Adler's Human Personality Theory
Adler believed a person attributes meaning to life experiences, which makes his approach teleological. According to Milliren et al. (2007), over three distinct phases during his life, Adler developed and refined the premises of his theory: (a) explanation of inferiority feeling, (b) understanding of inferiority, and (c) social interest.
During the first phase from 1907 to 1912, Adler's work focused on organ inferiority as he developed basic concepts on which he began to build his theory. Adler viewed a person as having a weak part of the self as well as a strong part. He found in his early work that an individual responds to organic inferiorities with a compensatory action, making up for a deficiency in some way with another physical attribute (Way, 1950). The organ that is inferior can be strengthened, or other organs can be overdeveloped to compensate for the inferior organ. Applying this idea to a psychological viewpoint, Adler believed that a person can compensate for inferiorities by developing certain skills or personality traits. A person's development and the incentive from society push him or her toward overcoming the expressions of inferiority. A person may compensate and overcompensate for inferiority; these feelings are the source of an individual's striving. Some people can handle these challenges of life whereas others cannot.
Adler viewed a person as a holistic system and also a piece of the larger system, developing from birth, to living in a family, to culture, community, and the world. A person sets goals within the context of the subjective meaning of experiences. An individual thinks, feels, and acts in relation to goals and is working toward meeting certain life tasks. Adler also believed that a person has an aggressive drive that "served as the superordinate force that provided the direction for the confluence of drives" (Milliren et al., 2007, p. 135) and is a person's reaction to other basic drives, such as the drive for food or love. Adler held that an individual's need for affection is present from childhood and is related to family or caregivers as well as social, educational, and cultural relationships. If a person's drive and need are met, the person focuses on the subjective interconnected and holistic view of others and the world (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). If it is denied, then the person, whether a child or adult in later life, will seek attention and may turn inward in a self-loving and narcissistic way.
During the second phase from about 1912 to 1916, Adler developed a framework for understanding inferiority feelings and how to interpret those feelings as generators of striving toward the future. This was a time when Hans Vaihinger's The Philosophy of "As If” (cited in Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959) was published, which greatly influenced Adler with the concept of a fictional goal. Vaihinger believed that a fictional goal was the ultimate truth that was always beyond a person's interpretation; therefore, partial or biased truths needed to be created as fictions used in life. An individual reacts as if he or she understands the world and as if everything seen and experienced in the world influences his or her reactions and behaviors in the present and is unique to the individual. Fictions direct a person in the present to overcome feelings of inferiority and motivate them toward the future. An example of a person's fiction might be that life is fair. This idea contradicts reality because everything in life is not fair, bad things happen; yet this fiction has value in everyday life for a person.
In 1912, Adler published The Neurotic Constitution (Adler, 1912/1926), which included a shift in his theory (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). Based on Vaihinger's definition of fictions as unconscious ideas that have no counterpart in reality, Adler believed people develop fictions as a protection to handle the social world around them. Fictions allow for a future-oriented momentum toward the goal of perfection rather than past-oriented responses to deficient conditions. A person has the creative power to choose how he or she will react and interpret a situation in light of a subjective final goal or fictional goal. Thus, reactions are not passive but are active interpretations of life and, as such, part of the subjective reality.
In this second phase, Adler continued to stress that coping with inferiority and striving for superiority are important and unique to a person (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). He viewed the unity of a person in terms of the fictional finalism. A person recognizes vulnerabilities and experiences feelings of inferiority when striving for superiority. Development occurs through subjective learning experiences and cooperating with and contributing to others (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). Mistaken subjective interpretations result in flawed thoughts and behaviors, referred to as biased apperception noted by Dreikurs (1950). Through these experiences, an individual's unique lifestyle is developed.
The third phase began in 1916 and lasted until Adler's death in 1937. This phase was when Adler introduced the term Gemeinschaftsgefuhl (in German), referring to social interest, social feeling, or community feeling. It became a central idea of Adler's theory (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). Adler was not interested in the unconscious as Freud was. His interest was on the social part of life, the bringing together of both the individual and community, the inseparability of social relationships. According to Adler (1927/1946), a person strives to overcome inferiority feelings through social interest. Adler's theory was a humanistic view of life that included seeing a person as capable of cooperative social living. A person strives for self-improvement, self-completion, and contribution to others and society. Thus, a person is inextricably interconnected with others and the universe.
Social interest is linked to empathy with others and is an innate potential that allows cooperation and contribution in society (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). Adler believed that social interest is the essential gauge of mental health that involves a striving toward a healthy and socially active participation of life (Way, 1950). As social interest builds, feelings of inferiority lessen. The three main life tasks of work, community, and love create the ties to society. Thus, an individual's uniqueness and how he or she exists in society are influenced by relations with others. A person develops social interest in the absence of self- centeredness and neurosis. Social interest influences the direchon of striving and is the key trait in a healthy person's lifestyle.
Neurosis is a person's disheartened perspective about life and does not contribute to others (Adler, 1927/1946). A person who lacks community feeling becomes disconnected from society and the world. As a result, many of the problems experienced relate to the anxiety and fear of rejection from social groups. Adler proposed what he viewed as failures in life of neurosis, psychosis, and addictions as characterized by intense inferiority feelings that keep an individual self-centered and unable to cope with life. A person's personal goal of superiority is meaningful to the self only, in accordance with private logic. Adler believed that a person is responsible for her or his own behaviors, thoughts, and feelings and that a person "can change" (Stein, 2008, p. 4).