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Raw Concepts: Adlerian Psychology




I would like to revisit Alfred Adler’s theory of psychology, which I discussed already in my post Theaters of Operation.

The purpose of this entry is to create a shorter, more accessible summary of Adler that that found in my earlier post, for easy reference. When I refer to Adler in a future post, I don’t want to always have to ask  people to read that long post for background. Adler’s actual name for his form of psychology was Individual Psychology, but as that term is pretty generic and could be confusing, I’m going to use the term Adlerian Psychology instead.

Alfred Adler believed that we’re all driven by a primary inferiority, some major inferiority feeling that we spend our whole lives trying to overcompensate against, avoid thinking about, or surrendering to. If you surrender to it, you develop an inferiority complex. If you overcompensate against it, you get a superiority complex, which is another way to state narcissism.

From the wiki on Adlerian psychology:

The primary feeling of inferiority is the original and normal feeling in the infant and child of smallness, weakness, and dependency: appreciation of this fact was a fundamental element in Adler’s thinking, and an important part of his break with Sigmund Freud.[6] An inferiority feeling usually acts as an incentive for development. However, a child may develop an exaggerated feeling of inferiority as a result of physiological difficulties or handicaps, inappropriate parenting (including abuseneglect, over-pampering), or cultural and/or economic obstacles.

The secondary inferiority feeling is the adult’s feeling of insufficiency that results from having adopted an unrealistically high or impossible compensatory goal, often one of perfection. The degree of distress is proportional to the subjective or felt distance from that goal. In addition to this distress, the residue of the original, primary feeling of inferiority may still haunt an adult.

All people develop a form of primary inferiority in childhood. This comes once we lose our childlike sense of omnipotence. Children when born don’t realize their place in the world. They believe in a very primal way in their own omnipotence and that everyone is just an extension of them, made to serve them. The average child just knows that when he cries from hunger, someone will come into the room and feed him. If he’s uncomfortable from soiling himself, someone comes in and changes his diapers. And so on and so on. This is why narcissism is considered to be a problem of immaturity or stunted development, because the narcissist keeps this expectation of special treatment and this idea of everyone else being just an extension of him rather than equally valid beings in their own right well into adulthood. However in a child, this is what Heinz Kohut called “age appropriate narcissism.”

Children as they age frustratingly realize that not only not omnipotent, but that others aren’t extensions of them after all. Also, not only are they not extensions but they are more powerful and the child is actually quite helpless and dependent.  These feelings for the primary inferiority, and become fuel for the child’s need to compete and to strive for significance and superiority.

However, some children develop a more extreme, dysfunctional, sometimes almost crippling form of primary inferiority, often due to extremely traumatic abusive experiences like parental neglect, harassment, or pampering. So rather than having a normal, healthy sense of primary inferiority, they have a more warped, dysfunctional extreme form of it, and choose one of the faulty coping styles to deal with it: overcompensation, surrender, or avoidance. All of these have in common a certain amount of self-obsession and a lack of interest in others, a zero-sum way of thinking and constantly comparing and measuring oneself to others, an adversarial belief that life is about proving superiority to other people, either by tearing down others so that they’re below you or building yourself up to appear better. The healthy coping style is twofold. First, it requires having social interest, which is a way of focusing on the shared humanity and similarities one has with others rather than the differences and which represents the desire to improve the lives of others along with yourself rather than the desire to improve yourself at the expense of others. Second, it requires being more focused with striving for actual superiority over your past self while being compassionate to yourself for any failures you have along the way rather than primarily striving to appear superior to other people while showing absolutely no compassion to yourself for any shortcomings you find.

People create personal goals for themselves as symbols of their superiority strivings. They feel if they achieve this goal, they will somehow make up for that primary inferiority from childhood. Again, this is not always unhealthy. Along the way, a person will experience setbacks that will cause them a lot of emotional pain. They may get fired from a job they love. A lover may abandon them. They may fail in a major, public way when the stakes were high. These later feelings of inferiority are called secondary inferiorities. How we experience these secondary inferiorities and recover from them is largely based on our unresolved relationship to whatever our primary inferiority. For example, if you were always emotionally battered and abandoned by a parent, and that is the source of your primary inferiority, the secondary inferiority from a lover’s rejection may reactivate a lot of those dormant, suppressed negative feelings you associate with your parent’s abuse. Thus, you end up not only feeling the pain of the secondary inferiority, the lover’s rejection, but also reexperience the unresolved pain from your primary inferiority, which is your bad childhood. On the other hand, if you have a healthy, normal sense of primary inferiority because your parent didn’t neglect, torment, or pamper you, the secondary inferiority won’t be as damaging.

This is a very basic, incomplete summary, and you will find more of an in-depth look in the Theaters of Operation post, or even better, by reading the books recommended below. But for the purposes of future articles I plan to write, this very short, incomplete summary will suffice.

Recommended Reading:

The two works I recommend first are Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization and Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis. This sounds very counterintuitive, but I always recommend for people who are interested in seeing the framework behind Adler’s thoughts to start with Karen Horney’s books. Alfred was a better speaker than a write, and he was better at describing how his theories in action via case studies than he was at describing the whole framework in a systematic, accessible fashion. Karen Horney’s work, however, has a lot of overlap with Adler’s, and presents the same concepts in a very accessible, easy to read framework for laypeople. You will look at the whole world differently and be much more adept at not only reading other people but yourself as well.

Next, I would recommend Alfred Adler’s Understanding Human Nature: The Psychology of Personality and Superiority And Social Interest: A Collection Of Later Writings. I feel like you can derive more from his work after reading Horney first, however it still has a lot of value just read on its own.

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