Last week we learnt about Alfred Adler and how his views differed from Freud’s so much to the point where he separated to form his own school of Individual Psychology. He described a driver that was more important than Freud’s “Will to Pleasure”, which he called “The Will to Superiority”, where people are constantly striving towards a self-ideal. People naturally have feelings of inferiority that come from their frailty in comparison to their self-ideal.
Instead of accepting feelings of inferiority and using them as an impetus to grow, people develop inferiority complexes which hide these feelings amidst lies of self-competence, importance, and victimhood that prevent growth towards goals. Adler called these life lies, and his prescription to stop living them was to have the courage to accept one’s current state as it is with all its flaws and step forward into life. Below we will explore some of the ways in which Adler recommended we do this.
All Problems are Interpersonal Problems
We grow up learning our behaviours and responses in the context of other people; we are rewarded or punished based on our interactions with others. Adler believed that our maladaptation to the social environment was what creates inferiority complexes. He wrote in 1929:
The feeling of inferiority and the problem of social training are thus intimately connected. Just as the feeling of inferiority arises from a social maladjustment, so social training is the basic method by which we can all overcome our feelings of inferiority.”
Instead of acting in a Socially Interested manner (which I will go into later), we get caught comparing and competing with others driven by our Will to Superiority. Adler went as far as to say that “All problems are interpersonal problems.”
Now that we understand the origins of inferiority complexes to be social, we can begin to take steps to cut ourselves free from the expectations and desires of others to forge our own path in life.
Deny the desire for recognition – Do not live to satisfy the expectations of others:
“If one takes appropriate action, one receives praise. If one takes inappropriate action, one receives punishment. Adler was very critical of education by reward and punishment. It leads to mistaken lifestyles in which people think, If no one is going to praise me, I won’t take appropriate action and if no one is going to punish me, I’ll engage in inappropriate actions, too… When one seeks recognition from others, and concerns oneself only with how one is judged by others, in the end, one is living other people’s lives… Wishing so hard to be recognised will lead to a life of following expectations held by other people who want you to be ‘this kind of person’. In other words, you throw away who you really are and live other people’s lives.”
Separation of Tasks:
The desire for recognition and to live up to expectations entangles our behaviour with the thoughts and opinions of others. The only way to become free is to “Cut The Gordian Knot” and separate ourselves from others. We do this through the separation of tasks, clearly delineating what you are responsible for from others.
“There is a simple way to tell whose task it is. Think, Who ultimately is going to receive the end result brought about by the choice that is made?“
The allocation of tasks based on consequences is a simple rule to help regain personal freedom. However, it comes with a cost. Once you separate tasks, you will realise you cannot please everyone. There will always be those who disagree with your choices. In this, one thing becomes apparent: in order to be free, one must have the courage to be disliked. “Freedom is being disliked by other people”.
They may be my enemies—that I cannot help—but I will not be theirs. — Alfred Adler
Developing Social Interest
Until now, the thoughts and opinions of others have served as useful guideposts for what to do and strive for next. Once tasks have been separated and the Gordian Knot cut, the now free individual must formulate a life worth living. Adler’s view was that this could be found in connecting and contributing to others and to the broader community. He called this feeling of meaningful connection “Social Interest” (Or Community Feeling in other translations).
“One needs to think not What will this person give me? but, rather, What can I give to this person? That is commitment to the community.” – The Courage to Be Disliked
Three things are needed to develop our social interest and ultimately a harmonious life.
1. Self Acceptance: First and foremost, one must accept themselves and what they are currently working with fully. Don’t lie about your faults or struggles or imperfections; simply accept yourself, warts and all. Only after we accept ourselves and our current state, our acceptance can be extended to those we form relationships with…
2. Confidence in Others: Deep, long-lasting relationships are essential for anyone hoping to live a harmonious, happy life. To build such relationships, we must have confidence in others. Confidence is different from trust. Where trust implies reciprocation, confidence is the unconditional belief in and acceptance of those we desire to build a relationship with. This requires us to establish horizontal (not vertical) relationships with others. Sometimes we can tend to view others as if they are on a ladder, either ahead of behind us. It helps to see the landscape as a horizontal field instead. People move around the field and end up in different places, none of which are better than the other. In this way, horizontal relationships are about support and comradery, not competition.
This confidence in others seems good. But what do I do if I am betrayed or taken advantage of? – The separation of tasks is important to understand when navigating difficulty in relationships. They are responsible for their actions towards you and you towards them. If you do not desire to make your relationship with that person better, then go ahead and sever it. Because carrying out the severing is your task. On the other hand, if you desire to build the relationship, then it should be done with complete confidence in the other person. A relationship based on conditions, insecurities, and scepticism is no relationship worth having. Once you feel that others are your comrades in life, you can begin to make a contribution to others…
3. Contribution to Others:
This final step is about taking responsibility for yourself and those around you and being able to feel that “I am of use to someone”. Work is the most obvious example of this, but not always. Simply having the subjective feeling that you are of use to someone can suffice. If one has not accepted oneself or does not have confidence in others, contribution to others can be difficult, as it is easy to get lost in approval-seeking behaviours as we seek to be of use to our community.
For those living with a Secondary Inferiority Complex contributing to others can be difficult as no contribution is enough compared to an unrealistic self-ideal. Overcoming this involves what Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi called in their summary of Alfred Adler’s work, having the “Courage to be Normal”. We cannot live in the shadow of trying to be remarkable. We must instead live moment to moment.
Live an Energeial Life, not a Kinetic One
Adler believed that Inferiority Complexes often led to people developing Fictional Final Goals. These imagined endpoints promise total relief from the feeling of inferiority, future security, and success. The depth of one’s inferior feelings determines the height of the goal one is striving for. People often think of famous people in this way. As if they have achieved some final state of happiness, superiority and success; and set their eyes on similar heights in the promise of happiness.
When people live their lives orientated around a fictional final goal Adler called this a kinetic life (Referring to Aristotle’s concept of Kinesis – Motion which has a start and endpoint). Living in this way implies that the whole of life is preparation, and every moment spent climbing towards our goal is tentative, in progress, and incomplete.
The other life is the energeial life (From Aristotle’s concept of Energeia – activity and process), a life lived like dancing. It sees life as a series of individual moments, not a straight line leading to a final outcome. People who have made notable contributions to others did not do so by living under the shadow of a fictional final goal but instead by living in each moment authentically and fully – dancing in the sunlight every day.
If the goal of climbing a mountain were to get to the top, that would be a kinetic act. To take it to the extreme, it wouldn’t matter if you went to the mountaintop in a helicopter, stayed there for five minutes or so, and then headed back in the helicopter again. Of course, if you didn’t make it to the mountaintop, that would mean the mountain-climbing expedition was a failure. However, if the goal is mountain climbing itself, and not just getting to the top, one could say it is energeial. In this case, in the end it doesn’t matter whether one makes it to the mountaintop or not.”
Be open and truthful to yourself about your situation and reality. Stop living in comforting lies.
Willingly accept the suffering that comes your way. Instead of seeking to actualise yourself, seek to transcend yourself.
Contribute to others. Think about what you can do for others, not what others can do for you.