WE are talking about a mutual friend who seems stuck (and morbidly invested) in his traumatic childhood. “Good grief," my friend texts me. “Enough already. It's never too late to have a happy childhood."
This view might seem a little cruel and uncharitable, but that statement could have come straight from Alfred Adler, the Austrian doctor and psychoanalyst who was once part of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic circle but became sceptical about the belief that the essential regulator of human behaviour was sexual and frustrated with the absolute determinism of the unconscious. He established his theory of “individual psychology".
Adler believed that our past traumas don't define our future. Instead, we choose how traumas affect our present or future lives. He placed great importance on human willpower to overcome hardships.
I had never heard of Adler until I stumbled upon a book, The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness, co-written by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi, a Japanese psychologist and philosopher.
What from the title sounds suspiciously foamy and self-helpy is a simple and accessible exposition of Adler's school of thought.
There is a lovely backstory of how the book came about. Koga, a writer, finds Kishimi's first book on Adlerian psychology while browsing in a bookshop in Kyoto and is fascinated. He contacts Kishimi, and they start a conversation that becomes a book — written in the classic “dialogue format” of Greek philosophy with Kishimi as “The Philosopher" and Koga as “The Youth".
Freud, Carl Jung and Adler were contemporaries and are seen as the fathers of modern psychotherapy, or what is also referred to as “deep psychology”.
Adler's name has faded into the background, and he does not have the same name recognition as Freud and Jung — maybe because Adlerian theory is strong medicine.
Adler says humans are not so fragile as to simply be at the mercy of aetiological (cause and effect) traumas.
“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. We are self-determined by the meaning we give to our experiences, and there is probably always something of a mistake involved when we take particular experiences as the basis for our future life."
He says situations do not determine meanings, but we define ourselves by the meanings we give to situations.
In Adlerian psychology, self-reliance is an overarching objective.
One ascertains the things one can change and the things one cannot change. One cannot change what one is born with. But one can change what use one makes of that equipment under one's own power. So, in that case, one simply has to focus on what one can change rather than on what one cannot. This is what I call self-acceptance. — Ichiro Kishimi
Adler says we can choose how to respond to trauma. Your fate is not fixed or predetermined; you have a choice about the meaning you ascribe to adverse experiences.
The Adlerian psychotherapist believes the person experiencing difficulties in living is not sick but discouraged.
Adlerian psychology is for changing oneself, not for changing others. Instead of waiting for others to change or for the situation to change, you must change yourself — “we cannot alter objective facts, but subjective interpretations can be altered as one likes”.
All problems are interpersonal.
Adler says that all psychopathology relates to interpersonal relationships, and willpower is the main driving force in each individual.
When this drive is hindered, an “inferiority complex” emerges. This is a neurotic feeling of inability or incompetence derived from experiences and surroundings. To compensate for this condition, the individual develops a “superiority complex”. This involves feeling disproportionately high perceptions and desires of oneself.
This leads to two available paths of compensation. Either the individual compensates for his inferiority by developing new potential, or the individual is trapped by his sense of inferiority and creates an unhealthy superiority complex. This leads to cynicism, frustration, indifference, even crime.
Adler argues that to escape a toxic feeling of inferiority, you need the courage to face what he calls “life tasks" in relation to love, friendship and work.
At the heart of Adlerian psychology is refusing to seek recognition from others (and not blaming other people, the environment or the past).
Adler indicated that the individual can devise all kinds of pretexts to avoid life tasks and stay stuck.
He says all interpersonal relationship troubles are caused by intruding on other people’s “life tasks" and not understanding the boundaries of “from here on, that is not my task".
This “separation of tasks" is a specific and revolutionary viewpoint unique to Adlerian psychology. Life tasks are never seen in terms of good and evil; for Adler it is an issue of courage.
It is not nihilism at all. Rather, it’s the opposite. When one seeks recognition from others and concerns oneself only with how one is judged by others, in the end, one is living other people’s lives. There is no need to be recognised by others. Actually, one must not seek recognition.
Many people think that interpersonal relationship cards are held by the other person. That is why they wonder, how does that person feel about me? and end up living in such a way as to satisfy the wishes of other people. But if they can grasp the separation of tasks, they will notice that they are holding all the cards. This is a new way of thinking.
Do not think of the separation of tasks as something that is meant to keep other people away; instead, see it as a way of thinking with which to unravel the threads of the complex entanglement of one’s interpersonal relations. — Ichiro Kishimi
Adler said each person is unique, and their style of life (ie, lifestyle) is formed partly by how they were raised. The relationships we have with our attachment figures shape, in part, the way we feel, relate to and process reality. Our “lifestyle" is how we act, think, and perceive and how we live. It is from the lifestyle that we select the methods for coping with life’s challenges and tasks.
He identified four lifestyle types.
The ruling type originates from an aggressive, selfish and dominant personality. These people feed on feelings of insignificance and are hostile. They’re resentful and mistrustful and need to have control over others. It can even be pathological (narcissism, aggressiveness). They lack self-concept, have few values, and feel no love for themselves. This style of existence can lead them to great vulnerability and unhappiness.
The avoidant type try to escape all responsibilities, avoid problems, and are unable to maintain relationships. They’re childish individuals who seek immediate gratification.
The getting type orchestrate their entire existence and behaviour around getting validation from others. They have not overcome their feelings of inferiority and the relationship of dependence and submission. They lack self-concept, have few values, and feel no love for themselves.
The socially useful type is the healthiest typology. Socially useful individuals work to improve themselves, address their fears and enhance their strengths and are, through that, able to connect with others in a socially beneficial way.
When we speak of interpersonal relationships, it always seems to be two-person relationships and one’s relationship with a large group that comes to mind, but first, it is oneself. When one is tied to the desire for recognition, the interpersonal relationship cards will always stay in the hands of other people. Does one entrust the cards of life to another person or hold onto them oneself?
The separation of tasks is not the final objective for interpersonal relationships. Rather, it is the gateway.
One neither prepares to be self-righteous nor becomes defiant. One just separates tasks. There may be a person who does not think well of you, but that is not your task.
Separating one’s tasks is not an egocentric thing. However, intervening in other people’s tasks is essentially an egocentric way of thinking. Parents force their children to study; they meddle in their life and marriage choices. That is nothing other than an egocentric way of thinking. - Ichiro Kishimi
Courage to be happy
One of the interpretations of the Adlerian approach shared by Kishimi is that most of us lack the courage to be happy — because it requires change. And work. And the possibility of disappointment and setbacks.
It is essential, says Adler, to be unconcerned by other people’s judgements and have no fear of being disliked by others; otherwise, one will not be able to follow through in one’s own way of living. That is to say; one will not be able to be free.
Freedom, Kishimi says, is essentially the courage to be disliked.
When you have gained that courage, your interpersonal relationships will all at once change into things of lightness.
One does not live as if one were rolling downhill but instead climbs the slope that lies ahead. That is freedom for a human being.
♦ VWB ♦
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