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Exploring the Inferiority Model in Adlerian Psychotherapy Exploring the Inferiority Model in Adlerian Psychotherapy
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Bradley, Rachel, "Exploring the Inferiority Model in Adlerian Psychotherapy" (2022).
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Exploring the Inferiority Model in Adlerian Psychotherapy
Alfred Adler once afflicted with inferiority due to organ inferiority, became the founding
father of Individual/Adlerian psychology. Adlerian psychotherapy spans numerous contemporary
theories in psychology. Adlerian psychotherapy is a holistic, phenomenological, optimistic and
socially entrenched theory, on how everyone interprets themselves and others within the society
they live (Maniacci & Sackett-Maniacci, 2019). An overview will be provided of where one of
Adler’s most important assumptions, inferiority, fits within the Adlerian theory. Given such, the
negative responses to inferiority: inferiority complex and superiority complex will be discussed,
followed by socially useful type of inferiority. After that, inferiority as a specific element will be
examined in relation to key principles of Adlerian theory. Next, a discussion on the different
theoretical underpinnings of Adlerian theory and Freudian theory. Concluding with how
Adlerian theory can continue to flourish in the modern social climate.
Inferiority Within Adlerian Theory
To understand where inferiority places within Adlerian theory it is important to talk about
the aspects of lifestyle which account for people’s behavior and motivations towards the future.
Personality is governed by what Adler calls lifestyle, that is, the temperament, the personality
traits and, psychological and biological processes placed within a social matrix. The
development of personality also includes the degree of activity an individual has, organ
inferiority, birth order and sibling relationships, family values, family atmosphere, and parenting
style. The lifestyle provides what Adler describes as a blueprint for the recurring patterns people
experience in life, such as acting defensively to criticism or becoming anxious in social
gatherings (Maniacci, & Sackett-Maniacci, 2019). The desire of affirmation is a term that Adler
used to deal with contradictions between the two fundamental motivating forces, striving for
superiority and, the striving for social belonging, within his theory. The end goal in the striving
for superiority is for an individual to be the master of their environment not the master of others
but the obstacles situations and tasks of life (Ferguson, 2020).
Adlerian psychotherapy is a contemporary psychodynamic theory which is governed by
five postulates based on (1) unconscious aspects of mental life including thoughts, feelings and
motives (2) mental process operate in parallel to motivate people to gain solutions to challenges
(3) personality patterns and personality development that formed early in childhood before the
age of four (4) mental representations of self, others and relationships and how these interactions
can influence psychopathology and (5) personality development so that people can become
socially dependent, independent and mature (Westen, 1998). The most relatable postulate for
Adlerian theory would be the fourth, that mental representations of self, others and relationships
and these interactions influence the psychological problems that people suffer from. This
postulate plays a crucial role in intimate relationship forming and peoples place within society
(Westen, 1998). When an individual has a disconnect between self internal thoughts and their
relationship with others, then they use the feelings of inferiority that they are experiencing as a
motivation to strive for perfection. It is when people unable to deal with life's challenges and
relationships with others that inferiority complexes and superiority complexes occur.
As stated in Overholser (2010), inferiority is not a disease. The whole premise of
inferiority within the Adlerian theory is a cyclic one, in that, inferiority feelings lead to striving
to reduce the feelings of inferiority, to once again feeling inferior and striving once more.
Inferiority is a stimulant to a healthy human behavior which is goal orientated for perfection
(Overholser, 2010). Perfection is derived from a Latin word meaning to complete or to finish
(Schultz & Schultz, 2017). From this meaning, the striving for perfection by the reduction of
inferiority feelings makes individuals have a greater sense of competence for themselves, by
making themselves whole or complete (Schultz & Schultz, 2017) and others, in the form of a
social interest (Sabates, 2020). This striving for perfection could manifest itself being empathic
to a struggling neighbour, by helping them find community recourses for support. The strengths
an individual has within themselves can be used to help others, such as doing community in-
person or online reading classes for children or adults. Both applications increase social interest
and wholeness in an individual.
Inferiority and Superiority Complex
In both inferiority complexes and superiority complexes, compensations are
safeguards for a person who feels too weak to face the problems of life and that all motions are
towards the suppression of others (Overholser, 2010). Inferiorty and superiority complexes, are
conditions that develop when a person is either unable to compensate for normal inferiority
feelings or overcompensates for normal inferiority feelings (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Both
complexes are born out of poor self image which prevents successful problem solving (Infinity
Institute, n.d) and are created during childhood (Adler, 2019). There is an emphasis within the
Adlerian theory that each individual has a need to connect and belong and is driven to feel
significant and part of society (Cherry, 2021). The lifestyle, and how people attempt to cope with
the perceived feelings of inferiority, create a distinctive aspect of their personality functioning. It
is when these coping strategies go awry that inferiority complexes and superiority complexes
become apparent (Cervone & Pervin, 2019).
There are three noted types of individuals that exhibit certain styles of life: the
dominant/ruling type, the getting type and the avoiding type. The dominant or ruling type is the
superiority complex, with an individual overcompensating for their perceived feelings of
inferiority (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). The ruling type exhibits low social interest and are classed
as asocial. Ruling types, compensate for their feelings of inferiority by dominating and have an
anti social presence in society. By being antisocial they can act on their own terms thereby
seeking and getting gratification which, they did not get at some point in their early childhood,
during a time where they experienced having little to no power (Wissing, 2018). Most associated
as tyrants, drug addicts and prone to suicide (Adler, 2019). Abramson (2015) states that people
perceive social life in a vertical view, an imaginary ladder. These individuals are the ruling type
with a view that they are in competition, moving from that minus state to the positive state of
inferiority feelings. They often suffer with neurosis as they exhibit black and white thinking
patterns: when they succeed, they feel valuable, when they do not, they feel worthless and
inferior, with no sense of belonging. This vertical stance of inferiority feelings causes an uphill
battle towards the highest stance in that individual's life. The sense of belonging within society
depends on others, and their own values and place within society, therefore they have an
underdeveloped social interest (Abramson, 2015).
The getting type is an inferiority complex prompting neurosis and psychosis. Often noted
as pampered in that they are unable to meet their own needs and therefore have others do things
and get things for them. The feelings of inferiority that they experience are the inability to solve
problems by themselves and compensating by getting people to do things for them. The avoiding
type is also an inferiority complex that causes neurosis and psychosis as an expression of their
shock to their feelings of inferiority. Exhibiting low social interaction which may have stemmed
from childhood feelings of never being perfect by overbearing parents. The avoiding type,
compensate for their feelings of inferiority or feeling like a failure by avoiding social interaction
(Wissing, 2018). In a recent study by Kolisnyk et al. (2020), participants were assessed for
superior or inferior complexes using Adlerian assessment tools. The study found a negative
correlation between inferiority complexes and age, which may suggest that inferiority complexes
reduce as we age maybe partly due to learning appropriate tools to deal in a healthy way with the
feelings of inferiority, which is the source of all human striving.
Socially Useful Inferiority
In addition to the three types of lifestyles discussed above, there is one type which is
classed as the socially useful type. The socially useful type can be seen as a horizontal view on
how individuals perceive social life. This socially useful type, believe that all human beings are
equal. For them to succeed they need to be in cooperation with others not being perceived higher
than others but perceived on the same plane as them. These horizontalists, have the sense of
belonging dependent on themselves alone, that is, being able to contribute to society is always on
their shoulders and in their hands. They have a high and well-developed social interest, and
would probably embody the phrase “without others, the human is worthless, inferior”
(Abramson, 2015, p. 429). The socially useful type also has a social feeling that is based on two
interdependent aspects: the need to belong and the goal of contribution. It is these two
intertwined aspects that maintain a healthy human society and healthy individuals within it
Adlerian Principal Alignment
There are twelve key principles which act as basic assumptions within Adlerian
psychotherapy, however, five of those principles have a direct pull towards the concept of
inferiority, and include holism, phenomenology, motivation as striving, psychology of use and
acting as if. Holism attests that people should not be broken into parts and should be considered
within their social context. This is important with regards to inferiority, especially as feelings of
inferiority occur towards the other, outwardly towards the environment and therefore the social
context. The term phenomenology asserts that individuals behave according to the way they
perceive their worlds, therefore Adlerian therapist engage in the study of experience (Gladding,
2018). Phenomenology is important in understanding how an individual perceive their feelings
of inferiority and how they act upon them, whether in a socially useful way or in a negative
manner. Through understanding their world, a therapeutic relationship can facilitate change.
Motivation as striving given by its name and what inferiority pertains to, that is the striving to
overcome the feelings of inferiority. This principle relates to the perception of a negative to a
positive situation such as going from a neglected situation to a secure one or from inferior
situation to a superior situation. Adler saw this as a growth model of human nature, with striving
being the principal objective and tension being produced when an individual could not achieve
their goals. The psychology of use principle is focused on how people use their symptoms, fears,
aliments and such to control others, this is of important when looking out the three main lifestyle
types, ruling, getting, avoiding. In the ruling type, the feelings of inferiority are used to dominate
others, in the getting type they are used to get things from others and in the avoiding type they
are used to avoid any social interactions (Wissing, 2018). In the key principle acting as if, the
lifestyle consists of four main components: the self concept, the self ideal, worldview, and
ethical convictions. The self concept is concerned with who an individual is, whereas the self
ideal is focused on who an individual should be. All wrapped up in an individual’s worldview
and ethical convictions. Inferiority feelings can occur when there are discrepancies between the
self concept and the self ideal. (Maniacci, & Sackett-Maniacci, 2019).
An important point to make concerning all the key principles, is that each individual must be
seen as just that. The idiosyncratic model of Adlerian theory makes the self-concept and the self-
ideal unique to each individual (Maniacci, & Sackett-Maniacci, 2019). Everyone has a different
meaning of, and attitude towards what constitutes success and as Adler (2019) states, “each
individual must be studied within the light of their own peculiar development” (p. 186).
Freudian Theory Underpinnings
Adler’s principles are inherently rooted within the Freudian perspectives of human
behavior. Adler disagreed with Freud’s thoughts that the unconscious as a separate entity to the
conscious, to ensure that threat and incorrect social or cultural impulses are not acted upon
(Safran, 2019. Adler moved away from Freud’s theory as excessive emphasis was placed on
sexual instincts, taking another view that was based on social urges and conscious thoughts in
that individuals experience the feeling of inferiority which motivates them to compensate for any
painful inferiority. These repeated cycles of inferiority followed by motivation towards no
feelings of inferiority form a distinct aspect of an individual's personality, becoming part of their
lifestyle (Cervone, D., & Pervin, 2019). In Freudian theory human behavior is attributed to the
past where in Adlerian theory human motivation is towards the future (Schultz & Schultz, 2017).
It is stated that Adler borrowed many terms from his time spent with Freud but change the terms
to mean something different to relate to his own theory. For example, the term neurosis in a
Freudian sense relate to childhood trauma, internal conflicts and early fixations. In an Adlerian
sense neurosis is the retreating from life tasks: work, friendship and love, attributed to failing to
develop social interest, low self esteem and avoiding inferiority feelings (Abramson, 2015).
Hopefully this paper has shone a light on the important aspect of inferiority within the
Adlerian theory. It is a concept that once understand in its completeness, is something that is
easy to apply and see in action all around and in the future of counselling psychology. As
inferiority is seen as a weakness across society, maybe a shift in a paradigm in a social context
could alleviate many of the negative aspects of inferiority, making a more horizontal social
interest, embodied by all human beings. This could allow for free communication to reach the
goal of superiority faster, creating equilibrium in people. The next generation can look at
Adlerian theory as a preventative method by increasing the degree of social feeling and
cooperation to help mitigate the need for therapy for underdeveloped issues in inferiority (Adler,
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