This post is hands-down the most important of all the raw concepts, and furthermore is my most important post for the whole year of 2011. It draws heavily on my personal interpretation of the great psychoanalyst Alfred Adler’s work, but it also includes terms, concepts and interpretations of my own, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that every single idea here was explicitly expounded by Adler, although all of it was definitely influenced by him. I only point this out so that no one claims I’m misrepresenting Adler’s views when they read certain sections.
Let me warn you now, this post is LONG. In fact, it may be the longest post I’ve ever done on this blog, and I know many of you hate long posts. However, I implore you to make an exception in this case. Take the whole week to read it if you have to. I won’t be posting anything else for a while so that it can stand on its own, and people can take the time to digest all of its implications. If reading the whole thing on a mobile phone or computer screen is too daunting, click here for a print-friendly version, so you can take it on your commute or read it in bed or do whatever it takes for you to get through it and absorb it. (Honestly, even if reading it online, the print-friendly version still makes for an easier read.)
Every post I’ve done so far this year has been leading up to this post. Just about every post I do for the remainder of 2011 will be expanding on and constantly referring back to concepts in this post. Also, remember those reader suggested topics everyone voted on? The concepts in this post (superiority complex, inferiority complex, primary theater of operations, secondary theater of operations) will all be pivotal in addressing those topics. That’s why I’ve been postponing attacking those topics until I could get these posts done.
For these reasons, I can’t stress enough how critical it is if you enjoy this blog that you read and fully digest what I’m sharing here.
Also, if you enjoy this post and find it personally helpful or especially enlightening, do me a favor: Take this post and share it as far and wide as you can. Email it to friends you think can benefit from it or who’ll simply find it interesting. Tweet and retweet it on Twitter as much as you can. Post in on as many prominent Facebook walls and Facebook fan pages as you can. Bookmark and share it on Del.icio.us. If you see a relevant blog post on another blog about a similar topic, link to it in the comments section. Stumble it and review it on Stumbleupon, then spread it to your friends to “thumbs up.” Spread it on whatever social media outlet you frequent the most. Share it with prominent community leaders you correspond with or admire. Print up multiple copies and physically circulate them to people you think can use inspiration.
The reason I’m making this request is because seeing as how this post forms the foundation for the remainder of The Rawness’s 2011 posts, I want as much feedback on it as I can get from as wide a variety of sources as possible, and not just the usual suspects.
Now, on to the post.
Alfred Adler believed in the “psychology of the undivided whole,” meaning that the whole of a person’s personality was greater than the sum of that person’s individual parts; therefore the whole person could not be figured out simply by adding up the different individual aspects of his personality. In addition, a portion of this whole personality could be found to exist in every individual, separate aspect of of his personality. This is why when you are dealing with someone and eventually discover major personality flaws in them, you can look back and spot little “red flags” in seemingly insignificant past occurrences.
For example if someone is neurotic and anxious, a portion of that neurosis and anxiety will be evident in every aspect of his relationships, in every action he takes, in how he raises his children, in how he approaches his job, in how he deals with his parents, in how he brushes his teeth, in how he organizes his room, etc. It may appear less in some aspects of his personality and life than others, but some trace of this overall character will always be present in anything he undertakes.
The same goes for a person who as a whole is a self-centered narcissist. When examining any individual aspect of their personality or any specific activity they undertake, even if doing something like charity or social work, there will still be glimpses of their self-absorption and narcissism evident in how they carry it out.
This “undivided whole” that is evident to some degree in every individual aspect of a person is a lifestyle (a term coined by Adler):
It reflects the individual’s unique, unconscious, and repetitive way of responding to (or avoiding) the main tasks of living: friendship, love, and work. This style, rooted in a childhood prototype, remains consistent throughout life, unless it is changed through depth psychotherapy.
The style of life is reflected in the unity of an individual’s way of thinking, feeling, and acting.
Lifestyles consist of one’s subjective views of the objective world, one’s assessment of their own worth, the ideal person one aspires to be, one’s relationship to and assessment of the people one must share the world with, and one’s ethical views about how one and others should behave. It’s how people live, how they form and prioritize goals, how they go about pursuing those goals, how they interact with and treat others, and how they handle problems, frustrations, setbacks and not getting what they want.
Adler felt that all human behavior derived from our need to strive for perfection or success. Perfection, however, is defined differently for different people. A major part of understanding a person is to realize what his specific life goals are and what specifically counts as perfection for him. What one person views as inconsequential to being deemed a success, another person may find to be the very definition of success.
Adler believed there were healthy forms of striving for perfection or superiority, and unhealthy, neurotic ways of going about it. The healthy forms involved focusing on reaching one’s personal best rather than fixating on proving one was better than others. It was a flexible yet realistic effort to improve, rather than a rigid, obsessive perfectionism. It’s an idea very similar to the better-known idea of Maslow’s self-actualization. What perfection means for different people and how they specifically choose to go about achieving it is one of the most, if not the most, vital components of a person’s aforementioned lifestyle.
Adler believed that we all start out as children feeling inferior to a degree. We are small and lack independence, and we want to grow and become as strong and powerful as we perceive the adults around us to be. Some inferiorities are actual, some are imagined, some are physical, some are emotional, some are mental, but what matters is where a person perceives them to be real and significant.
A certain amount of age-appropriate inferiority complex in children and adults is healthy and normal, as it’s what drives us to develop life goals. What we see as our personal inferiorities, the inferiority complexes we develop as a result, and the ways our childhoods train us to deal with them shape our lifestyles (again, the types of goals we idealize, our attitudes, and how we perceive ourselves and our relationship to the world around us).
We spend out lives trying to achieve our personal goal, which is whatever it is we define as perfection, and a major part of that is overcoming these feelings of inferiority. This striving to overcome inferiority feelings can be called compensation. If you have an inferiority in one area, you try extra hard to improve it and end up making it as good if not better than average, or instead you can develop a totally different strength in order to make up for it. Some compensations are healthy and lead to useful, substantial forms of betterment while others are unhealthy and lead to useless, superficial forms of betterment. Meditation, therapy and charitable pursuits can be examples of the former. An obnoxious superiority complex caused by overcompensation and improvements like snobby overintellectualism, materialism and improving your physical appearance are examples of the latter.
This inherent sense of inferiority we struggle with and the misguided compensations we adopt in response to them are responsible for making many of us overly self-centered. This is why someone who seems too suffer from low self-esteem and a marytr complex is often as narcissistic as the person who acts grandiose and flashy.
The person who has a martyr complex goes around thinking “Why me? I do so much. I’m so caring and giving, and no one seems to notice. I’m so unappreciated. I’ll never win. Let me tell you all the good acts I’ve done for friends. Look how much more than me everyone else has. When will I find love? I, I, I, me, me, me.”
The grandiose person says “Why shouldn’t I have the best? I do so much. I’m so wonderful, caring and giving, and everyone should notice. I’m so appreciated and envied. I always win. Let me tell you all the good acts I’ve done for friends. Look how much more than everyone else I have. When will I find someone who measures up to me? I, I, I, me, me, me.”
See the similarities?
Two other terms coined by Adler were inferiority complex and superiority complex. These complexes are more than just harmless personality quirks, they are true, deep neuroses.
When someone’s sense of inferiority becomes overwhelming, they develop an inferiority complex meaning they actually start behaving in an inferior way. All normal people have some feelings of inferiority in various areas, but they still accept challenges, take risks and try new things. It’s only when the inferiority feeling is strong enough to keep us from taking risks and trying new things for fear of failing and taking any more damage to our ego that this feeling can be classified as an inferiority complex rather than just a normal, healthy inferiority feeling.
The other way some people respond to an overwhelming sense of inferiority is by overcompensating and behaving in an excessively superior way to cope, which is the superiority complex. A superiority complex is covering up one’s inferiority by pretending to be superior, often in exaggerated, arrogant, obnoxious and delusional ways. On some level, they not only aim to convince others, but even themselves. They often succeed at convincing themselves, at least on a conscious level, but unconsciously there is still a gnawing sense of inferiority eating away at them and their actions and defense mechanisms show that they live in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud, even if they’d rarely admit this fear to others or to their own conscious minds.
People with superiority complexes are difficult to be around, unless the person dealing with them is exceedingly masochistic or has saintly patience, so they tend to have a lot of failed friendships, jobs and relationships. Emotional and physical bullies, braggarts, petty dictators, the ostentatious and flashy, all are examples of people with superiority complexes. Some people hide their feelings of worthlessness in the delusions of power that come about through substance abuse or sexual conquests or overintellectualization in ultimately useless areas.
People with superiority complexes are more concerned with convincing other people that they are superior to them than actually doing superior things. They’d rather have people envy them for something superficial or something they haven’t truly accomplished than accomplish great things for their own sake and with little fanfare. They live for useless goals and superficial forms of superiority. For example, if he gets a subprime mortgage and puts himself in debt he can’t afford in order to buy a house that impresses other people and succeeds in making them jealous, he is pleased. By common sense standards this is a useless goal and the form of superiority he achieves is superficial and ridiculous, but viewed through the private logic of his warped, myopic worldview, this is a worthy goal. (More on common sense vs. private logic later in the post)
Superiority and inferiority complexes aren’t just for individuals. Whole races, cultures and nations can suffer from them.
People often ask, do narcissists and people with superiority complexes have high self-esteem or low self-esteem? The evidence goes both ways, and therefore different experts come down on either side of the issue. What people don’t get is that both answers are right: they have high self-esteem and low-self-esteem. Both states coexist in them and war against each other, leading to their constantly conflicted mindsets and endless psychological contradictions. Picture a tower that stands very high, but is extremely shaky or on a poor foundation. It’s tall, but it doesn’t take much to topple it, like Jenga. Or picture a big balloon. It’s nice and big, but it’s fragile, filled with air and a pinprick can easily explode or deflate it.
The high self-esteem and superiority exist on a conscious level and are reflected in their superficial qualities. The low self-esteem and inferiority exist on a subconscious level and are reflected by their fundamental qualities. As a person’s gets older and the actual state of their lives seems like it’s not going to measure up to the grandiose self-image and high expectations they have of themselves, and they realize they aren’t actually achieving the things they “deserve” and feel “entitled” to, the sense of inferiority starts moving to the forefront of the brain to the conscious level, and they start fearing they may not actually be superior after all, and may in fact be impostors.
There is a gap between the grandiose fantasies of superiority the narcissist has grown up with and the drab reality that is actually shaping up to be the narcissist’s real life existence, and this gap causes a cognitive dissonance that drives the narcissist to either give up the grandiose fantasies and adopt an inferiority complex, or drive the narcissist to overcompensate and develop a superiority complex, or oscillate back and forth between both extremes. Writer Sam Vaknin created a term for this gap between the narcissist’s grand fantasies and the narcissist’s drab reality: The Grandiosity Gap, a term we’ll be using on this blog often.
As mentioned, some respond to the disappointment and disillusionment caused by the grandiosity gap by giving up their previous sense of superiority and embracing their inferior side, developing an inferiority complex. People pick up on their self-perceived inferiority and then start treating them accordingly. This in turn confirms their inferior self-image and causes them to behave even more inferior, which in turn causes people to treat them worse. It becomes a vicious cycle or downward spiral.
For others, their response is to repress this hated inferior part of themselves, push it even further from their conscious thoughts, and increasingly employ ego defense mechanisms to avoid acknowledging it. They then overcompensate with even more exaggerated superiority and grandiosity, which leads to chasing more superficial, useless goals, burning bridges, alienating people, and sabotaging friendships and professional connections. This then leads to even more decline in their actual status and relationships. Which in turn leads to more internal conflict and fear of being exposed to themselves and others as an impostor, which in turn leads to even more exaggerated superiority as compensation, which then causes more stagnation or decline in actual status and relationships. It becomes a vicious cycle or downward spiral.
Reality is far too grand and complex for the human mind to objectively contemplate and process in its entirety. Instead what our brain does is take a portion of reality and forms a subjective way of interpreting, contemplating and processing it so that we can make some sense out of it. This subjective interpretation is a worldview and can easily be mistaken for objective reality, but it actually isn’t. It’s a self-serving fiction that allows us to function in the world and develop our priorities and our final fictional goal. This final fictional goal is something subjective that we believe will help us overcome our feelings of inferiority once and for all.
Our final fictional goal is our ultimate destination in our planned journey. Our worldview is our map: the way we view the terrain and our reference point for navigating it. It’s what we continually refer back to along the journey. Our lifestyle is our itinerary: our ideal version of the journey, how fast or aggressive we plan to drive, the route we plan to take based on what we see on our map, our priorities for our trip, our ideal timeline for getting to our destination, our backup plans. Life is what actually happens on the journey: the detours, the setbacks, the lucky breaks, the delays, the lost luggage, the sights we see along the way, the friends we make and lose on the journey.
When you understand someone’s particular priorities and final fictional goal, what previously seemed to be illogical behavior suddenly becomes logical. Identify someone’s specific priorities and final fictional goal, and better yet why they developed them, and you’ve gone a long way toward understanding them. You see a girl and she’s putting up with an asshole boyfriend. Or you see a guy who tolerates an emasculating harpy drama queen. When you assume they are normal and have healthy, sensible psychological goals, their relationship choices and their actions seem very illogical.
But what if you realize they have unhealthy, masochistic psychological goals, possibly seeking out narcissists for romantic partners because such relationships feel familiar since they grew up trying to please a narcissistic parent, or deliberately seeking out a martyr role in order to gain a feeling of moral superiority and in order to have someone to blame for their failing in life? Suddenly those same actions become logical. A warped logic, to be sure, but still logical. I touched on something similar when I posted about priority analysis.
A similar dynamic was at play when I discussed the means-end paradox. For one person, drama is a means to an end. For their partner, drama is an end in and of itself. The first person assumes his goal of a peaceful, healthy relationship is shared by his partner, so he can’t see the logic behind her erratic actions and keeps getting blindsided and frustrated.
This leads to a major premise in Adler’s philosophy: No matter how stupid or self-destructive an individual’s worldview and actions may seem on the surface to outsiders, they usually are very intelligent and logical once you understand that individual’s personal goals. Or stated another way: Someone’s reasoning and actions may be perfectly “intelligent” and logical when viewed through the lens of their own personal, peculiar worldview, yet nonetheless still be utterly insane by general society’s standards.
Private logic is reasoning and actions that make sense when viewed through the lens of an individual’s personal worldview. Common sense, on the other hand, is reasoning and actions that make sense by general society’s standards. The more trouble a person has reconciling the two, the more neurotic he becomes.
Neurotics consistently pursue private logic at the expense of common sense. For example, an anorexic has a subjective worldview about what healthy weight is that is out of line with general society’s views, so her final fictional goal becomes to be emaciated. Although her starvation tactics lack common sense because they are insane by society’s standards, they are perfectly logical and sane actions when judged by the standards of her personal worldview. Another example is a drug dealer who has a subjective worldview that the long-term plan of going to college and working a square job is for suckers, which is the opposite of general society’s view. He thus has the final fictional goal of getting fast money illegally. Privately logical and personally sane, but lacking in common sense and considered psychologically disordered by society.
For Adler, the key to reducing inferiority complex and developing into a psychologically healthy human being was to have a healthy sense of social interest. Social interest was also the key to bringing one’s private logic in line with common sense, which also could be termed community logic. Social interest can be described in different ways: sincere empathy (not just sympathy) with others, the ability to put aside selfishness when necessary and cooperate with others, or a feeling of connection to a community, or humankind in general. To be outwardly directed, but not just in a self-serving, self-centered way, the way a narcissist who shows off is.
Adler felt social interest wasn’t just innate or just learned but a combination of both: based on an innate instinct, but has to be nurtured in order to survive. Some examples are caring for family, showing concern for neighbors, practicing reciprocity, looking to improve society, celebrating humanity and saving lives. Social interest is being useful to others rather than primarily being a taker.
Adler’s word for social interest was Gemeinschaftsgehful, which roughly translates as “community feeling.” Another good phrase for describing it is striving for enlightened superiority (a superiority that lifts others as well as one’s self).
On the other hand, neurotic people base their lives on the opposite principle of strictly striving for ego-driven superiority (a superiority that lifts one’s self at the expense of the status of others). Striving for ego-driven superiority is at the root of all neuroses. Striving for personal superiority is specifically about wanting to be or at least appear superior to other people rather than be a great person in your own right regardless of how you measure up to others. Personal superiority is all about judging your success relative to the apparent success of others. It’s not enough that you have what you have, it’s also important that others don’t have what you have as well.
Adler saw psychological growth as moving from a worldview of ego-driven superiority (which lacks a sense of social interest) to one of enlightened superiority (which does have a sense of social interest attached).
It’s important to realize that social interest is more than just superficial extroversion:
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.
Societal “failures” end up to some degree unfulfilled, emotionally and psychologically flawed, with a track record of burned bridges, failed friendships and relationships and very far from self-actualized. This is because they lack social interest and thus remain too self-interested. Those who live their lives devoid of social interest inevitably suffer degrees of continual rejection, abandonment and backlash from others, but are often able to avoid fully recognizing their own roles in causing these failed relationships by rationalizing away blame through the use of delusional defense mechanisms.
There are various areas we need to have in order for us to be happy: career, friendship, romantic love, and health. Without social interest and with a preoccupation with personal superiority, some or all of these areas will be screwed up, dysfunctional and toxic.
Adler believed in four types of worldviews and accompanying lifestyles. Three of them are neurotic and self-defeating, while one is healthy and useful:
- Ruling type – wants to control and dominate others. Selfish. They may attack and hurt others through direct aggressive methods such as physical intimidation or emotional bullying as a way of replacing their feelings of incompetent or inferiority with a sense of power. They also may hurt others through indirect, passive ways like suicide attempts, self-mutilation, retaliatory adultery, and drug addiction. They’re often vain and overly competitive.
- Getting/Leaning type – seeks to lean on and depend on others and selfishly takes without giving back. This type was either pampered as a child, or was neglected but as a result dreamed of growing up and being pampered and rescued, so as an adult they end up having the same entitlement issues as someone who grew up pampered. It’s mostly, but not exclusively by far, women that fall into this category for a variety of reasons.
- Avoiding type – avoids dealing with major problems, taking significant risks or pursuing challenging goals because they’re more concerned with avoiding defeat and embarrassment than with making substantial advances. Their egos are very fragile, so they avoid failure by not attempting anything difficult, or if they do attempt something difficult, self-sabotage by finding alibis and excuses for not finishing it. People who suffer from writer’s block and never complete a single work often fall into this category. They’re avoiding completing the work for fear of it being poorly received and finding out they’re not as talented as they liked to believe they were.
Long-term unemployed people who stop looking for work can wind up in this category. They rationalize that if they never apply for any more jobs, they can never again be rejected. Also in this category are people who aimed high and risked big at one time and were brutally disappointed and never recovered. They fear going through it again and adopt avoiding lifestyles as a result.
They care more about never losing than ever winning. They’d love to win big, but want to find a way of winning that doesn’t involve any setbacks or short-term defeats. Such opportunities never come, so while waiting for them to arrive they do nothing in the meantime and waste their lives.
Many people with superiority complexes fall under this category. As mentioned before, someone with a superiority complex has a high self-image, but it’s built on a shaky foundation. Any setback no matter how minor would send their sense of superiority, which is built on a high yet fragile self-esteem, crashing down into an inferiority complex. So they religiously avoid any risks or challenges so that they won’t have to face failure and lose their precious delusional sense of superiority.
Instead what they pursue are low-risk useless goals and superficial forms of superiority. For example, he may obsessively focus on materialism, fashion and grooming so that he can impress people by looking rich to others and get positive reactions, while avoiding embracing the challenges and risks that would help him actually become rich and successful. The superiority complex sufferer is more satisfied with being poor but seeming rich to others than with being rich but impressing nobody. He chases useless goals. The superiority he achieves is strictly superficial and illusory. His private logic is flawed and lacks common sense.
- Socially useful – This is the person with a healthy sense of social interest. He acts to benefit others, not in a sacrificial, masochistic way or like a martyr, but in altruistic and creative ways.
Most neurotic types don’t purely fall under one faulty worldview or lifestyle, but rather tend to be a blend of all three dysfunctional lifestyles. For example a woman might be the ruling type in trivial matters like throwing tantrums to get a man to pay for a date or do what she wants, in winning petty arguments with friends, in political conversations with coworkers, etc. However in other matters she’s the leaning type, using feminine wiles and feigned helplessness to get favors from people, like car rides to the airport, free drinks at the bar, free entrance into events, etc. And in truly useful matters, like making a long-term relationship work, getting married, obtaining a successful career, completing a novel, etc., she may utilize an avoiding lifestyle because she’s afraid at failing at something that really matters and losing her fragile and delusional sense of superficial superiority, which was built on a shaky foundation.
Adler felt there were three main culprits that inhibited the growth of social interest in people and led neurosis and pathology, that is, an excessive focus on striving for personal superiority:
- Physical inferiority – childhood illness, disfigurement, being physically unattractive, having skin problems like acne, having a stutter, being too tall, being too short, being too fat, being too skinny, etc. It doesn’t matter whether this physical inferiority is real or imagined, but rather whether the person himself believes this inferiority to be real. It also doesn’t matter if the inferiority is from the past; someone may grow up ugly but be beautiful now, but either still acts like they’re ugly and has an inferiority complex, or is still overcompensating now that they’re beautiful and have a superiority complex.
- Pampering – Spoiled children don’t develop strong social interest because they’ve always found manipulation of others easy, they weren’t encouraged to sacrifice for the good of their peers, they grew up always relying on their parents to take care of their problems for them in life and they were always being shielded from the consequences of their actions. Pampering doesn’t just have to be in the materialistic My Super Sweet 16 variety either. Anyone who is constantly shielded from the harsh realities of the real world, even if not spoiled with materialism, is pampered to a degree. For example a child with an overinvolved parent that shows up to school and successfully badgers her teacher with excuses and threats into changing her grades is being pampered.
Thus the spoiled child is sheltered from the rigors of dealing with the real world, and as adults realize they’re ill-equipped to handle the psychological and emotional adversities and responsibilities of real independence. They go through life expecting the same dynamic from their friends, coworkers and lovers that they received from their parents: someone to cater to their every need, bail them out from the consequences of their own immature actions and shield them from responsibility and stress. Rather than think about how to help others, either in their social circles or the general community, they expect people in their social circles and general community to cater to them and take care of them the way their parents did.
These overindulged brats approach the world with an attitude of entitlement, and feel personally rejected and frustrated when the rest of the world doesn’t treat them like their parents did. The spoiled child never learns to do for himself, and when he enters the world with his superior attitude only to increasingly discover from accumulating personal and professional failures that he is actually inferior, he has no other tools in his toolbox for dealing with people other than barking orders at people, throwing tantrums, and making demands
Society overwhelmingly responds to pampered people in one, inevitable way: hatred. The only people who can tolerate the pampered are sycophantic people and masochistic types, who tend to reinforce the pampered adult’s delusions of entitlement and superiority and keep them entrenched in their self-defeating dysfunctions, which is why pampered people often seek them out and target them as friends and lovers.
- Neglect – While the pampered child learns inferiority indirectly when he enters real life and realizes that the rest of the world doesn’t buy into his deluded notions of entitlement, save for weak and masochistic types, the neglected child on the other hand also learns inferiority, but in a much more direct way. The neglected child learns inferiority because he is constantly told and shown that he is garbage, devoid of value and unworthy of love. He learns selfishness because he’s taught to trust no one. Since he was rarely shown love, he has trouble developing a capacity for it later.
The neglected child never experiences love, cooperation or empathy, so he has difficulties expressing and receiving them in adulthood, and consequently never develops social interest. He also develops an “I’ll show them attitude” and becomes overly self-centered and focused on personal superiority as an overcompensation to bad childhood treatment, as a form of revenge against the world. They often learn to become cold, hard and detached adults.
Also, growing up neglected can lead a child to grow up desiring a pampered style of life, wanting to be dependent on and cared for by others. Neglected children of this type end up becoming adults with the same type of overentitlement as the adult who grew up pampered. [I call them neopampered, because even though they didn't grow up as pampered children, they've learned to act like them as adults as compensation for the deprivation they encountered growing up. - T.]
Neglected children range from orphans to physical abuse victims to children whose parents were uninvolved and never present or children raised in a rigid, authoritarian manner.
Keep in mind there are all types of combinations that can come into play. For example, someone could be spoiled rotten in some areas, such as materially, but also be a victim of emotional neglect or can grow up in a religiously strict household that limits exposure to a lot of different things. Thus a person can be overly indulged yet also be sheltered in an extremely dominating household. Meanwhile they may have bad skin or a weight problem, an organ inferiority which makes them self-conscious and therefore even more self-obsessed. There can be various degrees of overlap and interplay.
Another dynamic is one parent that is neglectful to a child in the form of psychological bullying and physical abuse, and another parent who is scared to stand up to the neglectful parent and thus overcompensates with pampering when the neglectful parent isn’t around. This child then ends up with the worst aspects of pampering and neglect in one person. You can read more about these childhood dynamics in this post.
Most people don’t think of pampering as a form of a child abuse. We tend to only think of neglected children as abused. However Adler not only believed pampering was a form of abuse, he actually believed it was the worst form of abuse. Wrap your heads around that for a second. Pampering is more damaging and capable of causing a neurotic, faulty lifestyle than neglect. In addition, while neglected adults at least realize they were abused and therefore have an inkling of the root of their dysfunctions, pampered children not only don’t realize they were abused, they oftentimes believe they had great, positive upbringings, so they never end up realizing what the true roots of their dysfunctions are, making them less likely to seek the proper type of help or know where to start when trying to improve themselves. The very thing that makes them unable to function properly as an adults, their spoiled upbringing, is in their minds the best thing that ever happened to them.
Here’s where we review all the concepts mentioned and it all starts coming together:
Adler’s approach to building mental health in patients was to increase their courage, self-esteem and social interest. It’s very important that all three were worked on. Many misguided conservatives complain our culture focuses too much on self-esteem. But the problem isn’t self-esteem so much as it is the instilling of self-esteem without courage and social interest to go along with it, which leads to inferiority and superiority complexes and narcissism.
There’s a quote from a great old movie called Humoresque where one character tells another “It isn’t what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.” It’s an incredible line, and it’s a great description of the grandiosity gap, which is at the root of all superiority complexes. Two people can be janitors, but what if one of those people grew up expecting to never be anything more than a janitor, while the other one grew up dreaming of being important or a wealthy bigshot? The latter person developed a high opinion of themselves from childhood without ever achieving the real-world accomplishments to back them up, and the pain of dealing with that grandiosity gap, the frustration of trying to reconcile the fantasy of lifelong lofty dreams with the reality of a mediocre present, is too much for many people to bear.
This pain from grandiosity gaps is why some people with inferiority and superiority complexes develop avoiding lifestyles. They develop an unearned sense of superiority, usually through growing up pampered. Without courage and without social interest, they become too scared to risk their ego by trying to useful, worthwhile goals. They reach a point where their only concern becomes protecting their egos from further failure.
Neurotic people choose ego-driven superiority (superficial, self-centered superiority without social interest) as a goal over enlightened superiority (superiority with social interest). Their final fictional goal is avoidance of any ego erosion, no matter how minor and necessary, and retention of their delusional, unearned sense of superiority. The actions they take to achieve this final fictional goal lack common sense (which is intelligence combined with social interest) but have a great deal of private logic (intelligence without social interest), meaning these actions are personally sane but socially insane.
Here’s what you need to know about ego-driven superiority, which we’ll call The Laws of Ego-Driven Superiority:
- Ego-driven superiority is more concerned about appearing superior than actually being superior. Someone who subscribed to ego-driven superiority would rather have all the impressive trappings of success with little money in the bank and no retirement plan than to be very financially comfortable but without having the trappings of success with which he can show off to others.If he’s in the gym, he’d rather look super buff and ripped and toned but not be strong, athletic or coordinated, than be explosively strong, coordinated and athletic yet have a less impressive set of abs.
- Ego-driven superiority specifically wants to be better than other people, rather than pursue excellence and greatness for their own sake.
- Ego-driven superiority not only wants everyone else to be inferior, but wants to make sure they remain inferior, and will do whatever it takes to keep them from improving themselves significantly.The person who believes in ego-driven superiority views everything as zero-sum. To acknowledge any one of his peers as worthy, in his mind, somehow diminishes his own worth. That’s why he has so much malignant envy when he sees the accomplishments and material goods of others, and why he always has to find a way to disparage others’ accomplishments (dumb luck, rich parents, nepotism, etc.). In his mind, anyone else gaining value automatically signifies a loss in status for him.
This will show even when he’s being generous. For example, he’s the type who will love to make a show of giving a hungry man a fish, because it makes the hungry man dependent on him and it enhances his own image in the eyes of others, both of which fuel his ego, and it also it displays his superiority, because he’s providing something the hungry man can’t provide himself.
But he will never teach the hungry man to fish for himself, because then the hungry man won’t need him anymore and the hungry man’s new self-sufficiency will threaten his sense of superiority, because now the hungry man has the same skill as the ego-driven man, which makes the ego-driven man’s skills less unique and therefore less superior.
When someone does what seems to be good deeds on the surface, but they make a big deal in trumpeting their altruism, and are more into fostering dependency rather than giving you the tools to do the same deeds for yourself, their altruism is really disguised ego-driven superiority.
- Ego-driven superiority not only needs to be better than other people, it needs the world to know about the superiority and acknowledge it. If the ego-driven person is superior to you, but you aren’t aware of it and refuse to acknowledge it, they will put an incredible amount of energy into convincing you of said superiority, using everything from emotional outbursts to statistics and data tables to cold, hard logic to brutally honest criticism to ostentatious shows of wealth. Whatever it takes. The possibilities are endless. The sense of superiority is worthless if not acknowledged by others.
- Ego-driven superiority not only needs the world to know about the superiority and acknowledge it, but it also needs people to be envious. If you know and acknowledge the ego-driven person’s superiority in any given area, and you just don’t care and are not the least bit jealous, it will drive the ego-driven person crazy. In fact, he may accuse you of lying or being in denial. They may even go overboard in trying to make you jealous.
- Ego-driven superiority wants to convert you and make you a follower, but never an equal. An ego-driven man, if he can accomplish the goals of the first 5 laws, will be pretty satisfied: He is, or at least appears, better than you. Everyone openly acknowledges or at least is quietly aware his superiority, including you. He’s inspired envy in you to boot. But despite all this, he may not accomplish the 6th law, which is to convert you to his worldview and inspire you to become a follower and worship at his cult of personality. That is the icing on the cake.
The Laws of Enlightened Superiority, because of the addition of social interest, are the exact opposite of the previous set of laws:
- Enlightened superiority is more concerned with actually being the best it can be than simply appearing superior.
- Enlightened superiority is more concerned with pursuing greatness for its own sake rather than pursuing greatness primarily to ensure others are inferior.
- Enlightened superiority doesn’t mind sharing the tools of superiority with others and giving them the means to improve themselves in similar ways.
- Enlightened superiority doesn’t mind having others know about and acknowledge the superiority, but is perfectly fine if such acknowledgment is never received. Such people generate their own validation internally rather than relying on external validation for their self-esteem.
- Enlightened superiority has no desire to inspire envy and jealousy in others.
- Enlightened superiority, even if it converts you and makes you a follower, ultimately aims to help you become your own guru in time, and is secure enough to even encourages you to someday surpass the master.
The personally sane but socially insane shortsighted actions that lack social interest are SECOND ORDER OPERATIONS and are part of THE SECONDARY THEATER OF OPERATIONS. Common sense actions that yield long-term benefits and incorporate social interest are FIRST ORDER OPERATIONS and are part of the PRIMARY THEATER OF OPERATIONS. The Primary Theater of Operations is where psychologically healthy people who pursue enlightened superiority live, work and play. The Secondary Theater of Operations is where neurotic people who pursue ego-driven superiority live, work and play.
- Simplification is a first order operation moves you closer to the primary theater. Compounded complications are second order operations that moves you closer to the secondary theater.
- Priority analysis is a first order operation that moves you closer to the primary theater. Engaging in the narcissism of small differences is a second order operations that moves you closer to the secondary theater.
- Actions that incorporate fluid time perspective is a first order operation that moves you closer to the primary theater. Faulty, rigid time orientation is the secondary theater.
- Means/end congruence is the primary theater. A means/end paradox help place you in the secondary theater.
- Cutting losses and maximizing gains are the primary theater. Loss-aversion and sunk-cost traps are second order operations that move you closer to the secondary theater.
- Honest communication is a first order operation that moves you closer to the primary theater. Double messages are second order operations that move you closer to the secondary theater.
- Properly framing is a first order operation that moves you closer to the primary theater. Improperly framing is a second order operation that moves you toward the secondary theater.
- Saving and investing money to build a retirement fund is a first order operation. Compulsive shopping and spending all the money you make as a form of short-term self-medication is a second order operation.
- Actions leading to self-awareness are first order operations. Defense mechanisms like splitting, repression, projection, introjection, dissociation, denial and intellectual detachment are all second order operations.
- Working out to build functional strength is a first order operation. Bodybuilding strictly for aesthetic reasons is a second order operation.
- Caring more about whether you’re actually successful than whether other people think you’re successful is the primary theater. Caring more about whether people think you’re successful than whether you actually are successful is the secondary theater.
- Calculated risks are first order operations. Gambles are second order operations.
- Visions belong in the primary theater of operations. Dreams belong in the secondary theater.
- Prepackaged, bogus identity you can buy in a mall belong in the secondary theater of operations.
- Cleaning a mess by overhauling from the inside out, throwing out clutter and organizing is a first order operation. Cleaning a mess by shoving all the clutter out of sight into closets and drawers is a secondary order operation.
- Building your clout at the expense of your front is a first order operation. Building your front at the expense of your clout is a second order operation.
- Giving up looking rich so that you can become rich is a first order operation. Giving up becoming rich so that you can look rich is a second order operation.
- Common sense and wisdom, which are intelligence combined with social interest, are how smarts are used in the primary theater. Building up your intelligence with no social interest in mind, and not in ways that benefit your relationships and community, but rather only to be able to brag how you’re intellectually superior to other individuals, genders or races, is a second order operation that firmly entrenches you in the secondary theater.
- Putting first things first? Primary theater. Procrastination? Secondary theater.
- Justice? Primary theater. Revenge? Secondary theater.
- Long-term goals? Primary theater. Quick fixes and short-term goals? Secondary theater.
- Getting a sense of accomplishment from playing sports hard, win or lose? Primary theater. Getting a sense of accomplishment from sitting on your ass and watching your local sports team win? Secondary theater.
- Living life with empathy is a first-order operation. Living life as a Cluster B with narcissistic, histrionic or borderline personality disorders? Second-order operation.
- Strategy is first-order. Tactics are second-order.
- Artistic works that teach people how to tackle life’s problems and shows the pitfalls of not having social interest and empathy belong in the primary theater. Artistic works that glorify being self-centered and lacking social interest belong in the secondary theater.
- The healthy socially useful lifestyle resides in the primary theater. The three faulty lifestyles of ruling, leaning and avoiding reside in the secondary theater.
The list can go on forever, but you hopefully get the point. What’s important to understand is that the first order operations that make up the primary theater are harder to achieve at first, but once you achieve them, they are low-maintenance. Secondary order operations are easier to achieve and yield instant rewards, but those rewards are fleeting and high-maintenance.
For example, paying off all your debt and building investment is hard to do and the emotional rewards aren’t instant, but the benefits are long-term and once you do it once, staying debt-free is easy to maintain. On the other hand, charging up your credit cards on an impulsive shopping spree is easy to do, and provides instant rewards in terms of ego boost, but it quickly wears off and you need to shop again a short time later to get the ego boost back.
First order operations involve social interest. Second order operations solely involve personal superiority at the expense of others.
First order operations are a steep uphill climb. Second order operations are downhill slide, or sometimes even a free fall. For these reasons, it’s exponentially harder for you to pull someone else out of the secondary theater of operations and into the primary theater than it is for that someone to drag you out of the primary theater and into the secondary theater. Think of it like someone pushing a massive boulder up a very steep hill while another person is on the other side of the boulder pushing downward in the opposite direction. Who’s more likely to win? And for the person pushing uphill to win by himself, how much stronger does he have to be than his opponent and how much energy must he exert to make that happen?
This is why even though children may be emotionally and mentally inferior to adults, it’s still way easier for a child to drag an adult down to his level and make him act immature than it is for an adult to raise a child up to his level and make him act mature. As long as you lack empathy and refuse to mature, secondary theater manipulations are incredibly easier to master than primary theater manipulations.
Negative and immature emotions are far more contagious than positive and mature emotions. It’s much easier to slide into the secondary theater than to climb up into the primary theater. That’s why narcissists and other cluster B types always end up making you narcissistic and disordered as well rather than you making them psychologically healthy. This is why even though it’s good to have social interest and want to help others when it’s feasible, you shouldn’t develop a masochistic martyr or white knight complex for severely damaged people. They will drag you down into the secondary theater before you know it. Many of us learn this the hard way, when we see ourselves doing second-order operations and behaving in irrational, immature petty and/or vile ways we never could have imagined ourselves behaving in before. That’s why you have to charge some people to the game.
Also, I don’t want you to think that second-order operations are inherently bad or always or indicative of neurosis. Second-order operations are only indicative of neurosis and a faulty lifestyle when you pursue them at the expense of first order operations. If you have your first order operations under control and are squarely in the primary theater of operations, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing second order operations.
For example, if you actually are financially stable and your assets are in order, then there’s no harm in going on shopping sprees and spoiling yourself and trying to look rich. If your clout is in order, there’s no harm in building up your front. If you are consistently putting first things first and are way ahead of schedule, there’s no harm in procrastinating a little. If you mostly take calculated risks, an occasional gamble here and there for kicks probably won’t kill you. If you consistently develop and pursue visions, indulging in the occasional dream can be a nice, healthy distractions. If you have common sense and wisdom and overwhelmingly use your intelligence to better society, than occasionally using your mind for competitive and self-interested intellectual pursuits is not so bad.
In summation, here are The Laws of The Theaters of Operation:
- The theaters of operation exist on a continuum, so all first-order activities are not created equal and all second-order activites are not created equal. Every activity doesn’t easily fall squarely into one camp or the other. On one end you have activities that squarely fall into the secondary theater and on the other end you have activities that squarely fall into the primary theater, and in the middle of the continuum you have a grey area, things that could arguably fall into either category.
An activity might be a second-order operation, but it’s ultimately a harmless one that is almost but not quite useful enough to be a first-order operation. An activity might be useful enough to be classified a first-order operation, but just barely.
- It’s very difficult to simultaneously pursue excellence in both the primary and secondary theaters of operations. Because personal resources (time, mental energy, physical energy, finances, etc.) are limited, we have to choose wisely and use them efficiently.
If you dedicate most of your resources into pursuing secondary theater goals, you will have less resources for pursuing primary theater goals. Avoiding time wasters and self destructive activities (secondary theater) is as important and choosing and pursuing worthwhile goals and activities (primary theater).
- The first-order operations that make up the primary theater are harder to achieve at first, but once you achieve them, they become low-maintenance. Second-order operations are easier to achieve and yield instant rewards, but those rewards are fleeting and high maintenance.
- It’s far, far easier for a neurotic person to drag a mentally healthy person down deeper into the secondary theater than it is for a mentally healthy person to lift a neurotic person into the primary theater.
Again, look at adults and children. Adults on average are much more mature and intelligent and possessing of common sense than a child. But think of what it takes to make a child into a mature, responsible person. Years and years of good upbringing. Raising a child to be mentally healthy and responsible and possessing of social interest is one of the hardest jobs in society. But think how easy it is for a bratty kid to make an adult lose his cool? Even some of the most mature adults can be driven by children to lose their cool or engage in pettiness, even if only temporarily.
You have to be far, far more mature, I’m talking almost exponentially more mature, than the other person to resist being dragged down to their level. Even being twice as mature (pretending that such things could be objectively measured) is not enough. That’s why it’s often better to give up on neurotic or personality disordered people and charge them to the game than narcissistically convince ourselves that we’re enlightened enough to “fix” them through love or leading by example or sharing our spirituality with them.
- Creative Destruction Applies to the Theaters of Operation. Creative destruction is a concept that says that sometimes you reach a point where you have to tear down something in order to build something better. For example you may have to tear down a bunch of old decrepit buildings and have an ugly construction site for a few years in order to eventually get a bunch of new, superior buildings that improve the neighborhood.
Similarly, if you want to build something great in the primary theater of operations, you have to be willing to take major hits in the secondary theater. For example, you may want to achieve financial independence (first-order operation), but you have to cut back on your conspicuous consumption (second-order operation) first. Most productive habits and useful, long-term goals (primary theater) require destroying many of your self-defeating habits and useless, superficial goals (secondary theater).
You can’t pursue excellence in the primary theater while still maintaining your useless, superficial secondary theater lifestyle any more than someone can build a brand new building while trying to avoid destroying the old building that already exists on the construction site.
I just want to end this by summing up thirteen basic Adlerian concepts:
- We are more alike than different.
- Cooperation is a biological necessity for humans. Human beings are relatively weak and one of the slowest developing species among all living organisms, making cooperation a biological necessity, not just a social one.
- All behavior has a purpose. It may not make sense or seem sane to general society, but it has a private logic that makes sense to the individual engaging in it.
- Behavior is based on our perception of reality, not necessarily reality itself.
- The need to belong is fundamental to human nature.
- We believe in accordance with what we want, not what we are.
- All human beings have equal worth, despite differing in capacities.
- We are all responsible for our own acts and attitudes toward others. No one can truly be free without being responsible as well.
- We all have potential for social interest. However it is significantly harder for some of us than others. It must be nurtured to be fully realized.
- All our attitudes are learned. Our genetics may strongly influence our developing attitudes, but the attitudes themselves are learned and can therefore be unlearned.
- We compensate for alleged as well as real inferiorities. In fact, humans are far more bedeviled by imagined inferiorities than real ones.
- The difference between the conscious and subconscious minds merely reflect levels of awareness, not separate, rigid compartments of the brain.
- The cure to neurotic or psychotic problems is reeducation. First we correct faulty premises about how the world works, then we correct the faulty worldviews that arise from such premises, then we correct the faulty lifestyles that arise from such worldviews.
- Many of the concepts in this post directly relate to and further clarify the ideas presented in this post and in this post.
- Superiority And Social Interest: A Collection Of Later Writings by Alfred Adler.
- Primer of Adlerian Psychology by Harold Mosak.
- Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler by Heinz and Rowena Ansbacher.
- Understanding Human Nature by Alfred Adler.
- What Life Could Mean to You: The Psychology of Personal Development by Alfred Adler.