From Inferiority to Community: A Brief Guide To Adlerian Psychotherapy

(Note: Jung also used this model with career issues)

Below is a brief bulleted summary of what Adler believed was the common source of distress and neurosis, how to solve that problem, and how to conduct therapy his way.

The Troubled Client

    • Defined by misguided “striving for superiority” based on feelings of inferiority and an irrational emphasis on security.
      • “Symptoms are the smoke covering the fire of inferiority feelings… [they] create a detour around and distance from the threatening tasks of life.” -Henry T. Stein.  3 factors define the severity of the problem:
        • depth of the inferiority feeling
        • lack of the feeling of community
        • height of the final goal (the end state they aspire to)
    • All actions have a long term goal – and troubled clients have a conscious or unconscious final life goal that is dominated by the need to overcome their feeling of inferiority.  “The depth of the inferior feeling usually determines the height of the life goal.”
    • Rigid responses to problems, difficulties and situations
    • Inflated sense of self that avoids contact with the world or real tests of their ability.  Ego-centric goal rather than a contribution to life/community
    • The protection and elevation of the sense of self is paramount, and they prefer to distress themselves or others rather than reveal their hidden exaggerated feeling of inferiority.
    • Children will train themselves in any direction that seems promising as a compensation (for feelings of inferiority): thinking, emotion, sleeping, sexuality, etc. He states that any “overemphasis” of one function may lead to potential problems or failures.  (However, these can be prevented if the individual has enough social interest)
    • Three childhood conditions can create a neurotic person:
      • Organ Inferiority: Childhood illness can lead to a sense of inferiority and an inability to compete. This leads to withdrawal from society later in life.
      • Pampering: Spoiled children never develop a strong sense of social interest, because successfully manipulating the environment has always come easily to them.
      • Neglect: Never learns love or cooperation , so has difficulty in all three life task areas in adulthood.
        • Often become cold and hard as adults.

The Way Out of the Rabbit Hole

Self-Help Strategies

  • Social Cooperation is key to reducing feelings of inferiority.
    • Strive for superiority over difficulties rather than superiority over others. Solve the problems posed by the tasks of life (work, love, community) in a mutually beneficial way.
    • Psychological growth is moving from a position of personal superiority to collective superiority.
  • “Feeling of Community” – striving for self-development within a felt sense of interconnectedness (Adler)
    •  “If you have the feeling of community, and you are interested in your fellow man, then you cannot keep competing, and trying to do one better than others. And this is what people do all the time–they want to take it away from someone else, to keep their own glory. They go in a direction that leads only to them, and is away from mankind.” -Sophia de Vries
    • “The reciprocal nature of social contacts is apparent: anyone who makes no social contacts soon finds himself isolated. Society makes the same mistakes toward the isolated individual as he makes toward society. If your approach people coldly they will be hard and cold with you.”
    • It’s almost a contradiction or a paradox that we must let go of the gripping need to overly assert ourselves as ‘individual’, and that then, and only then, can we rest and relax into our own unique individuality
    • “The desire for personal power is a disastrous delusion and poisons man’s living together. Whoever desires the human community must renounce the striving for power over others.” -Adler
  • Work provides a sense of satisfaction and self-worth to the degree we feel it helps others.
    • Using career to get over “feelings of insecurity” and move from a minus to a plus situation.
    • Beware of “overcompensation” and exaggerated final goals, which are usually a symptom of inferiority feelings
    • The final goal includes expectations of the roles that others should play. If the final goal is to be adored, then others must play the role of adorers; if the final goal is to dominate, then others must be submissive. Identifying these expectations and their actual impact on relationships can subvert these exaggerated goals. Rather than having such demands of others, individuals need to learn how to generate self-demand, determining what they will do to contribute to their own development and to other people and situations.
  • What happens in our childhood doesn’t matter – it’s our present interpretation of those events that matters.
    • No experience is a cause of success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences so-called trauma – but we make out of them just what suits our purposes.

Psycho-therapy: an attempt to bridge the gap between individual and community

  • He established a congenial, nonthreatening relationship with his patients – tried to convince the patient of the power they have to make themselves better.
    • Faced patients directly, and treated them as an equal partner
    • “The main thing (the way Adler has explained it to us) is that you establish a very close relationship to begin with. Because of the relationship you have established, you can go on and the person feels comfortable in cooperating with you. As a result of the cooperation he does something that he hasn’t done too much of before, mainly he shows the beginning of applying a feeling of community… [and] all of my efforts are devoted toward increasing the feeling of community of a person. I know that the real reason for his malady is his lack of cooperation.” -Sophia de Vries
  • In focusing on the symptoms, we run the risk of neglecting what underlies the symptoms — the inferiority feelings. Unless the severity of these inferiority feelings is diminished, the client will continue to use the symptoms like a crutch for an injured, unhealed limb. And until this process is uncovered and resolved, the person may just substitute one symptom for another.” -Henry T. Stein
    • “Symptoms may serve as excuses for avoiding something that the client is not doing. One way that the therapist can ferret this out is to ask the question: “If you did not have these symptoms, what would you do?” The client’s answer is often quite revealing about what she is avoiding.
  • Since Adler believed neurosis resulted from lack of courage, exaggerated feelings of inferiority, and underdeveloped social interest, he tried to increase patient’s courage, self-esteem, and social interest.
    • Clients are encouraged to see that they have the power to choose and act differently. “Everybody can accomplish everything”
    • “The therapist cannot give clients courage; they must find it within themselves. The therapist can begin this process by acknowledging the courage in what the client has already done: e.g., coming to therapy. Then therapist and client together can explore small steps that, with a little more courage, the client might take. It is through actually trying new behaviors and realizing that disaster is not an inevitable consequence that the client’s courage grows. Clients may have exaggerated inferiority feelings that they want to eliminate totally, believing that if they realize their goal these painful feelings will disappear. The therapist must first reduce these feelings to a manageable level and then convince the clients that normal inferiority feelings are a blessing that they may “use” as a spur for improvement.” –Stein
    • Genuine self-esteem does not come from the approval or praise of others. It comes from the person’s own experience of conquering difficulties. Therefore, small progressive action steps, aimed at overcoming previously avoided difficulties, must be taken, one at a time. For many clients, this is equivalent to doing the “felt impossible.” During and after these steps, new feelings about efforts and results are acknowledged and discussed.In attempting to avoid failure, discouraged people often decrease their level and radius of activity. They can become quite passive, wait for others to act, and limit their radius of activity to what is safe or emotionally profitable. Gradually, the level, radius, and quality of a client’s activity must increase. A move in the wrong direction is often a necessary first step which can then be corrected after commending the attempt. Without new activity and experimentation there will be little real progress. Some new success must be achieved to prepare for the next stage.
  • “Mistaken ideas and private logic are corrected to align with common sense. The client’s ideas must be unraveled to trace how she first adopted them in childhood. A client may have the idea that if his wife doesn’t give him what he wants, then she doesn’t love him. The therapist might ask a series of questions to illuminate the private logic behind this statement: “Is it your idea that love is only giving you what you want? What if what you want is no good for you? Should your wife give you what is unhealthy for you? Is that really being loving?” These questions will help the client explore the meaning he gives to love and marriage and may come to change his private views of these matters.” Henry T. Stein
  • After learning the meaning of the client’s movements and their immediate goals, the therapist leads to interpreting the core dynamics of the client’s inferiority feeling, final goal, and style of life. Family constellation and experiences, current behavioral patterns, early recollections, and dreams are integrated into a unique, vivid, and consistent portrait.In revealing the client’s goal, diplomacy, good timing, and sensitivity are essential. The client must feel the encouragement of new successes before she will feel open and ready to face a clear picture of the mistaken direction she had previously followed. The therapist helps the client evaluate the goal and discover what is really gained or lost in this pursuit–using logic, humor, metaphors, reduction to absurdity, and what Adler called “spitting in the soup.” In this last strategy, the therapist makes the final goal — e.g., being powerful, intimidating, and demanding respect — “taste bad,” perhaps by comparing it to being a Mafia don. The discussion around the client’s final goal reflects a very vigorous form of thinking about the meaning of life and what the client is doing with it and what else he could or should be doing.” -Henry T. Stein

Note: this is part one of a planned series.  I will explore the thoughts of other psychodynamic thinkers in future posts.

“If you have the feeling of community, and you are interested in your fellow man, then you cannot keep competing, and trying to do one better than others. And this is what people do all the time–they want to take it away from someone else, to keep their own glory. They go in a direction that leads only to them, and is away from mankind.” (From a transcribed, tape recorded seminar given by Sophia de Vries on 2-20-76, in the AAINW/ATP Archives.)

“The main thing (the way Adler has explained it to us) is that you establish a very close relationship to begin with. Because of the relationship you have established, you can go on and the person feels comfortable in cooperating with you. As a result of the cooperation he does something that he hasn’t done too much of before, mainly he shows the beginning of applying a feeling of community.” (From a transcribed, tape recorded interview with Sophia de Vries on 5-3-80, in the AAINW/ATP Archives.)

“All of my efforts are devoted toward increasing the feeling of community of a person. I know that the real reason for his malady is his lack of cooperation.” (From a transcribed, tape recorded interview with Sophia de Vries on 5-3-80, in the AAINW/ATP Archives.)

“Adler identifies the source of basic mistakes as an “inferiority complex,” which is behaving “as if” one was of lesser stature (emotional, physical, intellectual) than others, and then creating a style of life based on this belief. The inferiority complex is more than just a cognition or an attitude. It is a form of self-centeredness and is self-defeating. If one solely pursues self-originated objectives then one tends to self-isolate and to avoid risk. People have a self-concept, which is one’s belief about who one is. People also have a self-ideal, which is a belief about how one should be. One experiences dissonance between these two ideations. The greater the tension between them, the greater one’s feelings of inferiority, because one is acting primarily to preserve one’s concept of self.” -David Cronemyer

Weaknesses of Adlerian Theory:

“Adler is committed to a theory of motivation. If one pursues social interest then one has a motive for doing so. An example of a motive implementing social interest is altruism. Altruism may be commendable but is not necessarily efficacious. It may even be counter-evolutionary. People are motivated to do things for a variety of reasons, only a small subset of which are altruistic. By evaluating everybody who isn’t altruistic as “useless” Adler dramatically overstates his case. People may advance social interest without necessarily being altruistic, just as many altruistic people may act in a way that does not advance social interest.” –David Cronemyer

“Social interest” is inherently conservative. The way to enact social interest is by complaisantly and compliantly fulfilling one’s designated social role. Stepping outside its confines means one is pursuing an individual objective rather than a social one. This kind of mindless conformity is antithetical to the development of authentic personality.” –David Cronemyer

View All