Introduction to Alfred Adler

When Alfred Adler Broke With Sigmund Freud

Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was next to Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung one of the three great psychodynamic thinkers of the last century. He was Sigmund Freud’s prodigy and supposed to be the heir of his psychoanalytic tradition that would then continue and thrive long after Freud’s death.

But just like Carl G. Jung, Alfred Adler started to disagree more and more with some of Freud’s basic assumptions about the psyche’s function and the needed emphasis in treatment.

Freud took sex quite literally, whereas Jung and Alfred Adler understood it figuratively, as a metaphor or scheme for understanding. To simplify the matter, we can say that Freud assumed the drive for sex (and aggression) to be absolutely central and guiding much of the inner conflicts and behavior.

When Alfred Adler replaced Freud’s concept of the sex drive with the then so-called “Masculine Protest” – which denotes the desire to be superior, this ultimately led to them breaking in 1911. Adler decided to pursue his own approach, which he called “Individual Psychology”.

Freud was very much focused on the past, while Alfred Adler wanted to answer the questions of: Where are we going? What are we striving for? What are our goals and how do they influence our behavior?

Inferiority and Superiority

For Adler, the essence of what it means to be human is striving. Going from from minus to plus, from the bottom left to the upper right corner. Or to put it in Adler’s words: the striving to go from inferiority to superiority.

The big questions come to be: What are we striving for? What does superiority look like on a personal level?

The striving for superiority is always determined by the subjective feeling of inferiority that defines your unique goal or self-ideal. And because the feeling of inferiority is subjective, it is self-created. Biology or environment can certainly be influences but at the fundamental level it’s fiction.


Freud understood the unconsciousness to be a place for everything undesirable or threatening. For example, forbidden thoughts about sex or unwanted aggressive tendencies, which the ego represses into unconsciousness.

Adler, again, centers the understanding of the unconsciousness around the goal. For him unconsciousness is merely the unknown part of the goal. It is not a separate entity but that part of the striving that the individual doesn’t understand.

Personality: Goals are More Important than the Past

Following Freud’s line of thought, who you are today is a result of what happened to you in the past. This is often referred to as “Aetiology” (i.e. the study of causation). That’s why “Tell me about your mother” has become a funny but somewhat true statement when talking about Freud.

Adler’s approach can be called “Teleology” (i.e. the study of the purpose of something). He states that goals influence all psychological processes. These processes in turn form a self-consistent organization that is based on those goals. For Adler this self-consistent organization is the personality structure which he also calls “Lifestyle” or “Style of Life”.

This “Lifestyle” is established early on. If the behavior of others does not make any sense to you, it’s just a different mean to the same end. For example, if behaving incredibly well to get receive attention doesn’t work, some people try to behave incredibly bad.

For Adler, the past does not determine the future, but the goals do. The past can make certain things more probable. But your behavior is much more guided by future goals than by past experiences.

Social Interest: The Importance of Interpersonal Relationships

Adler may have called his approach “Individual Psychology” but don’t let that mislead you. While he emphasized the responsibility of the individual for their own life choices, he also highlighted the importance of interpersonal relationships. We cannot separate the individual from the context, social factor and values.

Freud would have argued that the individual has to suppress certain impulses (such as sex and aggression) to fit in with society. Adler on the other hand believes that every human has the innate ability to socialize, “Social Interest“, that requires developement.

Social interest is crucial for finding a true sense of belonging and happiness by being an active part of a community.

If the social interest is not properly developed, maladjustment is the consequence. Either people are not a part of the social group, have increased feelings inferiority, or show a striving for superiority that is at odds with being social.

Increased feelings of inferiority can mean to constantly compare yourself to others. Or living your live according other people’s judgments through seeking rewards and recognition for your behavior.

Striving for superiority is in itself just as normal as feeling inferior and can be part of a healthy growth process. It can become at odds with being a contributing member of a community if your goal is not to move forward and improve but if you need to be better than everyone else.

In both cases you are so self-centered that there is no space for anyone else. You either need to feel superior and therefore will never see others as comrade but always as enemies. Or you worry so much about what other people think that you never truly care about them but only about what they reflect back about you.


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