About Adler

Alfred Adler’s Biography by C.G. Boeree
Life

Alfred Adler was born in the suburbs of Vienna on February 7, 1870, the third child, second son, of a Jewish grain merchant and his wife. As a child, Alfred developed rickets, which kept him from walking until he was four years old. At five, he nearly died of pneumonia. It was at this age that he decided to be a physician.

Alfred was an average student and preferred playing outdoors to being cooped up in school. He was quite outgoing, popular, and active, and was known for his efforts at outdoing his older brother, Sigmund.

He received a medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1895. During his college years, he became attached to a group of socialist students, among which he found his wife-to-be, Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein. She was an intellectual and social activist who had come from Russia to study in Vienna. They married in 1897 and eventually had four children, two of whom became psychiatrists.

He began his medical career as an opthamologist, but he soon switched to general practice, and established his office in a lower-class part of Vienna, across from the Prater, a combination amusement park and circus. His clients included circus people, and it has been suggested (Furtmuller, 1965) that the unusual strengths and weaknesses of the performers led to his insights into organ inferiorities and compensation.

He then turned to psychiatry, and in 1907 was invited to join Freud’s discussion group. After writing papers on organic inferiority, which were quite compatible with Freud’s views, he wrote, first, a paper concerning an aggression instinct, which Freud did not approve of, and then a paper on children’s feelings of inferiority, which suggested that Freud’s sexual notions be taken more metaphorically than literally.

Although Freud named Adler the president of the Viennese Analytic Society and the co-editor of the organization’s newsletter, Adler didn’t stop his criticism. A debate between Adler’s supporters and Freud’s was arranged, but it resulted in Adler, with nine other members of the organization, resigning to form the Society for Free Psychoanalysis in 1911. This organization became The Society for Individual Psychology in the following year.

During World War I, Adler served as a physician in the Austrian Army, first on the Russian front, and later in a children’s hospital. He saw first hand the damage that war does, and his thought turned increasingly to the concept of social interest. He felt that if humanity was to survive, it had to change its ways!

After the war, he was involved in various projects, including clinics attached to state schools and the training of teachers. In 1926, he went to the United States to lecture, and he eventually accepted a visiting position at the Long Island College of Medicine. In 1934, he and his family left Vienna forever. On May 28, 1937, during a series of lectures at Aberdeen University, he died of a heart attack.

Theory

Alfred Adler postulates a single “drive” or motivating force behind all our behavior and experience. By the time his theory had gelled into its most mature form, he called that motivating force the striving for perfection. It is the desire we all have to fulfill our potentials, to come closer and closer to our ideal. It is, as many of you will already see, very similar to the more popular idea of self-actualization.

“Perfection” and “ideal” are troublesome words, though. On the one hand, they are very positive goals. Shouldn’t we all be striving for the ideal? And yet, in psychology, they are often given a rather negative connotation. Perfection and ideals are, practically by definition, things you can’t reach. Many people, in fact, live very sad and painful lives trying to be perfect! As you will see, other theorists, like Karen Horney and Carl Rogers, emphasize this problem. Adler talks about it, too. But he sees this negative kind of idealism as a perversion of the more positive understanding. We will return to this in a little while.

Striving for perfection was not the first phrase Adler used to refer to his single motivating force. His earliest phrase was the aggression drive, referring to the reaction we have when other drives, such as our need to eat, be sexually satisfied, get things done, or be loved, are frustrated. It might be better called the assertiveness drive, since we tend to think of aggression as physical and negative. But it was Adler’s idea of the aggression drive that first caused friction between him and Freud. Freud was afraid that it would detract from the crucial position of the sex drive in psychoanalytic theory. Despite Freud’s dislike for the idea, he himself introduced something very similar much later in his life: the death instinct.

Another word Adler used to refer to basic motivation was compensation, or striving to overcome. Since we all have problems, short-comings, inferiorities of one sort or another, Adler felt, earlier in his writing, that our personalities could be accounted for by the ways in which we do — or don’t — compensate or overcome those problems. The idea still plays an important role in his theory, as you will see, but he rejected it as a label for the basic motive because it makes it sound as if it is your problems that cause you to be what you are.

One of Adler’s earliest phrases was masculine protest. He noted something pretty obvious in his culture (and by no means absent from our own): Boys were held in higher esteem than girls. Boys wanted, often desperately, to be thought of as strong, aggressive, in control — i.e. “masculine” — and not weak, passive, or dependent — i.e. “feminine.” The point, of course, was that men are somehow basically better than women. They do, after all, have the power, the education, and apparently the talent and motivation needed to do “great things,” and women don’t.

You can still hear this in the kinds of comments older people make about little boys and girls: If a baby boy fusses or demands to have his own way (masculine protest!), they will say he’s a natural boy; If a little girl is quiet and shy, she is praised for her femininity; If, on the other hand, the boy is quiet and shy, they worry that he might grow up to be a sissy; Or if a girl is assertive and gets her way, they call her a “tomboy” and will try to reassure you that she’ll grow out of it!

But Adler did not see men’s assertiveness and success in the world as due to some innate superiority. He saw it as a reflection of the fact that boys are encouraged to be assertive in life, and girls are discouraged. Both boys and girls, however, begin life with the capacity for “protest!” Because so many people misunderstood him to mean that men are, innately, more assertive, lead him to limit his use of the phrase.

The last phrase he used, before switching to striving for perfection, was striving for superiority. His use of this phrase reflects one of the philosophical roots of his ideas: Friederich Nietzsche developed a philosophy that considered the will to power the basic motive of human life. Although striving for superiority does refer to the desire to be better, it also contains the idea that we want to be better than others, rather than better in our own right. Adler later tended to use striving for superiority more in reference to unhealthy or neurotic striving.