Individual Psychology, put forth by Adler, suggests that an individual can be properly understood only when viewed as a whole and within his social context.
Psychologists have been studying the workings of the human mind for generations and have been trying to understand why people think, feel and behave the way they do. Numerous theories have been postulated in this epic quest for answers to the undying questions of mind and personality.
At the beginning of the 20th century, two of the most influential theorists of all time—Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler—closely studied the nature of personality and jointly participated in the psychoanalytic movement. However, Adler soon developed divergent ideas that led him to separate from Freud and the others, after which he formed his own group (Source).
Freud’s school of thought (psychoanalysis) assumed that human behavior is influenced by inborn instincts and feelings suppressed in the unconscious mind. Adler, on the other hand, was of the opinion that human behavior is highly motivated by social urges. He was strongly against Freud’s reductionism (which tried to simplify complex human behavior by dividing it into parts: conscious and unconscious), and believed in a more holistic approach, one that involved understanding the personality of an individual as a whole.
What Is Individual Psychology?
Adler developed and put forth his theories of personality in the hundreds of books and articles that he published during his lifetime. These theories attracted followers throughout the world and came to be known as ‘Adlerian Psychology’ or ‘Individual Psychology’.
Individual psychology, against what its name appears to convey, does not primarily focus on individuals. Instead, it posits that an individual can be properly understood only when viewed within his social context and by studying his interaction with the environment. It also holds that it is impossible to fully understand a person without first understanding his thoughts, feelings, beliefs and all the things that are important to him and give meaning to his life.
Adlerians thus see an individual as indivisible—a unit that cannot be understood in parts. The name ‘Individual Psychology’ finds its roots in the Latin word ‘individuum’ indicating this indivisibility of people.
In addition to the concepts of ‘indivisibility’ and ‘social context’, Adlerian Psychology has put forth many other critical ideas that have made a mark in the world of personality theories:
Striving For Superiority
Adlerians believe that, regardless of who we are and where we come from, we all have one thing in common—the urge to strive to be superior. Here, superiority does not mean leadership, or being better than the others in social standing, or holding a preeminent position in society. Instead, it refers to ‘the great upward drive’.
According to Adler, we endlessly struggle for perfection and self-mastery, as we strive to upgrade from our present situation to a better, superior situation. The constant (and ultimate) goal of our lives is to move from a perceived negative state to a perceived positive state, thereby achieving superiority.
Our struggle for superiority manifests itself in everything we do; it is at the center of all the solutions to our problems. However, the meaning of superiority may vary from person to person, and the manner in which each person strives for perfection may differ greatly. Some people strive for superiority in terms of self-esteem and power, which may be seen as self-centered goals, while some strive towards achieving goals that are more socially beneficial in nature.
What determines the kind of superiority we strive for? The answer to this can be found in describing our feelings of inferiority.
Inferiority and Compensation
Adler observed that people with some kind of abnormality in a certain part (organ) of their body developed an inferiority relating to that organ. He called this ‘organ inferiority’. These people would then try to make up, or compensate, for their abnormality by taking focused steps to strengthen themselves in those specific areas. Demosthenes, the Greek statesman and one of the greatest orators in history, struggled with a bad stutter as a child. Theodore Roosevelt, who was a weakling in his teenage years, challenged his inferiority and transformed himself into a physically stalwart man.
Later, Adler broadened the concept of inferiority to include all inferiorities stemming from feelings of being incomplete or inadequate in any sphere of life. These include all kinds of disabilities perceived by an individual—physical, psychological and social.
An individual who sees himself as inferior in a certain area strives hard to develop himself in that way. Upon reaching a higher level, the feeling of inferiority creeps in once again, making him strive further. Thus, the journey from minus to plus is unending; improvement is infinite. Moreover, when a person sometimes cannot directly address the cause of his inferiority, he tries to compensate for it by excelling at a different skill. For example, a person with a hearing impairment compensates the deficit by cultivating the impressive ability to read lips.
Thus, Adler saw inferiority not as something negative, but as the cause of all improvement and growth.
Adler wrote that “To be a human being means to feel oneself inferior”. He believed that each one of our struggles is a struggle with overcoming some inferiority or another. The nature and magnitude of our struggle for superiority thus depends on the nature and depth of inferiority we feel.
Safeguarding Behavior and Inferiority Complex
Unfortunately, not everyone compensates (or is able to compensate) for their inferiority. Some people resort to safeguarding behavior instead. Adler describes three kinds of safeguarding behaviors: excuses, aggression and distancing.
The first category of people make excuses in an attempt to avoid blame. The people that fall into the second category, on the other hand, become aggressive and blame themselves or others for failures. Yet others show distancing behavior in the form of procrastination and claims of helplessness.
However, safeguarding behavior works in one’s favor for a very short time before people start seeing through the excuses. Once that happens, the only healthy option is to face the inferiorities head on.
Even so, a person who still refuses to resolve his insecurities has a high chance of falling into the negative side of inferiority. When an individual is unable to handle his feelings of inferiority in an adequate manner, he completely withdraws from the challenge and accepts his inferiority position as out of his control, thereby slipping into an inferiority complex.
Alternatively, he may refuse to see his defects altogether, thereby eliminating the necessity to correct them. In such a situation, the individual tries to compensate for his inferiority by developing superiority feelings, instead of actually working towards solving the problem. This is called having a superiority complex.
Adlerians view humans as creative beings. They suggest that we, as creative selves, are proactive and not reactive in developing our unique ‘style of life’ or personality. We constantly seek out experiences that help us maintain our style of life and if we fail to find such experiences in the world, we instead try to create them. In the play called life, we are not mere puppets, but lead actors writing our own scripts. We are not victims of our instincts and society, but choosers, with the ability to shape (at least partly) our internal and external environments.
Impact of Childhood Experiences
While talking about how an individual’s personality is shaped, Adlerians stress the importance of beliefs created during childhood. The first few years of life form the foundation for how an individual identifies himself, what he believes in and which social groups he considers himself a part of. Factors like rapport with one’s family, birth order position and the age gap between siblings also have a direct connection with how an individual sees the world.
Adler observed that the manner in which an individual’s personality or style of life is shaped is highly influenced by his birth order. This means that the oldest, middle and the youngest children in a family develop personalities that are considerably different from one another.
Firstborns usually receive a lot of love and attention from their parents before they are dethroned by the birth of their younger sibling. This means that they now have to share their parents’ affection with this new member.
They constantly strive to surpass the younger children in a bid to regain their special place in the family, and consequently, are more ambitious than the others. They are obedient, responsible people who have a knack for pleasing adults and displaying socially acceptable behavior. However, if their parents fail to prepare them for the appearance of their ‘rival’, the constant competition may condition them to hate people and be insecure.
Middleborns constantly try to match up to their older sibling, while also striving to stay ahead of the younger ones. They regularly compare themselves with the older sibling and try to measure up to their accomplishments in some way or another. Their urge to find their place in the family makes them very competitive and rebellious.
Youngest siblings are infamous for being the most pampered of the lot. They usually get a lot of attention and receive it for the longest time. Other people do things for the youngest ones, which can make them dependent and irresponsible. Due to this, nonetheless, they become masters of the skill of getting things done through the help of others!
Only children get the most attention. However, due to this feeling of entitlement, they have a hard time sharing, co-operating and getting along with other people.
Faulty Childhood Experiences
The inferiorities faced during the early years of life that an individual attempts to compensate for go a long way in the formation of goals, which ultimately set the tone of behavior for life.
According to Adler, a faulty style of life could be the result of any of the following three factors present in an individual’s childhood-
1. Physical Or Mental Inferiority: Children that have an innate physical or mental affliction often feel incompetent and view themselves as failures. Nevertheless, the presence of understanding and encouraging parents goes a long way in overcoming these hurdles and possibly even turning them into strengths.
2. Neglect: Children who are neglected and mistreated may hate the world and grow up to become enemies of the society.
3. Pampering: Adler considers this category to be the worst of all. Pampered children grow up to become extremely self-absorbed and expect everyone around them to conform to their whims.
Adlerian Therapy and Encouragement
Adlerians recognize that there is nothing abnormal about having inferiorities and problems; difficulties are a normal part of human life. Therefore, Adlerian therapy is not about ‘curing’ anything, because, in fact, there is nothing to cure.
Adlerians believe that people act in unhealthy ways simply because they are discouraged. A misbehaving child, for example, is merely trying to compensate for his negative feelings by competing, distancing or totally giving up. Therefore, the best way to help these people is by making them feel appreciated, fulfilled, and optimistic. The only way to tackle discouraged feelings is through encouragement.
Through Adlerian therapy (encouragement), counselors help the client to understand the difference between the deed (the problem) and the doer (the person). They help him realize that he is not the problem; the problem is the problem. The therapy fiercely searches for the client’s strengths and helps him recognize his power. His self-concept will gradually shift from negative to positive as he becomes more aware of his worth.
Today, nearly all approaches to counseling exhibit some of the concepts put forth by Adler. In fact, regardless of who we are and what we do, these Adlerian concepts of inferiority, compensation, birth order and encouragement, among many others, prove useful for understanding (and helping) ourselves and others better!