Alfred Adler Quotations

 

Compiled by Craig Chalquist, PhD

Alfred Adler (1870-1937), that founding critic of depth psychology who resembles Columbo in more ways than in the photo above, has not been popular in our era of whining and excuse-making, for he always emphasized in his direct but humorous fashion our responsibility for the inadvertent but goal-directed design of our symptoms and conflicts. I suspect that to be the real reason for his separation from the Freudian circle in 1911. Adler has written that the Oedipus complex comes down to a narcissistic son raised by a pampering mother and a cold father; we could not expect a famous pioneer with such an upbringing to tolerate a doctor who saw through power struggles–or for that matter the mother-idealizing and -bashing so characteristic of Oedipal types–to the underlying core of inferiority feelings. Too, Adler’s dislike of politics, unassuming flexibility, and nontechnical informality must have seemed like implicit reproaches; even his informal gatherings in the cafes of Vienna implicitly critiqued the cultish formality of the Wednesday Night Society. Adler went his own way and Freud his, although Freud later amended his theory with ideas first suggested by Adler, the most notorious being the innate aggression hypothesis which Adler later outgrew. (“I gladly make them a present of it,” he joked when told of Freud’s supposedly original conception of the death drive.) 

In his later writings Adler made a shift never managed by Freud but later repeated by Maslow: he wrote less about pathology and more about health, and the Nietzschean striving for superiority and compensation mutated into a unifying directional tendency toward self-mastery and self-overcoming in the service of social interest (Gemeinschaftsgefühl), the opposite of egotism (Ichgebundenheit). The healthy person neither loses himself in his ideal-self fictions or lives through others, the two faces worn by neurotic selfishness; the healthy person makes his deepest goals conscious while integrating them into activities that improve family and community. Here Adler anticipates Fromm’s dictum that self-love and other-love arise together and support one another. 

Adler never probed the depths and the heights of the unconscious psyche, and later theorists, forgetting why he called his approach Individual Psychology, used his emphasis on community and “adjustment” to equate normality with health and to malign privateness and uniqueness as maladapted. Worth for him came practically to be equated to social usefulness. Nevertheless, if Jung stood symbolically for the deep unconscious and Freud for its personal layer, Adler, Shakespearian in his insight, understood the “I” and its relations to other people. Everyone who knew him admired his empathy, easy sociability, sense of humor, love of enjoyment, and kindly but firm insistence that we create who we are. In old age he died at his post: in the streets, of a worn-out heart. 

The following are mostly from the book Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. See also my Glossary of Freudian Terms and my Glossary of Jungian Terms.

 

More important than innate disposition, objective experience, and environment is the subjective evaluation of these. Furthermore, this evaluation stands in a certain, often strange, relation to reality. 

A clumsy right hand cannot be trained into a skillful right hand by taking thought, by wishing it were less clumsy, or even by avoiding clumsiness. It can become skillful only by exercise in practical achievements, and the incentive to the achievement must be more deeply felt than the discouragement at the hitherto existent clumsiness. 

Meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations. 

We cannot say that if a child is badly nourished he will become a criminal. We must see what conclusion the child has drawn. 

We can comprehend every single life phenomenon, as if the past, the present, and the future together with a superordinated, guiding idea were present in it in traces. 

When we know the goal of a person, we know approximately what will follow. 

…A child was pampered and takes over the corresponding forms of expression with all their disadvantages. As the child grows up, he may become aware of the misfortune toward which he is headed. If such a child would ask what is the cause for this, everyone would say the mother. We ourselves would be tempted to agree, and also to blame the mother. But this argument collapses when the child changes his behavior, either on his own or through outside help and no longer makes these same errors. 

Every semblance of causality in the psychological life is due to the tendency of many psychologists to present their dogmas disguised in mechanistic or physical similes. At one time they use as a comparison a pump handle moving up and down, at another a magnet with polar termini, at another a sadly harassed animal struggling for the satisfaction of its elementary needs. From such a view, to be sure, little can be seen of the fundamental differences which human psychological life manifests. 

Every therapeutic cure, and still more, any awkward attempt to show the patient the truth, tears him from the cradle of his freedom from responsibility and must therefore reckon with the most vehement resistance. 

Every individual acts and suffers in accordance with his peculiar teleology, which has all the inevitability of fate, so long as he does not understand it. 

The fictional, abstract ideal is the point of origin for the formation and differentiation of the given psychological resources into preparatory attitudes, readinesses, and character traits. The individual then wears the character traits demanded by his fictional goal, just as the character mask (persona) of the ancient actor had to fit the finale of the tragedy. 

The human mind shows an urge to capture into fixed forms through unreal assumptions, that is, fictions, that which is chaotic, always in flux, and incomprehensible. Serving this urge, the child quite generally uses a schema in order to act and to find his way. We proceed much the same when we divide the earth by meridians and parallels, for only thus do we obtain fixed points which we can bring into a relationship with one another. 

Neurosis is the natural, logical development of an individual who is comparatively inactive, filled with a personal, egocentric striving for superiority, and is therefore retarded in the development of his social interest, as we find regularly among the more passive pampered styles of life. 

The neurotic is nailed to the cross of his fiction. 

After all, there is no principle to live by which would be valid to the very end; even the most correct solutions of problems interfere with the course of life when they are pushed too far into the foreground, as for example, if one makes cleanliness and truth the goal of all striving. 

We should not be astonished if in the cases where we see an inferiority complex we find a superiority complex more or less hidden. 

Behind everyone who behaves as if he were superior to others, we can suspect a feeling of inferiority which calls for very special efforts of concealment. It is as if a man feared that he was too small and walked on his toes to make himself seem taller. 

All neurotic symptoms have as their object the task of safeguarding the patient’s self-esteem and thereby also the lifeline into which he has grown. 

We must never neglect the patient’s own use of his symptoms. 

It is one of the most effective attitudes of the neurotic to measure thumbs down, so to speak, a real person by an ideal, since in doing so he can depreciate him as much as he wishes. 

One of the most interesting complexes is the redeemer complex. It characterizes people who conspicuously but unknowingly take the attitude that they must save or redeem someone. There are thousands and degrees and variations, but it is always clearly the attitude of a person who finds his superiority in solving the complications of others. 

In the investigation of a neurotic style of life we must always suspect an opponent, and note who suffers most because of the patient’s condition. Usually this is a member of the family. There is always this element of concealed accusation in neurosis, the patient feeling as though he were deprived of his right–that is, of the center of attention–and wanting to fix the responsibility and blame upon someone. 

Defiant individuals will always persecute others, yet will always consider themselves persecuted. 

A neurotic actress in talking about love affairs said: “I am not at all afraid of such affairs. I am actually completely amoral. There is only one thing: I have found that all men smell bad, and that violates my esthetic sense.” We will understand that with such an attitude one can well afford to be amoral without incurring any danger. 

To injure another person through atonement is one of the most subtle devices of the neurotic, as when, for example, he indulges in self-accusations. 

“If I didn’t have (this affliction), I would be the first.” As a rule the if-clause contains an unfulfillable condition, or the patient’s own arrangement, which only he can change. 

There is only one reason for an individual to side-step to the useless side: the fear of a defeat on the useful side. 

Tears and complaints–the means which I have called “water power”–can be an extremely useful weapon for disturbing cooperation and reducing others to a condition of slavery. 

The self-bound individual always forgets that his self would be safeguarded better and automatically the more he prepares himself for the welfare of mankind, and that in this respect no limits are set for him. 

“To see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another.” For the time being, this seems to me an admissible definition of what we call social feeling. 

If anyone asks me why he should love his neighbor, I would not know how to answer him, and I could only ask in my turn why he should pose such a question…It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others. It is from among such individuals that all human failures spring. 

….Imperfect preparation gives rise to the thousand-fold forms that express physical and mental inferiority and insecurity…In every case there is a “yes” that emphasizes the pressure of social interest, but this is invariably followed by a “but” that possesses greater strength and prevents the necessary increase of social interest. This “but” in all cases, whether typical or particular, will have an individual nuance. The difficulty of a cure is in proportion to the strength of the “but.” 

In real life we always find a confirmation of the melody of the total self, of the personality, with its thousandfold ramifications. If we believe that the foundation, the ultimate basis of everything has been found in character traits, drives, or reflexes, the self is likely to be overlooked. 

The same tones tell a different tale in Richard Wagner and in Liszt. 

All inherited possibilities and all influences of the body, all environmental influences, including educational application, are perceived, assimilated, digested, and answered by a living and striving being, striving for a successful achievement in his view. The subjectiveness of the individual, his special style of life, and his conception of life mold and shape all influences. The individual life collects all these influences and uses them as provocative bricks in building a totality which aims toward a successful goal in relating itself to outside problems. 

I believe that I am not bound by any strict rule or prejudice but prefer to subscribe to the principle: Everything can also be different. 

A person’s opinion of himself and the environment can best be deduced from the meaning he finds in life and from the meaning he gives to his own life. 

No experience is a cause of success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences–the so-called trauma–but we make out of them just what suits our purposes. 

There would be far fewer outbursts of temper if the possibility were not offered of assuring oneself significance in this way. 

People often believe that left and right are contradictions, that man and woman, hot and cold, light and heavy, strong and weak are contradictions. From a scientific viewpoint, they are not contradictions, but varieties. They are degrees of a scale, arranged in accordance with their approximation to some ideal fiction. In the same way, good and bad, normal and abnormal, are not contradictions but varieties. 

God who is eternally complete, who directs the stars, who is the master of fates, who elevates man from his lowliness to Himself, who speaks from the cosmos to every single human soul, is the most brilliant manifestation of the goal of perfection to date. In God’s nature, religious mankind perceives the way to height. In His call it hears again the innate voice of life which must have its direction towards the goal of perfection, towards overcoming the feeling of lowliness and transitoriness of the existence here below. The human soul, as a part of the movement of life, is endowed with the ability to participate in the uplift, elevation, perfection, and completion.

Chalquist.com