Adler: Individual Psychology

Adler: Individual Psychology

B Overview of Individual Psychology B Biography of Alfred Adler B Introduction to Adlerian Theory B Striving for Success or Superiority

The Final Goal

The Striving Force as Compensation

Striving for Personal Superiority

Striving for Success

B Subjective Perceptions Fictionalism

Physical Inferiorities

B Unity and Self-Consistency of Personality Organ Dialect

Conscious and Unconscious

B Social Interest Origins of Social Interest

Importance of Social Interest

B Style of Life B Creative Power B Abnormal Development

General Description

External Factors in Maladjustment

Exaggerated Physical Deficiencies

Pampered Style of Life

Neglected Style of Life

Safeguarding Tendencies




Masculine Protest

Origins of the Masculine Protest

Adler, Freud, and the Masculine Protest


B Applications of Individual Psychology Family Constellation

Early Recollections



B Related Research Early Recollections and Career Choice

Early Childhood and Health-Related Issues

Early Recollections and Counseling Outcomes

B Critique of Adler B Concept of Humanity B Key Terms and Concepts


C H A P T E R 3



In 1937, a young Abraham Maslow was having dinner in a New York restaurantwith a somewhat older colleague. The older man was widely known for his earlier association with Sigmund Freud, and many people, including Maslow, regarded him as a disciple of Freud. When Maslow casually asked the older man about being Freud’s follower, the older man became quite angry, and according to Maslow, he nearly shouted that

this was a lie and a swindle for which he blamed Freud entirely, whom he then called names like swindler, sly, schemer. . . . He said that he had never been a student of Freud or a disciple or a follower. He made it clear from the beginning that he didn’t agree with Freud and that he had his own opinions. (Maslow, 1962, p. 125)

Maslow, who had known the older man as an even-tempered, congenial person, was stunned by his outburst.

The older man, of course, was Alfred Adler, who battled throughout his pro- fessional life to dispel the notion that he had ever been a follower of Freud. When- ever reporters and other people would inquire about his early relationship with Freud, Adler would produce the old faded postcard with Freud’s invitation to Adler to join Freud and three other physicians to meet at Freud’s home the following Thurs- day evening. Freud closed the invitation saying, “With hearty greetings as your col- league” (quoted in Hoffman, 1994, p. 42). This friendly remark gave Adler some tangible evidence that Freud considered him to be his equal.

However, the warm association between Adler and Freud came to a bitter end, with both men hurling caustic remarks toward the other. For example, after World War I, when Freud elevated aggression to a basic human drive, Adler, who had long since abandoned the concept, commented sarcastically: “I enriched psychoanalysis by the aggressive drive. I gladly make them a present of it” (quoted in Bottome, 1939, p. 64).

During the acrimonious breakup between the two men, Freud accused Adler of having paranoid delusions and of using terrorist tactics. He told one of his friends that the revolt by Adler was that of “an abnormal individual driven mad by ambition” (quoted in Gay, 1988, p. 223).

Overview of Individual Psychology Alfred Adler was neither a terrorist nor a person driven mad by ambition. Indeed, his individual psychology presents an optimistic view of people while resting heavily on the notion of social interest, that is, a feeling of oneness with all humankind. In addition to Adler’s more optimistic look at people, several other differences made the relationship between Freud and Adler quite tenuous.

First, Freud reduced all motivation to sex and aggression, whereas Adler saw people as being motivated mostly by social influences and by their striving for supe- riority or success; second, Freud assumed that people have little or no choice in shap- ing their personality, whereas Adler believed that people are largely responsible for who they are; third, Freud’s assumption that present behavior is caused by past ex- periences was directly opposed to Adler’s notion that present behavior is shaped by people’s view of the future; and fourth, in contrast to Freud, who placed very heavy

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emphasis on unconscious components of behavior, Adler believed that psycho- logically healthy people are usually aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it.

As we have seen, Adler was an original member of the small clique of physi- cians who met in Freud’s home on Wednesday evenings to discuss psychological top- ics. However, when theoretical and personal differences between Adler and Freud emerged, Adler left the Freud circle and established an opposing theory, which be- came known as individual psychology.

Biography of Alfred Adler Alfred Adler was born on February 7, 1870, in Rudolfsheim, a village near Vienna. His mother, Pauline, was a hard-working homemaker who kept busy with her seven children. His father, Leopold, was a middle-class Jewish grain merchant from Hun- gary. As a young boy, Adler was weak and sickly and at age 5, he nearly died of pneu- monia. He had gone ice-skating with an older boy who abandoned young Alfred. Cold and shivering, Adler managed to find his way home where he immediately fell asleep on the living room couch. As Adler gradually gained consciousness, he heard a doctor say to his parents, “Give yourself no more trouble. The boy is lost” (Hoff- man, 1994, p. 8). This experience, along with the death of a younger brother, moti- vated Adler to become a physician.

Adler’s poor health was in sharp contrast to the health of his older brother Sig- mund. Several of Adler’s earliest memories were concerned with the unhappy com- petition between his brother’s good health and his own illness. Sigmund Adler, the childhood rival whom Adler attempted to surpass, remained a worthy opponent, and in later years he became very successful in business and even helped Alfred finan- cially. By almost any standard, however, Alfred Adler was much more famous than Sigmund Adler. Like many secondborn children, however, Alfred continued the ri- valry with his older brother into middle age. He once told one of his biographers, Phyllis Bottome (1939, p. 18), “My eldest brother is a good industrious fellow—he was always ahead of me . . . and he is still ahead of me!”

The lives of Freud and Adler have several interesting parallels. Although both men came from middle- or lower-middle-class Viennese Jewish parents, neither was devoutly religious. However, Freud was much more conscious of his Jewishness than was Adler and often believed himself to be persecuted because of his Jewish back- ground. On the other hand, Adler never claimed to have been mistreated, and in 1904, while still a member of Freud’s inner circle, he converted to Protestantism. De- spite this conversion, he held no deep religious convictions, and in fact, one of his biographers (Rattner, 1983) regarded him as an agnostic.

Like Freud, Adler had a younger brother who died in infancy. This early expe- rience profoundly affected both men but in vastly different ways. Freud, by his own account, had wished unconsciously for the death of his rival and when the infant Julius did in fact die, Freud was filled with guilt and self-reproach, conditions that continued into his adulthood.

In contrast, Adler would seem to have had a more powerful reason to be trau- matized by the death of his younger brother Rudolf. At age 4, Adler awoke one

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morning to find Rudolf dead in the bed next to his. Rather than being terrified or feeling guilty, Adler saw this experience, along with his own near death from pneu- monia, as a challenge to overcome death. Thus, at age 5, he decided that his goal in life would be to conquer death. Because medicine offered some chance to forestall death, Adler decided at that early age to become a physician (Hoffman, 1994).

Although Freud was surrounded by a large family, including seven younger brothers and sisters, two grown half-brothers, and a nephew and niece about his age, he felt more emotionally attached to his parents, especially his mother, than to these other family members. In contrast, Adler was more interested in social relationships, and his siblings and peers played a pivotal role in his childhood development. Per- sonality differences between Freud and Adler continued throughout adulthood, with Freud preferring intense one-to-one relationships and Adler feeling more comfort- able in group situations. These personality differences were also reflected in their professional organizations. Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and International Psychoanalytic Association were highly structured in pyramid fashion, with an inner circle of six of Freud’s trusted friends forming a kind of oligarchy at the top. Adler, by comparison, was more democratic, often meeting with colleagues and friends in Vienna coffeehouses where they played a piano and sang songs. Adler’s Society for Individual Psychology, in fact, suffered from a loose organization, and Adler had a relaxed attitude toward business details that did not enhance his movement (Ellen- berger, 1970).

Adler attended elementary school with neither difficulty nor distinction. How- ever, when he entered the Gymnasium in preparation for medical school, he did so poorly that his father threatened to remove him from school and apprentice him to a shoemaker (Grey, 1998). As a medical student he once again completed work with no special honors, probably because his interest in patient care conflicted with his professors’ interest in precise diagnoses (Hoffman, 1994). When he received his medical degree near the end of 1895, he had realized his childhood goal of becom- ing a physician.

Because his father had been born in Hungary, Adler was a Hungarian citizen and was thus obliged to serve a tour of military duty in the Hungarian army. He ful- filled that obligation immediately after receiving his medical degree and then re- turned to Vienna for postgraduate study. (Adler became an Austrian citizen in 1911). He began private practice as an eye specialist, but gave up that specialization and turned to psychiatry and general medicine.

Scholars disagree on the first meeting of Adler and Freud (Bottome, 1939; El- lenberger, 1970; Fiebert, 1997; Handlbauer, 1998), but all agree that in the late fall of 1902, Freud invited Adler and three other Viennese physicians to attend a meet- ing in Freud’s home to discuss psychology and neuropathology. This group was known as the Wednesday Psychological Society until 1908, when it became the Vi- enna Psychoanalytic Society. Although Freud led these discussion groups, Adler never considered Freud to be his mentor and believed somewhat naively that he and others could make contributions to psychoanalysis—contributions that would be ac- ceptable to Freud. Although Adler was one of the original members of Freud’s inner circle, the two men never shared a warm personal relationship. Neither man was quick to recognize theoretical differences even after Adler’s 1907 publication of Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation (1907/1917), which

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assumed that physical deficiencies—not sex—formed the foundation for human mo- tivation.

During the next few years, Adler became even more convinced that psycho- analysis should be much broader than Freud’s view of infantile sexuality. In 1911, Adler, who was then president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, presented his views before the group, expressing opposition to the strong sexual proclivities of psychoanalysis and insisting that the drive for superiority was a more basic motive than sexuality. Both he and Freud finally recognized that their differences were ir- reconcilable, and in October of 1911 Adler resigned his presidency and membership in the Psychoanalytic Society. Along with nine other former members of the Freudian circle, he formed the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Study, a name that ir- ritated Freud with its implication that Freudian psychoanalysis was opposed to a free expression of ideas. Adler, however, soon changed the name of his organization to the Society for Individual Psychology—a name that clearly indicated he had aban- doned psychoanalysis.

Like Freud, Adler was affected by events surrounding World War I. Both men had financial difficulties, and both reluctantly borrowed money from relatives— Freud from his brother-in-law Edward Bernays and Adler from his brother Sigmund. Each man also made important changes in his theory. Freud elevated aggression to the level of sex after viewing the horrors of war, and Adler suggested that social in- terest and compassion could be the cornerstones of human motivation. The war years also brought a major disappointment to Adler when his application for an unpaid lec- ture position at the University of Vienna was turned down. Adler wanted this posi- tion to gain another forum for spreading his views, but he also desperately desired to attain the same prestigious position that Freud had held for more than a dozen years. Adler never attained this position, but after the war he was able to advance his theories through lecturing, establishing child guidance clinics, and training teachers.

During the last several years of his life, Adler frequently visited the United States, where he taught individual psychology at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. By 1932, he was a permanent resident of the United States and held the position of Visiting Professor for Medical Psychology at Long Island College of Medicine, now Downstate Medical School, State University of New York. Unlike Freud, who disliked Americans and their superficial understanding of psychoanalysis, Adler was impressed by Americans and admired their optimism and open-mindedness. His popularity as a speaker in the United States during the mid- 1930s had few rivals, and he aimed his last several books toward a receptive Amer- ican market (Hoffman, 1994).

Adler married a fiercely independent Russian woman, Raissa Epstein, in De- cember of 1897. Raissa was an early feminist and much more political than her hus- band. In later years, while Adler lived in New York, she remained mostly in Vienna and worked to promote Marxist-Leninist views that were quite different from Adler’s notion of individual freedom and responsibility. After several years of requests by her husband to move to New York, Raissa finally came to stay in New York only a few months before Adler’s death. Ironically, Raissa, who did not share her husband’s love for America, continued to live in New York until her own death, nearly a quar- ter of a century after Adler had died (Hoffman, 1994).

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Raissa and Alfred had four children: Alexandra and Kurt, who became psy- chiatrists and continued their father’s work; Valentine (Vali), who died as a political prisoner of the Soviet Union in about 1942; and Cornelia (Nelly), who aspired to be an actress.

Adler’s favorite relaxation was music, but he also maintained an active inter- est in art and literature. In his work he often borrowed examples from fairy tales, the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe, and numerous other literary works. He identified him- self closely with the common person, and his manner and appearance were consis- tent with that identification. His patients included a high percentage of people from the lower and middle classes, a rarity among psychiatrists of his time. His personal qualities included an optimistic attitude toward the human condition, an intense competitiveness coupled with friendly congeniality, and a strong belief in the basic gender equality, which combined with a willingness to forcefully advocate women’s rights.

From middle childhood until after his 67th birthday, Adler enjoyed robust health. Then, in the early months of 1937, while concerned with the fate of his daughter Vali who had disappeared somewhere in Moscow, Adler felt chest pains while on a speaking tour in the Netherlands. Ignoring the doctor’s advice to rest, he continued on to Aberdeen, Scotland, where on May 28, 1937, he died of a heart at- tack. Freud, who was 14 years older than Adler, had outlived his longtime adversary. On hearing of Adler’s death, Freud (as quoted in E. Jones, 1957) sarcastically re- marked, “For a Jew boy out of a Viennese suburb a death in Aberdeen is an unheard- of career in itself and a proof of how far he had got on. The world really rewarded him richly for his service in having contradicted psychoanalysis” (p. 208).

Introduction to Adlerian Theory Although Alfred Adler has had a profound effect on such later theorists as Harry Stack Sullivan, Karen Horney, Julian Rotter, Abraham H. Maslow, Carl Rogers, Al- bert Ellis, Rollo May, and others (Mosak & Maniacci, 1999), his name is less well known than that of either Freud or Carl Jung. At least three reasons account for this. First, Adler did not establish a tightly run organization to perpetuate his theories. Second, he was not a particularly gifted writer, and most of his books were compiled by a series of editors using Adler’s scattered lectures. Third, many of his views were incorporated into the works of such later theorists as Maslow, Rogers, and Ellis and thus are no longer associated with Adler’s name.

Although his writings revealed great insight into the depth and complexities of human personality, Adler evolved a basically simple and parsimonious theory. To Adler, people are born with weak, inferior bodies—a condition that leads to feelings of inferiority and a consequent dependence on other people. Therefore, a feeling of unity with others (social interest) is inherent in people and the ultimate standard for psychological health. More specifically, the main tenets of Adlerian theory can be stated in outline form. The following is adapted from a list that represents the final statement of individual psychology (Adler, 1964).

1. The one dynamic force behind people’s behavior is the striving for success or superiority.

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2. People’s subjective perceptions shape their behavior and personality. 3. Personality is unified and self-consistent. 4. The value of all human activity must be seen from the viewpoint of social

interest. 5. The self-consistent personality structure develops into a person’s style of life. 6. Style of life is molded by people’s creative power.

Striving for Success or Superiority The first tenet of Adlerian theory is: The one dynamic force behind people’s behav- ior is the striving for success or superiority.

Adler reduced all motivation to a single drive—the striving for success or su- periority. Adler’s own childhood was marked by physical deficiencies and strong feelings of competitiveness with his older brother. Individual psychology holds that everyone begins life with physical deficiencies that activate feelings of inferiority— feelings that motivate a person to strive for either superiority or success. Psycholog- ically unhealthy individuals strive for personal superiority, whereas psychologically healthy people seek success for all humanity.

Early in his career, Adler believed that aggression was the dynamic power be- hind all motivation, but he soon became dissatisfied with this term. After rejecting aggression as a single motivational force, Adler used the term masculine protest, which implied will to power or a domination of others. However, he soon abandoned masculine protest as a universal drive while continuing to give it a limited role in his theory of abnormal development.

Next, Adler called the single dynamic force striving for superiority. In his final theory, however, he limited striving for superiority to those people who strive for personal superiority over others and introduced the term striving for success to de- scribe actions of people who are motivated by highly developed social interest (Adler, 1956). Regardless of the motivation for striving, each individual is guided by a final goal.

The Final Goal According to Adler (1956), people strive toward a final goal of either personal supe- riority or the goal of success for all humankind. In either case, the final goal is fic- tional and has no objective existence. Nevertheless, the final goal has great signifi- cance because it unifies personality and renders all behavior comprehensible.

Each person has the power to create a personalized fictional goal, one con- structed out of the raw materials provided by heredity and environment. However, the goal is neither genetically nor environmentally determined. Rather, it is the prod- uct of the creative power, that is, people’s ability to freely shape their behavior and create their own personality. By the time children reach 4 or 5 years of age, their cre- ative power has developed to the point that they can set their final goal. Even infants have an innate drive toward growth, completion, or success. Because infants are small, incomplete, and weak, they feel inferior and powerless. To compensate for this deficiency, they set a fictional goal to be big, complete, and strong. Thus, a person’s

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final goal reduces the pain of inferiority feelings and points that person in the direc- tion of either superiority or success.

If children feel neglected or pampered, their goal remains largely unconscious. Adler (1964) hypothesized that children will compensate for feelings of inferiority in devious ways that have no apparent relationship to their fictional goal. The goal of superiority for a pampered girl, for example, may be to make permanent her parasitic relationship with her mother. As an adult, she may appear dependent and self-deprecating, and such behavior may seem inconsistent with a goal of supe- riority. However, it is quite consistent with her unconscious and misunderstood goal of being a parasite that she set at age 4 or 5, a time when her mother appeared large and powerful, and attachment to her became a natural means of attaining superiority.

Conversely, if children experience love and security, they set a goal that is largely conscious and clearly understood. Psychologically secure children strive to- ward superiority defined in terms of success and social interest. Although their goal never becomes completely conscious, these healthy individuals understand and pur- sue it with a high level of awareness.

In striving for their final goal, people create and pursue many preliminary goals. These subgoals are often conscious, but the connection between them and the final goal usually remains unknown. Furthermore, the relationship among prelimi- nary goals is seldom realized. From the point of view of the final goal, however, they fit together in a self-consistent pattern. Adler (1956) used the analogy of the play- wright who builds the characteristics and the subplots of the play according to the final goal of the drama. When the final scene is known, all dialogue and every sub- plot acquire new meaning. When an individual’s final goal is known, all actions make sense and each subgoal takes on new significance.

The Striving Force as Compensation People strive for superiority or success as a means of compensation for feelings of inferiority or weakness. Adler (1930) believed that all humans are “blessed” at birth with small, weak, and inferior bodies. These physical deficiencies ignite feelings of inferiority only because people, by their nature, possess an innate tendency toward completion or wholeness. People are continually pushed by the need to overcome in- feriority feelings and pulled by the desire for completion. The minus and plus situa- tions exist simultaneously and cannot be separated because they are two dimensions of a single force.

The striving force itself is innate, but its nature and direction are due both to feelings of inferiority and to the goal of superiority. Without the innate movement to- ward perfection, children would never feel inferior; but without feelings of inferior- ity, they would never set a goal of superiority or success. The goal, then, is set as compensation for the deficit feeling, but the deficit feeling would not exist unless a child first possessed a basic tendency toward completion (Adler, 1956).

Although the striving for success is innate, it must be developed. At birth it ex- ists as potentiality, not actuality; each person must actualize this potential in his or her own manner. At about age 4 or 5, children begin this process by setting a direc- tion to the striving force and by establishing a goal either of personal superiority or

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of social success. The goal provides guidelines for motivation, shaping psychologi- cal development and giving it an aim.

As a creation of the individual, the goal may take any form. It is not necessar- ily a mirror image of the deficiency, even though it is a compensation for it. For ex- ample, a person with a weak body will not necessarily become a robust athlete but instead may become an artist, an actor, or a writer. Success is an individualized con- cept and all people formulate their own definition of it. Although creative power is swayed by the forces of heredity and environment, it is ultimately responsible for people’s personality. Heredity establishes the potentiality, whereas environment con- tributes to the development of social interest and courage. The forces of nature and nurture can never deprive a person of the power to set a unique goal or to choose a unique style of reaching for the goal (Adler, 1956).

In his final theory, Adler identified two general avenues of striving. The first is the socially nonproductive attempt to gain personal superiority; the second involves social interest and is aimed at success or perfection for everyone.

Striving for Personal Superiority Some people strive for superiority with little or no concern for others. Their goals are personal ones, and their strivings are motivated largely by exaggerated feelings of personal inferiority, or the presence of an inferiority complex. Murder- ers, thieves, and con artists are obvious examples of people who strive for personal gain. Some people create clever disguises for their personal striving and may con- sciously or unconsciously hide their self-centeredness behind the cloak of social concern. A college teacher, for example, may appear to have a great interest in his students because he establishes a personal relationship with many of them. By con- spicuously displaying much sympathy and concern, he encourages vulnerable stu- dents to talk to him about their personal problems. This teacher possesses a private intelligence that allows him to believe that he is the most accessible and dedicated teacher in his college. To a casual observer, he may appear to be motivated by social interest, but his actions are largely self-serving and motivated by overcompensation for his exaggerated feelings of personal superiority.

Striving for Success In contrast to people who strive for personal gain are those psychologically healthy people who are motivated by social interest and the success of all humankind. These healthy individuals are concerned with goals beyond themselves, are capable of helping others without demanding or expecting a personal payoff, and are able to see others not as opponents but as people with whom they can cooperate for social ben- efit. Their own success is not gained at the expense of others but is a natural tendency to move toward completion or perfection.

People who strive for success rather than personal superiority maintain a sense of self, of course, but they see daily problems from the view of society’s develop- ment rather than from a strictly personal vantage point. Their sense of personal worth is tied closely to their contributions to human society. Social progress is more im- portant to them than personal credit (Adler, 1956).

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Subjective Perceptions Adler’s second tenet is: People’s subjective perceptions shape their behavior and personality.

People strive for superiority or success to compensate for feelings of inferior- ity, but the manner in which they strive is not shaped by reality but by their subjec- tive perceptions of reality, that is, by their fictions, or expectations of the future.

Fictionalism Our most important fiction is the goal of superiority or success, a goal we created early in life and may not clearly understand. This subjective, fictional final goal guides our style of life, gives unity to our personality. Adler’s ideas on fictionalism originated with Hans Vaihinger’s book The Philosophy of “As If” (1911/1925). Vai- hinger believed that fictions are ideas that have no real existence, yet they influence people as if they really existed. One example of a fiction might be: “Men are supe- rior to women.” Although this notion is a fiction, many people, both men and women, act as if it were a reality. A second example might be: “Humans have a free will that enables them to make choices.” Again, many people act as if they and others have a free will and are thus responsible for their choices. No one can prove that free will exists, yet this fiction guides the lives of most of us. People are motivated not by what is true but by their subjective perceptions of what is true. A third example of a fic- tion might be a belief in an omnipotent God who rewards good and punishes evil. Such a belief guides the daily lives of millions of people and helps shape many of their actions. Whether true or false, fictions have a powerful influence on people’s lives.

Adler’s emphasis on fictions is consistent with his strongly held teleological view of motivation. Teleology is an explanation of behavior in terms of its final pur- pose or aim. It is opposed to causality, which considers behavior as springing from a specific cause. Teleology is usually concerned with future goals or ends, whereas causality ordinarily deals with past experiences that produce some present effect. Freud’s view of motivation was basically causal; he believed that people are driven by past events that activate present behavior. In contrast, Adler adopted a teleologi- cal view, one in which people are motivated by present perceptions of the future. As fictions, these perceptions need not be conscious or understood. Nevertheless, they bestow a purpose on all of people’s actions and are responsible for a consistent pat- tern that runs throughout their life.

Beyond Biography Why did Adler really break with Freud? For motivations behind the Adler-Freud breakup, see our website at

Physical Inferiorities Because people begin life small, weak, and inferior, they develop a fiction or belief system about how to overcome these physical deficiencies and become big, strong, and superior. But even after they attain size, strength, and superiority, they may act as if they are still small, weak, and inferior.


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Adler (1929/1969) insisted that the whole human race is “blessed” with organ inferiorities. These physical handicaps have little or no importance by themselves but become meaningful when they stimulate subjective feelings of inferiority, which serve as an impetus toward perfection or completion. Some people compensate for these feelings of inferiority by moving toward psychological health and a useful style of life, whereas others overcompensate and are motivated to subdue or retreat from other people.

History provides many examples of people like Demosthenes or Beethoven overcoming a handicap and making significant contributions to society. Adler him- self was weak and sickly as a child, and his illness moved him to overcome death by becoming a physician and by competing with his older brother and with Sigmund Freud.

Adler (1929/1969) emphasized that physical deficiencies alone do not cause a particular style of life; they simply provide present motivation for reaching future goals. Such motivation, like all aspects of personality, is unified and self-consistent.

Unity and Self-Consistency of Personality The third tenet of Adlerian theory is: Personality is unified and self-consistent.

In choosing the term individual psychology, Adler wished to stress his belief that each person is unique and indivisible. Thus, individual psychology insists on the fundamental unity of personality and the notion that inconsistent behavior does not exist. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are all directed toward a single goal and serve a single purpose. When people behave erratically or unpredictably, their behavior forces other people to be on the defensive, to be watchful so as not to be confused by capricious actions. Although behaviors may appear inconsistent, when they are viewed from the perspective of a final goal, they appear as clever but probably un- conscious attempts to confuse and subordinate other people. This confusing and seemingly inconsistent behavior gives the erratic person the upper hand in an inter- personal relationship. Although erratic people are often successful in their attempt to gain superiority over others, they usually remain unaware of their underlying motive and may stubbornly reject any suggestion that they desire superiority over other people.

Adler (1956) recognized several ways in which the entire person operates with unity and self-consistency. The first of these he called organ jargon, or organ dialect.

Organ Dialect According to Adler (1956), the whole person strives in a self-consistent fashion to- ward a single goal, and all separate actions and functions can be understood only as parts of this goal. The disturbance of one part of the body cannot be viewed in iso- lation; it affects the entire person. In fact, the deficient organ expresses the direction of the individual’s goal, a condition known as organ dialect. Through organ di- alect, the body’s organs “speak a language which is usually more expressive and dis- closes the individual’s opinion more clearly than words are able to do” (Adler, 1956, p. 223).

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One example of organ dialect might be a man suffering from rheumatoid arthritis in his hands. His stiff and deformed joints voice his whole style of life. It is as if they cry out, “See my deformity. See my handicap. You can’t expect me to do manual work.” Without an audible sound, his hands speak of his desire for sympathy from others.

Adler (1956) presented another example of organ dialect—the case of a very obedient boy who wet the bed at night to send a message that he does not wish to obey parental wishes. His behavior is “really a creative expression, for the child is speaking with his bladder instead of his mouth” (p. 223).

Conscious and Unconscious A second example of a unified personality is the harmony between conscious and un- conscious actions. Adler (1956) defined the unconscious as that part of the goal that is neither clearly formulated nor completely understood by the individual. With this definition, Adler avoided a dichotomy between the unconscious and the conscious, which he saw as two cooperating parts of the same unified system. Conscious thoughts are those that are understood and regarded by the individual as helpful in striving for success, whereas unconscious thoughts are those that are not helpful.

We cannot oppose “consciousness” to “unconsciousness” as if they were antagonistic halves of an individual’s existence. The conscious life becomes unconscious as soon as we fail to understand it—and as soon as we understand an unconscious tendency it has already become conscious. (Adler, 1929/1964, p. 163)

Whether people’s behaviors lead to a healthy or an unhealthy style of life de- pends on the degree of social interest that they developed during their childhood years.

Social Interest The fourth of Adler’s tenets is: The value of all human activity must be seen from the viewpoint of social interest.

Social interest is Adler’s somewhat misleading translation of his original Ger- man term, Gemeinschaftsgefühl. A better translation might be “social feeling” or “community feeling,” but Gemeinschaftsgefühl actually has a meaning that is not fully expressed by any English word or phrase. Roughly, it means a feeling of one- ness with all humanity; it implies membership in the social community of all peo- ple. A person with well-developed Gemeinschaftsgefühl strives not for personal su- periority but for perfection for all people in an ideal community. Social interest can be defined as an attitude of relatedness with humanity in general as well as an em- pathy for each member of the human community. It manifests itself as cooperation with others for social advancement rather than for personal gain (Adler, 1964).

Social interest is the natural condition of the human species and the adhesive that binds society together (Adler, 1927). The natural inferiority of individuals ne- cessitates their joining together to form a society. Without protection and nourish- ment from a father or mother, a baby would perish. Without protection from the fam- ily or clan, our ancestors would have been destroyed by animals that were stronger,

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more ferocious, or endowed with keener senses. Social interest, therefore, is a ne- cessity for perpetuating the human species.

Origins of Social Interest Social interest is rooted as potentiality in everyone, but it must be developed before it can contribute to a useful style of life. It originates from the mother-child rela- tionship during the early months of infancy. Every person who has survived infancy was kept alive by a mothering person who possessed some amount of social interest. Thus, every person has had the seeds of social interest sown during those early months.

Adler believed that marriage and parenthood is a task for two. However, the two parents may influence a child’s social interest in somewhat different ways. The mother’s job is to develop a bond that encourages the child’s mature social interest and fosters a sense of cooperation. Ideally, she should have a genuine and deep- rooted love for her child—a love that is centered on the child’s well-being, not on her own needs or wants. This healthy love relationship develops from a true caring for her child, her husband, and other people. If the mother has learned to give and re- ceive love from others, she will have little difficulty broadening her child’s social in- terest. But if she favors the child over the father, her child may become pampered and spoiled. Conversely, if she favors her husband or society, the child will feel ne- glected and unloved.

The father is a second important person in a child’s social environment. He must demonstrate a caring attitude toward his wife as well as to other people. The ideal father cooperates on an equal footing with the child’s mother in caring for the child and treating the child as a human being. According to Adler’s (1956) standards, a successful father avoids the dual errors of emotional detachment and paternal

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Both mother and father can contribute powerfully to the developing social interest of their children.



authoritarianism. These errors may represent two attitudes, but they are often found in the same father. Both prevent the growth and spread of social interest in a child. A father’s emotional detachment may influence the child to develop a warped sense of social interest, a feeling of neglect, and possibly a parasitic attachment to the mother. A child who experiences paternal detachment creates a goal of personal superiority rather than one based on social interest. The second error—paternal authoritarian- ism—may also lead to an unhealthy style of life. A child who sees the father as a tyrant learns to strive for power and personal superiority.

Adler (1956) believed that the effects of the early social environment are ex- tremely important. The relationship a child has with the mother and father is so pow- erful that it smothers the effects of heredity. Adler believed that after age 5, the ef- fects of heredity become blurred by the powerful influence of the child’s social environment. By that time, environmental forces have modified or shaped nearly every aspect of a child’s personality.

Importance of Social Interest Social interest was Adler’s yardstick for measuring psychological health and is thus “the sole criterion of human values” (Adler, 1927, p. 167). To Adler, social interest is the only gauge to be used in judging the worth of a person. As the barometer of normality, it is the standard to be used in determining the usefulness of a life. To the degree that people possess social interest, they are psychologically mature. Imma- ture people lack Gemeinschaftsgefühl, are self-centered, and strive for personal power and superiority over others. Healthy individuals are genuinely concerned about people and have a goal of success that encompasses the well-being of all people.

Social interest is not synonymous with charity and unselfishness. Acts of phi- lanthropy and kindness may or may not be motivated by Gemeinschaftsgefühl. A wealthy woman may regularly give large sums of money to the poor and needy, not because she feels a oneness with them, but, quite to the contrary, because she wishes to maintain a separateness from them. The gift implies, “You are inferior, I am su- perior, and this charity is proof of my superiority.” Adler believed that the worth of all such acts can only be judged against the criterion of social interest.

In summary, people begin life with a basic striving force that is activated by ever-present physical deficiencies. These organic weaknesses lead inevitably to feel- ings of inferiority. Thus, all people possess feelings of inferiority, and all set a final goal at around age 4 or 5. However, psychologically unhealthy individuals develop exaggerated feelings of inferiority and attempt to compensate by setting a goal of personal superiority. They are motivated by personal gain rather than by social in- terest, whereas healthy people are motivated by normal feelings of incompleteness and high levels of social interest. They strive toward the goal of success, defined in terms of perfection and completion for everyone. Figure 3.1 illustrates how the in- nate striving force combines with inevitable physical deficiencies to produce univer- sal feelings of inferiority, which can be either exaggerated or normal. Exaggerated feelings of inferiority lead to a neurotic style of life, whereas normal feelings of in- completion result in a healthy style of life. Whether a person forms a useless style of life or a socially useful one depends on how that person views these inevitable feel- ings of inferiority.

Chapter 3 Adler: Individual Psychology 77



Style of Life Adler’s fifth tenet is: The self-consistent personality structure develops into a per- son’s style of life.

Style of life is the term Adler used to refer to the flavor of a person’s life. It in- cludes a person’s goal, self-concept, feelings for others, and attitude toward the world. It is the product of the interaction of heredity, environment, and a person’s creative power. Adler (1956) used a musical analogy to elucidate style of life. The separate notes of a composition are meaningless without the entire melody, but the melody takes on added significance when we recognize the composer’s style or unique manner of expression.

A person’s style of life is fairly well established by age 4 or 5. After that time, all our actions revolve around our unified style of life. Although the final goal is sin- gular, style of life need not be narrow or rigid. Psychologically unhealthy individu- als often lead rather inflexible lives that are marked by an inability to choose new ways of reacting to their environment. In contrast, psychologically healthy people behave in diverse and flexible ways with styles of life that are complex, enriched, and changing. Healthy people see many ways of striving for success and continually seek to create new options for themselves. Even though their final goal remains constant, the way in which they perceive it continually changes. Thus, they can choose new options at any point in life.

People with a healthy, socially useful style of life express their social interest through action. They actively struggle to solve what Adler regarded as the three major problems of life—neighborly love, sexual love, and occupation—and they do so through cooperation, personal courage, and a willingness to make a contribution to the welfare of another. Adler (1956) believed that people with a socially useful style of life represent the highest form of humanity in the evolutionary process and are likely to populate the world of the future.

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FIGURE 3.1 Two Basic Methods of Striving toward the Final Goal.

Personal superiority

Personal gain

Exaggerated feelings


Social interest

Normal feelings of incompletion

Feelings of inferiority

Physical deficiencies

Innate striving force

Final goal dimly perceived

Final goal clearly perceived

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