All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.
That is the bold take by Alfred Adler – one of the great psychodynamic thinkers of the last century (next to Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung).
And despite being a big source of our troubles, he argues that we derive much of our life’s meaning from belonging and contributing to a community. Adler called this need for belonging and contributing social interest, giving it a meaninful place in his Individual Psychology approach.
He found that we sabotage the valuable relationships in our lives in many ways. Ultimately, keeping us from the joy we could experience and the meaning we could derive from belonging.
How You Sabotage Your Interpersonal Relationships
While feeling inferior is normal and can even be a positive force to help us grow, for some people it leads to a toxic comparison with others. Competition turns people into winners and losers, no one is equal in a competition. This mindset makes the world quite a terrifying place to live in.
How can you get rid of this feeling of competition?
Adler argues that in order to escape a toxic feeling of inferiority (also called the „Inferiority Complex“), you need courage to face your life tasks. Life tasks are the tasks of love, friendship, and work. Adler called the „three social ties“ because they tie you back to your community.
But it’s not just competition that can get in the way of fulfilling relationships.
Seeking Recognition and Reward
Both in interaction with other adults but also in raising children, Adler was very critical about using reward and punishment. He believed that the consequence would be that instead of doing the appropriate thing because that is the right thing to do, you may not do it if there is no one to praise you; or you do the inappropriate thing if there is no one to punish you
Adler was very clear on not seeking recognition or reward for your behaviors from others. For as long as you live by the judgment of others, you will live to satisfy other people’s expectations. If you aim to let go of satisfying other people’s expectations, you will also need to accept that other people don’t live to satisfy your expectations.
This is where you can apply Alfred Adler’s concept of „The Separation of Tasks“. This will help you to navigate the distribution of control and responsibility.
The Separation of Tasks
Interpersonal relationship issues often stem from interfering with other people’s tasks, or having your own tasks interfered with.
For example, you tell your spouse to start eating healthier. Or your spouse complains about how you spend your money. I’m sure it won’t be difficult for you to come up with a situation where you intrude on someone else’s task or had your own task intruded on. When conducting the separation of tasks, we need to first ask ourselves the following question:
First and foremost your task is to believe in yourself and believe in others. The way the other person acts is their task. The task of love according to Adler is, supposing your spouse did not act as you had wished: Would you still be able to believe in that person? Would you still be able to love that person?
It’s your spouse’s task to decide whether they want to eat healthier. Your task is to decide whether you can love them and believe in them for the person they are – not how you wish them to be. This is a hard one to swallow. Because it is their task and they will receive the result of a better health, it has to be them who decide and is motivated to eat healthier.
For as long as you intervene on other people’s task or taking on the tasks of other people your life will be full of worry and hardship. You need to learn to separate the tasks and stick to your own. You need to learn to say „This is not my task from here on.“
What Does It Mean For Your Own Life?
You need to do is choose the best path you believe in. What other people think of that is their task. Other people’s judgment is not your task and therefore not your worry
If you are worried about being judged by other people, it is because you are constantly craving recognition from others. Why are you worried about other people looking at you, anyway?
Adlerian psychology has an easy answer: You haven’t done the separation of tasks yet.
You assume that even things that should be other people’s tasks are your own.
That means you have to do three things:
1. Do the separation of tasks.
2. Do not intervene in other people’s tasks.
3. Do not let other people intervene in yours.
Consequences of Doing the „Separation of Tasks“ Properly
You might worry that we will end up in a world of douchbags if no one cares about what other people do or think. But the fact that you do what you believe to be the right thing regardless of other people’s judgment and other people’s praise and recognition does not mean being a douchebag.
That is because Adler is very clear on what the goal of interpersonal relations is: the so-called „Social Interest“. Belonging and contributing to a community. Alfred Adler’s wide-spun web of concepts such as self-acceptance, courage, believing in others, and completing your life tasks of love, friendship and work makes sure that the separation of tasks gives less worry and more freedom.
This freedom will make your interpersonal relationships more fulfilling. Ultimately, it will give you the time and space to do what you were supposed to do in your lifetime on this planet.