I would like to introduce Alfred Adler by talking about someone
Adler never knew: Theodore Roosevelt. Born to Martha and Theodore
Senior in Manhattan on October 27, 1858, he was said to be a particularly
beautiful baby who needed no help entering his new world. His
parents were strong, intelligent, handsome, and quite well-to-do.
It should have been an idyllic childhood
But "Teedie," as he was called, was not as healthy as he first
appeared. He had severe asthma, and tended to catch colds easily,
develop coughs and fevers, and suffer from nausea and diarrhea.
He was small and thin. His voice was reedy, and remained so even
in adulthood. He became malnourished and was often forced by his
asthma to sleep sitting up in chairs. Several times, he came dangerously
close to dying from lack of oxygen.
Not to paint too negative a picture, Teedie was an active boy
-- some would say over-active -- and had a fantastic personality.
He was full of curiosity about nature and would lead expeditions
of cousins to find mice, squirrels, snakes, frogs, and anything
else that could be dissected or pickled. His repeated confinement
when his asthma flared up turned him to books, which he devoured
throughout his life. He may have been sickly, but he certainly
had a desire to live!
After traveling through Europe with his family, his health became
worse. He had grown taller but no more muscular. Finally, with
encouragement from the family doctor, Roosevelt Senior encouraged
the boy, now twelve, to begin lifting weights. Like anything else
he tackled, he did this enthusiastically. He got healthier, and
for the first time in his life got through a whole month without
an attack of asthma.
When he was thirteen, he became aware of another defect of his:
When he found that he couldn't hit anything with the rifle his
father had given him. When friends read a billboard to him --
he didn't realize it had writing on it -- it was discovered that
he was terribly nearsighted!
In the same year, he was sent off to the country on his own after
a bad attack of asthma. On the way, he was waylaid by a couple
of other boys his own age. He found that not only couldn't he
defend himself, he couldn't even lay a hand on them. He later
announced to his father his intention to learn to box. By the
time he went to Harvard, he was not only a healthier Teddy Roosevelt,
but was a regular winner of a variety of athletic contests.
The rest, as they say, is history. "Teedie" Roosevelt went on
to become a successful New York assemblyman, North Dakota cowboy,
New York commissioner of police, Assistant secretary of the Navy,
lieutenant colonel of the "Rough Riders," the Governor of New
York, and best-selling author, all by the age of forty. With the
death of President William McKinley in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt
became the youngest president of the United States.
How is it that someone so sickly should become so healthy, vigorous,
and successful? Why is it that some children, sickly or not, thrive,
while others wither away? Is the drive that Roosevelt had peculiar
to him, or is it something that lies in each of us? These kinds
of questions intrigued a young Viennese physician named Alfred
Adler, and led him to develop his theory, called Individual
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
Alfred was an average student and preferred playing outdoors
to being cooped up in school. He was quite outgoing, popular,
and active, and was known for his efforts at outdoing his older
He received a medical degree from the University of Vienna in
1895. During his college years, he became attached to a group
of socialist students, among which he found his wife-to-be, Raissa
Timofeyewna Epstein. She was an intellectual and social activist
who had come from Russia to study in Vienna. They married in 1897
and eventually had four children, two of whom became psychiatrists.
He began his medical career as an opthamologist, but he soon
switched to general practice, and established his office in a
lower-class part of Vienna, across from the Prader, a combination
amusement park and circus. His clients included circus people,
and it has been suggested (Furtmuller, 1964) that the unusual
strengths and weaknesses of the performers led to his insights
into organ inferiorities and compensation.
He then turned to psychiatry, and in 1907 was invited to join
Freud's discussion group. After writing papers on organic inferiority,
which were quite compatible with Freud's views, he wrote, first,
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 thought turned
increasingly to he concept of social interest. He felt
that if humanity was to survive, it had to change its ways!
After the war, he was involved in various projects, including
clinics attached to state schools and the training of teachers.
In 1926, he went to the United States to lecture, and he eventually
accepted a visiting position at the Long Island College of Medicine.
In 1934, he and his family left Vienna forever. On May 28, 1937,
during a series of lectures at Aberdeen University, he died of
a heart attack.
Alfred Adler postulates a single "drive" or motivating force
behind all our behavior and experience. By the time his theory
had gelled into its most mature form, he called that motivating
force the striving for perfection. It is the desire we
all have to fulfill our potentials, to come closer and closer
to our ideal. It is, as many of you will already see, very similar
to the more popular idea of self-actualization.
"Perfection" and "ideal" are troublesome words, though. On the
one hand, they are very positive goals. Shouldn't we all be striving
for the ideal? And yet, in psychology, they are often given a
rather negative connotation. Perfection and ideals are, practically
by definition, things you can't reach. Many people, in fact, live
very sad and painful lives trying to be perfect! As you will see,
other theorists, like Karen Horney and Carl Rogers, emphasize
this problem. Adler talks about it, too. But he sees this negative
kind of idealism as a perversion of the more positive understanding.
We will return to this in a little while.
Striving for perfection was not the first phrase Adler used to
refer to his single motivating force. His earliest phrase was
the aggression drive, referring to the reaction we have
when other drives, such as our need to eat, be sexually satisfied,
get things done, or be loved, are frustrated. It might be better
called the assertiveness drive, since we tend to think of aggression
as physical and negative. But it was Adler's idea of the aggression
drive that first caused friction between him and Freud. Freud
was afraid that it would detract from the crucial position of
the sex drive in psychoanalytic theory. Despite Freud's dislike
for the idea, he himself introduced something very similar much
later in his life: the death instinct.
Another word Adler used to refer to basic motivation was compensation,
or striving to overcome. Since we all have problems, short-comings,
inferiorities of one sort or another, Adler felt, earlier in his
writing, that our personalities could be accounted for by the
ways in which we do -- or don't -- compensate or overcome those
problems. The idea still plays an important role in his theory,
as you will see, but he rejected it as a label for the basic motive
because it makes it sound as if it is your problems that cause
you to be what you are.
One of Adler's earliest phrases was masculine protest.
He noted something pretty obvious in his culture (and by no means
absent from our own): Boys were held in higher esteem than girls.
Boys wanted, often desperately, to be thought of as strong, aggressive,
in control -- i.e. "masculine" -- and not weak, passive, or dependent
-- i.e. "feminine." The point, of course, was that men are somehow
basically better than women. They do, after all, have the power,
the education, and apparently the talent and motivation needed
to do "great things," and women don't.
You can still hear this in the kinds of comments older people
make about little boys and girls: If a baby boy fusses or demands
to have his own way (masculine protest!), they will say he's a
natural boy; If a little girl is quiet and shy, she is praised
for her femininity; If, on the other hand, the boy is quiet and
shy, they worry that he might grow up to be a sissy; Or if a girl
is assertive and gets her way, they call her a "tomboy" and will
try to reassure you that she'll grow out of it!
But Adler did not see men's assertiveness and success in the
world as due to some innate superiority. He saw it as a reflection
of the fact that boys are encouraged to be assertive in life,
and girls are discouraged. Both boys and girls, however, begin
life with the capacity for "protest!" Because so many people misunderstood
him to mean that men are, innately, more assertive, lead him to
limit his use of the phrase.
The last phrase he used, before switching to striving for perfection,
was striving for superiority. His use of this phrase reflects
one of the philosophical roots of his ideas: Friederich Nietzsche
developed a philosophy that considered the will to power the basic
motive of human life. Although striving for superiority does refer
to the desire to be better, it also contains the idea that we
want to be better than others, rather than better in our own right.
Adler later tended to use striving for superiority more in reference
to unhealthy or neurotic striving.
A lot of this playing with words reflects Adler's groping towards
a really different kind of personality theory than that represented
by Freud's. Freud' theory was what we nowadays would call a reductionistic
one: He tried most of his life to get the concepts down to the
physiological level. although he admitted failure in the end,
life is nevertheless explained in terms of basic physiological
needs. In addition, Freud tended to "carve up" the person into
smaller theoretical concepts -- the id, ego, and superego -- as
Adler was influenced by the writings of Jan Smuts, the South
African philosopher and statesman. Smuts felt that, in order to
understand people, we have to understand them more as unified
wholes than as a collection of bits and pieces, and we have to
understand them in the context of their environment, both physical
and social. This approach is called holism, and Adler took
it very much to heart.
First, to reflect the idea that we should see people as wholes
rather than parts, he decided to label his approach to psychology
individual psychology. The word individual means literally
Second, instead of talking about a person's personality, with
the traditional sense of internal traits, structures, dynamics,
conflicts, and so on, he preferred to talk about style of life
(nowadays, "lifestyle"). Life style refers to how you live your
life, how you handle problems and interpersonal relations. Here's
what he himself had to say about it: "The style of life of a tree
is the individuality of a tree expressing itself and molding itself
in an environment. We recognize a style when we see it against
a background of an environment different from what we expect,
for then we realize that every tree has a life pattern and is
not merely a mechanical reaction to the environment."
The last point -- that lifestyle is "not merely a mechanical
reaction" -- is a second way in which Adler differs dramatically
from Freud. For Freud, the things that happened in the past, such
as early childhood trauma, determine what you are like in the
present. Adler sees motivation as a matter of moving towards the
future, rather than being driven, mechanistically, by the past.
We are drawn towards our goals, our purposes, our ideals. This
is called teleology.
Moving things from the past into the future has some dramatic
effects. Since the future is not here yet, a teleological approach
to motivation takes the necessity out of things. In a traditional
mechanistic approach, cause leads to effect: If a, b, and c happen,
then x, y, and z must, of necessity, happen. But you don't have
to reach your goals or meet your ideals, and they can change along
the way. Teleology acknowledges that life is hard and uncertain,
but it always has room for change!
Another major influence on Adler's thinking was the philosopher
Hans Vaihinger, who wrote a book called The Philosophy of "As
If." Vaihinger believed that ultimate truth would always be
beyond us, but that, for practical purposes, we need to create
partial truths. His main interest was science, so he gave as examples
such partial truths as protons an electrons, waves of light, gravity
as distortion of space, and so on. Contrary to what many of us
non-scientists tend to assume, these are not things that anyone
has seen or proven to exist: They are useful constructs. They
work for the moment, let us do science, and hopefully will lead
to better, more useful constructs. We use them "as if" they were
true. He called these partial truths fictions.
Vaihinger, and Adler, pointed out that we use these fictions
in day to day living as well. We behave as if we knew the world
would be here tomorrow, as if we were sure what good and bad are
all about, as if everything we see is as we see it, and so on.
Adler called this fictional finalism. You can understand
the phrase most easily if you think about an example: Many people
behave as if there were a heaven or a hell in their personal future.
Of course, there may be a heaven or a hell, but most of us don't
think of this as a proven fact. That makes it a "fiction" in Vaihinger's
and Adler's sense of the word. And finalism refers to the teleology
of it: The fiction lies in the future, and yet influences our
Adler added that, at the center of each of our lifestyles, there
sits one of these fictions, an important one about who we are
and where we are going.
Second in importance only to striving for perfection is the idea
of social interest or social feeling (originally called
Gemeinschaftsgefuhl or "community feeling"). In keeping
with his holism, it is easy to see that anyone "striving for perfection"
can hardly do so without considering his or her social environment.
As social animals, we simply don't exist, much less thrive, without
others, and even the most resolute people-hater forms that hatred
in a social context!
Adler felt that social concern was not simply inborn, nor just
learned, but a combination of both: It is based on an innate disposition,
but it has to be nurtured to survive. That it is to some extent
innate is shown by the way babies and small children often show
sympathy for others without having been taught to do so. Notice
how, when one baby in a nursery begins to cry, they all begin
to cry. Or how, when we walk into a room where people are laughing,
we ourselves begin to smile.
And yet, right along with the examples of how generous little
children can be to others, we have examples of how selfish and
cruel they can be. Although we instinctively seem to know that
what hurts him can hurt me, and vice versa, we also instinctively
seem to know that, if we have to choose between it hurting him
and it hurting me, we'll take "hurting him" every time! So the
tendency to empathize must be supported by parents and the culture
at large. Even if we disregard the possibilities of conflict between
my needs and yours, empathy involves feeling the pain of others,
an in a hard world, that can quickly become overwhelming. Much
easier to just "toughen up" and ignore that unpleasant empathy
-- unless society steps in on empathy's behalf!
One misunderstanding Adler wanted to avoid was the idea that
social interest was somehow another version of extraversion. Americans
in particular tend to see social concern as a matter of being
open and friendly and slapping people on the back and calling
them by their first names. Some people may indeed express their
social concern this way; But other people just use that kind of
behavior to further their own ends. Adler meant social concern
or feeling not in terms of particular social behaviors, but in
the much broader sense of caring for family, for community, for
society, for humanity, even for life. Social concern is a matter
of being useful to others.
On the other hand, a lack of social concern is, for Adler, the
very definition of mental ill-health: All failures -- neurotics,
psychotics, criminals, drunkards, problem children, suicides,
perverts, and prostitutes -- are failures because they are lacking
in social interest.... Their goal of success is a goal of personal
superiority, and their triumphs have meaning only to themselves.
Here we are, all of us, "pulled" towards fulfillment, perfection,
self-actualization. And yet some of us -- the failures -- end
up terribly unfulfilled, baldly imperfect, and far from self-actualized.
And all because we lack social interest, or, to put it in the
positive form, because we are too self-interested. So what makes
so many of us self-interested?
Adler says it's a matter of being overwhelmed by our inferiority.
If you are moving along, doing well, feeling competent, you can
afford to think of others. If you are not, if life is getting
the best of you, then your attentions become increasingly focussed
Obviously, everyone suffers from inferiority in one form or another.
For example, Adler began his theoretical work considering organ
inferiority, that is, the fact that each of us has weaker,
as well as stronger, parts of our anatomy or physiology. Some
of us are born with heart murmurs, or develop heart problems early
in life; Some have weak lungs, or kidneys, or early liver problems;
Some of us stutter or lisp; Some have diabetes, or asthma, or
polio; Some have weak eyes, or poor hearing, or a poor musculature;
Some of us have innate tendencies to being heavy, others to being
skinny; Some of us are retarded, some of us are deformed; Some
of us are terribly tall or terribly short; And so on and so on.
Adler noted that many people respond to these organic inferiorities
with compensation. They make up for their deficiencies
in some way: The inferior organ can be strengthened and even become
stronger than it is in others; Or other organs can be overdeveloped
to take up the slack; Or the person can psychologically compensate
for the organic problem by developing certain skills or even certain
personality styles. There are, as you well know, many examples
of people who overcame great physical odds to become what those
who are better endowed physically wouldn't even dream of!
Sadly, there are also many people who cannot handle their difficulties,
and live lives of quiet despair. I would guess that our optimistic,
up-beat society serious underestimates their numbers.
But Adler soon saw that this is only part of the picture. Even
more people have psychological inferiorities. Some of as
are told that we are dumb, or ugly, or weak. Some of us come to
believe we are just plain no good. In school, we are tested over
and over, and given grades that tell us we aren't as good as the
next person. Or we are demeaned for our pimples or our bad posture
and find ourselves without friends or dates. Or we are forced
into basketball games, where we wait to see which team will be
stuck with us. In these examples, it's not a matter of true organic
inferiority -- we are not really retarded or deformed or weak
-- but we lean to believe hat we are. Again, some compensate by
becoming good at what we feel inferior about. More compensate
by becoming good at something else, but otherwise retaining our
sense of inferiority. And some just never develop any self esteem
If the preceding hasn't hit you personally yet, Adler also noted
an even more general form of inferiority: The natural inferiority
of children. all children are, by nature, smaller, weaker, less
socially and intellectually competent, than the adults around
them. Adler suggested that, if we look at children's games, toys,
and fantasies, they tend to have one thing in common: The desire
to grow up, to be big, to be an adult. This kind of compensation
is really identical with striving for perfection! Many children,
however, are left with the feeling that other people will always
be better than they are.
If you are overwhelmed by the forces of inferiority -- whether
it is your body hurting, the people around you holding you in
contempt, or just the general difficulties of growing up -- you
develop an inferiority complex. Looking back on my own
childhood, I can see several sources for later inferiority complexes:
Physically, I've tended to be heavy, with some real "fat boy"
stages along the way; Also, because I was born in Holland, I didn't
grow up with the skills of baseball, football, and basketball
in my genes; Finally, my artistically talented parents often left
me -- unintentionally -- with the feeling that I'd never be as
good as they were. So, as I grew up, I became shy and withdrawn,
and concentrated on the only thing I was good at, school. It took
a long time for me to realize my self-worth.
If you weren't "super-nerd," you may have had one of the most
common inferiority complexes I've come across: "Math phobia!"
Perhaps it started because you could never remember what seven
times eight was. Every year, there was some topic you never quite
got the hang of. Every year, you fell a little further behind.
And then you hit the crisis point: Algebra. How could you be expected
to know what "x" is when you still didn't know what seven times
Many, many people truly believe that they are not meant to do
math, that they are missing that piece of their brains or something.
I'd like to tell you here and now that anyone can do math, if
they are taught properly and when they are really ready. That
aside, you've got to wonder how many people have given up being
scientists, teachers, business people, or even going to college,
because of this inferiority complex.
But the inferiority complex is not just a little problem, it's
a neurosis, meaning it's a life-size problem. You become
shy and timid, insecure, indecisive, cowardly, submissive, compliant,
and so on. You begin to rely on people to carry you along, even
manipulating them into supporting you: "You think I'm smart /
pretty / strong / sexy / good, don't you?" Eventually, you become
a drain on them, and you may find yourself by yourself. Nobody
can take all that self-centered whining for long!
There is another way in which people respond to inferiority besides
compensation and the inferiority complex: You can also develop
a superiority complex. The superiority complex involves
covering up your inferiority by pretending to be superior. If
you feel small, one way to feel big is to make everyone else feel
even smaller! Bullies, braggarts, 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. etc. Even more subtle still
are the people who hide their feelings of worthlessness in the
delusions of power afforded by alcohol and drugs.
Although all neurosis is, for Adler, a matter of insufficient
social interest, he did note that three types could be distinguished
based on the different levels of energy they involved:
The first is the ruling type. They are, from childhood
on, characterized by a tendency to be rather aggressive and dominant
over others. Their energy -- the strength of their striving after
personal power -- is so great that they tend to push over anything
or anybody who gets in their way. The most energetic of them are
bullies and sadists; somewhat less energetic ones hurt others
by hurting themselves, and include alcoholics, drug addicts, and
The second is the leaning type. They are sensitive people
who have developed a shell around themselves which protects them,
but they must rely on others to carry them through life's difficulties.
They have low energy levels and so become dependent. When overwhelmed,
they develop what we typically think of as neurotic symptoms:
phobias, obsessions and compulsions, general anxiety, hysteria,
amnesias, and so on, depending on individual details of their
The third type is the avoiding type. These have the lowest
levels of energy and only survive by essentially avoiding life
-- especially other people. When pushed to the limits, they tend
to become psychotic, retreating finally into their own personal
There is a fourth type as well: the socially useful type.
This is the healthy person, one who has both social interest and
energy. Note that without energy, you can't really have social
interest, since you wouldn't be able to actually do anything for
Adler noted that his four types looked very much like the four
types proposed by the ancient Greeks. They, too, noticed that
some people are always sad, others always angry, and so on. But
they attributed these temperaments (from the same root as temperature)
to the relative presence of four bodily fluids called humors.
If you had too much yellow bile, you would be choleric (hot
and dry) and angry all the time. The choleric is, roughly, the
If you had too much phlegm, you would be phlegmatic (cold
and wet) and be sluggish. This is roughly the leaning type.
If you had too much black bile -- and we don't know what the
Greeks were referring to here -- you would be melancholy (cold
and dry) and tend to be sad constantly. This is roughly the avoiding
And, if you had a lot of blood relative to the other humors,
you be in a good humor, sanguine (warm and moist). This
naturally cheerful and friendly person represents the socially
One word of warning about Adler's types: Adler believed very
strongly that each person is a unique individual with his or her
own unique lifestyle. The idea of types is, for him, only a heuristic
device, meaning a useful fiction, not an absolute reality!
Adler, like Freud, saw personality or lifestyle as something
established quite early in life. In fact, the prototype of
your lifestyle tends to be fixed by about five years old. New
experiences, rather than change that prototype, tend to be interpreted
in terms of the prototype, "force fit," in other words, into preconceived
notions, just like new acquaintances tend to get "force fit" into
Adler felt that there were three basic childhood situations that
most contribute to a faulty lifestyle. The first is one we've
spoken of several times: organ inferiorities, as well as early
childhood diseases. They are what he called "overburdened," and
if someone doesn't come along to draw their attention to others,
they will remain focussed on themselves. Most will go through
life with a strong sense of inferiority; A few will overcompensate
with a superiority complex. Only with the encouragement of loved
ones will some truly compensate.
The second is pampering. Many children are taught, by
the actions of others, that they can take without giving. Their
wishes are everyone else's commands. This may sound like a wonderful
situation, until you realize that the pampered child fails in
two ways: First, he doesn't learn to do for himself, and discovers
later that he is truly inferior; And secondly, he doesn't learn
any other way to deal with others than the giving of commands.
And society responds to pampered people in only one way: hatred.
The third is neglect. A child who is neglected or abused
learns what the pampered child learns, but learns it in a far
more direct manner: They learn inferiority because they are told
and shown every day tat they are of no value; They learn selfishness
because they are taught to trust no one. If you haven't known
love, you don't develop a capacity for it later. We should note
that the neglected child includes not only orphans and the victims
of abuse, but the children whose parents are never there, and
the ones raised in a rigid, authoritarian manner.
Adler must be credited as the first theorist to include not only
a child's mother and father and other adults as early influence
on the child, but the child's brothers and sisters as well. His
consideration of the effects of siblings and the order in which
they were born is probably what Adler is best-known for. I have
to warn you, though, that Adler considered birth-order another
one of those heuristic ideas -- useful fictions -- that contribute
to understanding people, but must be not be taken too seriously.
The only child is more likely than others to be pampered,
with all the ill results we've discussed. After all, the parents
of the only child have put all their eggs in one basket, so to
speak, and are more likely to take special care -- sometimes anxiety-filled
care -- of their pride and joy. If the parents are abusive, on
the other hand, the only child will have to bear that abuse alone.
The first child begins life as an only child, with all
the attention to him- or herself. Sadly, just as things are getting
comfortable, the second child arrives and "dethrones" the
first. At first, the child may battle for his or her lost position.
He or she might try acting like the baby -- after all, it seems
to work for the baby! -- only to be rebuffed and told to grow
up. Some become disobedient and rebellious, others sullen and
withdrawn. Adler believes that first children are more likely
than nay other to become problem children. More positively, first
children are often precocious. They tend to be relatively solitary
and more conservative than the other children in the family.
The second child is in a very different situation: He
or she has the first child as a sort of "pace-setter," and tends
to become quite competitive, constantly trying to surpass the
older child. They often succeed, but many feel as if the race
is never done, and they tend to dream of constant running without
getting anywhere. Other "middle" children will tend to be similar
to the second child, although each may focus on a different "competitor."
The youngest child is likely to be the most pampered in
a family with more than one child. After all, he or she is the
only one who is never dethroned! And so youngest children are
the second most likely source of problem children, just behind
first children. On the other hand, the youngest may also feel
incredible inferiority, with everyone older and "therefore" superior.
But, with all those "pace-setters" ahead, the youngest can also
be driven to exceed all of them.
Who is a first, second, or youngest child isn't as obvious as
it might seem. If there is a long stretch between children, they
may not see themselves and each other the same way as if they
were closer together. There are eight years between my first and
second daughter and three between the second and the third: That
would make my first daughter an only child, my second a first
child, and my third the second and youngest! And if some of the
children are boys and some girls, it makes a difference as well.
A second child who is a girl might not take her older brother
as someone to compete with; A boy in a family of girls may feel
more like the only child; And so on. As with everything in Adler's
system, birth order is to be understood in the context of the
individual's own special circumstances.
In order to help you to discover the "fictions" your lifestyle
is based upon, Adler would look at a great variety of things --
your birth-order position, for example. First, he might examine
you and your medical history for any possible organic roots to
your problem. A serious illness, for example, may have side effects
that closely resemble neurotic and psychotic symptoms.
In your very first session with you, he might ask for your earliest
childhood memory. He is not so much looking for the truth
here as for an indication of that early prototype of your present
lifestyle. If your earliest memory involves security and a great
deal of attention, that might indicate pampering; If you recall
some aggressive competition with your older brother, that might
suggest the strong strivings of a second child and the "ruling"
type of personality; If your memory involves neglect and hiding
under the sink, it might mean severe inferiority and avoidance;
And so on.
He might also ask about any childhood problems you may have had:
Bad habits involving eating or the bathroom might indicate ways
in which you controlled your parents; Fears, such as a fear of
the dark or of being left alone, might suggest pampering; Stuttering
is likely to mean that speech was associated with anxiety; Overt
aggression and stealing may be signs of a superiority complex;
Daydreaming, isolation, laziness, and lying may be various ways
of avoiding facing one's inferiorities.
Like Freud and Jung, dreams (and daydreams) were important to
Adler. He took a more direct approach to them, though: Dreams
are an expression of your style of life and, far from contradicting
your daytime feelings, are unified with your conscious life. Usually,
they reflect the goals you have and the problems you face in reaching
them. If you can't remember any dreams, Adler isn't put off: Go
ahead and fantasize right then and there. Your fantasies will
reflect your lifestyle just as well.
Adler would also pay attention to how you express yourself: Your
posture, the way you shake hands, the gestures you use, how you
move, your "body language," as we say today. He notes that pampered
people often lean against something! Even your sleep postures
may contribute some insight: A person who sleeps in the fetal
position with the covers over his or her head is clearly different
from one who sprawls over the entire bed completely uncovered!
He would also want to know the exogenous factors, the events
that triggered the symptoms that concern you. He gives a number
of common triggers: Sexual problems, like uncertainty, guilt,
the first time, impotence, and so on; The problems women face,
such as pregnancy and childbirth and he onset and end of menstruation;
Your love life, dating, engagement, marriage, and divorce; Your
work life, including school, exams, career decisions, and the
job itself; And mortal danger or the loss of a loved one.
Last, and not least, Adler was open to the less rational and
scientific, more art-like side of diagnosis: He suggested we not
ignore empathy, intuition, and just plain guess-work!
There are considerable differences between Adler's therapy and
Freud's: First, Adler preferred to have everyone sitting up and
talking face to face. Further, he went to great lengths to avoid
appearing to authoritarian. In fact, he advised that the therapist
never allow the patient to force him into the role of an authoritarian
figure, because that allows the patient to play some of the same
games he or she is likely to have played many times before: The
patient may set you up as a savior, only to attack you when you
inevitably reveal your humanness. By pulling you down, they feel
as if they are raising themselves, with their neurotic lifestyles,
This is essentially the explanation Adler gave for resistance:
When a patient forgets appointments, comes in late, demands special
favors, or generally becomes stubborn and uncooperative, it is
not, as Freud thought, a matter of repression. Rather, resistance
is just a sign of the patient's lack of courage to give up their
The patient must come to understand the nature of his or her
lifestyle and its roots in self-centered fictions. This understanding
or insight cannot be forced: If you just tell someone "look, here
is your problem!" he or she will only pull away from you and look
for ways of bolstering their present fictions. Instead, A patient
must be brought into such a state of feeling that he likes to
listen, and wants to understand. Only then can he be influenced
to live what he has understood. (Ansbacher and Ansbacher, 1956,
p. 335.) It is the patient, not the therapist, who is ultimately
responsible for curing him- or herself.
Finally, the therapist must encourage the patient, which means
awakening his or her social interest, and the energy that goes
with it. By developing a genuine human relationship with the patient,
the therapist provides the basic form of social interest, which
the patient can then transfer to others.
Although Adler's theory may be less interesting than Freud's,
with its sexuality, or Jung's, with its mythology, it has probably
struck you as the most common-sensical of the three. Students
generally like Adler and his theory. In fact, quite a few personality
theorists like him, too. Maslow, for example, once said that,
the older he gets, the more right Adler seems. If you have some
knowledge of Carl Rogers' brand of therapy, you may have noticed
how similar it is to Adler's. And a number of students of personality
theories have noted that the theorists called Neo-Freudians --
Horney, Fromm, and Sullivan -- should really have been called
And so the "positives" of Adler's theory don't really need to
be listed: His clear descriptions of people's complaints, his
straight-forward and common-sense interpretations of their problems,
his simple theoretical structure, his trust and even affection
for the common person, all make his theory both comfortable and
Criticisms of Adler tend to involve the issue of whether or not,
or to what degree, his theory is scientific. The mainstream of
psychology today is experimentally oriented, which means, among
other things, that the concepts a theory uses must be measurable
and manipulable. This in turn means that an experimental orientation
prefers physical or behavioral variables. Adler, as you saw, uses
basic concepts that are far from physical and behavioral: Striving
for perfection? How do you measure that? Or compensation? Or feelings
of inferiority? Or social interest? The experimental method also
makes a basic assumption: That all things operate in terms of
cause and effect. Adler would certainly agree that physical things
do so, but he would adamantly deny that people do! Instead, he
takes the teleological route, that people are "determined" by
their ideals, goals, values, "final fictions." Teleology takes
the necessity out of things: A person doesn't have to respond
a certain way to a certain circumstance; A person has choices
to make; A person creates his or her own personality or lifestyle.
From the experimental perspective, these things are illusions
that a scientist, even a personality theorist, dare not give in
Even if you are open to the teleological approach, though, there
are criticisms you can make regarding how scientific Adler's theory
is: Many of the details of his theory are too anecdotal, that
is, are true in particular cases, but don't necessarily have the
generality Adler seems to claim for them. A first child (even
broadly defined) doesn't necessarily feel dethroned, nor a second
child necessarily feel competitive, for example.
Adler could, however, respond to these criticisms very easily:
First, didn't we just finish saying that, if you accept teleology,
nothing about human personality is necessary. And secondly, didn't
he go to great lengths to explain his ideas about fictional finalism?
All of his concepts are useful constructs, not absolute truths,
and science is just a matter of creating increasingly useful constructs.
So if you have better ideas, let's hear them!
If you are interested in learning more about Alfred Adler's theory,
go straight to Ansbacher and Ansbacher's The Individual Psychology
of Alfred Adler. They take selections from his writings, organize
them, and add running commentary. It introduces all of his ideas
in a very readable fashion. His own books include Understanding
Human Nature, Problems of Neurosis, The Practice
and Theory of Individual Psychology, and Social Interest:
A Challenge to Mankind.
You can find early and recent work by Adler and others in English
in The International Journal of Individual Psychology.
Copyright 1997, C. George Boeree.