Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 9

Chapter 11


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Chapter 10: Striving for Superiority

            A strong current in modern psychotherapy has focused on exploring a person’s past in order to find the causes for her behavior in adult life. Such an approach, known as a “causal” analysis, might underscore that because a woman was abused by her father as a child, she is not able to trust other people as an adult. In a causal analysis, the therapist looks at events in the past and hypothesizes or interprets how such events have led to behaviors, attitudes, feelings and beliefs in the present.

Individual Psychology analyzes people “teleologically” – based upon their inner goals for the future.

            Individual Psychology takes a different approach. It focuses on analyzing people by using what is called a “teleological” construct; that is, Adlerian theory is future-focused. Rather than trying to understand a person’s behavior based upon events in the past, Adler prefers to identify those inner goals, based upon unconscious assumptions about the self and about life, that direct people toward their futures. For Adler, our beliefs about life, as evidenced in our early memories, serve as self-fulfilling prophecies.
            Adler explains, “The psychic life of man is determined by his goal. No human being can think, feel, will, dream, without all these activities being determined, continued, modified and directed toward an ever-present objective.”[1] Each of us anticipates the end of the day, the next day, the following weeks, months and years. With our individual opinions about the nature of life, we plan for our futures based upon what we believe will most likely happen. And, based on what we anticipate may happen, we behave accordingly. Thus, we are constantly creating our own destinies.

Beliefs About Life


Anticipation of Future


Future-Oriented Behavior

            To further illustrate this point, let us take the following example of a childhood memory:

Very fortunately for me I only remember happy events or feelings. One of my clearest childhood memories is of walking in grass that was taller than I was in the early fall. I was so happy to be able to hide from everyone. As I remember it, the grass popped up again so I didn't leave a trail. When I got to the spot where I wanted to be, I stamped down the grass and made a little house for myself.  I lay down on the grass and looked up at the sky.  I don't remember leaving but I must have.

The woman recalling this memory describes it as a happy event. Clearly, she enjoys solitude. We can expect, therefore, that in her life she will seek future opportunities for solitude. In fact, the woman transitioned from a career in management – a choice she described as not right  for her – to working as a self-employed consultant, happily managing her career with greater autonomy and more time for herself.

Rooting out problems from the past is not particularly fruitful. It is more useful to understand the unconscious goals we are moving toward in the future.

            While Adlerian theory recognizes that factors in the woman’s early life might have led her, as a young girl, to enjoy solitude, specific events in her childhood cannot help us to predict with great certainty her adult attitudes and behaviors. By contrast, when we understand from her early memory that she enjoys solitude, we can be sure that she will seek solitude and we can even predict her movement through life. Her love of solitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy; she seeks to make solitude happen.
            Note that Adler does not reject the notion that events in the past can shape the adult behavior in the present. To the contrary, he fully recognizes that we all carry experiences from our childhood that have shaped us, in particular, to feel less than perfect. In fact, Adlerian theory laid the groundwork for what is now known as the “inferiority complex.” Adler observes that “…the human child is especially weak; he needs care and protection for many years.” [2] Because each of us enters the world in a state of weakness, each of us develops “inferiority feelings” (an Adlerian term) that we constantly seek to compensate for.

Weakness as an Infant


Permanent Feelings of Weakness


Efforts to Strengthen Adult Position

            What Adler does reject is therapy based on a causal method. He simply observes that therapy or attempts at self-improvement based on rummaging through personal histories are not particularly fruitful; the insights that one can derive are too general. It is better, according to Adler, to focus on the specifics of how an individual has learned to anticipate the future. In the case of the woman who hides in the tall grass in her early memory, what is most important for understanding her psyche is the fact that she enjoys solitude. Once we understand her preferences, we know the goal she is constantly moving toward. Of course, we can further examine the goal and consider whether it is always healthy or always desirable; maybe there are times when the woman would do well to spend more time with other people. Taking a causal approach, observing that she likes solitude and then exploring what happened in the past to cause her to like solitude, is not attempted in Individual Psychology.

Each of us is constantly striving for a place of greater strength, security, or superiority.

            The self-directed goal that a person moves toward, whether conscious or not, Adler describes as a position of “superiority.” Striving for superiority, one of the most broadly recognized concepts in Adlerian theory, does not necessarily mean striving to be better than other people. It more correctly means a constant human effort to better one’s own position. For Adler, to be human is to be constantly attempting to improve one’s situation in life. Everyone wishes to overcome inner feelings of inferiority and to reach an ultimate place that Adler variously describes as “security,” “strength,” or “superiority”:

All our strivings are directed toward a feeling of security, a feeling that all the difficulties of life have been overcome and that we have finally emerged, in relation to the whole situation around us, safe and victorious. With this goal in view, all movements and expressions must be coordinated and unified. The mind is thus compelled to develop as if to achieve a final ideal goal. [3]

Life is never perfect and it constantly presents challenges, and we always see the world through the subjective filters of our lifestyles. Thus, the goal of perfect psychic security is never reached; rather, we are constantly striving for superiority.

Our strivings, when they also seek to enrich other people, are healthy.

            Striving for superiority can entail aiming for positive goals or negative goals, can fall within the constraints of social interest, or can blatantly disregard social interest. Those who seek to overcome their feelings of inferiority in unhealthy ways, Adler defines as “neurotic.” Here, we see the roots to the modern concept of the inferiority complex. In his lectures, Adler would sometimes ask students to suppose that he enjoyed bringing a ladder into his classroom and sitting near the top of the chalkboard. The behavior would be described as “crazy,” until it came to light that being physically higher than other people made him feel superior. Adler says: “Only on one point would I be crazy – my interpretation of superiority. If I could be convinced that my declared goal was badly chosen, then I could change my activity.”[4] Here, we have an example of an inferiority complex: A man seeks to overcome his inner feelings of weakness through an illogical goal.
            It is irrelevant, in this fictitious scenario, whether Adler’s siblings teased him as a child or whether he felt short growing up. For the purposes of therapy or self-improvement, it is merely necessary to understand the inner goal: Feeling taller than other people makes him feel superior. Once we understand this problem we can turn to deeply impactful solutions: Is his belief about what comprises superiority logical? Does this strategy actually work? Aren’t there better ways to feel superior?
            Not everyone has an inferiority complex, although everyone has inferiority feelings. Those who seek to overcome their feelings of insecurity in ways that also help others offer the greatest contributions to society:

The whole of human life proceeds along this great line of action – from below to above, from minus to plus, from defeat to victory. The individuals who can really meet and master the problems of life, however, are those who show in their striving a tendency to enrich everyone else, those who forge ahead in such a way that others benefit, too. [5]

            In one early memory, a man recalled hearing a noise outside of his door when he was lying in bed. He remembered being afraid of the noise, but getting out of bed, walking to the door, and opening the door in order to investigate. As an adult, he worked as an environmental activist because he was genuinely frightened by the way human beings were treating the planet. For this man, striving for superiority expressed itself in a movement from fear to confronting fear, and thus to feeling more secure. His personal strivings and his career path, in turn, moved in a direction that also benefited other people.
            As you practice later with interpreting lifestyles of real people, you may also find that the striving for superiority concept, because it holds a special place as a universal component of every lifestyle, can help you with an interpretation when you are otherwise stymied. When all else fails, it is always possible to tease out an individual’s inferiority feelings – what he perceives as the most negative way to feel or as the most common negative way to feel – and posit that his life is an effort to move away from this feeling.
           For example, one man recalled participating in a “fake fight” with the older boys in his neighborhood. The older boys set up an arbitrary line across the playground, and the man remembered that he and the younger boys were supposed to stop any outsiders who tried to advance across the line. He remembered thinking at the time, “Why am I doing this?” The feeling accompanying the memory was of absurdity. One interpretation of this man’s lifestyle could be, “Life often entails situations that seem absurd, and it is important to try to move beyond such situations.” A more elegant way to capture this philosophy would be: “Life is a quest for better understanding.”


1. Understanding Human Nature, 17.
2. What Life Could Mean to You, 44.
3. What Life Could Mean to You, 20-21.
4. What Life Could Mean to You, 51.
5. What Life Could Mean to You, 55.


(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)