Second in importance only to striving for perfection is the idea of social interest or social feeling (originally called Gemeinschaftsgefuhl or “community feeling”). In keeping with his holism, it is easy to see that anyone “striving for perfection” can hardly do so without considering his or her social environment. As social animals, we simply don’t exist, much less thrive, without others, and even the most resolute people-hater forms that hatred in a social context!
Adler felt that social concern was not simply inborn, nor just learned, but a combination of both: It is based on an innate disposition, but it has to be nurtured to survive. That it is to some extent innate is shown by the way babies and small children often show sympathy for others without having been taught to do so. Notice how, when one baby in a nursery begins to cry, they all begin to cry. Or how, when we walk into a room where people are laughing, we ourselves begin to smile.
And yet, right along with the examples of how generous little children can be to others, we have examples of how selfish and cruel they can be. Although we instinctively seem to know that what hurts him can hurt me, and vice versa, we also instinctively seem to know that, if we have to choose between it hurting him and it hurting me, we’ll take “hurting him” every time! So the tendency to empathize must be supported by parents and the culture at large. Even if we disregard the possibilities of conflict between my needs and yours, empathy involves feeling the pain of others, and in a hard world, that can quickly become overwhelming. Much easier to just “toughen up” and ignore that unpleasant empathy — unless society steps in on empathy’s behalf!
One misunderstanding Adler wanted to avoid was the idea that social interest was somehow another version of extraversion. Americans in particular tend to see social concern as a matter of being open and friendly and slapping people on the back and calling them by their first names. Some people may indeed express their social concern this way; But other people just use that kind of behavior to further their own ends. Adler meant social concern or feeling not in terms of particular social behaviors, but in the much broader sense of caring for family, for community, for society, for humanity, even for life. Social concern is a matter of being useful to others.
On the other hand, a lack of social concern is, for Adler, the very definition of mental ill-health: All failures — neurotics, psychotics, criminals, drunkards, problem children, suicides, perverts, and prostitutes — are failures because they are lacking in social interest…. Their goal of success is a goal of personal superiority, and their triumphs have meaning only to themselves.
Here we are, all of us, “pulled” towards fulfillment, perfection, self-actualization. And yet some of us — the failures — end up terribly unfulfilled, baldly imperfect, and far from self-actualized. And all because we lack social interest, or, to put it in the positive form, because we are too self-interested. So what makes so many of us self-interested?
Adler says it’s a matter of being overwhelmed by our inferiority. If you are moving along, doing well, feeling competent, you can afford to think of others. If you are not, if life is getting the best of you, then your attentions become increasingly focussed on yourself.
Obviously, everyone suffers from inferiority in one form or another. For example, Adler began his theoretical work considering organ inferiority, that is, the fact that each of us has weaker, as well as stronger, parts of our anatomy or physiology. Some of us are born with heart murmurs, or develop heart problems early in life; Some have weak lungs, or kidneys, or early liver problems; Some of us stutter or lisp; Some have diabetes, or asthma, or polio; Some have weak eyes, or poor hearing, or a poor musculature; Some of us have innate tendencies to being heavy, others to being skinny; Some of us are retarded, some of us are deformed; Some of us are terribly tall or terribly short; And so on and so on.
Adler noted that many people respond to these organic inferiorities with compensation. They make up for their deficiencies in some way: The inferior organ can be strengthened and even become stronger than it is in others; Or other organs can be overdeveloped to take up the slack; Or the person can psychologically compensate for the organic problem by developing certain skills or even certain personality styles. There are, as you well know, many examples of people who overcame great physical odds to become what those who are better endowed physically wouldn’t even dream of!
Sadly, there are also many people who cannot handle their difficulties, and live lives of quiet despair. I would guess that our optimistic, up-beat society seriously underestimates their numbers.
But Adler soon saw that this is only part of the picture. Even more people have psychological inferiorities. Some of us are told that we are dumb, or ugly, or weak. Some of us come to believe that we are just plain no good. In school, we are tested over and over, and given grades that tell us we aren’t as good as the next person. Or we are demeaned for our pimples or our bad posture and find ourselves without friends or dates. Or we are forced into basketball games, where we wait to see which team will be stuck with us. In these examples, it’s not a matter of true organic inferiority — we are not really retarded or deformed or weak — but we learn to believe that we are. Again, some compensate by becoming good at what we feel inferior about. More compensate by becoming good at something else, but otherwise retaining our sense of inferiority. And some just never develop any self esteem at all.
If the preceding hasn’t hit you personally yet, Adler also noted an even more general form of inferiority: The natural inferiority of children. all children are, by nature, smaller, weaker, less socially and intellectually competent, than the adults around them. Adler suggested that, if we look at children’s games, toys, and fantasies, they tend to have one thing in common: The desire to grow up, to be big, to be an adult. This kind of compensation is really identical with striving for perfection! Many children, however, are left with the feeling that other people will always be better than they are.
If you are overwhelmed by the forces of inferiority — whether it is your body hurting, the people around you holding you in contempt, or just the general difficulties of growing up — you develop an inferiority complex. Looking back on my own childhood, I can see several sources for later inferiority complexes: Physically, I’ve tended to be heavy, with some real “fat boy” stages along the way; Also, because I was born in Holland, I didn’t grow up with the skills of baseball, football, and basketball in my genes; Finally, my artistically talented parents often left me — unintentionally — with the feeling that I’d never be as good as they were. So, as I grew up, I became shy and withdrawn, and concentrated on the only thing I was good at, school. It took a long time for me to realize my self-worth.
If you weren’t “super-nerd,” you may have had one of the most common inferiority complexes I’ve come across: “Math phobia!” Perhaps it started because you could never remember what seven times eight was. Every year, there was some topic you never quite got the hang of. Every year, you fell a little further behind. And then you hit the crisis point: Algebra. How could you be expected to know what “x” is when you still didn’t know what seven times eight was?
Many, many people truly believe that they are not meant to do math, that they are missing that piece of their brains or something. I’d like to tell you here and now that anyone can do math, if they are taught properly and when they are really ready. That aside, you’ve got to wonder how many people have given up being scientists, teachers, business people, or even going to college, because of this inferiority complex.
But the inferiority complex is not just a little problem, it’s a neurosis, meaning it’s a life-size problem. You become shy and timid, insecure, indecisive, cowardly, submissive, compliant, and so on. You begin to rely on people to carry you along, even manipulating them into supporting you: “You think I’m smart / pretty / strong / sexy / good, don’t you?” Eventually, you become a drain on them, and you may find yourself by yourself. Nobody can take all that self-centered whining for long!
There is another way in which people respond to inferiority besides compensation and the inferiority complex: You can also develop a superiority complex. The superiority complex involves covering up your inferiority by pretending to be superior. If you feel small, one way to feel big is to make everyone else feel even smaller! Bullies, braggarts, and petty dictators everywhere are the prime example. More subtle examples are the people who are given to attention-getting dramatics, the ones who feel powerful when they commit crimes, and the ones who put others down for their gender, race, ethnic origins, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, weight, height, etc. etc. Even more subtle still are the people who hide their feelings of worthlessness in the delusions of power afforded by alcohol and drugs.