Born: 7 February 1870 Alfred Vienna
Died: 28 May 1937 Scotland
Alfred Adler was an Austrian doctor and originally a colleague of the famous Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Adler was eventually booted out of Freud’s inner circle, but he went on to found his own set of theories known as Individual Psychology. He is perhaps best known for his concept of the inferiority complex.
Alfred Adler’s key publications were:
- The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (1927)
- Understanding Human Nature (1927)
- What Life Could Mean to You (1931)
Books by other authors:
The Courage to be Disliked is a fantastic summary of Adler’s teaching. Written in an easy to digest manner. This book should be the first stop for anyone interested in Adler’s work.
Alfred Adler in a paragraph
Alfred Adler’s approach can feel confronting at first. His theories conceptualise one’s behaviours, emotions and personality all as choices that are focused on obtaining a goal. In this way, they are “functional” although people can be distressed by the adverse effects of such choices. This places radical responsibility and ownership on individuals to change their behaviour and responses to life. To make such changes we must have courage and bear the burden given to us. For example from Adler’s perspective anxiety is not a problem someone suffers from but an excuse which they have chosen to protect themselves from harsh realities. One might rely on their anxiety because it acts as an excuse for why we cannot achieve our goals; easier to blame the anxiety as the reason for not achieving greatness than face the fact that we might try and fail. Over-analysing the symptom leaves us at the whims of determinism and nihilism, Adler calls us to courageously act regardless of our circumstances.
Principles of the Adlerian School of Psychology (Individual Psychology)
1. Teleology not Aetiology
Freud’s view of the world was Aetiological (Cause and effect), things in the past have an impact on who we are today and we must rectify damage from the past to bring healing. Adler disagreed with this view and instead posited that the primary explanation of behaviour and emotions should not be the past but viewed in terms of the purpose or goal they serve, Teleology.
[the] first thing we discover in the psychic trends is that the movements are directed toward a goal. . .This teleology, this striving for goals is innate in the concept of adaptation”.
This seems simple enough but the implications of this are enormous and it is important every psychologist fully grasp what this means. This implies that individual mental illness is chosen (unconsciously or consciously) by the sufferer because it achieves the desired outcome. This can seem harsh to most people but it is the reason that Adlerian Psychology is often called the psychology of courage. Because it places radical responsibility on the individual. The application of this principle needs to be dealt with judiciously it can be wise to first build up an individual’s self-efficacy before explaining such a daunting concept.
Where this view aligns with other forms of psychology: Taking radical responsibility for one’s life, behaviours and emotions appears throughout the literature and psychoanalytic techniques. Viktor Frankl writes extensively and hopefully on the topic in his book Man’s Search for Meaning and it is a core component of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
The Will to Superiority
Our goals are structured under a Self-Ideal
We have many goals that are structured by our Self-Ideal. This is the person we wish to become, it points us to the future, to improve our lot in life and gain a more advantageous position. This ideal differs from person to person based on childhood experiences and modelling. Adler believed our pursuing the ideal state is a human’s main emotional and behavioural driving force. He called this drive a “Will to Superiority”. This concept was heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of the “Will to Power”.
Inferiority & Inferiority Complexes
People have feelings of Inferiority when comparing themselves to their Self-Ideal. This inferiority can encourage us to grow but sometimes an inferiority complex emerges which is very different to the normal feeling of superiority and instead of facilitating growth it stops it.
An inferiority complex prevents development by acting as a sort of Aeteliological excuse. “Because of this I cannot”, “If I didn’t have this then I would be happy”, “I will be happy when such and such is achieved”. All progress is put out of reach from the individual and they begin to live what Adler called a “Life lie”. In this case instead of life being lived in the moment healthily pursuing the ideal-self, life is viewed as a sort of preparation period leading to some end ideal point which is never achieved. We must have the courage to unstick ourselves from inferiority complexes and reengage with life.
The healthiest way is to try to compensate through striving and growth. For instance, it could be by applying oneself to one’s studies, engaging in constant training or being diligent in one’s work. However, people who aren’t equipped with that courage end up stepping into an inferiority complex. Again, it’s thinking, I’m not well educated, so I can’t succeed. And it’s implying your capability by saying, ‘If only I were well educated, I could be really successful.’ That ‘the real me’, which just happens to be obscured right now by the matter of education, is superior.
Feelings of inferiority that arise from weakness, smallness, and dependency as a child.
The early childhood feeling of inferiority, for which one aims to compensate, leads to the creation of a fictional final goal which seems to promise total relief from the feeling of inferiority, future security, and success. The depth of the inferior feeling usually determines the height of the goal which then becomes the “final cause” of behaviour patterns. Note: fictional final goals can be good if not coming from a place of inferiority.
Is a feeling of insufficiency which arises as an adult from not reaching ones own subjective goals of security and success. This type of inferiority is exacerbated by exaggerated unrealistic goals where a person is led to believe they are special and unique. Inferiority in comparison to such a large perceived unrealised potential cause distress and anxiety.
People with an inferiority complex can seek superiority in dysfunctional ways. Some may seek control and domination of others through power grabs and uses of force we call this a Superiority Complex. Others may avoid taking responsibility and use their victimhood to control others behaviour.
In fact, if we were to ask ourselves who is the strongest person in our culture, the logical answer would be, the baby. The baby rules and cannot be dominated.”
And others may seek associations with those in powerful positions rather than seeking the positions themselves. The list goes on, Adler categorised healthy positive behaviours as Coping Behaviours and unhelpful behaviours Safeguarding Behaviours.
- Coping Behaviours – Positive
- Direct Problem Solving
- Growth towards goals
- Compensation with strengths for areas of weakness
- Safeguarding Behaviours – Negative
- Anxiety and sickness
- Distance Seeking
- Disconnecting from the world
Adler’s work is often called the psychology of courage because no matter what you have faced in your life up until now what you do today is what determines in life. Next week I will unravel some of the recommendations Adler has to individuals to help them cut through their inferiority complexes and courageously move forward. Until then, below is a fantastic summary of many of Adler’s teachings by The Academy of Ideas.