The Essentials of Alfred Adlers Theory of Personal

ityAlfred Adler studied personality around the time of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung but developed very different
ideas (Cloninger, 1996). Although he changed his theory many times during his lifetime, he always believed people
had control over their lives and made choices concerning themselves. He named his theory Individual Psychology
because he felt each person was unique and no previous theory applied to all people. Adlers theory is comprised
primarily of four aspects: striving towards superiority, the unity of personality, the development of personality, and
psychological health, which includes intervention.
Adler believed the main goal of all people is to move to a better way of life, although he admits the ways to
achieve this goal varies among people (Cloninger, 1996). He first used the term inferiority complex as being
overcome by feelings of lack of worth. In other words, the person is not achieving their goal to moving positively
in life. People wish to move from feelings of inferiority to superiority. He wrote, “We all wish to overcome
difficulties. We all strive to reach a goal by the attainment of which we shall feel strong, superior, and complete”
(Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956). Superior and superiority, in his usage, has a slightly different meaning than what
is commonly thought. It is not necessarily feelings of superiority over others but more along the lines of
self-improvement, such as striving for ones personal best. He eventually switched from superiority striving to
simply perfection striving. This was the final stage in the development of his theory. Alder also used the word
superiority complex. This complex occurred when a person tried to overcome their inferiority complex by
repressing their actual feelings. They are usually very arrogant and tend to exaggerate their achievements.
Along with the idea of trying to overcome inferiority, Adler claimed that every person had an idea about what their
perfect self would be like (Cloninger, 1996). He called this imagined goal the fictional finalism. Fictional finalism
gives clearer direction as to what decisions to make concerning oneself. Although people may have some idea
about their goal, they rarely fully comprehend it. Also, throughout ones lifetime the goal may be altered. The
general direction, however, usually remains the same. Adler wrote, “. . .in every mental phenomenon we discover
anew the characteristic of pursuit of a goal, and all our powers, faculties, experiences, wishes and fears, defects
and capacities fall into line with this characteristic” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956). Adler believed that it was
impossible to understand a person without understanding that persons fictional finalism.
The second aspect of Adlers theory was the unity of personality (Cloninger, 1996). Psychologists before him,
including Freud, discussed how different parts of a persons personality are at war with each other. Adler believed
the conscious and unconscious worked in union with one another towards the fictional finalism. Both had the same
goal. Adler claimed that each person has a unique style of life, which not only includes the common goal but also
how the goal is going to be achieved and the persons concept of ones self and the world. Styles of life can be
either positive or negative. Adler hated lumping large groups of people into broad categories but felt that
describing basic lifestyles would make the concept easier to understand. His types are only intended to be rough
estimates of the infinitely large number of personalities. Three of the four groups are negative styles of life. These
mistaken styles include the ruling types, the getting types and the avoiding types. The ruling types seek to control
others. They are not all terrible people; because high competitiveness goes along with control, many are high
achievers. They will, however, let others know of their accomplishments and tend to do so in a belittling manner.

Adler called this inclination the deprecation complex. The second type is the getting type. These people are very
dependent on others and take on a passive attitude towards life. Adler wrote that parents who pamper their
children encourage this lifestyle. The third type is the avoiding type. They try to avoid all of lifes problems to
avoid defeat. They are seen as cold and usually prefer to be isolated. This appearance however, usually masked a
superiority belief, albeit a fragile one. The final type is the only healthy lifestyle. It is the socially useful type. These
people believe in doing good for the sake of society. They also believe they have control over their lives. Adler
wrote, “social interest must be trained, and it can be trained only if one grows up in relation to others and feels a
part of the whole. One must sense that not only the comforts of life belong to one, but also the discomforts. One
must feel at home on this earth with all its advantages and disadvantages” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956).
Adler did believe in free will, but he acknowledged that it could be shaped by outside influences, such as parental
behavior and birth order (Cloninger, 1996). Parental behavior could take on two negative extremes: pampering
and neglecting. The first leads to a very spoiled child who experiences lack of love in the less indulgent real world.

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The second leads to people who feel incapable of completing tasks. The consequence of both extremes is,
however, the same: adults whose fictional goal is to be indulged and pampered. Birth order is also a factor which
contributes to personality. Adler went into great detail about the advantages and disadvantages of firstborn,
middle, youngest, and only children. Essentially, the firstborn child overvalues authority and has very conservative
values. Adler claims that most problem children are firstborn. Second-born children are the most well adapted of
all positions. They act as the peacemakers. It is interesting to note Adler was a middle child. Youngest children
often are often too pampered, also leading to problem behavior. They fail to develop independence because it is
not necessary. Only children experience so much pampering they experience an unrealistic sense of self worth.

Adler wrote, “The only child} wants to be the center of attention all the time. He really feels that it is a right of his,
and if his position is challenged, he thinks it a great injustice. In later life, when he is no longer the center of
attention, he has many difficulties” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956). Adler did acknowledge that while actual
birth order was usually a good prediction of behavior, psychological birth order also played a role. In some
situations, children psychologically take on a different order than that which actually occurs.
As mentioned earlier, a healthy person has strong social interest (Cloninger, 1996). A good word to describe
social interest is empathy. Living in a society requires a general concern for that society. Social interest, and
consequently mental health, can only be attained with success in the three basic tasks of life: work, love, and social
interaction. Adler wrote, “For a long time now I have been convinced that all the questions of life can be
subordinated to the three major problemsthe problems of communal life, of work and of love. These three arise
from the inseparable bond that of necessity links men together for association, for the provision of livelihood, and
for the care of offspring” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956). Work is simply what is sounds like it would be: having
an occupation, doing some socially useful job to earn a living. Love, according to Adler, is between a man and
woman and involves decisions to have children. Failing in the area of love includes not wanting to have children,
homosexuality, and even falling in love with two people at once. Social interaction is non-sexual relationships,
including friendship. Healthy adults attain all three tasks while healthy children see them as possible to attain.
Adlers theory of personality covers many aspects, including: what drives people, how the mind works to achieve
goals, how personality is developed, and what constitutes mental health. Adler strongly disagreed with his
precursors and peers because his theory revolved around the notion that one has control over ones life.


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