Born in Germany, the daughter of a Norwegian father who was a sea-captain and a Dutch mother, Horney's father was a morose and devoutly Protestant man given to long silences and bouts of Bible reading. Her mother, 17 years her father's junior, was attractive and more interested in worldly things and the marriage did not last. Horney was also influenced by the teachings of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and by her own failed marriage which produced three daughters while she was studying and becoming a doctor. To understand the great psychotherapists and how they came to their understanding of human beings, you need to appreciate how they learned not only from other therapists but from art, literature, poetry, travel, spiritual leaders, and from their own personal life successes and tragedies. Therefore, like them, if you are to become a first rate social worker, you also must learn from ALL of what life has to offer. What you read must be more than just professional books and journals. You must also read poetry and novels and plays. You must study more than the lives of your clients. You must also study the life that you have lived and are living.
From this vast study, Horney became "...appalled by the emphasis on success in American society and noted its costly tool on the emotional lives of the members of the culture. Success, she pointed out, is a concept that necessarily implies failure, and she found many Americans who felt life basically centered on 'winning' or 'losing.' But by the very nature of the competition, Horney said, the losers must predominate and must be tormented by envy and self-loathing. Even the winners in American life, she said, feel insecure because they are aware of the mixed admiration and hostility directed at them" (Chessick, p. 276).
At the heart of Horney's significant contribution to our understanding of humans is her efforts "...to explain neurotic phenomena NOT primarily in terms of the Oedipus complex but in terms of what she called basic anxiety" (Chessick, p. 277).
"Basic anxiety is characterized roughly as 'a feeling of being small, insignificant, helpless, endangered, in a world that is out to abuse, cheat, attack humiliate, betray, envy.' She briefly explains the origin of basic anxiety (as): 'The basic evil is invariably a lack of genuine warmth and affection. A child can stand a great deal of what is often regarded as traumatic---such as sudden weaning, occasional beating, sex experiences---as long as inwardly he feels wanted and loved'" (Chessick, p. 277).
Horney "...outlines four main ways in our culture for escaping anxiety---to rationalize it, to deny it, to narcotize it, and to avoid thoughts, feelings, impulses and situations which might arouse it" (p. 278)