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The Essentials Of Alfred Adler

’s Theory Of Personality Essay, Research Paper

Alfred 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. Adler?s theory is comprised

primarily of four aspects: striving towards superiority, the unity of personality, the development of personality, and

psychological health, which includes intervention.

Motivation of Actions

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 one?s 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 one?s 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 person?s fictional finalism.

Unity of Personality

The second aspect of Adler?s theory was the unity of personality (Cloninger, 1996). Psychologists before him,

including Freud, discussed how different parts of a person?s 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 person?s concept of one?s 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 life?s 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.

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.

Mental Health

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 problems?the 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.

Adler?s 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 one?s life.