Sometimes (often?) we find ourselves struggling to understand other people: he is a mystery to me, she behaves in ways I don’t understand, this person makes me uncomfortable, why does he/she/they do that?

 Many of us have explored theories of personality, especially those that describe different patterns and “types.” If you’ve delved into the Myers-Briggs (based on Carl Jung’s theory) or the Enneagram, you know how helpful they can be. And also perplexing!

Recently I’ve found myself revisiting a different theory that gets less attention, but may be simpler and still useful.


Karen Horney, psychoanalyst


Horney’s theory, described in her 1942 book on Self-Analysis, lays out her view of neurotic behavior patterns that evolve to cope with what she calls basic anxiety, in the context of interpersonal relationships. She talks about three broad types of “neurotic” needs and behaviors. Here’s a brief description:

  • Moving towards others
  • Moving away from others
  • Moving against others

In their efforts to cope, her theory proposes, neurotic people may use two or more of these strategies, which typically leads to difficulties. For our purpose, I’m going to work around the notions of neurosis and basic anxiety and focus instead on a simpler lens: Horney’s description of personality types. We’re not pathologizing here – simply trying to understand how people tend to cope with their social lives.


Moving toward: “Compliant”


 This pattern involves moving towards others, seeking acceptance and affirmation, acceptance and love. Here are some phrases that express the underlying feelings:

  • I need affection and approval
  • I long to belong
  • I am sensitive to the needs of others
  • I find other people to be generally nice and trustworthy
  • Relationships are more important to me than almost anything
  • I often take the blame for things and apologize
  • It is important to me to feel liked, wanted, accepted, needed
  • I like the feeling of being protected and taken care of
  • I have been described as too dependent
  • If I don’t get the closeness I need, I feel sad, hurt, unimportant
  • I have been described as too dependent
  • I often try to live up to others’ expectations without taking my own feelings into consideration
  • Experiences are much more enjoyable when I share them than when I do them alone
  • I have difficulty being assertive, asking for what I want, giving orders
  • I often feel weak and helpless, “less than” others
  • Criticism and rejection are devastating to me, and I do everything I can to avoid them
  • I value goodness, sympathy, love, generosity, humility

If you’re exploring this pattern for yourself, you might ask: Where does my safety/security lie?


Moving against: Aggressive


The tendency here is to look out for oneself, and assume that everyone else is a potential enemy or challenge:

  • I often find life to be a struggle.
  • I like to be in control
  • Other people are generally out for themselves and even hostile
  • I need to excel and achieve success, and enjoy competition
  • I like to get recognition and affirmation from others for my achievements
  • I have to watch out for myself in most situations
  • I work hard and am not afraid to fight for what I want
  • I find it important to face fears and be strong
  • I am not much of a “feelings” person
  • I like a good argument
  • I am usually right
  • I like to plan ahead and devise useful strategies
  • I can take care of myself and get things done
  • I am strong, honest, and realistic
  • I value self-reliance and decisiveness

Reflective inquiry: Where does my safety/security lie?


Moving away: Detached


Here the tendency is to be self-sufficient, with minimal needs, and to maintain emotional distance from others (to an extreme of alienation).

  • I like to be an observer
  • I like a certain amount of emotional distance
  • I need to feel self-sufficient
  • I can often keep my needs to a minimum
  • I like to research subjects
  • I am a fairly private person
  • I enjoy time alone
  • I value my integrity and independence
  • I need considerable freedom in my relationships
  • I am uncomfortable with feeling constrained, coerced, pressured, or trapped
  • I don’t often seek or take advice
  • I sometimes feel I have little in common with other people
  • I don’t like feeling “needy” and don’t do well in tolerating “neediness” in others
  • I value my creative process and my intelligence
  • Being around other people too much can be exhausting
  • I think a certain amount of detachment is healthy and wise

Reflection: Where does my safety/security lie?


What’s healthy and “normal”?


Most of us (that’s everyone reading this, right?) are (mostly) well-adjusted, and we may use all three of these coping strategies in a fluid way, depending on the circumstances and feelings that are present. The movement towards neurosis comes with overuse. Or, to say it the other way, overuse is a function of neurosis. Just to elaborate, neurotic needs might include a craving for affection and approval, “requiring” a partner, the need to restrict one’s life/live small, the need for power, the need to exploit others, the need for prestige or personal admiration, the need for personal achievement, independence, or perfection.

We may recognize some version of some of these: the important thing is intensity, the degree to which our lives are governed by any of these psychological/emotional “requirements.” Most of us move fluidly among these patterns and often function socially without much influence from them. (Breathe a sigh of relief….)

So let’s just acknowledge that at times we find ourselves motivated by and oriented towards one of these patterns in our relational lives. The point here is to cultivate self-awareness, which includes noticing the circumstances which evoke a particular pattern. As with other personality systems, the more awareness we have, the more choices become available. I’m not talking about drastic personality changes, but simply  taking time to pay attention to what we’re thinking and feeling, and what we’re experiencing in our bodies. This last aspect is important, because all these patterns present themselves in somatic forms! We can begin to notice and explore underlying beliefs, emotional patterns, and habitual responses.  It’s also helpful to ask for feedback and support – and practice self-compassion.

Ultimately, from some spiritual perspectives, who we truly are is free of these personality patterns….