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Alfred Adler and His Personality Theory

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Alfred Adler was born in the suburbs of Vienna to a grain merchant and his wife on the 7th February 1870. He was the third child and second son of his parents. He could not walk until the age of four due to his lingering rickets. At the age of five, he went down with a chronic pneumonia which nearly took his life, and on recovery, resolved to become a medical doctor, even at the very young age.

He retained this ambition throughout his school years, although he was merely an averagely clever student who, due to a period of lack of seriousness with and loss of commitment to his studies, tended towards becoming a dullard. This tendency made his teacher write him off as one not cut out for academic success— and his woeful performance at Mathematics seemed to testify to this pronouncement. However, his father’s belief in his abilities and his own self-assurance and self-esteem spurred him on to renewed commitment and revival.

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He proved his teacher’s pronouncement wrong: Not only did he rise to become the best Mathematics student, he pursued his medical ambition to the University of Vienna where he achieved his medical degree. During his schooling years, Adler was “quite outgoing, popular and active” (Boeree, George, 2006).

He had a strong personality and firm resolution (qualities which explain why he could sustain and realize his medical ambition in the face of his teacher’s despise and pessimism). Adler began his medical career as an opthamologist, but later turned to general medical practice.

He established his office somewhere in the lower class part of Vienna, across from an amusement park-cum-circus. Most of his clients and patients were circus performers. This fact gave him the opportunity to observe, study and investigate their unusual strengths and weaknesses, which they demonstrated through their relative physiological resistances and tolerance, leading him to the formulation of a theory he termed “organic inferiorities and compensations”. He later switched to psychiatry and joined Freud’s discussion group.

In this group, he got the opportunity to develop and articulate his organic theory, to which Freud agreed; however, his subsequent theory of the aggression instinct were against Frend’s beliefs, just as was his suggestion that the sexual notions which Freud upheld should be taken figuratively rather than literally.

Alfred Adler sought to investigate the human personality and behaviour: what fundamentally made up the human personality and what made all human beings behave the way they did, irrespective of their backgrounds, individualities, privileges or lack of them.

His conclusions, he formulated as a theory of personality In the course of the Second World War, Alfred became a Physician for the Austrian army, first serving on the Russian front before moving to the children’s hospital. This change gave him the opportunity for a first-hand observation of the war victims and causalities.

It probably was the shock and horror from these direct observations that made him develop an interest in the concept of social interest, coming to the conclusion that “if humanity was to survive, it had to change its ways. ” (George B, 2006).

In 1926, he went to the United States to work as a lecturer. He died of heart attack in 1937 in the course of his lecturing.


Alfred Adler’s theory of personality offers the underlying motivation not only of all human behavior but also for the development of the human personality. He postulated ‘a single "drive" or motivating force behind all our behavior and experience’ (Boeree, 2006). He believed that every human action, rational or irrational, arises out of an urge for perfection, out of an underlying desire for the attainment of some ideal.

However, because he believed no two human beings are exactly alike, even in their responses to this “single” drive, he called this theory “Individual Psychology. ” The “ideal”, also termed “perfection”, however, points to an ultimate image of himself that every individual often unconsciously harbors as the goal to which he or she must attain.

Adler termed this ultimate image “fictional finalism” (Alfred Adler (1870-1937), 2007). Thus, every human action or behavior, according to Adler, is an attempt to draw nearer to the realization of his or her potentials and, ultimately, to realization of the “fictional finalism”.

This attempt, which he called “striving for perfection”, is sometimes referred to as “striving for superiority” (Alfred Adler (1870-1937), 2007) ,to give it the suggestion of something attainable and realizable, and to distinguish it from the impracticality of idealism and perfectionism (“in psychology, [idealism and perfectionism]) 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!” ([Boeree, 2006]).

“Superiority” in the above context refers to a state or situation towards which every human action is directed—be it the satisfaction of a physical instinct, meeting financial or cultural obligations or working towards the realization of a political objective.

A “superiority” or “betterment” is always in view, motivating the action. ‘According to Adler "We all wish to overcome difficulties. We all strive to reach a goal by the attainment of which we shall feel strong, superior, and complete. "’ (Alfred Adler (1870-1937), 2007).

The striving towards “superiority” is therefore driven by the fundamental and all-inspiring striving towards the realization of “fictional finalism”. The “fictional finalism” is the hidden force that drives, motivates, informs and decides. It induces the urge for self-improvement. It is the spirit of all actions, however commonplace or ordinary, the heart of every aspiration, determining the range of all material or immaterial acquisitions— of all “treasures”: it defines them and “draws them to itself” in an attempt towards self-fulfillment and self- realization. Thus, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be” (Mathew 6:21).


Four aspects of Alder Alfred’s theory have been identified: The development of personality, striving towards superiority, psychological health and unity of personality (Fisher, 2001).


The development of personality begins in childhood, with the “striving for superiority” referred to above and the at-first unconscious attempts towards the realization of potentials: “children observe more competent elders around them and this motivates them to acquire new skills and develop new talents (Weiten, 1992, p. 484). ” (Alfred Adler (1870-1937), 2007).

These attempts at acquisition of new skills and development of new talents, Adler attributes to a healthy feeling of inferiority – inferiority to the elders who have cultivated and now exhibit such skills and talents, and who now stand to be “looked up to” ( being “superior”) by the children. With time, as the potentials develop, and age and physical maturity advance, fictional finalism in the developing child makes itself increasingly felt, with such fundamental accompanying manifestations as the urge for self-assertion and the associated desire to have to control over one’s life, enjoying freedom of individuality.

“People [become] focused on maintaining control over their lives. ” (Fisher, 2001). These manifestations are perhaps better recognized in such phenomena later in the child’s life as: an uncompromising choice of career or life partner; inflexible pursuits of a political or sport ambition, or the devotion to some preoccupying or obsessing religious or even recreational cause.

Interference or intrusion in the pursuit of these individual assertions of personality are naturally resisted by the man or woman in question, because hand in hand with the self-assertive realizations of the fictional- finalism urges goes a desire to retain control over one’s life. Acquiescing to such interferences is, therefore, unnatural for a personality.


Superiority, according to Adler Alfred, is not “superior over, not competition” (Adler Alfred’s “individual Psychology”).

It is, rather, a healthy urge towards self-fulfillment and self-actualization.. Every endeavor, every attempt to achieve or merely to do something is, consequently, an attempt to attain to higher or “superior” levels of personality development—an “upward movement” or “ascent” to a better situation or condition of physical, mental or psychological state. Striving towards superiority is, thus, an integral part of living; it is “innate in the sense that it is a part of life.

Trhoughout [sic] a person's life, Adler believed [a person] is motivated by the need to overcome the sense of inferiority and strive for ever higher levels of development. ” (Adler Alfred’s “individual Psychology”). The striving for superiority begins with the spirit of the following Biblical recommendation: Thorns and snares are in the way of the froward: he that doth keep his soul [as well as his mind, drives and impulses] shall be far from them.

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22: 5-6). In the first sentence, “keeping” of the soul – and by implication, the mind, drives and impulses – suggests the significance of early childhood upbringing to the development of the personality. “The froward” is deducibly the individual of an unhealthy personality, one who does not “keep”, i. e. , pay attention to and take care of, the nature and promptings of his or her inherent fictional finalism.

The next sentence contains a practical, resolving recommendation: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old he will not depart from it” Two suggestions are perhaps apparent from this recommendation: one, that the social, educational and moral upbringing of the child is fundamental to the health of its drives and impulses (to its “soul”), and, consequently, to the direction of its fictional finalism (the entirety of its pursuits, habits, peculiarities and voluntary socialization); two, that the image of the fictional finalism is composed essentially of the childhood orientation, which more or less “compels” the child to keep to paths of this image later in life, that is, “prevents” the child from “departing from it when he is old”.

This deduction does not, however, lessen the force of Adler’s assertion of individuality of personality; for the quite observable fact that no two children are exactly alike suggests that the individuality of the child plays a role in its adaptation to and development through its childhood orientation. Identical twins under identical childhood upbringing will therefore never develop identically.

While they might demonstrate similar good or bad upbringing, they will certainly not behave or think alike, nor will they aspire towards identical self-realizations. Therefore, “striving towards superiority” depends more on the individuality of the child and its upbringing than on the social, educational or cultural influences to which the child may be later subjected.


The psychological health of a personality depends on a number of factors suggested by the concept of “striving towards superiority” and by the fact that “Everyone feels inferior to a degree, which motivates us to get better…” (Alfred Adler (1870-1937), 2007). These factors include:

(i) Healthy inferiority feelings.

(ii) Positive fictional finalism.

(iii) Absence of idealism and perfectionism.

In the light of the preceding subsections, these factors indicate the relevance of the assertion that “Good understanding giveth favour; but the way of transgressors is hard. ” (Proverbs 13:15). Ensuring health of inferiority feelings, helping the development of a positive fictional finalism and working towards the absence of idealism and perfectionism, all naturally require “good understanding” of the workings of the personality . Such an understanding will prevent the development of a “hard”, “transgressing” personality—a personality overstepping all limits of rationality and propriety in the urges and the actualization of its self-image.

(i) Healthy Inferiority feelings: Adler was said (Fisher, M. 2001) to describe inferiority feelings as “feelings of lack of worth”, which he believed to motivate the individual towards striving for superiority. However, as with everything, there are healthy and unhealthy inferiority feelings.

These two kinds are naturally to be differentiated through the nature of the psychological and impulsive effects each induces. Healthy inferiority feelings, as is shown above, are progressive; unhealthy inferiority feelings, retrogressive. Unhealthy inferiority feelings can be named apart from healthy inferiority feelings by terming them “inferiority complex”, which Oxford Talking Dictionary (1998) defines as “an unrealistic feeling of general inadequacy caused by actual or supposed inferiority in one sphere…”

The lack of “reality” in these feelings already marks them as undesirable and counter-productive. Further in support of their undesirableness is the statement from Brainmeta (2007): People might cope with an inferiority complex by becoming tentative, helpless, and lazy, or by engaging in behavior, called overcompensation.

Overcompensation involves trying to hide one's sense of inferiority from others and even from oneself. People who overcompensate might be vocal about their successes and qualities and exaggerate them. Also, they tend to get wrapped up in status, power, and materialism. They believe all of these things give the appearance of superiority (Weiten, 1992, p. 484). ”

The fostering and the sustenance of healthy inferiority feelings, as is suggested by the excerpt from the Book of Proverbs above, demand knowledge or “good understanding” of personality psychology—knowledge of such social and familial conditions as might cause psychological and personality irregularities. One source of such good knowledge is the implications or ramifications of Adler Alfred’s theories of personality and his assertions in the process of formulating these theories. For instance, Adler was said (Fisher, 2001) to maintain “that personality difficulties are rooted in a feeling of inferiority deriving from restrictions on the individual's need for self-assertion. ” This statement clearly recommends freedom of self-assertion for children and adults alike.

However, marrying this suggested recommendation to that of the Book of Proverbs excerpted above (which is another source of “good understanding”) modifies this recommendation and keeps it within limits: it suggests that freedom of assertion must be within the limits of a sound upbringing and realistic self-discipline.

(ii) Positive fictional finalism and (iii) Absence of Idealism and Perfectionism are both clearly dependent on the existence of healthy inferiority feelings. The soul of all aspirations resides as much in the impulses of inferiority feelings as it does in those of fictional finalism. In other words, an individual’s fictional finalism determines the nature (and, therefore, the health) of his or her inferiority feelings.

Idealism and perfectionism, as has been suggested above, can lead to tormenting self-criticisms due to the high expectations their bearer has of him or herself. It is understandable that both can derive from an attempt to overcompensate for inferiority complex— to make up for the unhealthy inferiority feelings that have developed from an unhealthy personality.


With his postulates that there is ‘a single "drive" or motivating force behind all our behavior and experience’ (Boeree, 2006), and that “the conscious and unconscious worked together to achieve the goals of self-improvement and fictional finalism” (Alfred Adler (1870-1937), 2007), Alfred Adler suggested the existence of unity of personality.

First, if the conscious and the unconscious work towards the common goal of self-improvement and fictional finalism, then every conscious feeling, thought, or emotion of a human being, be they pleasant or unpleasant, unite with his or her every unconscious feeling or emotion towards the fulfillment of these goals. The goal, however, is always striven towards, since it is the “motivating force behind all ... behaviour and experience” (Boeree, 2006).

Consequently, every conscious feeling and thought is unceasingly in union and co-operation with every unconscious feeling and thought towards the attainment of the common goal of self-actualization. Second, if the conscious and the unconscious are, consequently, unceasingly united, it follows that the goals of self-improvement and of fictional finalism are in a ceaseless union.

However, “Adler postulated that, beyond general [self-] improvement, each person has an ideal image they are trying to achieve…. This image of the perfect self is called the fictional finalism (Elverud, 1997). ” ” (Alfred Adler (1870-1937), 2007). Consequently, standing “beyond” the goal of “general improvement” (and connected with this goal), fictional finalism unites the urge for self-improvement, the conscious and the unconscious for a common purpose, and therefore forms the centerpiece of every drive and impulse of the personality. Therefore, unity of personality is the joint striving of every conscious and unconscious emotion, thought, feeling and action towards ultimate self-actualization.

Adler therefore believed that there is an agreement among every aspiring, desiring, thinking, and acting of a human being: that unhealthy feelings of inferiority indicate the existence of unhealthy fictional finalism; that a restricted self-assertion and incomplete control of ones life can be recognized through the restricted thinking, feeling and acting of the individual in question; that the extent of the realization of potentials is reflected in the extent of freedom of thought, opinion, speech and action of an individual...

These deductions find support in a figurative appreciation of the following Biblical excerpt: “Every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. ” (Jeremiah 10:14). If the “graven image” is taken as the image of a dead, i. e. unrealistic fictional finalism, then the personality harboring such an image is bound to be “confounded” in his aspirations and his opinions, “brutish” in his outlook and expectations, and “false” in his interactions with fellow human beings.

A practical example of such a person is a maniacal perfectionist whom no one could ever please or satisfy.


ALFRED ADLER'S "INDIVIDUAL PSYCHOLOGY”. Retrieved April 10th, 2007 from http://www. sonoma. edu/users/d/daniels/adler. html.

ALFRED ADLER. Retrieved 10th April 2007 from http://www. muskingum. edu/~psych/psycweb/history/adler. htm#Theory Alfred Adler (1870-1937). Retrieved 11th April 2007 from http://brainmeta. com/personality/adler. php.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF ALFRED ADLER. Retrieved April 11, 2007 from http://ourworld. compuserve. com/homepages/hstein/adler. htm In Cambridge Advanced learner’s Dictionary. Retrieved 11th April, 2007 from http://dictionary. cambridge. org/results. asp? searchword=opthamologist&x=12&y=8.

In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved April 3, 2007, from Encyclop? dia Britannica Online: http://www. britannica. com/eb/article-9003744.

North American Society of Adlerian Psychology. NASAP : . Retrieved April 12th, 2007 from http://www. alfredadler. org/.

Personality Theory, Alfred Adler. Retrieved April 12, 2007, from http://webspace. ship. edu/cgboer/adler. html.

Psychography : Alfred Adler. Psychography. Retrieved April 9th 2007, from http://faculty. frostburg. edu/mbradley/psyography/alfredadler. html.

The Holy Bible, King James Version. THOMAS NELSON, PUBLISHERS. Nashville. Camden. Newyork. The Oxford Talking Dictionary, 1998 Edition.

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