Alfred Adler – 1870-1937

Born in Vienna, Austria – (February 7, 1870 – May 28, 1937). Studied medicine, later became a disciple of Freud. In 1911 Adler diverged from Freud over the sexual impulse being all important in human behaviour. He saw people as goal oriented, with an urge toward personal growth and wholeness – this is often summarised as ‘the will to power’. He did not give to the unconscious the enormous power that Freud did. Instead he saw social drives, the training arising from ones cultural heritage, and family influences, as being the prime forces in our behaviour and feelings. But he saw that these primal influences could be modified by an individual in a personal way, so that each of us develop personal styles in dealing with our life. This style or stance became an organising centre around which the person’s life emerged.

Notable figures in subsequent schools of psychotherapy were influenced byt him. These include Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow and Albert Ellis. In many ways he was ahead of his times, and the devlopment of these wereconsistent with the later neo-Freudian insights such as seen in the works of Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm.

After receiving his medical degree from the university of Vienna, he started work as an ophalmologist. Because his office was opposite a circus park some of his early clients were performers, and it is possibly from these he learned a great deal that conributed to his ideas about organ inferiorities and compensation.

Along with Freud and Jung, Adler was one of the founding giants in the field of depth psychology and the influence of the unconscious.

It was Adler who originated the term ‘inferiority complex’. This arose out of his view that as babies and young children, much of our feeling life is a compensation for a sense of inferiority or inadequacy. In childhood a person may learn to compensate for such feelings by either pushing toward superior performance in some area, or by aggressive action, or perhaps even withdrawal or non involvement. Adler also defined the influence of family position or birth order on the character of the child. For instance he said that an only child would have the following characteristics – ‘Likes being the center of adult attention. Often has difficulty sharing with peers. Prefers adult company and uses adult language.’

Although Adler’s original view was that humans are principally selfish, criticism over this point led him to investigate the social side of human nature. He went on to appreciate that from birth we are enmeshed in a web of social relationships. In the early stages of developing this area of life, an individual may well use social relationships for personal or selfish gains. With growth however, the selfish motive is gradually replaced by the social interest. In 1929 he said that ‘Social interest is the true and inevitable compensation for all the natural weaknesses of individual human beings.’

His view of dreams was that we can clearly see our aggressive impulses and desire for fulfilment in them. Dreams can also help the dreamer define two often conflicting aspects of their experience – their image or sense of themselves, and their sense of what is socially acceptable. Because we strive from our earliest years to have some control over ourselves and surroundings, we may develop a style of life around a sense of inferiority or lack of power. So a person who feels vulnerable may become aggressive to compensate. Adler therefore felt that in our dreams we not only see what we think of ourselves, and what our environmental situation is, but also find a definition of our techniques for satisfying our drive to deal with and succeed in the world. He called his approach Individual Psychology.

Because Adler did not see the individual as dominated by their unconscious drives, he did not use dreams as much as Freud or Jung in his practice. His focus was not so much on what was happening unconsciously in the person’s life. Instead he wanted to know what the style or stance the person was creating in living their life. Adler looked to dreams as a guide to this stance or style. For instance the second example under people illustrates how the dreamer is taking a very independent style in his response to leadership and conformity. In other dreams quite different styles may be illustrated. The active or passive role or stance is one that is easy to look for. Others to observe might be dependence or independence, optimism or pessimism.

Adler did not see there being a great boundary between the conscious and unconscious personality. He felt the person could be observed to have the same attitudes and fears in dreams as they exhibited in waking life. From this standpoint the dream is not something disconnected with ones known personality, but a process which is attempting to add to or evolve the life style the person has adopted. Therefore he did not, as Jung, believe the dream had a wealth of cultural or collective wisdom, or was an expression of a more complete self. As a support to the active personality he described them as ‘pictures which will arouse the emotions we need for our purposes, that is, for solving problems confronting us at the time of the dream, in accordance with the particular style of life which is ours.’ For Adler, the dream was ‘a tentative feeler toward the future’; ‘a dress-rehearsal for life,’ in which the dreamer reveals his hopes, fears, and plans for the future.’ And he did admit that the person is wiser than they know.

This becomes clearer when we remember that some of the fundamental ideas Adler presented were that as an individual we are goal oriented. Our goal is to survive not only in the world, but within society. Not only do we aim to survive, but we also hope to flourish. So whereas Freud saw a great deal of dreaming as an attempt to satisfy infantile needs, Adler saw the individual seeking solution enabling them to go forward to a goal. From the fantasy of dreams the person could draw resources, or practise a style, enabling them to meet the needs of the moment more fully.

Therefore the dream from Adler’s viewpoint might be seen as a resource of emotional tools which through decisions made about present circumstances, the person would draw upon and use when needed.

As he did not attempt to see a wealth of meaning in specific symbols, Adler gave generalised significance to themes arising in dreams. Some of these he described as: – Dreaming of paralysis arose from feeling hopeless about a problem confronting one, or feeling it had no solution. Dreaming of travelling was an expression of ones direction and progress in life. Dreaming of falling reflected fears about loss of face and falling in social favour. He said this was a theme often dreamt by neurotics.

Dreaming of flying was a theme referring to problem solving and positive confidence. They portray the overcoming of obstacles and occur to people who are directing their life to positive ends. Being nude in ones dreams expresses concern about being seen by others as having imperfections, or feeling ones imperfections exposed to view. Dreaming about people who are dead suggests the person is still influenced by that person and has not become independent of them. The roles taken in dreams was taken to illustrate the style we take in waking life.


-Nick 2013-08-27 20:59:06

an only child would definitely have trouble sharing with siblings

    -Tony Crisp 2013-08-29 8:06:12

    Nick – thanks for having an eagle eye.


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