Alfred Adler’s Understanding of Inferiority

Second in a series of Alfred Adler’s

Counseling Theories

For the fluidity of reading, the term HE (or SHE as works for any article) will be used in place of the inclusive HE/SHE. This inclusion is implied by the singular reference in use.

          When you hear terms like inferiority feelings, inferiority complex, superiority complex, and compensation; you are encountering ideas developed by Alfred Adler.

            Inferiority feelings and compensation originated with Adler’s early studies of organ inferiority and compensation.  In his book, Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Physical Compensation (1907), Adler described the process of compensation for physical disabilities or limitations.  Depending on the attitude taken toward his defects, his compensation for disabilities or limitations will be satisfactory or unsatisfactory.   Favorite examples for Adler were Demosthenes, who became a great speaker in compensation for an early defect in speech; Annette Kellerman, who became a champion swimmer not as much despite as because of bodily weakness; and the limping Nurmi, who become a famous runner.  Others with similar problems did not compensate by excelling but used their defect as an excuse to preserve their fantasy that they would have gained prestige had they not had the defect.

            From his understanding of organ inferiority, Adler began to see each individual as having a feeling of inferiority.  Adler wrote, “To be a human being means to feel oneself inferior.  The child comes into the world as a helpless little creature surrounded by powerful adults.  A child is motivated by his feelings of inferiority to strive for greater things.  When he has reached one level of development, he begins to feel inferior once more and the striving for something better begins again which is the great driving force of mankind.”

            Every person has inferiority feelings whether he will or can admit it.  Adler says that since the feeling of inferiority is regarded as a sign of weakness and as something shameful, there is naturally a strong tendency to conceal it.  Indeed, the effort of concealment may be so great that the person himself ceases to be aware of his inferiority as such, being wholly preoccupied with the consequences of the feeling and with all the objective details that subserve its concealment.  So effectively may an individual train his whole mentality for this task that the entire current of his psychic life flows ceaselessly from below to above, that is, from feeling of inferiority to that of superiority. This occurs automatically and escapes his own notice.  It is not surprising that we often receive a negative reply when we ask persons whether they have a feeling of inferiority.  It is better not to press the point, but to observe their psychological movements, in which the attitude and individual goal can always be discerned.

            The negative responses to these feelings of inferiority become the inferiority complex or the superiority complex.  Both reflect feelings of inferiority for they are two sides of the same coin.  There are those who act and feel inferior and those who feel inferior but in denial try to lord it over others.  The interesting thing is that they are both symptoms of a poor self-image.   Individuals with a superiority complex are more concerned with attaining selfish goals than with social interest.  They may express this selfishness in a need to dominate, refusal to cooperate, or they may want to take and not to give.  Feelings of inferiority activate some to strive upward so that a normal feeling of inferiority impels human beings to solve their problems successfully.  On the other hand, the inferiority complex and/or the superiority complex impede or prevent them from doing so.

            These feelings of inferiority lead to a STRIVING FOR SUPERIORITY.  The striving for superiority is innate and carries individuals from one stage to the next.  This striving can and does manifest itself in many different ways and each person has his own way of attempting to achieve perfection.  This idea progressed through three stages.  Adler first came to the conclusion that aggression is more important than sexuality. The aggressive impulse was followed by the “will to power” and finally “striving for superiority.”  Many people reading Adler come to the wrong conclusion that striving for superiority is equated with “striving for power.”  Adler described the striving for power as a source of neurosis and crime. He pointed out that striving for power drives people in useless directions.  Power-lust is a mental disorder or disease.