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 Psychology.
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 Prater, a combination amusement park and circus. His clients included circus people, and it has been suggested (Furtmuller, 1965) that the unusual strengths and weaknesses of the performers led to his insights into organ inferiorities andcompensation.
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.
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 the concept of social interest. He felt that if humanity was to survive, it had to change its ways!
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.
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.
Another word Adler used to refer to basic motivation was compensation, or striving to overcome.
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.
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.
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 "un-divided."
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."
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.
Adler began his theoretical work considering organ inferiority
Adler noted that many people respond to these organic inferiorities with compensation.
Even more people have psychological inferiorities. Some of us are told that we are dumb, or ugly, or weak. Some of us come to believe that we are just plain no good.
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.
But the inferiority complex is not just a little problem, it's a neurosis, meaning it's a life-size problem.
You can also develop a superiority complex. The superiority complex involves covering up your inferiority by pretending to be superior.
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 suicides.
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 lifestyle.
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 worlds.
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 anyone!
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 ruling type.
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 type.
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 useful type.
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!
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 our stereotypes.
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.
The second is pampering. Many children are taught, by the actions of others, that they can take without giving.
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 that they are of no value;
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 any 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.