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Alfred Adler: The Individual Psychology

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Alfred Adler was an Austrian psychologist and psychiatrist and the founder of individual psychology. Perhaps, his own way of life was an important support in creation of the concept of the individual personal theory. Adler was the third of six children in a poor Jewish family. He fought hard with his physical weakness. When it was possible, the young Alfred ran and played with other children, who were always happy to accept him to their company. It seemed that he found among his friends the feeling of equality and self-respect, which he was deprived at home. The impact of this experience can be seen in Adler’s work, when he stressed the importance of empathy and shared values, calling it a social interest, thanks to which, the individual could realize his potential and become a useful member of society.

Adler, as a psychologist and psychotherapist, was a prolific and active writer. During his life he wrote about 300 books and articles on psychology, psychotherapy, the nature and treatment of neurosis and depression. Probably, the best introduction to his personal theory is “The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology”. Among many other significant works, having become available due to the translation into English, it can be called “The Neurotic Constitution”, “The  Study Of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation”, “Superiority and Social Interest”, “The Science of Living”, “The Meaning of Life”, “Social Interest: a Challenge to Mankind”.

The followers of Adler have founded many professional journals with the aim of expansion of theoretic and experimental works on individual psychology. “Journal of Individual Psychology”, “American Journal of Individual Psychology” and “International Journal of Individual Psychology” are among them.

Alfred Adler was convinced that the main purpose of the personal theory was to be an economical and useful guide for physicians, and, to a large extent, for any man on the way to changes in direction of more psychologically healthy behavior.  He formulated a very economical personal theory in the sense that a limited number of key concepts and principles were in the basis of the whole theoretical structure. The last ones can be divided into seven points: feelings of inferiority and compensation, striving for significance, style of life, social interest, unity of the personality, birth order and fictional final goal.

Feelings of Inferiority and Compensation

In the beginning of his career, when he worked together with Freud, Adler published a monograph entitled “The Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation”. In this work, he developed the theory, why one disease disturbed a man more than another one, and why some parts of the body were defeated by the disease faster than other ones. Adler believed that every man had a disease of the very organ that were developed less, functioned less successfully, and, in general, were inferior from birth.  Adler observed that people with a strong organic weakness or defect often tried to compensate these defects by training and exercises, which led to the development of the excellence or power.

Of course, there was nothing new in the idea that the organism tried to compensate its weakness. Doctors have known for a long time that, if one kidney does not function well, another one takes its functions and has a double charge. But Adler pointed out that the compensation process took place in the psychic sphere: people are often aimed not only at compensation of the organ’s insufficiency, but also it was appeared the subjective feeling of inferiority that developed from the feeling of their own psychological or social impotence.

Striving for Significance

Adler considered that the feeling of inferiority was the source of all human aspirations for self-development, growth and competency. He disposed the striving for significance as a main motif in his theory.

Adler was convinced that the striving for significance was innate and we would not be free from it because this striving was life itself. However, this feeling needs to bring up and develop, if we want to put into effect our human capacity.

Adler described people living in unity with the outer world, but constantly intended to improve it. However, the hypothesis, in accordance with which the humanity has just one final goal to develop the culture, tells nothing about how we, as individuals, are trying to achieve this goal. Adler decided this problem with the help of his concept of lifestyle.

Style of Life

According to Alfred Adler, the style of life includes a unique combination of streaks, ways of behavior and habits, which taken together, determine an inimitable picture of the individual’s existence. 

How does the style of life of the individual work? Adler came to the conclusion that, as a child, we all felt inferior either in the imagination or in the reality, and it made us compensate somehow. The style of life is based on our efforts, directed at the overcoming of the inferiority feeling, by means of which, the superiority feeling enhances.

From Adler’s point of view, the style of life is firmly fixed at the age of four or five years so much that afterwards it does not change totally. Of course, people continue to find the new ways to express their individual lifestyles, but in fact it is only the improvement and development of the basic structure, put in the early childhood.

Social Interest

Another concept that is decisive in Adler’s individual psychology is the social interest. The concept of the social interest reflects Adler’s firm belief in that people are social creatures and if we want to understand ourselves better, we should take into consideration our relations with other people and more widely, the socio-cultural context, in which we live.

Adler believed that the prerequisites of social interest were innate. As every man has it in some degree, he is a social creature by nature, not in the result of the formation of his habits. However, like other innate tendencies, the social interest does not appear automatically, but requires to be consciously developed.

The social interest develops in a social environment. Other people, especially the child’s mother, and then the rest of the family members, facilitate the process of his development. However, it is the child’s mother, the contact with whom is the first in his life, exerts the greatest impact on him and makes the great efforts to the development of the social interest.

Individual’s Creative Force

Previously, it was noted that the foundation of the life style was made in childhood. By Adler’s conviction, the style of life is crystallized so firmly to five years of a child's life that then he moves in this direction from the cradle to the grave.

The concept of the unity of the personality is the most important construct of Adler’s theory, his greatest achievement as personologist. When he discovered and added to his system this construct, all the rest concepts took a subordinate situation in relation to it. The active principle of human life was embodied in it. That was what Adler was searching for. He insisted that the style of life was formed under the influence of individual’s creativeness. In other words, everyone has the possibility to create his own style of life.

Finally, people themselves are responsible for who they become and how they behave. This creative force is responsible for the aim of individual’s life, determines the method of achieving of this goal and promotes the development of the social interest. The same creative force influences on perception, memory, imagination and dreams. It makes everyone a free individual.

Assuming the existence of the creative force, Adler did not deny the influence of heredity and environment on the formation of personality. Every child is born with unique genetic abilities and he obtains his unique social experience in a moment. 

However, the people are something more than just the activity results of heredity and environment. People are creative beings, who not only respond to their environment, but also have an effect on it, as well as get feedback from it. An individual uses his heredity and environment as a building material for the formation of building the personality. That is why, in the end, only the person is responsible for his style of life and attitudes to the world.

Birth Order

On the basis of the important role of the social context in the development of personality, Adler turned attention to the order of birth, as the major determinant of the affirmation that accompanied the style of life. That is, if children have the same parents and they grow in the same family environment, their social environment is not always identical. The experience of the elder or the younger child in the family in relation to other children, the characteristics of the influence of parental attitudes and values change in the result of appearance of the next children and influence on the formation of lifestyle.

According to Adler, birth order of a child in the family is critical. Event perception that probably accompanies a certain position is especially important.  In other words, from the value that the child gives to the current situation depends on how his birth order influences on the style of life. Moreover, as this perception is subjective, any style of life can be developed in children, who are in any position. However, some psychological constitutions are characteristic only for a particular position of a child in the family.

Adler’s interest to the relationship in the context of birth order is nothing other than an attempt to investigate the types of problems, faced by children, as well as the solutions they can accept to cope with these problems. 

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