Alfred Adler
Alfred Adler


By Gregory Mitchell

Alfred Adler was born in the suburbs of Vienna on February 7, 1870, the third child, second son, of a Jewish grain merchant and his wife. As a child, Alfred developed rickets, which kept him from walking until he was four years old. At five, he nearly died of pneumonia. It was at this age that he decided to be a physician. He began his medical career as an ophthalmologist, but he soon turned to psychiatry, and in 1907 was invited to join Freud's discussion group. After writing several papers which were quite compatible with Freud's views, he wrote a paper concerning an aggression instinct which Freud did not approve of, and then a paper on children's feelings of inferiority, which suggested that Freud's sexual notions be taken more metaphorically than literally.

Although Freud named Adler the president of the Viennese Analytic Society and the co-editor of the organization's newsletter, Adler didn't stop his criticism. A debate between Adler's supporters and Freud's was arranged, but it resulted in Adler, with nine other members of the organization, resigning to form the Society for Free Psychoanalysis in 1911. This organization became The Society for Individual Psychology in the following year.

During World War I, Adler served as a physician in the Austrian Army, first on the Russian front, and later in a children's hospital. He saw first hand the damage that war does, and his work turned increasingly to the concept of social interest. He felt that if humanity was to survive, it had to change its ways.

Adler's work has been largely absorbed into psychotherapeutic practice and contemporary thought without retaining a separate identity. Some of his terminology, such as "compensation" and "inferiority complex," are used in everyday language. Individual Psychology still has its own centers, schools and work groups, but Adler's influence has permeated other psychologies. His "aggression drive" reappeared in the Ego psychology of orthodox psychoanalysis; other Adlerian echoes are found in the work of Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan, Franz Alexander and Ian Suttie. Those who try to see the backward child, the delinquent, the psychopath or the psychiatric patient as a whole person are sharing Adler's viewpoint.

Adler was the grandfather to Humanistic Psychology. In his later writings Adler made a shift never managed by Freud but later repeated by Maslow: he wrote less about pathology and more about health, and the Nietzschean striving for superiority and compensation, mutated into a unifying directional tendency toward self-mastery and self-overcoming in the service of social interest (Gemeinschaftsgef hle), the opposite of self-boundedness (Ichgebundenheit). The healthy person neither loses himself in his ideal-self fictions or lives through others, the two faces worn by neurotic selfishness; the healthy person makes his deepest goals conscious while integrating them into activities that improve family and community. Here Adler anticipates Fromm's dictum that self-love and other-love arise together and support one another.

Alfred Adler's theory is at once a model of personality, a theory of psychopathology, and in many cases the foundation of a method for mind development and personal growth. Adler wrote, "Every individual represents a unity of personality and the individual then fashions that unity. The individual is thus both the picture and the artist. Therefore if one can change one's concept of self, they can change the picture being painted." His Individual Psychology is based on a humanistic model of man. Among the basic concepts are:

  1. Holism. The Adlerian views man as a unit, a self-conscious whole that functions as an open system (see General Systems Theory), not as a collection of drives and instincts.

  2. Field Theory. The premise is that an individual can only be studied by his movements, actions and relationships within his social field. In the context of Mind Development, this is essentially the examination of tasks of work, and the individual's feelings of belonging to the group.

  3. Teleology ("power to will" or the belief that individuals are guided not only by mechanical forces but that they also move toward certain goals of self-realization). While Adler's name is linked most often with the term 'inferiority-complex,' towards the end of his career he became more concerned with observing the individual's struggle for significance or competence (later discussed by others as self-realization, or self-actualization, etc.). He believed that, standing before the unknown, each person strives to become more perfect, and in health is motivated by one dynamic force - the upward striving for completion - and all else is subordinated to this one master motive. Behavior is understood as goal-directed movement, though the person may not be fully aware of this motivation.

  4. The Creative Self. The concept of the creative self places the responsibility for the individual's personality into his own hands. The Adlerian practitioner sees the individual as responsible for himself, he attempts to show the person that he cannot blame others or uncontrollable forces for his current condition.

  5. Life-Style. An individual's striving towards significance and belonging can be observed as a pattern. This pattern manifests early in life and can be observed as a theme throughout his lifetime. This permeates all aspects of perception and action. If one understands an individual's lifestyle, his behavior makes sense.

  6. Private intelligence is the reasoning invented by an individual to stimulate and justify a self-serving style of life. By contrast, common sense represents society's cumulative, consensual reasoning that recognizes the wisdom of mutual benefit.

The 'Individual Psychologist' works with an individual as an equal to uncover his values and assumptions. As a person is not aware that he is acting according to misperceptions, it becomes the task of the practitioner to not only lead the individual to an insightful exposure of his errors, but also to re-orient him toward a more useful way of living.

The practitioner seeks to establish a climate in which learning can take place. Encouragement and optimism are his key concerns. Adlerian therapy permits the use of a wide variety of techniques, for example, Drama Therapy and Art Therapy. Despite the methods used, techniques are used first to help relieve suffering and second, to promote positive change and empowerment. From the point of view of Mind Development, the most important constant factor is the stress on social interactions and social contribution; the more outgoing social interest, the less feelings of inferiority the individual has.

A technique unique to Adlerians that we have preserved in Mind Development is the formulation of the life-style and the constant use of the information gathered to demonstrate the individual to himself. It is the particular interpretation of the person's behavior and the teaching of a certain philosophy of life, to prod the person into action, which is both uniquely Adlerian and at the same time has wide application in Mind Development. This is a brief introduction to Adlerian principles and desirable life-style.

Man as a Social Being
Man is a social being. Nature is fierce and he is relatively weak and needs the support of communal living; of course he needs to be interested in the society around him. His capabilities and forms of expression are inseparably linked to the existence of others. From the sociological point of view, the normal man is an individual who lives in society and whose mode of life is so adapted that society derives a certain benefit from his life-style. From the psychological point of view, he has enough energy and courage to meet the problems and difficulties of life as they come along.

Social interest is the inevitable compensation for all the natural weaknesses of human beings. Social interest is a way of life; it is an optimistic feeling of confidence in oneself, and a genuine interest in the welfare and well-being of others. The human being is clearly a social being, needing a much longer period of dependence upon others before maturity than any animal. As long as the feeling of inferiority is not too great, a person will always strive to be worthwhile and on the useful side of life, because this gives him the feeling of being valuable which originates from contribution to the common welfare.

Adler writes: "Since true happiness is inseparable from the feeling of giving, it is clear that a social person is much closer to happiness than the isolated person striving for superiority. Individual Psychology has very clearly pointed out that everyone who is deeply unhappy, the neurotic and the desolate person stem from among those who were deprived in their younger years of being able to develop the feeling of community, the courage, the optimism, and the self-confidence that comes directly from the sense of belonging. This sense of belonging that cannot be denied anyone, against which there are no arguments, can only be won by being involved, by cooperating, and experiencing, and by being useful to others. Out of this emerges a lasting, genuine feeling of worthiness." (From "Individual Psychology," 1926).

The child soon learns that his aims and goals in life are not attained without movement, striving and effort. Thus in order to reach fulfillment, the child adopts a strategy. Inferiority feelings influence the adoption of misguided and limiting safe solutions as survival strategies. The child's attitude towards the problems of life is governed by this early 'life script'. The preliminary social problems met in childhood (friendships, schooling and relationship to the other sex) provide tests of the individual's preparation for social living, and these may reinforce the life script or cause it to be adjusted in positive or negative directions.

In recent research, the relationship between life satisfaction, social interest, and participation in extracurricular activities was assessed among adolescent students. They were asked to list the number of extracurricular activities that they participated in since their enrollment in high school. Higher social interest was significantly related to higher levels of overall satisfaction, as well as satisfaction with friends and family.

The social problems of adulthood are the realities of friendship, comradeship and social contact; those of one's occupation or profession; and those of love and marriage. It is failure to face and meet them directly which results in neurosis, and perhaps in mental ill-health (which has been defined in simple terms as: madness, badness and sadness). It has been well said that the neurotic turns half-away from life, while the insane person turns his back on it; it may be added that those possessed of sufficient social courage face it!

Happiness in life depends to a considerable extent on the degree of social interest and ability to cooperate which the child has developed, with the help and encouragement of his parents and teachers. Successful men and woman are those who have learned the art of cooperation, and who face life with that attitude - an attitude born of courage and self-confidence. Such a person faces difficulties head-on, but is not plunged into despondency and despair by defeat or failure. His life- style is characterized by an easy approach to life, the absence of over-anxiety and a friendly tolerance towards his fellows. The need to escape into neurosis is very small.

There is only one reason for a person to side-step to the useless side: the fear of defeat on the useful side - his flight from the solution of one of the social problems of life. If the person is unprepared for social living he will not continue his path to self-actualization on the socially useful side; instead of confronting his problems he will try to gain distance from them. Those who fail socially in life are not ready to cooperate; they are too self-centered - they think always of themselves, and they do so because they lack confidence and courage - in other words, they are afraid of life. Such individuals do not feel able or prepared to deal with their problems. Because of a sense of inadequacy and inferiority they lead unhappy, incomplete, frustrated and unsatisfactory lives. Fear, then, is at the root of all such misery in life.

The seeking of distance from problems (through hesitating, halting and detouring) at various stages of life and in the face of social problems, results in striving directed at exaggerated private goals of personal superiority, to make up for the felt inferiority. Artists provide a compensatory function for society by illustrating for us in their fiction how to see, feel and think in the face of the problems of life, and how to turn from denial to face challenges anew, in order to eventually succeed. The neurotic aims for a goal of personal superiority, without handling the upsets of his work, his home life and his various personal relationships. Such neurosis is sustained by misunderstandings acquired by assimilation, particularly during the first five years, but also through the many ways that misguided ideas can be identified with throughout one's development. The fixity of such ideas may result in a refusal to observe objectively in the present time - which is the only way to solve life's problems in an open-minded manner and succeed in a socially beneficial way.

The Adlerian Unconscious
"There appears to be no contrast between the conscious and the unconscious, that both cooperate for a higher purpose, that our thoughts and feelings become conscious as soon as we are faced with a difficulty, and unconscious as soon as our personality requires it." (From "Individual Psychology," 1930.)

The unconscious-to-conscious relation is as "photo-to-negative": by just one lie to oneself, the unconscious can support and realize the ideal or goal determined by consciousness, e.g. "I am the victim in this situation," "I deserve better," "My violence was well justified." Once such a simple re-draft of the plain experience has been made, it continues unconsciously to take over one affect and behavior, whether one is awake or asleep. In dreams, the Adlerian unconscious can sometimes be caught engaged in the very same problem-solving work as goes on in daily life, yet without the constraints of reality. Thus dreams become a continuation of daytime speculations and anxieties and a re-organizing of conflicts between values, ideals and actual experience.

Fictional Finalism
Adler was influenced by the philosopher Hans Vaihinger who proposed that people live by many fictional ideals that have no relation to reality and therefore cannot be tested and confirmed. For example, that all men are created equal; women should always bow to the will of their husband; and the end justifies the means. These fictions may help a person feel powerful and justify the rightness of their selfish choices, although at the same time cause others harm and injustice and destroy relationships. Adler took this idea and concluded that people are motivated more by their expectations of the future than they are by the past. If a person believes that there is heaven for those who are good and hell for those who are bad, it will probably affect how that person lives. An ideal or absolute is a fiction.

Fictional Finalism proposes that people act as much from accepted ideals as they do from observed reality. Whatever the subconscious mind accepts as true, it acts as if it is true whether it is or not - it does not have the benefit of the conscious mind's ability to observe independenty and check with real experience. From the point of the view of the person, such a fiction may be taken as the basis for their orientation in the world and as one aspect of compensation for felt inferiority.

The Adlerian Ego
Hans Vaihinger described how every discipline - psychology, sociology, philosophy, law, and even the sciences - establishes fictions to try to describe the reality. And after a while, we tend to think of these fictions as having reality to them, so that when we talk about a part of the mind such as Ego, Libido or Higher Self, we're basically trying to hone in on a region of functioning that in fact doesn't exist as a separate entity. Adler disagreed with Freud on a number of issues, particularly regarding the division of the personality into Ego, Id and Superego - he preferred to consider the entire person, as they function.

Freud hypothesized a division of the personality into these so-called segments or dynamic parts, but Adler said that there is no division, that the personality is a complete unity. Adler believed that you could not accurately look at the personality as subdivided, that you had to look at it only as a whole, as an organized whole without contradictions. Even when distinguishing between conscious and unconscious, Adler felt that there was a kind of fluidity there, because what seems to be unconscious can be raised to consciousness very rapidly under certain circumstances. Freud indicated that there was a conflict or war between the parts of the personality, between the Id and the Ego and the Superego. But Adler said that that is an erroneous assumption. He felt that there is no internal war or conflict, and that the individual moves only in one direction... Adler believed that the personality was organized around a single "fictional final goal."

Henry Stein, when interviewed in What is Enlightenment magazine, describes the fictional final goal... "It is unique to each person and pretty much guides and dictates most of the individual's actions. So you might say it defines the Ego and sense of self. Adler said that everything within the personality, whether it's thinking, feeling, memory, fantasy, dreams, posture, gestures, handwriting - every expression of the personality - is essentially subordinate to this goal, which gets formulated even without words in early childhood and becomes what Adler called the 'childhood prototype.' The child imagines some time in the future when they will grow up, when they will be strong, when they will overcome insecurity or anything else that bothers them. So if they feel that they are ugly, they will be beautiful. If they feel that they're stupid, they will be brilliant. If they feel that they're weak, they'll be strong. If they're at the bottom, they'll be at the top. All of this is conceived without words as a way of living in the insecurity of the present that may be uncomfortable or unbearable. It would be unbearable to say that these feelings of insecurity or inferiority are a permanent condition for you. So what the child does, and eventually what the adult does, is they imagine that the future will bring a redemption, will bring relief from the inferiority feeling. The future will bring success, significance, a correction - a reversal of everything that's wrong. It's very purposeful. This fictional final goal is an embodiment of their vision of the future."

Heinz Ansbacher, in The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, talks about the many differences between Freud and Adler. "Freud's defenses provide protection of the Ego against instinctual demands. Whereas Adler's safeguards protect the self esteem from threats by outside demands and problems of life." It is not against instinctual demands that people have to safeguard themselves, it is that their self esteem is suffering, because they have a feeling that they cannot meet the demands of life that come from the outside.

"We see how, for the safeguarding of his picture of the world and for the defense of his vanity, the patient had erected a wall against the demands of actual community life. In a difficult situation, he felt himself too weak to arrive at the high goal which he, in his vanity, had set for himself; when he felt too weak to play a pre-eminent role commensurate with that which should be his according to his picture of the world. Thus he was able to avoid the shock of imminent problems, and could relegate those problems to the background." Such a procedure of exclusion naturally appeared to him the lesser of two evils." (Adler in "The Neurotic's Picture of the World, in "The International Journal of Individual Psychology, v. 1, no 3, pages 3-13).

"The neurotic actually is not as convinced of his uselessness or worthlessness as is generally assumed. He does not feel inferior, but fears being discovered as inferior, not being able to meet the demands of life. Some of his traits, such as hesitancy, avoidance, withdrawal from difficult tasks, and his fear of losing, make sense only when understood as safeguards which preserve his self-esteem. What difference would his defeat make to him had he already given up, or had he already resigned himself to it? Only as long as he still has his ambition, does security from defeat make sense. Adler himself always emphasized that neither lack of courage nor ambition alone will mark the neurotic; the neurotic is identified by the concurrence and the mutual aggravation of these two traits." (Adler in "Principles of Individual Psychology," an unpublished manuscript in the AAISF/ATP archives.).

I feel both Freud and Adler are correct. Defenses are used both to provide protection of the Ego against instinctual demands (the Freudian idea is that the Id doesn't want to feel pain so it motivates the Ego to use defense mechanisms to defend it from anxiety), and as a safeguard to protect the self esteem from threats by outside demands and the many problems of life. Defense mechanisms are ways in which the Ego deals with conflicts within the psyche. Freud and Adler are each only looking at part of the picture.

Adler believed that feelings of inferiority, mostly subconscious, combined with compensatory defense mechanisms played the largest role in determining behavior, particularly behavior of the pathological sort. Adler's theory of individual psychology stressed the need to discover the root cause of feelings of inferiority, to assist the development of a strong Ego and thereby help the individual eliminate neurotic defense mechanisms.

Inferiority complex
Adlerian psychology assumes a central personality dynamic reflecting the growth and forward movement of life. It is a future-oriented striving toward an ideal goal of significance, mastery, success or completion. Children start their lives smaller, weaker, and less socially and intellectually competent than the adults around them. They have the desire to grow up, to become a capable adult, and as they gradually acquire skills and demonstrate their competence, they gain in confidence and self esteem. This natural striving for perfection may however be held back if their self-image is degraded by failures in physical, intellectual and social development or of they suffer from the criticisms of parents, teachers and peers.

If we are moving along, doing well, feeling competent, we can afford to think of others. If we are not, if life is getting the best of us, then our attentions become increasingly focussed on ourself; we may develop an inferiority complex: become shy and timid, insecure, indecisive, cowardly, submissive, compliant, and so on.

The inferiority complex is a form of neurosis and as such it may become all-consuming. A person with an inferiority complex tends to lack social interest; instead they are self-interested: focused on themselves and what they believe to be their deficiencies. They may compensate by working hard to improve in the skills at which they lack, or they may try to become competent at something else, but otherwise retaining their sense of inferiority. Since self esteem is based on competence, those who have not succeeded in recovering from this neurosis may find it hard to develop any self esteem at all and are left with the feeling that other people will always be better than they are.

The fictional goal is, in many ways, a device of the individual to pull himself up by his bootstraps, as it were. In addition to serving the useful purpose of orienting the individual in the world, it is a compensatory defense: it creates positive feelings in the present which mitigate the feelings of inferiority.

As a further compensation, we may also develop a superiority complex, which involves covering up our inferiority by pretending to be superior. If we feel small, one way to feel big is to make everyone else feel even smaller! Bullies, big-heads, and petty dictators everywhere are the prime example. More subtle examples are the people who are given to attention-getting dramatics, the ones who feel powerful when they commit crimes, and the ones who put others down for their gender, race, ethnic origins, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, weight, height, etc. Some resort to hiding their feelings of worthlessness in the delusions of power afforded by alcohol and drugs.

Private intelligence
In the case of a neurotic failure in life, his reasoning may be 'intelligent' within his own frame of reference, but is nevertheless socially insane. For example, a thief said: "The young man had plenty of money and I had none; therefore I took it." Since this criminal does not think himself capable of acquiring money in the normal manner, in the socially useful way, there is actually nothing left for him but robbery. So the criminal approaches his goal through what seems to him to be an 'intelligent' argument; however his reason is based on private intelligence, which does not include social interest or responsibility. Reasoning which has general validity is intelligence that is connected with social interest. Whereas isolated private intelligence may seem 'clever' to the individual concerned but if it conflicts with social needs it is of little value. Adler says it's a matter of being overwhelmed by the inferiority complex.

Neurotics, psychotics, criminals, alcoholics, vandals, prostitutes, drug addicts, perverts, etc are lacking in social interest. They approach the problems of occupation, friendships and sex without the confidence that they can be solved by cooperation. Their interest stops short at their own person - their idea of success in life is self-centered, and their triumphs have meaning only to themselves.

From The Collected Works of Lydia Sicher: An Adlerian Perspective... "People learn to think in terms of their own private logic and will say, 'I'm different from others.' Everyone is different because no two people in the world are alike. But the difference that they mean is a difference that begs justification. "I am different from the others and, therefore, you cannot expect me to do insignificant jobs.' Or, 'I cannot finish what I have started because if I finish you might discover that what I did was not marvelous.' Thus, people create their own formulas with their private intelligence or logic according to which they live. They expect themselves to be far beyond their present point of development. They expect others to see them as having already arrived at the endpoint of their own capabilities. They then go through life begging for excuses because they have not reached this endpoint of evolution, of perfection."

The early childhood feeling of inferiority, for which one aims to compensate, leads to the creation of a fictional final goal which subjectively seems to promise total relief from the feeling of inferiority, future security, and success. The depth of the inferiority feeling usually determines the height of the false goal - a "guiding fiction" - which then becomes the "final cause" of behavior patterns.

As Adler described, "Every psychological activity shows that its direction is governed by a predetermined goal. However, soon after a child's psychological development starts, all these tentative, individually recognizable goals, come under the dominance of the fictitious goal, a finale that is regarded as firmly established. In other words, like a character drawn by a good dramatist, the individual's inner life is guided by what occurs in the fifth act of the play. This insight into any personality that can be derived from Individual Psychology leads us to an important concept: If we are to understand the nature of an individual, then every psychological manifestation should be perceived and understood as only preparatory for a particular goal. Everyone develops a final goal, either consciously or unconsciously, but ignorant of its meaning." [The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, by Alfred Adler.]

Private intelligence is a form of negative intelligence, a negative intelligence that includes all the distortions of analytical thinking that may occur, such as justifications, excuses, rationalizations, generalizations - all ways to be 'right', to provide a safe solution. In each case, there is a failure to observe, a refusal to notice. The goal of striving for self-expression has been misdirected to a goal for personal superiority. They may be correctly co-ordinated in a frame of reference on the useless side of life, but the person lacks the courage and the interest that is necessary for the socially useful solution of the problems of life.

True intelligence is IQ multiplied by the degree of social involvement in life (through sex, family, work, play, education and all kinds of local, national and international groupings and involvements) which in turn requires personal stability and social skills, the facets of emotional intelligence. When the individual's interest is too self-centered, he feels that he is socially impotent or a nobody; he feels alienated from his fellow man. The person who is socially integrated feels at home in this world, and this gives him courage and an optimistic view. He does not regard the adversities of life as a personal injustice; he is not alone.

Lev Vygotsky says, "Every function in ... cultural development appears twice: First, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological), and then inside (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals."

Not all of one's intelligence occurs in one's own head; it needs to be combined with external resources of knowledge and understanding. This latter, external and distributed type of cognition is termed Extelligence. Extelligence contrasts with intelligence (the use of knowledge through cognitive processes within the brain). Further, the combination of Extelligence and Intelligence is fundamental to the development of consciousness in both evolutionary terms for the species, and also for the individual. Our Extelligence is growing and maturing all the time, it is the way that society grows, children get taught and culture evolves. It's what allows humans to think outside the box, develop imagination, overcome their fears, and evolve both intelligence and consciousness. A person who only has Private Intelligence is probably not very Extelligent nor an effective member of society, because he has withdrawn from life and the larger picture. All the Extelligence in the world is useless if you lack the intelligence to use it.

Disguised under a different terminology, Freud in reality accepted many basic Adlerian postulates. Adlerian Psychology has had a tremendous effect on Freudian ideas as they are used now, because the neo-Freudians come very close to the neo-Adlerians. The inclusion of social forces on personality by neo-Freudians seem to come more from Adler than Freud. There was a time in which Adler's views corresponded with Freud's thinking, but Freud disapproved of the aggression instinct when Adler introduced it in 1908. Later, in 1923, long after Adler had discarded instinct theory, Freud incorporated the aggression instinct into psychoanalysis.

Instead of delving into the unconscious, Adler sticks to "surface phenomena;" he finds no contradiction between these ideas and Freudian theory. However, where Freud may have searched for and identified certain agents as determining the individual's maladjustment, Adler thought that such factors were not causal but rather that they influenced the individual's sense of self through the conclusions he draws from them. Adler's popularity was related to the comparative optimism and comprehensibility of his ideas compared to those of Freud or Jung. And there was never a "cult of personality" around Adler as there was around Freud and Jung (and more recently, Perls and Berne). Along with Freud and Jung, Adler was one of the founding giants in the field of ideas. Adler, Freud, and Jung were the key figures in the development of psychology as we know it.

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