The question of what drives us—what great force underlies our motivation as individuals, propelling us forward through all manner of trying circumstance—was a matter of longtime fascination for psychologist Alfred Adler. He eventually came to call this motivating force the “striving for perfection”, a term which encapsulates the desire we all have to fulfill our potential, to realize our ideals—a process strikingly similar to the more popular idea of self-actualization.
Self-actualization is perhaps the less problematic of the two terms, as one cannot process Adler’s ideas without immediately bumping up against the troublesome nature of the words “perfection” and “ideal”. While the idea of striving to be the best version of one’s self is an obviously positive goal, the concept of perfection is, in psychology, often given a rather negative connotation. After all, perfection likely does not exist, and therefore cannot be reached, meaning that efforts to do so are invariably frustrating and can come full circle to create an extreme lack of motivation (i.e., giving up).
Indeed, Adler himself balked at using “perfection” to describe his single motivating force, beginning instead with phrases like aggression drive (to describe the frustrated reaction we have when our basic needs, such as the need to eat or be loved, are not being met)—yet even this term had obvious negative connotations; aggression is, after all, seldom seen as a good thing, and using the term “assertiveness” may have served Adler better.
(Interestingly, Freud himself took exception to the term “aggression drive”, though not on the basis that it was overly negative in connotation; instead, Freud felt that it would detract from the pivotal position of the sex drive in psychoanalytic theory. Freud may have had a change of heart in later years, however, as his idea of a “death instinct” bore a great deal of similarity to Adler’s theory.)
Another, perhaps better, descriptor used by Adler to refer to basic motivation was compensation, which in this case was meant to denote the process of striving to overcome one’s inherent limitations. Adler postulated that since we all have various issues and shortcomings as people, our personalities develop largely through the ways in which we do (or do not) compensate for or overcome these inherent challenges. Adler later rejected this idea in part (though it still played an important role in his theory; more on that later), as he decided it was inaccurate to suggest one’s problems are the cause for who one eventually becomes.
Adler also toyed, early on, with the idea of “masculine protest”, upon observing the obvious differences in the cultural expectations placed on boys and girls, and the fact that boys wished, often desperately, to be thought of as strong, aggressive, and in control. Adler eschewed the bias that suggested men’s assertiveness and success in the world arose from some inexplicable innate superiority. Instead, he saw this phenomenon as a result of the fact that boys are encouraged to be assertive in life, and girls are discouraged from the very same thing.
Lastly, before settling on the phrase “striving for perfection”, Adler called his theory the “striving for superiority”—most likely a homage to Friederich Nietzsche, whose philosophies Adler was known to admire. Nietzsche, of course, considered the will to power the basic motive of human life. Adler later amended this phrase, using it more to refer to unhealthy or neurotic striving, likely due to the way it suggests the act of comparing one’s self to others, of attempting to become “superior” to one’s fellows.
The idea of “holism”, as written about by Jan Smuts, the South African philosopher and statesman, was known to have influenced Adler greatly. Smuts posited that, in order to understand people, we have to take them as summations rather than as parts, as unified wholes existing within the context of their environments (both physical and social).
To reflect this notion, Adler decided to call his approach to psychology individual psychology, owing to the exact meaning of the word individual: “un-divided.” He also generally avoided the traditional concept of personality, steering clear of chopping it up into internal traits, structures, dynamics, conflicts, etc., and choosing instead talk about people’s “style of life” (or “lifestyle”, as we would call it today; the unique ways in which one handles problems and interpersonal relations).
Here again Adler differed a great deal from Freud, who felt that the things that happened in the past (e.g. early childhood trauma), shaped the nature of people in the present. Adler was essentially forward looking, seeing motivation as a matter of moving toward the future, rather than a product of our pasts driving us with only our limited awareness as to how and why. This idea that we are drawn towards our goals, our purposes, our ideals is known as “teleology”.
Teleology was remarkable in the way it removed necessity from the equation; we are not merely living life in a “cause and effect” manner (if X happened, then Y must happen later) or on a set course toward an immobile goal; we have choice, and things can change along the way as we pursue our ideals.
Fictions and fictional finalism
Adler was also influenced by philosopher Hans Vaihinger, who believed that while mankind would never discover the “ultimate” truth, for practical purposes, we need to create partial truths, frames of reference we use as if they were indeed true. Vaihinger dubbed these partial truths “fictions”.
Both Vaihinger and Adler believed that people use these fictions actively in their daily lives, such as using the absolute belief in good and evil to guide social decisions, and believing that everything is as we see it. Adler referred to this as “fictional finalism” and believed that each individual has one such dominating fiction which is central to his or her lifestyle.
Once Adler had fleshed out his theory on what motivates us as beings, there remained one question to be answered: If we are all being pulled toward perfection, fulfillment, and self-actualization, why does a sizeable portion of the population end up miserably unfulfilled and far from perfect, far from realizing their selves and ideals?
Adler believed that some people become mired in their “inferiority”; he felt that we are all born with a sense of inferiority (as children are, of course, smaller and both physically and intellectually weaker than adults), which is often added to by various “psychological inferiorities” later (being told we are dumb, unattractive, bad at sports, etc.) Most children manage these inferiorities by dreaming of becoming adults (the earliest form of striving for perfection), and by either mastering what they are bad at or compensating by becoming especially adept at something else, but for some children, the uphill climb toward developing self-esteem proves insurmountable. These children develop an “inferiority complex”, which proves overwhelming over time.
To envision how an inferiority complex can mount until it becomes overwhelming, imagine the way many children flounder when it comes to math: At first they fall slightly behind, and get discouraged. Usually, they struggle onward, muddling through high school with barely-passing grades until they get into calculus, whereupon the appearance of integrals and differential equations overwhelms them to the point they finally give up on math altogether.
Now, apply that process to a child’s life as a whole; a feeling of general inferiority seeds doubt which fosters a neurosis, and the youngster becomes shy and timid, insecure, indecisive, cowardly, etc. Unable to meet his or her needs through direct, empowering action (not having the confidence to initiate such), the individual often grows up to be passive-aggressive and manipulative, relying unduly on the affirmation of others to carry them along. This, of course, only gives away more of their power, makes their self-esteem easier to cripple, and so on.
Of course, not all children dealing with a strong sense of inferiority become shy and timid and self-effacing; some develop a superiority complex, in a dramatic act of overcompensation. These young people often become the classic image of the playground bully, chasing away their own sense of inferiority by making others feel smaller and weaker, but may also become greedy for attention, drawn to the thrill of criminal activity or drug use, or heavily biased in their views (becoming bigoted towards others of a certain gender or race, for example).
While Adler did not spend a lot of time on neurosis, he did identify a small handful of personality “types” that he distinguished based on the different levels of energy he felt they manifested. These types to Adler were by no means absolutes, it should be noted; Adler, the devout individualist, saw them only as heuristic devices (useful fictions).
The first type is the ruling type. These people are characterized early on by a tendency to be generally aggressive and dominant over others, possessing an intense energy that overwhelms anything or anybody who gets in their way. These people are not always bullies or sadists, however; some turn the energy inward and harm themselves, such as is the case with alcoholics, drug addicts, and those who commit suicide.
The second type is the leaning type. Individuals of this type are sensitive, and while they may put a shell up around themselves to protect themselves, they end up relying on others to carry them through life’s challenges. They lack energy, in essence, and depend on the energy of others. They are also prone to phobias, anxieties, obsessions and compulsions, general anxiety, dissociation, etc.
The third type is the avoiding type. People of this type have such low energy they recoil within themselves to conserve it, avoiding life as a whole, and other people in particular. In extreme cases, these people develop psychosis—the end result of entirely retreating into one’s self.
Adler also believed in a fourth type: the socially useful type. People of this type are basically healthy individuals, possessed of adequate, but not overbearing, social interest and energy. They are able to give to others effectively as they are not so consumed by a sense of inferiority that they cannot look properly outside of themselves.
Adler’s theories may lack the excitement of Freud’s and Jung’s, being devoid of sexuality or mythology, but they are nonetheless practical, influential, and highly applicable. Other more famous names, such as Maslow and Carl Rogers, were fans of Adler’s work, and various students of personality theories have espoused the idea that the theorists called Neo-Freudians (such as Horney, Fromm, and Sullivan) probably ought to have been called Neo-Adlerians instead.