Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was born and raised near Vienna. Although he grew up in a wealthy family, his childhood was not without difficulty. Alfred had rickets (a a vitamin D deficiency that causes soft bones). He also was quite lonely.
His father was busy being a grain merchant, and his mother was busy with six children (Alfred was the second oldest).
Adding to his childhood trouble, Alfred always lived in the shadow of his older brother (Sigmund); Sigmund Adler.
Adler & Freud
The other Sigmund in Alfred Adler’s live was Sigmund Freud. Freud was 14 years older than Alfred, and it’s hard for me to imagine that their relationship wasn’t somehow brotherly (including sibling rivalry). Freud certainly was fond of Adler, inviting him to join Freud’s “Wednesday Evening Discussions,” and later supporting his becoming the president of the Vienna Analytic Society. Apparently, you were either on Freud’s good or bad list but never in between. Disagreement with Freud was treated as disloyalty.
And Alder did disagree with Freud. He disagreed with Freud’s interpretations of dreams. Adler liked the idea of analyzing dreams but not Freud’s assumptions. In classical Freudian psychoanalysis, people are pushed by instincts and drives. Adler preferred to focus more on an individual’s goals. Although he didn’t dismiss the importance of genetics, environment and personal experience, Adler was less concerned about where people came from and more interested in where they were headed. Adler’s approach, called Individual Psychology, tried to understand and treat a person in a broader context.
For Adler, there were three “entrance gates” to understanding a person’s mental life.: birth order, early memories and dream analysis. Although each family is different, Adler found that people’s attitudes about their family often fit in predictable patterns. For example, only children often feel like they have no one to rely on. Their parents may be more anxious than those with several children, so an only child might receive special care (pampered or anxious attention). Similarly, the first born child was an only child before being “dethroned.” The first born might battle for position by being precocious, sullen or rebellious.
As you can see the theory doesn’t predict well. If there are three possible outcome to a single condition (precocious, sullen or rebellious), you’re not much better off than saying you have no idea what a first born child will do. But Adler didn’t worry about prediction; he was more concerned with attitude. If a first born acts like a second born, it makes little difference for Adler’s purpose. He was looking for a gate to discover attitudes; whatever the attitude is.
The second gate is early memories. What’s your earliest memory? If it involves aggression, you might still be battling for position in your family of origin. Maybe you’re competing with your siblings. If your earliest memory is about hiding, perhaps you felt neglected or inferior. For Adler, these early memories help reveal the underlying themes of your life.
The third gate is dreams. As a reflection of your inner life and goals, it doesn’t matter if they are real dreams or fantasies. Adler’s concern is discovering your style of life.
Alfred Alder is probably best known for coining the term “feelings of inferiority.” When we are inferior, we compensate for our weakness. This is a good thing. If you hurt one arm, you use the other more. When you break a leg, you use a crutch.
Stories of compensation abound. Demosthenes (384-322 BC) compensated for his stammering by putting pebbles in his mouth, running and reciting poetry until he could speak clearly. And, of course, he became a famous orator. Annette Kellerman could barely walk as a child, so she took to swimming. She became the mother of synchronized swimming, and the inventor of the one-piece bathing suit. The heroes in the stories always overcome great obstacles by compensating.
But overcompensating is bad. It’s bad to take advantage of other people because you’re trying to cover up your weakness. When you find yourself being less than truthful on your resume, you’re probably overcompensating. When you’re exaggerating the size of the fish you caught that too is overcompensation.
In contrast, superiority is moving toward completeness and perfection. Superiority is not being more valuable than another. It is reaching one’s own full potential. Alder’s superiority is similar to Maslow’s self actualization.