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Even though Alfred Adler is often recognized today, along with Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, as one of the “three giants of psychology,” it’s not an exaggeration to say that, compared with his two Viennese colleagues, he is rather unknown, some might even say obscure. In “The Courage to Be Disliked,” distinguished Japanese psychologist Ichiro Kishimi makes an effort to mend this injustice by providing an accessible overview of Adlerian concepts in the form of a Socratic dialogue between a young man dissatisfied with life and a philosopher convinced that the world is simple and that happiness is within the reach of every man. Get ready to hear some of his enlightening points and prepare to discover how to unlock the power within yourself to be the person you truly want to be!
Say that you’ve got a cold with a high fever and that your doctor tells you that the reason for your sickness is that you weren’t dressed well enough the day before and then sends you home. Would you be satisfied with his actions? Of course not. Rather than merely telling you the cause of your symptoms, you would want the doctor to tell you how to treat them. Unfortunately, that’s what psychologists do nowadays. Inspired by the ideas of Sigmund Freud, most counsellors and therapists today would simply tell you that your suffering stems from such-and-such cause in the past, and would then end up consoling you by saying, “So, you see, it’s not your fault.” An Adlerian psychologist, however, would tell you the exact opposite – namely, that it is your fault. How’s that better? Or, better yet, how is it more valid?
Freudian psychology was, from the very beginning, etiological by character, meaning, it dealt with causes, origins and reasons behind the way that things are. In many ways, Freud was the first person to use the word “trauma” in the sense that we use it today. He argued that a person’s unhappiness in the present can only be understood in relation to psychic wounds (or traumas) picked up quite by chance in the past, particularly during the seemingly innocuous years of our childhoods. Adler, one of Freud’s closest collaborators, begged to differ. “When you treat a person’s life as a vast narrative,” he argued, “there is an easily understandable causality and sense of dramatic development that creates strong impressions and is extremely attractive.” Human lives, however, aren’t novels, and therefore the past can determine our present only insofar we allow it to.
In Adlerian psychology, there’s no such thing as “trauma,” and rather than past “causes” there are future “goals.” In his words, “No experience is in itself a cause of our success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences – the so-called trauma – but instead we make out of them whatever suits our purposes. We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give them is self-determining.” Put in simpler terms, rather than being what our traumas made us, we are what we make out of our traumas. Even better, our self is not determined by our past experiences, but by the meaning we give them with regard to our future plans. Since the study of the purpose of a given phenomenon (rather than its cause) is called teleology, Adlerian psychology is often described as teleological.
The difference between the etiological approach of Freud (better known as psychoanalysis) and the teleological philosophy of Adler (known to historians as individual psychology) can be best understood by way of a simple example. Imagine a person who’s too afraid to leave his room and has shut himself inside for several years. He insists that he desperately wants to go out, but every time he takes even a single step outside his house, he suffers palpitations and shivers. Now, if hazarding a guess, Freud would probably say that this person must be suffering from some kind of neurosis, caused either by being mistreated by his parents in his childhood or bullied at school by his peers. Adler, on the other hand, would argue that the person is merely insecure and that he actually doesn’t want to go out. Thereby he’s created a state of anxiety and fear as a means to achieve that goal.
As you can see, Adler’s individual psychology is pretty much Freud’s psychoanalysis turned inside out. Understandably, that leads to some serious corollaries. First of all, it makes the world far less deterministic: whereas for Freud our present was pretty much decided by past occurrences, for Adler, our lives are decided here and now. Secondly, it makes the world far simpler: if Freud maintained that only complemx narratives of the past had the power to elucidate present conditions, Adler insisted that we have agency in how we react to events in our lives and that, consequently, we are solely responsible for our destinies. And that leads to Adler’s final, and probably most important, point. Namely, that change is always possible, and that people don’t usually change only because they choose not to, to be precise, because they are comfortable not changing, regardless of what they might say, think or feel.
The idea that you’re unhappy is because you choose to be unhappy might seem a bit strange, but it’s actually difficult to disprove it. Think of the last time you were angry? Did you begin shouting because you felt anger or could it be that you merely created the emotion of anger in order to fulfil the goal of shouting? Why should unhappiness be any different? Even though, at first glance, this might make Adler’s individual psychology condescending, it’s actually quite liberating. Because it boils down to a simple maxim: you are in charge. Not your parents, not your friends, not your past traumas. You. And nobody else. To quote Adler, “No matter what has occurred in your life up to this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on.” It’s you, living in the here and now, who determines your own life.
In a play that was loosely adapted in the famous Netflix show, “The Good Place,” French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote “Hell is other people.” What he meant by that was that most of our problems stem not from ourselves (or our past) but simply from the presence of other people in this world. A few years before Sartre, Adler wrote something quite similar: “To get rid of one’s problems, all one can do is live in the universe all alone.” That sounds a bit strange, so allow us to make it a bit clearer using the words of Kishimi: “If one could live in the universe all alone, one’s problems would just go away.” Now it should be easier to go back to Adler and a concept that runs to the very root of his psychology, phrased, in one of his books, thus: “All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.”
But how’s that possible, you ask? For example, you must know at least one self-conscious person who dislikes themselves quite relentlessly, feeling they can be described in nothing but a series of faults and shortcomings, no matter what the facts or their friends say. So, isn’t their problem exclusively themselves rather than the other people? No, Adler would say, of course not. It’s, once again, the other way around. These people are simply so afraid of interpersonal relationships that they came to dislike themselves. Put in simpler words, they are avoiding interpersonal relationships by disliking themselves. “So-called internal worry does not exist,” Kishimi writes. “Whatever the worry that may arise, the shadows of other people are always present.” To understand this even better, it’d be nice to look at interpersonal relationships from a slightly different perspective: the inferiority complex.
You’ve already heard that phrase countless times, and yet, you’ve probably never bothered to find out that it’s actually a central concept in Adlerian psychology. Even so, you know what it entails: an intense personal feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness. Regardless of the name, there’s nothing inherently bad about feelings of inferiority themselves. All people have them, and all people have an inherent desire to escape from them. But precisely because of this, they can often trigger growth. For example, think of an All-Star player who feels inferior in comparison to their idol, but uses this feeling to motivate themselves to become even better. Unfortunately, this striving can sometimes develop into an unhealthy obsession. Napoleon, the anecdote goes, was so depressed about his small stature that he compensated for it by waging a war against the world. His problem, Adler would say, wasn’t a problem at all. He invented it because his goal was to become a celebrated military leader.
If the previous section left you wondering how Napoleon could have invented his height, worry not – we’re not moving away from that story just yet. You see, the phrase “inferiority complex” is the English translation for Adler’s word Minderwertigkeitsgefühl. It’s a long word, so you already know that it’s German and that it’s composed of several words, in this case, three: Gefühl, which means “feeling,” Wert, which means “worth,” and Minder, which means “having less of.” So, “feeling of inferiority” is a term that has to do with value, or more precisely, with one’s value judgement of oneself. However, despite being turned inward by definition, value judgments of oneself are impossible in the absence of other people. For example, if there was nobody else in the world save Napoleon, how could he have known that he wasn’t tall, let alone feel inferior about it?
But even in a world of millions and billions, Napoleon’s problem wasn’t a problem for itself. After all, there was nothing he could do to alter his height. However, he could have done several things to change his value judgment about it and, by association, his value judgment of himself. What he never realized was that even with an issue such as height, it’s all reduced to interpersonal relationships and subjective interpretations. He could have simply not bothered about what other people might think about him. Or, even better, he could have attributed to his height a slightly different meaning. For example, small stature is less intimidating than tall and strong build, so in a way, being of less than average height – even if not desirable with relation to oneself – is actually quite a desirable thing in relation to other people.
The reason why Napoleon didn’t reinterpret his height in this manner wasn’t because he didn’t know it was a possibility, but because, at least secretly, he actually wanted to have a reason to wage a war against the world. Quite similarly, as we learned from “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan is said to have invented slights and insults to use as fuel and motivation. In reality, both feelings of inferiority and feelings of adequacy arise entirely through comparison. You can use your inferiority complex as an excuse to not try (as that person not leaving his room) or as an excuse to try too much (as Michael Jordan). But these are not the only ways. There’s also a third way – the right way, Adler would say. Namely, you can just opt out of the system by reinterpreting every objective fact in terms of adequacy and belonging.
In essence, Adler’s approach regarding inferiority and interpersonal problems is rooted in three simple facts: 1) We cannot alter objective facts; 2) We can, however, alter subjective interpretations of objective facts; and 3) We aren’t inhabitants of an objective, but a subjective, world. So subjective, in fact, that everything we just said about Napoleon bears no relation to reality. Historians say that he was actually 5 feet 7 inches tall (1.68 m), an inch above the period’s average adult male height. His small build was, in reality, invented by British satirists. Yet, the idea that short men tend to compensate for their lack of height through domineering behavior and aggression is so prevalent that it has inspired a famous type of inferiority complex – the Napoleon syndrome. Everybody has heard about it, but in truth it’s just another story people might tell themselves to justify something they already are – or want to be.
The Napoleon syndrome, Adler would say, is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s not true in itself, but if you believe it to be, you will inevitably make a contribution to its eventual realization. The same holds about all stereotypes and all emotions. Just as well, it holds true about most Freudian narratives: as accurate as they might seem, just like novels, they are just too structured and meaningful to actually be true. Life is, simply put, too messy to be as multifaceted and as meaningful as a novel. Ironically, that’s what makes life so simple as well. Put otherwise, if the past doesn’t define who you are in the present, it means that you, acting in the present moment, are responsible for who you might become in the future. You are, to quote Sartre yet again, condemned to be free, and responsible for everything you do and feel. It’s not therapy that you need; it’s courage.
Think of it this way. Not every person who has suffered a debilitating trauma in the past acts or feels the same way in the present. There are millions of men who can’t cope with losing their entire families in a war, and millions of women who can’t go on living because they had been abused by a person of trust in their childhood. Yet, there are also millions of men and women who have gone through similar traumas in the past and can still find happiness and even pleasure in everyday things. Think of s Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertész, two Holocaust survivors who won Nobel Prizes despite spending their childhoods in extermination camps. Or think of Oprah Winfrey who was repeatedly molested during her childhood, and even lost a child at 14 due to premature birth. Forced to choose between being stuck in the past and embracing the future, they chose – courage.
If our lives were determined by other people or our environment, people with similar pasts would have had similar presents. Since that is obviously not the case, it must follow that we are the ones who have decided our lifestyles and no one else. The reason why our lives do not look like the way we want them to be is because we’re incapable of accepting the fact that we’re boundlessly free to change them. You don’t like the job you’re currently at? You can quit it, can you? The fact that you haven’t done that so far proves that there are some parts of your job – say, financial comfort or recognition – that you secretly like. Accepting the fact that you are responsible for everything that happens to you is scary. It’s also difficult. Shifting responsibility for your own troubles to someone else is far easier.
Adler had a word for this kind of state in which people come up with all manner of pretexts in order to avoid their life tasks – “the life-lie.” As severe as the term might sound, Adler never used it to condemn someone else’s behavior. Put otherwise, the fact that you might be avoiding your life tasks by inventing life-lies doesn’t mean that you’re bad or that you’re living a bad life. It merely means that you don’t have the courage to live a different life, more authentic to your actual, deeper wants and needs. Whereas Freudian psychology is a psychology of possession and determinism, Adlerian psychology is a psychology of courage and of use. Meaning, it’s not about who you are, but who you can be. To quote Adler, “It’s never about what one is born with, but about what use one makes of that equipment.”
To live more authentically, you must first learn how to differentiate between your own life tasks and the tasks of other people. “Every interpersonal relationship problem,” believed Adler, “comes from either someone else intruding on a task that is ours or from us intruding on someone else’s task.” Then, you must recognize that you are not the center of the world, but a part of a community. Only then you should be able to stop thinking in terms of what the others can give you and start thinking in terms of what you can give to them. That is commitment to the community. It is also an antidote to competition, which breeds misfortune even more than it breeds progress. Happiness, says Adler, is not the feeling of being better than someone, but the feeling of contributing to a common goal. You don’t need recognition to be happy. You need the subjective sense that you are of use to at least one person.
With more than 3.5 million copies sold, “The Courage to Be Disliked” was already an enormous bestseller in Asia before it was finally translated into English. Not a few psychologists say that this book has singlehandedly resurrected Alfred Adler from the dead, that is to say, from the shadows of his far more famous Viennese colleagues, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung.
But “The Courage to Be Disliked” doesn’t only demonstrate that Adlerian psychology is still relevant, a whole century after being first elaborated. It moreover shows – and quite convincingly if we are allowed to be the judge – that Adler understood human nature far better than Freud and Jung and that he has been overlooked by modern times mostly because his approach might make all those therapists earning millions on other people’s misfortunes quite obsolete.
If you need someone to talk to, then take no notice of this book and start preparing for your evening session with your therapist. However, if you need to introduce lasting change to your life, then cancel the meeting and buy this book right away. Reading it can change your life. Highly recommended.
In general, life has no meaning. But you can assign meaning to your life. And it can be whatever you make it to be, as long as you do not lose sight of the guiding star of “I contribute to others.” Because happiness is nothing more than contribution.
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