Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Theme Pack 15: Creative Power

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Striving Toward Ideal Form1

By Alfred Adler

Chapter II in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler: Volume 12

In the last lecture I spoke about certain facts concerning the achievements of evolution. Except perhaps for the feeble-minded, every human being is in the stream of evolution, and is forced, whether he likes it or not, whether he knows it or not, to strive for completion. This completion means movement, just as the development of mankind is movement, and the development of each child is movement.

As I explained in the last lecture, each individual originates from a cell, passing through many phases which renew and resemble the phases of the development of life and its highest achievement, the human race. All of us have originated from a cell, and at the present level of our development are compelled by evolution to strive for a goal of completion. We must now find this goal, and for this discovery evolution has equipped the human race with a mind.

Undoubtedly, this fertilized cell, out of which every individual originated, is a self, a he or a she. But it is a totality. This cell is the beginning of a personality. This self exists in the beginning. The functions of thinking, feeling, acting, and wanting belong to this self; and what is considered in modern psychology: instincts, drives, unconsciousness, subconsciousness, consciousness, are all involved in this self. The totality exists before the details; the details have to be developed out of the potential of this self. The self is not constructed later; it is present in the beginning.

Looking for potential development of a personality which begins with this cell, I believe without a doubt that the self starts at this point and if we had the potential, the ability to understand this cell, we could predict in a broad way some of the achievements accomplished later because everything is involved in this cell. This cell is a unit and must be considered as a unit, and everything which happens later in the development of this cell is also a unit.

Plants also cannot overcome the limits of being a unit. If we cut off the top of a pine, the pine will renew the top because it strives toward a last ideal form, and this ideal form signifies the level toward which this plant has now grown up. If a lizard loses its tail, the unit of this lizard will renew it. It is the same with human beings. If we have a wound, the skin will grow together again. Such is this striving power.

This striving force, coming from the creative power of the personality, the self, and its possibilities, is expressed as movement. If this movement is put in the stream of evolution, striving toward a goal of completion, then we can understand why all the details in the mind or body of an individual connect to form a unit.

Single Unifying Goal

If all expressions and movements lead toward a goal, then obviously a coherent unit is formed. On this point we must be honest. Individual Psychology demands a strict following of these views. We must understand that not only the thoughts, but also the feelings, desires, actions, all expressions of mind and psyche, whether they are conscious or unconscious, move toward this goal, which in the eyes of a given individual, represents a goal of completion.

Such a goal could, for instance, be the desire to move forward in the stream of evolution, representing the ideal final goal. This goal would include cooperation and contribution toward the welfare of mankind. Perhaps this is not everybody’s ideal goal of completion, but if we study people who deviate from this useful direction, we will find that they strive in a useless direction.

Other directions might include: to be more than others, to dominate, to tyrannize others, or to be supported by others, to exploit the contributions of others, or as we often find, merely to avoid a defeat, not to solve problems, but to escape, to retreat from every problem. These general ideas of goals of completion differ in each personality.

Even if you have these general principles in your mind and you can use them, you have not understood Individual Psychology if you merely understand the general principles. You must find the uniqueness in each individual, and Individual Psychology teaches this, as you will see.

Striving From Minus to Plus

Remember that each person is a coherent unit; therefore, because of this striving for an ideal goal, in each phase we must look for the next phase. We look for the expressions of an individual as if he is trying to move from a minus situation toward a plus situation. This minus situation has especially interested me. It was a great step forward in my science when I could explain my view and insist that if a person thinks and feels that he is in a minus situation, then he is in a minus situation; this feeling I have called the feeling of inferiority.

Many psychologists, especially opponents of Individual Psychology and perhaps the majority of people who misunderstood me, thought that if we have this feeling of inferiority it is a mistake in the human mind. Not at all. This is a common feeling of every human being which accompanies him throughout his life. To be a human being means to have a feeling of inferiority, and we can understand that it is another stimulus in addition to the evolutionary power in each living being, a stimulus which pulls him toward his individual goal of perfection.

This feeling of inferiority can be a worthwhile stimulus. It constantly drives mankind to improve its culture. Our whole social life is based on this striving, this urge to move forward, to improve, because as long as we feel inferior and not able to cope with difficulties, we will always feel such an urge, a striving to overcome. We cannot dismiss this urge; we have only one way to eliminate it.

We must feel not inferior but worthwhile, and to feel worthwhile is possible only if we cooperate, if we contribute something. It is not possible to feel worthwhile, to compensate for, and eliminate this common feeling of inferiority without contribution. Contribution means for the sake of mankind. Worthwhile means for the salvation and development of mankind. We need not always be aware that it is so, but if we look for it and want to analyze it, we will find it, thereby finding the only way to eliminate this feeling of inferiority.

In the next minute this feeling of inferiority arises again because we continually face problems; we always have difficulties in life which we have to overcome. These problems and difficulties provide the reason for the development of each individual.

We are constantly challenged and striving to overcome difficulties; therefore, this goal of completion as a fictitious plus situation is also a goal of superiority, so that we can say that each individual strives for a goal of superiority in order to overcome his feelings of inferiority.

Because a human being is a coherent unity, we find this striving in each part of his mind and psyche, as well as in the functions of the organs. Each function has a goal of overcoming. If we take breathing, eating, or whatever else, we can see it as a minus situation which is a stimulus for striving for superiority by overcoming.

We have two fixed points to consider. They are the goal of completion which pulls everybody, and this striving for superiority which is nearly the same. But here we can see why we have to strive-because otherwise we would feel inferior, and no one can bear this feeling of inferiority without an exertion, without striving to overcome, without competing with it. This is life; this is our day-to-day life and life in general. We must overcome.

Child’s Desire to Grow Up

We see this striving for superiority in overcoming difficulties in early childhood in the way each child wants to be more, to grow up, to do things, and our viewpoint makes sense only because this child feels inferior and wants to reach a higher level. This desire to reach a higher level is his self put in the evolutionary stream of moving forward`.

The tools and means for this movement must be considered carefully. As a whole, we could say this is the level of evolution in body and mind at which we have arrived. However, each child is born at a different level of evolution because each child begins life differently.

If a child suffers from imperfect organs, it is more difficult for him to cope in a normal way with the tasks of life. For example, if he has imperfect eyes or an imperfect stomach, he lacks the equipment of the average child and has to struggle more; he has a greater burden at the start and we will see the result later in his life. He has a similar burden if he is born with inadequate intellectual potential. Then what we see later is more difficult to understand because it results from complicated influences.

All potential capacities must grow toward a goal of completion. Now you ask, who makes them grow? Do they grow from themselves? Is it not possible that a child feels the way; also that his environment and his parents make mistakes so that his organs do not function correctly and his mind cannot be developed properly? Probably all inherited abilities of body and mind are merely the tools created for the child’s striving for superiority. Minor deficiencies in them do not matter much, in contrast to the serious mental and physical deficiencies in feebleminded children.

Also, a child’s intellectual inheritance does not matter so much because it can be made to grow. In our experience, an individual’s capacities can be used in many different ways. If he strives toward a goal of completion, then the child has accepted his tools in the right way; he can move forward; he can use them, increase their influence, and strengthen them.

Again, who makes this body and mind grow? I would not deny entirely that inheritance can be an advantage or disadvantage, but we never see the direction in it; we never know, for instance, what a child born with powerful muscles will do with them later in life. If he does not have a goal to perform something in striving to move forward, then his powerful muscles would not matter at all.

Creative Power

Each individual self moves in a direction determined by his goal and capacities. Furthermore, this self has a creative power to make it keep growing.

It is not enough, for instance, to train a child in gymnastics. If the child does not use his abilities, does not accept the training and does not use his own creative power, the best trainer will fail. As we know, good trainers in many fields often have bad results with particular people. Therefore, environmental influences are not the reason why the development in mind and body moves ahead. A child perceives, receives, accepts, and assimilates, but how he uses influences from outside as well as inside is his own achievement, the result of his creative power.

This creative power is also a result of evolution, so we can speak about a certain average in this way. Some people show a greater creative power, others a lesser creative power, and only by considering this point can we understand the results.

Many examples, show that inheritance and environment do not help us understand the development of an individual, his personality, and his style of life. We must look at his creative power, how he uses what he has accepted from nature and his environment. This creative power is the key to helping us understand an individual, so we must pay attention to it. Many opposing ideas could be discussed; for instance, believing that inheritance, drives, events, or environment determine someone’s fate. But I have another problem in mind which I must explain.

Movement in Time and Space

We will now discuss movement. Movement is something that occurs in time, in the passing moment, which without our understanding would disappear. We like to fix movement for our own security, to use it, not only in the passing moment or in the present, but forever.

For instance, we use language so that we can see a moving impression fixed in one word, for ourselves and others. We almost know what this moving impression was when we have put it in a word or a concept. Mankind had to invent writing and printing for instance, so that what had once been movement cannot disappear.

What happens at this point? Movement becomes frozen, and this frozen movement becomes form. So when in our discussion we speak about the style of life, we must remember movements always lie behind it.

Although we speak about a law of movement, we can see it only in forms; therefore, the forms of all our organs are also frozen movements. The moving muscles, for instance, can be seen later in an enlarged physical form. The heart beating can later be seen in an enlarged form, and our whole body, face, hands, and posture were originally movement which has been crystallized into form. What we consider now appears as a resting movement, a frozen movement in forms.

Consequently, if we could understand forms better and dissolve them back into movement, then we could understand from the body, the face, or perhaps the hands, what has been going on in the whole development of the person to his present level. We do not yet understand it. We have vague impressions about it, but we do not know why; probably the more we train our creative guessing ability which everybody has, the better we will be able to understand.

In the last lecture, I spoke about the look of a person. Everybody is affected by it and has an impression from how a person looks, but not everybody understands it and could explain what it means. While some may claim this vague impression represents the unconscious, I believe it merely shows a lack of understanding. We can learn much more from how a person looks; for example, whether he likes to connect with others, whether he is interested in another person or not. We learn this factor from all his movements; we must translate the rhythm of the forms into movements.

Art of Guessing

To continue what I said earlier, this guessing ability can be developed only if a person has a training opportunity. Here we see again the importance of social interest for the development of one of our most important mental capacities, the guessing ability. This guessing ability is part of a person’s creative power. We do more in life because of guessing than for any other reason. We have to guess because we constantly strive for the future, which is an unknown we can merely guess about.

In many ways guessing is not so difficult. For instance, in walking we do not have to think about where to put our feet; we guess. In understanding many little things, we guess. Also miraculous and mysterious things can be explained only by understanding this guessing ability. For instance, what we now call telepathy or the transfer of thoughts is no more than a well-exercised and trained guessing ability. We can guess much more than we understand and we can guess more than we know. This part of the creative power helps us advance. We always have to look forward; therefore, as worthwhile as the researches in reflexes and conditioned reflexes have been, these reflexes are not enough for a person’s life. We constantly face new situations and variations of old situations, where conditioned, fixed reflexes cannot help us find solutions. We must be able to guess.

Compensation for Felt Deficiency

I need to explain something about the differences in the beginning of life. A child who comes into the world suffering from imperfect organs does not equal the average of evolution in his physical constitution. We do not know whether or not he can catch up, although surely many children can outgrow deviations, and medical healing can help their growth, or time alone can do it; for instance, children suffering from a lack of the thyroid gland or the parathyroid gland can outgrow it after some time. But unquestionably their ability to solve the problems of life is less and of a lower degree; if they are more confronted and burdened, they cannot overcome it. This principle applies to the growth of the sense organs, the lungs, the heart, the stomach, the kidneys, the skin, or any of the organs. These children can be more burdened at the start, causing them to struggle harder to arrive at an equilibrium with the demands of the external world. This greater struggle gives them a more serious minus situation, and connected with it, a greater feeling of inferiority.

This burden also means a greater stimulus to go ahead, but when a child establishes his goal of completion in the first four or five years of life, that goal of completion must agree with the burden. His goal of completion must also suffer. When we find this greater feeling of inferiority, this greater struggle in striving to overcome difficulties, we also find a much greater interest of the person in himself, in a hurry to reach an equilibrium.

As I have said, a child fixes his style of life and law of movement in the first four or five years, sometimes even by the second year. This fixed unit, as a prototype, persists throughout his life. In this prototype, also a moving form, children who suffer from imperfect organs and are therefore burdened more, have a greater feeling of inferiority, a greater striving for superiority, and a greater interest in themselves which lasts throughout their lives, if nothing is done to eliminate it.


We can lessen their degree of self-interest; in spite of the difficulties of such a child, we can make him interested in others. Proper education is the critical factor.

If the highest goal of completion is possible only through a desire for social contact, cooperation, and contribution, then we have to do something with these children. What I have just explained was not a fixed idea in the beginning of Individual Psychology. We were surprised to find among those who do not have this goal of ideal completion, who are not trained correctly in cooperation and contribution, many people who in their childhood suffered from imperfect organs.

This finding which I explained and published at the beginning of the century has since been confirmed by many others and perhaps in some ways exaggerated. It would be an exaggeration, for instance, to say that these children inevitably become failures. This is not true.

On this point I again want to advise against using any rule or formula in trying to understand an individual. We cannot understand him with a rule or formula because each individual is different, and we find so many variations that nobody would understand it if we gave him a rule, as for instance, for the feeling of inferiority or the striving for superiority. I know some people are relieved to have a rule or formula, but they do not know that these rules and formulas are merely the keyboard of a piano on which a psychologist, someone who wants to understand, must train to play. If some people believe Individual Psychology consists merely of some rules or ideas now being used all over the world, they are seriously mistaken. Nobody can characterize a person by telling him he has an inferiority complex because most people do have an inferiority complex. But this inferiority complex is so varied and unique that nobody could recognize himself by seeing the inferiority complex of another person. Yet we can use a general principle, which we have to look for when we find some deviation in a personality: if this person has not started with too great a burden, if he has not been suffering from imperfect organs, etc.

The exaggerations I see in this field are from long ago. For instance, Lombrose and many other criminal psychologists insist that all criminals are criminals because of inheritance. This idea is rubbish. We can make any child into a criminal. We must merely hinder him in the development of his social interest and if he has some degree of activity left, if he does not submit entirely when tempted or confronted, he will turn out to be a criminal. But we do find among criminals many who suffer from imperfect organs.

At present, where we find exaggerations of the importance and influence of the endocrine glands toward mind and psyche, many criminal psychologists insists that criminals suffer from disturbances in the endocrine glands. But while many criminals have a disturbance in their basal metabolism, they are not criminals because of this disturbance. These differences of basal metabolism, to make it very simple, mean the differences in rate at which energy is expended in the body. These differences come from the disturbing emotions these people feel when caught or in prison, or throughout their whole life, because they constantly live in a hostile country, pursued. On this point we can understand that some difficulties and burdens in the beginning of life hinder the correct development of social interest.

I will explain later the importance of social interest and Individual Psychology’s view of it. Here I want to show that the achievement of evolution in this regard is definite. The average population has some degree of social interest, but not enough. We must understand it sufficiently so that in thousands of years, it will be a natural part of life. Everyone will be socially interested without being taught.

Even all our current efforts to teach people social interest, as in all the religions (love thy neighbor), in ethical and moral considerations, and scientifically, as in Individual Psychology, show that we are sufficiently developed in social interest. All failures demonstrate this one point, that they do not have enough social interest.

Obviously then, a problem child is different only because he does not cooperate; he is not interested in the welfare of others; he thinks solely of himself. Neurotic individuals also are interested mainly in themselves and do not want or feel able to cooperate.

Going further, psychotics separate themselves entirely from reality, which means social interest and cooperation. Criminals or persons who commit suicide, drug addicts, and sexually perverted people are not in the stream of evolution because they have no interest in the welfare of mankind. Therefore, they are suspected everywhere of being failures. The social interest of human beings resists these traits and calls them vices, while others which agree with social interest are called virtues. All the characteristics we find are merely external appearances of this moving power of a personality, the primary themes.

We can see how a person relates to the demands of mankind, to the problem of social interest. Being a good person means being socially interested; courage means wanting to solve the problems of life. But all these factors are social characteristics which can be understood only in the relationship of one person toward others, life, and the ideal final goal of completion.

We are in this stream, but we have not understood it and we must learn how to understand it, where we are heading, and where we have to go. In the past, we appealed primarily to feelings. Now, we have the additional weapon of understanding, probably also given to us by the evolution of the mind. This capacity for understanding is probably our most powerful weapon to explain to people the direction in which we must move.

Overcoming Childhood Burdens

I spoke earlier about the burden of imperfect organs and I must now discuss how many children succeed in their struggle to overcome these difficulties. Sometimes they succeed in ways which cannot be explained or understood. I remember, for instance, a five-month-old girl who was being fed with the bottle and had developed very well, a strong, good baby. When she woke and wanted to drink (remember she was only five months old), she merely made a faint little noise. Her not wanting to disturb others was a sign of cooperation; she waited patiently. She trusted the people around her, those with whom she was properly connected. But when a person came to her without the bottle, she screamed terribly, and nobody had enough courage during this time to approach her without the bottle. She also educated others for cooperation. How can we explain this? We can’t. In her behavior, we find a guessing ability--in a five-month-old child. We find a tendency to cooperate and a tendency to fight for cooperation.

Many cases are really striking; perhaps one of the most striking was a patient of an eye specialist in Munich. He described a child with an asymmetric, very broad head, perhaps a child who was suffering from rickets. This broad head was the cause of the lower eyelid’s being very tense and the child could not move it because of this tension. It had been stretched too much. Consequently, this child could see well straight ahead and around her, but she could not see what happened below, because when she looked down the lower eyelid covered the pupil and she could not see. At four months of age, this girl learned by herself how to put her finger in her lower eyelid, pulling it down so that she could look down. This behavior could not have been inherited because probably no one among her ancestors had such a unique variation in the eyelid.

This behavior could not be trained; it could not be a conditioned reflex because nobody taught her what to do. She guessed it, found it by herself with her creative power of mind, and if we are familiar with babies, we see every day how they discover things. They are constantly watching and learning, sometimes by trial and error, but more by their own guessing ability and creative power of mind.

Therefore, we can understand how many children who are burdened more than others can overcome their difficulties because being burdened, they must struggle more to find, to guess a good way. For instance, children suffering from imperfect eyes, if their vision is poor, learn things, how to be helped.

For instance, they close the eyelids more when they want to see better, and they increase their interest in things, interest which is not increased among those who have normal vision. Because they have a greater interest in colors, shadows, lines, forms, and perspective, we cannot be surprised to learn that often these children with weaknesses of the eyes are much more able to be interested and taught in visual things. This principle is so important that in my own experience I became sure that no great painter could have normal eyes. Evidence is everywhere. For instance, in the art schools, we rarely find many people with normal vision; in fact, I have always been skeptical whether those with normal vision could be really good painters.

Now we see the greater struggle. If a child succeeds in overcoming his burden, then he can also be interested in the world which offers him more than discomfort. However, if he does not overcome his burden and experiences only discomfort in his early life, then he decides not to connect or be interested in an uncomfortable world.

Therefore, we can understand how important it is for a baby to be in a helpful environment from the beginning of life. During the nine months of pregnancy, a child is in generally good circumstances, protected by nature. Coming into a new situation at birth, he expects the same favorable life that he had before; consequently, we can understand the importance of the mother.

He has the capacity to connect and be interested in others, but he will do it only if he is in a comfortable environment; so the mother has to create a comfortable environment from the beginning. The more she is interested in him, the better job she can do.

We understand then the importance of the way in which she cares for her child. For instance, if she approaches him with cold fingers, or if she perhaps has rough skin on her hands, the child will not be comfortable. How she prepares his bath is also important, whether it is cold or hot, how she feeds him, etc; otherwise, he will resist the connection, which would be intelligent.

It is much easier for a mother who is interested in her child. Many mothers have difficulties in this way, and the beginning of the lives of many children can be burdened too much because the mother is not skillful or does not act correctly.

Similarly, the child experiences weaning as an entirely new situation and can be very cross if it is not done in a pleasant way. We know the more pleasant way is to use the bottle frequently before beginning the weaning, and not to do it harshly because again, he will resist the connection. Sometimes in the case of wet nurses, a child will resist one nurse and prefer another one. This selection should be encouraged and supported, so the child makes a connection.

We see serious potential errors in the early years of parenting: how a child can be hampered and narrowed in the development of social interest at the time when he is building up his prototypes, so that through his life he will have merely a small degree of the ability to cooperate. Even so, we do not make this outcome into a rule because a child can overcome parenting mistakes; other circumstances can promote the growth of his social interest.

But I will explain in the next lecture how the mother or her substitute can fail in two directions: first, what I have just discussed, by not being interested enough in the child, and second, by being too interested in the child. Too much interest in the child is a mistake because then he will not connect with anyone else. Connecting with the mother would be his most favorable situation, so by comparison, no other situation can possibly be as pleasant.

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