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Although Sigmund Freud is best known for his influence on the field of psychology, he was also a renowned teacher. Alfred Adler (1870–1937), a student of Freud, broke from Freud’s teachings, criticizing his focus on the sexual. Adler established an approach he called individual psychology, which focused on the individual’s need for fulfillment and power; he is credited with developing concepts such as birth order, quest for significance, mental life, and a variety of complexes including the inferiority complex. Adler suggested that the two needs children have to master are inferiority (or the will for power) and the need for social approval. According to Adler, people are constantly striving to be powerful, and feelings of inferiority (or weakness) often pull them into a consuming state of self-interest. It is important to note that, for Adler, inferiority itself is not negative; rather, it is a normal and even motivating force in life. All humans have some feelings of inferiority and are striving to overcome them. It is when one becomes fully consumed in his or her pursuit of power, or by feelings of inferiority to the point of paralysis, that inferiority becomes a burden. It is at this point that one shifts from having feelings of inferiority to having what Adler called the inferiority complex.
Adler initially conceptualized inferiority with regard to what he termed organ inferiority. In 1907 Adler wrote Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Physical Compensation, in which he theorized that organ inferiority occurred when one bodily organ was significantly weaker than another organ, causing the surrounding organs to compensate for the weakness in the inferior organ and make up for the deficiency in another way. Similarly, Adler suggested that individuals have or perceive that they have areas in which they are deficient—whether physical or psychological. Adler thought that, beginning in childhood, a deep feeling of inferiority is instilled in each individual as a result of the child’s physical stature. In contrast to an adult, a child sees himself or herself as inferior in both physical and psychological abilities. However, Adler thought that the degree to which the child feels inferior is largely the result of the child’s environment and interpretation of that environment. That is, some children perceive that they have more deficiencies or greater weaknesses because of the challenges they face, the way they interact with the adults in their lives, or the negative messages they get about their abilities. These children come to believe that they are inferior based on their perceptions of themselves and their life, not based on measurable or concrete criteria.
As adults, individuals also perceive areas of deficiency or weakness. These perceived weaknesses may result from life experiences (e.g., receiving a low test score) or from critical statements made by important others (e.g., being called stupid). Regardless of how the perceived deficit is brought to the individual’s awareness, once the individual identifies an area perceived to be a weakness, he or she tries to compensate for those feelings of inferiority and achieve power. However, if this compensation does not have the desired result, the individual may become fully focused on the inferiority and develop what Adler called the inferiority complex.
According to Adler, the inferiority complex is a neurosis; the individual is fully consumed in their focus on the inferiority. It is a magnification of the normal feelings of inferiority, and results when strivings to overcome inferiority are greatly hindered. Individuals who struggle with feelings of inferiority may rate themselves in some area important to them as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, when they would aspire to a 6 or 7. In contrast, those with an inferiority complex may rate themselves as a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 when they aspire to a 9. Those with an inferiority complex may also believe that there is no hope of ever reaching 9. The perception of one’s shortcomings is an important aspect of this complex. That is, it matters more where individuals perceive themselves to be than it does where they actually are.
An individual with an inferiority complex is often overwhelmed, and as a result, the inferiority complex can become as consuming as an ailment or disease. Individuals may become manipulative in order to try to get others to give them the affirmation they are looking for, or they may try to use their deficiencies to get special attention or accommodation for circumstances that they are actually capable of handling or overcoming on their own. Those with inferiority complexes may be self-centered, depressed, incapable of development, compliant, shy, insecure, timid, and cowardly. They may be unable to make decisions for themselves and lack courage to move in any direction unless they are guided by others. Normal feelings of inferiority propel individuals toward solving and overcoming problems. Individuals typically do all they can to improve the situation and rid themselves of the feelings of inferiority. However, individuals with inferiority complexes are prevented from being able to solve or overcome problems. Indeed, Hertha Orgler in Alfred Adler: The Man and His Work (1973) wrote that Adler defined the inferiority complex as an “inability to solve life’s problems” (p. 56). Adler believed that an inferiority complex, once established in an individual, would be a continued and lasting psychological struggle.
Adler’s individual psychology theory is one of the mainstays in psychological thought. However, one controversial aspect of his theory is that it tends to be more conceptual than scientific—that is, it is subjective rather than objective. Further, many of Adler’s concepts seem to be based on anecdotal evidence from his own life rather than on evidence integrated as a result of scientific research. There are many other theories that also are difficult to test empirically (e.g., object relations and gestalt), and it is likely that Adler would argue that those were his experiences and that other people could provide anecdotes of their own to corroborate his theories.
- Ansbacher, Heinz, and Rowena Ansbacher. 1956. The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Basic Books.
- Manaster, Guy, and Raymond Corsini. 1982. Individual Psychology. Itasca, IL: Peacock Publishers.
- Orgler, Hertha. 1973. Alfred Adler: The Man and His Work. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
- Sperber, Manes. 1974. Masks of Loneliness: Alfred Adler in Perspective. New York: Macmillan.
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