only treat illness but also foster personal growth became central to Perls’s work. She proposed that “analysis … can liberate a person … so that she is free to draw on her own resources again” (Olvedi 1992, 139). This focus on human potential and self-actualization is a key principle of Gestalt therapy.
  • Neurosis as a Coping Strategy: Horney viewed neurotic mechanisms less as inherent pathologies and more as resource-oriented attempts by the individual to navigate a challenging environment, believing they represented attempts “to find paths through a jungle full of unknown dangers” (Horney 1977, 9). This perspective contributed to Gestalt therapy’s focus on understanding how present behaviors, even maladaptive ones, serve the individual.
  • Challenging Freud on Female Psychology: Horney’s pioneering work on female psychology contested Freud’s theories of penis envy and female inferiority. She argued that envy centered on the social advantages granted to men in a patriarchal society, rather than anatomical differences. Horney’s insights into the social construction of gender likely sensitized Perls to the power imbalances that can shape individual experience.
  • Cultural Critique: Horney emphasized the role of culture in shaping individual psychology, rejecting Freud’s drive-based universalism. Her belief that “our whole civilization is a masculine civilization” (Horney 1926, 361) influenced Perls’s attention to the influence of environment and social context on human experience, a core tenet of Gestalt therapy.

Legacy: Horney’s Imprint on Gestalt Therapy

Excerpt from Bocian, 2015, which to contributes to Gestalt Theory of Creative adjustment:

Even her first publication in 1917, »The Technique of Psychoanalytic Therapy,« contains hints of her later independent development. Perls integrated Horney’s early idea that therapy entails not only the treatment of illness, but also helps people to grow. In the article mentioned, Horney writes:

Analysis … can liberate a person whose hands and feet have been bound so that she is free to draw on her own resources again, but it cannot provide her with new arms and legs. Nevertheless, experience has shown that many factors which analysis assumed to be constitutional are merely the results of impediments to growth and can be removed.

Karen Horney in Olvedi 1992, 139

For Horney, many symptoms did not appear to result from inner instinctual conflicts; instead, they were direct reactions to an unloving, hurtful environment and upbringing. Moreover, she viewed neurotic mechanisms as resource oriented as well, and not merely pathological, proceeding from the assumption that these mechanisms are the individual’s attempt »to find paths through a jungle full of unknown dangers« (Horney 1977, 9).

Karen Horney’s influence on Gestalt therapy manifests itself in several key areas:

  • The Here-and-Now Focus: Gestalt therapy prioritizes the client’s present experience, emphasizing the individual’s interaction with their current environment. This reflects Horney’s focus on the influence of current conflicts and social conditions, rather than solely focusing on past childhood experiences.
  • Emphasis on Awareness and Responsibility: Gestalt therapy encourages clients to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment. This emphasis on awareness fosters self-responsibility and the ability to make conscious choices, aligning with Horney’s view of analysis facilitating personal growth.
  • Holism: Gestalt therapy’s holistic perspective considers the individual as a complex interplay of mind, body, emotions, and their relationship to the environment. This holistic approach echoes Horney’s recognition of the intricate ways cultural and social factors shape individual experience.

Key Facts (Bocian, 2015):

  • Psychoanalytic Training: Perls trained under Horney in Berlin (1925) (Bocian 1992a, Cavaleri 1992)
  • Theoretical and Therapeutic Influence: Perls valued Horney’s ideas and incorporated them into his approach (Perls 1977, 49).
  • Focus on Cultural Factors: Horney challenged Freud’s view on female development and emphasized cultural influences (Horney 1926, 361).
  • Concept of Growth: Perls adopted Horney’s view of therapy promoting growth, not just treating illness (Horney 1917).
  • Non-pathological Neurosis: Horney viewed neurotic mechanisms as coping strategies, not purely negative (Horney 1977, 9).
  • Humanistic Approach: Perls appreciated Horney’s focus on human connection over jargon (Perls 1981, 50).
  • Gender Equality: Horney’s influence may have contributed to Perls’ view of Lore Perls as an equal partner (Sreckovic 1999).

Note: Perls did not publicly acknowledge Horney’s work on female psychology.

Reference

Bocian, B. (2015). Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism. EHP-Verlag Andreas Kohlhage.

Significance of Karen Horney’s Work

Here’s a breakdown of her significance, life, and influences:

  • Challenging Freud: Horney disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on biological drives, particularly the concept of penis envy. She believed that personality development was primarily shaped by social and environmental factors, not solely instinctual forces.
  • Neurosis as a Coping Mechanism: Horney viewed neurosis as the result of basic anxiety stemming from childhood experiences of neglect or lack of genuine love. To cope with this anxiety, she theorized that people develop neurotic needs (like needs for affection, power, or submission), which become problematic if overly rigid.
  • Feminine Psychology: Horney was a key figure in founding feminist psychology. She criticized the male-centric bias in traditional psychoanalysis and highlighted how cultural and societal factors shape women’s psychological experiences.
  • Emphasis on Self-Realization: Horney placed self-realization at the center of her theory. She believed that people have an innate drive for growth and self-actualization, which can be hampered by anxiety and the adoption of a false idealized self-image.

Life References

  • Early Life and Education: Born in Germany, Horney endured a difficult childhood marked by a distant father and a depressive mother. She excelled academically and became one of the first women in Germany to study medicine.
  • Psychoanalytic Training: Horney trained in psychoanalysis in Berlin, where she became a founding member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute.
  • Move to the United States: In 1932, she emigrated to the United States, fleeing the rise of Nazism. She settled in New York City and became a prominent figure in the American psychoanalytic scene.
  • Founding the American Institute for Psychoanalysis: Disagreeing with some orthodox Freudian perspectives, Horney co-founded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, which reflected her more socially-oriented theories.

Influences and Influence

  • Influences: Horney was initially influenced by Freud but later diverged from his views. She was also likely influenced by her personal experiences of gender discrimination and the social and political turmoil of her time. Alfred Adler’s ideas, with their emphasis on social factors, may have also resonated with her.
  • Those Influenced: Horney’s work has influenced numerous fields, including:
    • Neo-Freudians: Psychoanalysts like Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan were influenced by Horney’s emphasis on social and cultural factors in personality development.
    • Feminist Psychology: Horney is considered a foundational figure in feminist psychology, inspiring later writers and theorists.
    • Humanistic Psychology and Self-help: Horney’s theory of self-realization and the emphasis she placed on self-analysis resonate with approaches in humanistic psychology and the self-help movement.

Further Reading