“It would not be easy to find another author,” wrote Henri Ellenberger in The Discovery of the Unconscious, “from which so much has been borrowed from all sides without acknowledgment than Alfred Adler.” (The Discovery of the Unconscious, Henri Ellenberger)
While Alfred Adler was one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century he is greatly overshadowed by two of his contemporaries – Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Adler’s approach to understanding human behaviour, however, has an appealing aspect which these other two men sometimes lack – he is extremely practical. He relied on a common-sense approach to explain why people behave as they do and how they can best go about changing their behavior to live more flourishing lives. One of the overriding themes of his work is that often the source of our suffering is not to be found in the way life challenges us, but in the solutions we adopt in the face of such challenges, and in this video we will provide an overview of Adler’s psychology in order to flesh out this idea.
According to Adler if we are to understand why a person behaves as they do we must first recognize that humans have a tendency to strive after self-created goals:
“…[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”. (Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature)
Each of us holds a multitude of goals with respect to different aspects of our life. Our choice of these goals, according to Adler, is structured by a higher-order goal called our self-ideal. Our self-ideal represents the ideal type of person we would like to become and its formation begins early in childhood. “How can we best find our place in this world?”, we wonder, and the way we answer this question forms our self-ideal. Our self-ideal, in other words, shapes the course of our life in that it
“points to the future and “pulls” us toward what could be, what might be”. (A Primer of Adlerian Psychology)
Our self-ideal plays a crucial role in our development in that it influences our striving for superiority, which according to Adler is the fundamental drive behind human behavior. We are in other words, naturally driven to improve our perceived lot in life, to gain a more advantageous position. Or as Adler put it, “the material of life has been constantly bent on reaching a plus from a minus situation” (Alfred Adler, Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind). While the striving for superiority is innate, the specific manifestations of this striving are determined by the content of our self-ideal. We strive for superiority, in other words, by seeking to actualize our self-ideal.
As we go through life we learn what type of behaviours and thought-patterns move us closer to our self-ideal, and which hinder us. In the process we develop what Adler called our life style which “is the subjective, unarticulated set of guidelines individuals develop and use to move them through life and toward their goals.” (A Primer of Adlerian Psychology) Adler was insistent that we cannot, in an a priori manner, judge a life style as healthy or unhealthy, normal or abnormal. Rather we can only observe it in action and see what success it brings.
“For Adler, there was no “normal” life style. Every life style was adequate, until life presented it with a task for which it was not prepared; it was at those times that its “weak points” emerged.” (Harold Mosak and Michael Maniacci, A Primer of Adlerian Psychology)
The “weak points” of our life style frustrate us in our pursuit of superiority and trigger feelings of inferiority. Feelings of inferiority are based on the subjective evaluations we make of ourselves, or the conclusions we draw, with respect to our ability to reach our goals. Inferiority feelings are often triggered by what are called objective inferiorities, which are inferiorities that are based on some measurable criteria in comparison with another. For example, we may be objectively inferior in terms of our strength or height, the amount of money we earn, or our skill level at a certain activity. An objective inferiority, however, only triggers feelings of inferiority if it is somehow important to our striving after superiority. If, for example, someone is poor, but money is not an important part of their self-ideal, their lack of wealth will not trigger inferiority feelings. On the other hand, Feelings of inferiority can arise in the absence of objective inferiorities. Very often people perceive themselves to be inferior in ways which have no basis in reality.
How we react, and adapt, to our inferiorities strongly impacts our psychological health and the overall quality of our life. Adler suggested there are two primary ways people deal with feelings of inferiority. Either we see the circumstances which produce them as challenges to be confronted and so make use of coping behaviors, or we view them as problems to be avoided and resort to safeguarding behaviors.
Coping behaviors can be divided into two types, direct problem solving and compensation. When we believe we can directly address the cause of our inferiority feelings we adopt a problem-solving approach. If we lose our job, we look for another, if our skills are inadequate in a certain endeavour, we spend time improving them. If on the other hand direct problem solving is impossible we may resort to the coping behaviour called compensation. We look for ways to make up for our inferiority by excelling in a manner which can compensate for our deficit. For example, someone who loses their hearing may compensate by cultivating the ability to read lips.
Many people, however, are unwilling to address their issues in this manner and so turn to safeguarding behaviours. Safeguarding behaviors are used in the attempt to convince oneself and others, that the reason they have failed to address their inferiorities and moved closer to their goals is because certain obstacles, which they claim lie outside of their control, are impeding their progress. Adler likened safeguarding behaviors to the side shows seen at a circus as they are used to distract attention away from the most pressing issues of one’s life, and to direct it instead to issues which are relatively trivial.
Safeguarding behaviours take a variety of forms. Some people develop physical issues, such as headaches, or chronic tiredness, which are then used as excuses for why they cannot face up to their challenges. Others develop anxiety disorders which are used in a similar manner; they use their fears as a justification for why they cannot take the actions needed to move them closer to their goals. At other times, instead of relying on excuses and symptoms, people turn to the safeguarding behaviour that Adler called distance seeking. This entails procrastination, or only taking the tiniest of steps forward before falling back into one’s comfort zone.
While we all make use of safeguarding behaviours to one degree or another, problems arise when the use of them goes on for too long. For as Ellenberger noted in The Discovery of the Unconscious, Adler saw those who rely on safeguarding behaviours as “pitiful individual[s] who made use of transparent tricks in order to escape…life[s] duties.” (The Discovery of the Unconscious, Henri Ellenberger) Safeguarding behaviours eventually lose their effectiveness. We can only rely on certain excuses for so long before others see through them. When this happens, we have two options we can begin to address our issues head on, or we can completely withdraw from the challenge thus developing what Adler called an inferiority complex.
To avoid this fate, we must cease relying on safeguarding behaviors and learn to directly face up to our challenges. Adler believed that sometimes the reason people struggle to do this is because they have adopted a self-ideal which unconducive to a healthy existence. Perhaps our self-ideal is overly-perfectionist, or too reliant on the pursuit of such things as wealth, status, power, fame, or beauty. In other words, our self-ideal is so unrealistic that we are forever thwarted in our attempts to achieve our goals and so we resort to safeguarding behaviours not knowing what else to do. Therefore, becoming more aware of what we are striving for, and adjusting our self-ideal if necessary, is a crucial step toward self-improvement.
In the end however, even with a more realistic self-ideal, we will only change if we learn to be more courageous. Adler believed that the most basic concern of psychotherapy should simply be to help people cultivate a more courageous attitude toward life.
“Courage,” wrote Adler “is not an ability one either possesses or lacks. Courage is the willingness to engage in a risk-taking behavior regardless of whether the consequences are unknown or possibly adverse. We are capable of courageous behavior provided we are willing to engage in it.” (Alfred Adler)
Given that we cannot expect life to cease challenging us, we have a choice, either we cultivate a courageous attitude, and learn to co-exist with the uncertainty and discomfort this will invite into our life, or we doom ourselves to waste away our days receding further and further into the misery of our comfort zone.