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Alfred Adler's Theory

Alfred Adler was born in 1870, the second of six children in a family who lived in the suburbs of Vienna. Adler was invited to join Freud's circle (a group that discussed Freud's ideas) after defending Freud at a lecture. Like Jung, he later broke with Freud over Freud's insistence that members of the Vienna Circle endorse Freud's sexual theory.

Freud always looked down on Adler, while Freud regarded Jung a powerful man of ideas. Adler naturally resented this and was always quick to correct people who referred to him as a follower of Freud. He said he was merely an acquaintance, not a follower.

Adler believed that personality was formed early in life. He thought positive and negative experiences early in childhood could lead to reactions that would establish lifelong personality orientations or goals.

For example, Adler's brother died beside him in bed when he was three. The result, Adler said, was that Adler resolved to "overcome this thing called death." Ultimately this led him to become a doctor.

What led Adler to resolve to become a doctor, as a young child?

Adler reported that his mother was good-humored, truthful, kind, and totally devoted to the children. However, "when my younger brother was born she trans­ferred her attention to him, and I felt dethroned, and turned to my father, whose favorite I was."

This illustrates two fundamental Adlerian concepts: those of dethronement and sibling rivalry. Dethronement occurs when a young child, initially the focus of attention, is replaced in the mother's affections by a newly arrived infant.

The result is one form of sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry in general is competition between brothers or sisters for parental attention and approval.

How did the arrival of a baby brother influence Adler's theory?

portrait of Adler
Alfred Adler

Alfred struggled in school. He was clumsy, homely, and got poor grades. He flunked mathematics in secondary school and had to repeat it. This led to another episode that became an example of principles in his theory.

Adler heard his teacher advise his father to take him out of school and apprentice him to a shoemaker. Instead, his father encouraged him to remain at school and redouble his efforts. Young Alfred fought against his setback, studying his math industriously.

Some time later the teacher wrote a mathematical problem on the black­board which none of the pupils nor the teacher himself could solve. Adler suddenly stood up and said, "I can solve the problem."

Disregarding the teacher's sarcastic remark, "Of course, if no one else can, you will surely be able to," he walked over to the blackboard amidst the laughter of his schoolmates and solved the problem. From that time on he was the best pupil in the mathematics class.

How did Adler fight back against feelings of inferiority?

This vignette illustrates another Adlerian concept. (Every part of the Adler legend illustrates a key concept from Adler's theory.) In this case, the triumph in math class illustrated is the Adlerian concept of compensation in response to feelings of inferiority.

Adler believed everybody has feelings of inferiority at times. That is a universal part of human experience. How you react to feelings of inferiority can shape the person you become.

You can be defeated and give up hope, or you can fight back or change what you do, to overcome difficulties. To compen­sate, in Adlerian theory, is to react against difficulty or hardship by fighting back or developing new tactics, instead of giving in to despair and doubt.

A person who compensates for what Adler called felt inferiorities (situations that make you feel inferior) is a person who makes adjustments in order to excel. This can mean trying extra hard despite initial failures, or working around diffi­culties to find another way to succeed.

Inferiority Feelings

Most people have heard of inferiority complexes. Adler was surprised to find this concept singled out for attention from his entire theory. Wherever he went people asked him about inferiority complexes.

Adler explained there was an important difference between inferiority feelings, which are universal and serve as a positive motivating force, and inferiority complexes, which are relatively rare and tend to paralyze people rather than motivating them.

What did Adler say about inferiority feelings of childhood?

Adler believed inferiority feelings were normal and universal in childhood, because everybody starts out small and ineffectual. Most people respond by developing skills to make themselves feel more powerful and effective.

Others develop patterns of dependency or self-limitation that cause them trouble or harm others. To Adler, these trouble­some behavior patterns were complexes. Therefore Adler used the word complex differently from Jung.

To Jung, a complex was an emotion-laden theme in the person's background. To Adler, a complex was a troublesome behavior pattern. Usually it involved a person's relation to others: a social behavior pattern.

How did Adler use the word "complex," in contrast to Jung?

Inferiority feelings begin in childhood and continue to crop up now and then throughout life. They occur when someone does better than you, criticizes you, shows authority over you, hurts you, or otherwise gains advantage over you.

Inferiority feelings are normal and even beneficial. They motivate a person to seek self-improvement and do what is necessary to avoid such feelings in the future. Changes in response to felt inferiorities are what Adler called compensations.

What is the distinction between inferiority feelings and the inferiority complex?

The inferiority complex, by contrast, does not motivate people; it paralyzes them. People with an inferiority complex are convinced they are worthless or that they will fail, so they fail to take action to improve themselves.

Adler felt that people show their overall personality orientation in multiple ways forming a consistent whole. A person suffering from an inferiority complex will show it in facial expression, tone of voice, posture, choice of clothing, and choice of activities.

A person with an inferiority complex is likely to avoid challenges because they are sure they will fail. They will interpret difficulties as being due to their own shortcomings, which are assumed to be all-pervasive. (This resembles the pattern of thinking Seligman labeled learned helplessness, years later.)

What was Adler's concept of "self-training"?

Adler believed each personality is the result of self-training (one of his distinc­tive phrases). Self-training meant shaping the evolution of your behavior, or your personality, based on what works for you in preventing feelings of inferiority or achieving more positive feelings.

Adler said people were continually striving to move from a "net minus" to a "net plus" situation. We seek what protects us, makes us happy, or what pleases the people who matter to us.

We notice what makes us feel inferior or competent, then we put those lessons into action. We do whatever we can to make our lives better. We try to eliminate our weaknesses and increase our power.

This led some writers to say Adler emphasized the motive of power. Freud was all about sex, they said, while Jung was obsessed with the unconscious and Adler with power.

That is not quite right; Adler saw striving for superiority as a pervasive motiva­tion, but striving for superiority meant working for any improvement in one's situation; it was not about dominating other people.

Adler observed that people sometimes over-compensate for early feelings of inferiority by going to great extremes in their drive to triumph over adversity. Wilma Rudolph had polio that left her crippled in childhood, but she became an Olympic gold-medal winning sprinter. O.J. Simpson had rickets as a child and was told he would never be able to run again, but he became a great football running back.

How did both OJ Simpson and Wilma Rudolph show compensation?

Over-compensation sometimes leads to problems. It is (by definition) rather extreme: a person's entire life can revolve around overcompensation for some childhood feeling of insecurity such as being poor. However, in some cases this leads to great achievements.

The Style of Life

Adler believed that personality was formed in the first 5 or 6 years of life, and often the child's personality was formed as a direct response to family situations. A young child tries very hard to please parents and avoid feelings of inferiority.

Certain patterns of behavior "work" in the context of a particular society or family. Others do not.

For example, some children always get their way by being nice, and this can solidify into a sociable style of life. Other children might learn to be tough and uncaring. Adler would say these patterns formed in childhood would carry over to adulthood personality traits.

Adler called the individual's habitual approach to other people a style of life. To Adler, the style of life was key to all a person's behavior.

Today the word lifestyle refers to a person's surroundings and activities, such as living at Palm Beach, having two cars, or going jogging every day. However, what Adler meant by style of life was a habitual social orientation.

Lifestyle, to Adler, was the way a person reacted to other people and social situations. A child who was devious, doing bad things then trying to talk himself or herself out of trouble, would probably retain that orientation in adulthood.

Lifestyles could be positive, too. Some children are consistently good-natured and helpful. This produces social reinforcement for them in childhood, and (as a result, Adler would say) they are likely to retain that social orientation in adulthood.

Adler thought the style of life tended to be consistent, reflected in multiple ways throughout an individual's life.

Why was the "style of life" so important?

Adler put a special emphasis on what is translated from German as "spoiled" children. These are people who learned in childhood to manipulate caregivers to do their wishes by whining and complaining and making a fuss until they got their way. If parents gave in, this pattern could be locked into place as a style of life, according to Adler.

Adler thought that a spoiled child turned into an adult who felt "entitled," as we say these days. A person with this attitude thinks good things should be provided by others, without obligation, and if things do not go right, the best tactic is to raise a fuss until somebody fixes the problem.

Adler identified many neurotic styles that he called complexes. Using the terminology from the beginning of this chapter, they would be called types.

An example is the Redeemer Complex. This is a lifestyle in which a person achieves satisfaction (or feelings of superiority) by trying to improve others or change their errant ways. Another example was the No Complex: a feeling of power gained by always disagreeing with others.

These are examples of types because they are clusters of traits that form a recognizable personality orientation. Some still ring true in today's world: perhaps you know a Redeemer type, or a person with a No Complex.

Other Adlerian types seem peculiar and obsolete in today's world. That is the usual fate of personality types described in one era, because they are (after all) stereotypes, and they tend to become more or less common as cultures change.


Ansbacher, H. L. & Ansbacher, R. R. (1956) (Eds.) The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation in Selections From His Writings, New York: Harper and Row.

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