Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Theme Pack 8: Inferiority and Striving

This material is protected by copyright and may not be published in whole or part without the expressed consent of Dr. Stein. However, it may be printed for limited classroom distribution, and quotes may be copied for inclusion in course papers and presentations.

The Feeling of Inferiority and the Striving for Recognition1

By Alfred Adler [1927]

Chapter II in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler: Volume 6

I. The situation in early childhood

We are certainly now prepared to recognize that those children who have been treated as step-children by nature have an entirely different attitude toward their fellow human beings than those for whom the joys of life were guaranteed at an early age. We can state as a fundamental law that children who come into the world with organ inferiorities become involved at an early age in a struggle with the facts of existence which results only too soon in the strangulation of their social feeling. Such children are continually preoccupied with themselves in an adjustment to their fellows. What holds for organic inferiorities is just as valid for any social or economic burden which creates an additional load capable of producing a hostile attitude in children. The deciding trend becomes determined at an early age. Such children have a sentiment in their second year of life that they are somehow not as adequately equipped for the struggle as their playmates; they sense that they cannot trust themselves in the common games and pastimes. As a result of past privations, they have acquired a feeling of being neglected which expresses itself in their tendency to hold themselves in an attitude of anxious expectation. We must remember that every child occupies an inferior position in life and were it not for a certain amount of social feeling on the part of his environment, would be incapable of independent existence. At the commencement of life, every child must experience a deep feeling of inferiority when he becomes conscious of his inability to cope single-handedly with the problems of existence. This feeling of inferiority is the driving force, the starting point from which every childish striving originates. It determines how an individual child acquires peace and security in life; it determines the very goal of his existence and prepares the path along which this goal may be reached.

Every child's educability in this peculiar situation, closely bound up with his organic potentialities, may be shattered by two factors. One of these factors is an exaggerated, unresolved feeling of inferiority. The other is a goal which demands not only security, peace, and social equilibrium, but a striving to express power over the environment, a goal of dominance over others. Children who have such a goal are always easily recognized. They become "problem" children because they interpret every experience as a defeat, and because they consider

1 Originally published in Understanding Human Nature, by Alfred Adler, translated by Walter Beran Wolfe, M.D., 1927. Edited to improve readability by Laurie J. Stein, 2004.

themselves neglected and discriminated against both by nature and men. We need only to consider all these factors to see with what compulsive necessity a crooked, inadequate, error-ridden development may occur in the life of a child. Every child runs the danger of such a development, because every child finds himself at some time in a precarious situation.

Since every child finds himself in an environment of adults, he is predisposed to consider himself weak, small, incapable of living alone. In such a situation he is also quite unable to trust himself to accomplish those little tasks that we think him capable of doing without mistakes or clumsiness. At this point most of our errors in education commence. By demanding more than the child can accomplish, we throw the idea of his helplessness into his face. Some children are even consciously made to feel their smallness and helplessness. Other children are regarded as toys or animated dolls, considered valuable property that must be carefully watched, or made to feel that they are so much useless human freight. A combination of these attitudes on the part of parents and adults often leads a child to believe that he can accomplish only two things, either give pleasure or displeasure to his elders. The type of inferiority feeling which is produced by such an attitude on the part of the parents may be further intensified by other peculiar characteristics of our civilization. A child gets the impression that he is a nobody, without rights. A child is to be seen, not heard, must be courteous, quiet, etc, etc.

Numerous children grow up in constant dread of being laughed at. This laughing at children is close to criminal. It has a lasting effect on the soul of a child, and it is transferred into his actions as an adult. We can often recognize an adult who was laughed at continually by his parents as a child; such individuals cannot rid themselves of the fear of being made ridiculous even in maturity. Another aspect of not taking children seriously is the custom of telling children palpable lies, with the result that the child begins to doubt not only his immediate environment, but also to question the seriousness and reality of life.

Cases have been recorded of children who laughed continually at school, seemingly without reason. When questioned, they admitted that they thought school was a joke of their parents, not worth taking seriously!

II. Compensating for the feeling of inferiority. The striving for recognition and superiority.

It is the feeling of inferiority, of inadequacy, of insecurity which determines the goal of an individual's existence. The tendency to push into the limelight, to compel the attention of parents, makes itself felt in the first days of life. These are the first indications of the awakening striving for recognition which develops under the concurrent influence of the feeling of inferiority, and pursues a goal in which the individual seemingly dominates his surroundings.

The degree and quality of social feeling also helps to shape the goal of dominance. We can not judge any individual, whether it is a child or adult, without drawing a comparison between his goal of dominance and the degree of his social feeling. His goal is so erected that its achievement promises the possibility of either a sense of superiority, or at least an elevation of the personality to such a degree that life seems worth living. It is this goal which gives value to our sensations, which links and coordinates our emotions, which shapes our imagination and leads our creative powers, determines what we shall remember and what we must forget. Not even our sensations are absolute quantities, uninfluenced by the striving for a definite goal. Our very perceptions are prejudiced by this goal, chosen with a secret hint at the final end toward which the personality is striving.

We orient ourselves according to a fixed point which we have artificially created, a fiction. This assumption, necessary because of the inadequacy of our psychic life, is very similar to other fictions which are of use in other sciences, such as dividing the earth with meridians, which actually do not exist, but are very useful assumptions. In the case of all psychic fictions, we have to do with the following: We assume a fixed point even though closer observation forces us to admit that it does not exist. The purpose of this assumption is simply to orient ourselves in the chaos of existence, so that we can categorize every sensation and every emotion according to this fixed point.

Therefore, Individual Psychology creates a heuristic system and method: to understand human behavior as if a final state of affairs were produced out of inherited potentialities as a result of a striving for a definite goal. Our experience, however, has shown us that the assumption of a striving for a goal is more than simply a convenient fiction. The striving for a goal, the purposiveness of the psychic life is not only our philosophic attitude, but actually a fundamental fact of the conscious or unconscious life.

When we consider how to abolish the striving for power, that most prominent evil of our civilization, which evidences itself in the life of a child at a time when he is not easily approached, we come upon the difficulty of making ourselves understood to him. We can begin to make attempts at improvement and clarification only much later in life. But living with the child at this time does offer the advantage of an opportunity to so develop his social feeling that the striving for personal power becomes a negligible factor.

A further difficulty lies in children not expressing their striving for power openly, but hiding it under the guise of charity and tenderness, and carrying out their work secretly behind a veil. They modestly expect to escape disclosure this way. Their uninhibited striving for power seeking can result in an exaggerated drive for security and might, when courage becomes impudence, obedience turns to cowardice, tenderness degenerates into a subtle treachery for dominating the surroundings, with a final result that every natural feeling or expression carries with it a hypocritical afterthought whose final end is the subjugation of the environment.

Conscious education works upon the child with the conscious or unconscious desire to remove his insecurity, school him in the technique of life, give him educated understanding, and furnish him with a social feeling for his fellows. All these measures from whatever source they come are to be understood as attempts to give the growing child new ways of ridding himself of his insecurity and feeling of inferiority. What happens in the soul of the child during this process we must judge by his character traits which are the mirror of the activity in his soul.

The importance of the feeling of insecurity and inferiority depends largely upon the interpretation the child gives it. The objective degree of inferiority is important of course, and makes itself felt for the child.

We must not expect a child to have the correct estimation of himself in any situation, just as we do not expect it of adults. It is precisely here that the difficulties grow quickly. One child will grow up in a situation so complicated that errors concerning the degree of his inferiority are absolutely unavoidable. Another child will be better able to interpret his situation. But taken by and large, the interpretation which the child has of his feeling of inferiority varies from day to day until it becomes consolidated, and finally expresses itself as a definite self-estimation. According to this crystallized self-estimation, the compensation trends which the child creates to guide him out of his inferiority will be directed toward his goal.

The mechanism of the striving for compensation with which the soul strives to neutralize the torturing feeling of inferiority has its analogy in the organic world. It is a well known fact that those organs of our body which are essential for life produce an overgrowth and over-function when through damage to their normal state their productivity is lessened. Thus in difficulties of circulation the heart enlarges and becomes more powerful, seeming to draw its new strength from the whole body, until it reaches a stage in which it is more powerful than a normal heart. Similarly, under pressure of the feeling of inferiority, of the torturing thought that the individual is small and helpless, the soul attempts with all its might to become master over this "inferiority complex." Where the feeling of inferiority is so intensified that the child believes that he will never be able to compensate for his weakness, the danger arises that in his striving for overcompensation, he will aim to overbalance the scales.

The striving for power and dominance may become exaggerated and intensified until it must be called pathological. The ordinary relationships of life will never satisfy such children. Well adapted to their goal, their movements must have a certain grandiose gesture about them. They seek to secure their position in life with extraordinary efforts, with greater haste and impatience, with more intense impulses, without consideration of any one else. Through exaggerated movements toward their exaggerated goal of dominance, these children become more noticeable. Their attacks on the lives of others necessitate that they defend their own lives. They are against the world, and the world is against them.

Some children express the striving for power in a manner which does not come into conflict with society for a long time, and their ambition may be considered not abnormal. But if we carefully investigate their accomplishments, we will find that for the most part society at large does not benefit from their triumphs, because their ambition is asocial. Their ambition will always put them in the path of other human beings as disturbing elements. Little by little, other characteristics appear which take on an increasingly antisocial color, if we consider an individual in full relationship to his fellowman.

In the forefront of these manifestations we find pride, vanity, and the striving to conquer everyone at any price. This latter may manifest itself subtly in the relative elevation of the individual, through the degradation of all those with whom he comes in contact. All that matters is the distance which separates our individual from his fellows. But such an attitude is not only uncomfortable for the environment, it is also very uncomfortable for the individual who practices it because it brings him continually in contact with the dark side of life and prevents him from experiencing any joy in living.

By means of the exaggerated straining for power with which these children wish to assure themselves a place over their environment, they soon situate themselves in a position of resistance against the ordinary tasks and duties of everyday life. Compare such a power-hungry individual with the ideal human being, and we can identify his social index, that is, the degree to which he has removed himself from his fellow man.

In observing one of these individuals, if we know human nature, we will recognize immediately that some difficulties in the evolution of the psychic life must have occurred, even though we have our eyes open to any deficiencies and inferiorities of the body before us. If we keep this fact paramount in our mind, we can do no damage to the individual's social feeling, provided that we have developed an adequate social feeling ourselves. We can only help that individual. We must not blame the bearer for his physical defect or disagreeable characteristic. We must indeed admit his right to be indignant to the last limits, and we must be conscious that we bear part of the common blame for his situation. The blame belongs to us because we, too, have taken part in the inadequate precautions against the social misery which has produced his difficulty. If we stick to this view, we can help him. We approach such an individual not as a degraded, worthless outcast, but as a fellow human being; we give him an atmosphere in which he will find that there are possibilities for feeling himself the equal of every other human being in his environment. We have only to remind ourselves how unpleasant the sight of an individual whose organ or bodily inferiorities are externally visible, may be to us, we can judge the amount of education which we ourselves need in order to come to an absolutely just evaluation of our social feeling. And we can judge then, too, how much our civilization owes to such an individual. Those who come into the world with organ inferiorities feel the weight of existence from their earliest days, and thus find themselves in a position of pessimism about the whole matter of existence. Children who have organ inferiorities not nearly so noticeable, but in whom the feeling of inferiority has become intensified through whatever cause, right or wrong, find themselves in a similar situation. Such a feeling of inferiority may be artificially so intensified, as for instance by very severe education during the critical period, that the result is exactly the same as though the child came into the world greatly crippled. The thorn which has been stuck into their side in the early days of their existence, is never removed, and the coldness which they have experienced prevents them from approaching other human beings in their environment. The result is they believe themselves in a world devoid of love and affection with which they have no common point of contact.

An example: A patient continually telling us about his great sense of duty and the importance of all his actions lives with his wife in the worst possible relationship. Both he and his wife measure to the thickness of a hair the value of any event as a means toward the subjugation of their partner. The result is continual wrangling, reproaches, insults in the course of which the two become entirely estranged from one another. Whatever small portion of his social feeling for his fellow men this individual retained is strangled by his striving for superiority, at least so far as his wife and friends are concerned.

We learn the following facts from the story of his life. Up to his seventeenth year, he was practically undeveloped physically. His voice was still the voice of a boy, he had no bodily or facial hair, and he was among the smallest boys in his environment. Today he is thirty-six. Nothing is noticeable about his outer appearance which is not entirely masculine, and nature seemingly has caught up with herself and completed everything which she had hardly begun to fashion when he was seventeen. But for eight years he suffered from this failure of development and at that time he had no guarantee that nature would ever catch up. During this period, he was tortured with the thought that he would remain a "child" and already then the beginnings of his present characteristics could be noted. He acted as though he were very important and every action of his had the utmost weight. Every movement served the purpose of bringing him into the center of attention. In the course of time, he acquired those qualities which we see in him today. After he married, he was continually impressing upon his wife that he was really bigger and more important then she thought and she was busy showing him that his assertions concerning his value were untrue! Under these circumstances, their marriage which showed signs of disruption even during their engagement could hardly develop favorably, and finally ended in a social cataclysm. However, at this point the patient came to the physician, since the break-up of his marriage served only to accentuate the dilapidation of his already battered self-esteem. To be cured, he had to first learn from the physician how to know human nature, how to appreciate the error he had made in life. And this error, this wrong evaluation of his inferiority, had colored his entire life up to the time of his treatment.

Back to Adler Institute Home Page -