Karen & the Subtlety of Pride

According to Wikipedia, the pejorative name “Karen” means, “a woman perceived as entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is appropriate or necessary.” It is somewhat ironic that one of the best analyses I have found of Karens is from a woman named Karen.

Dr. Karen Horney (September 16, 1885–December 4, 1952) was a psychoanalyst. She was one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis. This is especially remarkable in that this field was dominated by men at the time.

What Dr. Karen noticed was that low self-esteem and self-loathing were not what they seemed to be. She asked, why do people have such low self-esteem? She suggests it begins with an idealized image of oneself: “Gradually and unconsciously, the imagination sets to work and creates in his mind an idealized image of himself. In this process he endows himself with unlimited powers and with exalted faculties: he becomes a hero, a genius, a supreme lover, a saint, a god” (Neurosis & Human Growth, 22).

But what happens when reality conflicts with this illusion? “What does it do to a person when he recognizes that he cannot measure up to his inner dictates? To anticipate the answer briefly: then he starts to hate and despise himself” (ibid., 85). He cannot be what he has imagined himself to be, and so he has low self-esteem or self-loathing. However, this imagination is completely in conflict with reality.

As a result, Dr. Karen would speak of self-loathing as part of a pride system. “And since pride and self-hate are actually one entity, I suggest calling the sum total of the factors involved by a common name: the pride system” (ibid., 110–111). Pride and self-loathing go together.

This way of thinking about our neuroses has a lot of explanatory power. Here are some examples Dr. Karen provides.

  • Believing that we can attain perfection and continually looking at things we should have done. “In this event he keeps reiterating the word ‘should’ with amazing frequency. He keeps telling us what he should have felt, thought and done. He is at bottom as convinced of his inherent perfection as the naively ‘narcissistic person,’ and betrays it by the belief that he actually could be perfect if only he were more strict with himself, more controlled, more alert, more circumspect” (Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis, 98).
  • Thinking we are glorious but not wanting to work for glory. “Because the main goal is the attainment of glory, he becomes uninterested in the process of learning, of doing, or of gaining step by step—indeed, tends to scorn it. He does not want to climb a mountain: he wants to be on the peak” (Neurosis & Human Growth, 38).
  • We have a sense that everything should be easy and work out right. “The world should be at my service, and I should not be bothered” (ibid., 43). She explains, “‘Not to be bothered’ usually implies being exempt from criticism, expectations, or efforts—even if these latter are in his own behalf” (ibid., 44).
  • Overestimating the seriousness of wrongs done to us. “It is in our real interest . . . to examine our own reactions when we become preoccupied with a wrong done to us, or when we begin to ponder the hateful qualities of somebody, or when we feel the impulse to get back at others. We must then scrutinize the question of whether our reaction is in any reasonable proportion to the wrong done. And if with honest scrutiny we find a disproportion, we must search for hidden claims” (ibid., 57).
  • Putting up with suffering and abuse longer than we should. “Some persons allow abuse because their idealized self is demanding that they be the epitome of patience, tolerance, forgiveness, and long-suffering” (Terry Cooper [summarizing Dr. Karen], Sin, Pride, & Self-Acceptance: The Problem of Identity in Theology & Psychology, 138).
  • Putting together the idea of pride with self-contempt, Cooper says that, “Beneath the negative view of one’s ‘stupidity,’ there is often a pride that expects omniscience” (ibid.). Ironically, Dr. Karen says, “The compelling need to appear omniscient may interfere with the capacity to learn” (cited in ibid., 139).
  • Being upset that people don’t like us may hide a “grandiose” view that everyone should like us. “Perhaps what is overlooked in this ‘obvious’ form of low self-esteem is the underlying pride system that says that everyone ought to like me or that I am completely lovable. The constant attempt to win approval and affection is based on a conviction that we can win those things from everyone. There is a double grandiosity here: (1) that we can control what others think of us and (2) that everyone will like us if we simply work at it. Thus, even here, pride and low self-esteem appear to be mixed together” (Cooper, ibid.).
  • Expectations of perfection & continual self-scrutiny. “Surely unrealistic self-demands, expectations for perfection and severe self-scrutiny are born out of a pride system that expects us to extend ourselves beyond our own human limits. . . . Thus, in the midst of my own self-condemnation, perhaps I should raise the question, ‘Just who do I think I am?’” (ibid., 150).

The result of our pride is, ironically, a failure to make progress. As Terry Cooper puts it, “The overwhelming amount of psychic energy necessary to maintain an inflated self depletes the energy needed to achieve our actual potential” ( 131). So, we need to consider our own fears and anxieties, but we also need to confront our own illegitimate responses to them.

Dr. Karen provides us with a variety of ways of seeing how pride works itself out in human life. We often miss the way pride infects our own lack of self-esteem, our concern about people’s opinions, and our reaction to difficulties. Becoming aware of these things can help us see ourselves as the human we are, a human who is not actually at the center of the universe.


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