Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

The General System of Individual Psychology
Chapter I: Unique Goal of Overcoming

by Alfred Adler

One of the best introductions to Individual Psychology, The Generall System of Individual Psychology, is an unpublished manuscript by Alfred Adler that was discovered in the Library of Congress. The thirteen undated lectures, identified as chapters, form a complete series that Adler presented in English, possibly in New York City. Adler's terminology and style suggests that the lectures were given later in his career, and represent a summary of his matured theory of the personality, as well as principles of prevention and treatment. Chapter I, "Unique Goal of Overcoming," is reprodced below and is included with twelve other chapters in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler, Volume 12. (This material is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in whole or part without the expressed consent of Dr. Stein.)

Striving of Life to Overcome

I know I am inviting the reader to take part in a difficult task because to explain and discuss the principles of Individual Psychology means not only to explain the structure of psychological problems, but also to prove the correctness of these principles in all details of human life.

This task means even more because at the first step when we consider Individual Psychology, we find ourselves in the realm of evolution. We must consider that life started and still starts every day in a little fertilized cell, in which powers strive for something. In the view of Individual Psychology, we can characterize this movement as a striving for equilbrium, for overcming diffiuclties, for an ideal completion.

This striving has been going on for billions of years and we understand that we now have countless possibilities and faculties which are confronted and challenged again and again by our environment. Whatever is wrong in our achievements must be and will be improved because of the challenge of the environment. We constantly strive to find an active, not a passive, equilibrium with the demands of the external world. We have now progressed to a certain level and we can use the achievements of this development, repeated in each individual and involving all the achievements of life, to move in this stream of evolution which has the goal of an ideal completion.

Moreover, Individual Psychology encompasses more than biology. Each Individual Psychologist must have some experience in sociology and economics because in this communal life of human beings we always find social problems which confront the individual, and which push him forward to overcome these problems for the salvation of mankind.

Here we see the deep social view of Individual Psychology; therefore, we also must speak about the social problems of life and recognize the mistakes made in this realm. We need to consider how individuals, families, nations, and races strive to solve the problems of life. Solving these problems is the subject of psychology. We must learn from our mistakes after we have gained a vantage point, a measure, to distinguish right form wrong, sub specie aeternitatis. This goal of completion always leads, forces, and destroys all mistaken ways, thereby endangering all those who strive on another side, not in the stream of evolution, not in the stream for a goal of an ideal completion.

Clearly, we focus on movement. We can understand only that which we see in movements. The approach toward other individuals, the movement in regard to occupation and work, and the shifting relationship between the sexes are the great problems of mankind. In this way evolution has really accomplished a marvelous work which cannot be admired enough.

Often we do not understand the steps made in the development of mankind. We are merely dragged along by it, explaining in frequently mistaken ways, why we have to do it this way. We feel and find the contradictions, obstacles, and difficulties in a mistaken way and have to correct them.

Mind also is one of the great achievements of evolution, and this mind works correctly only when it looks for the ideal goal of completion in all our movements. If we are placed correctly in this stream of evolution, then we do not need to think much about it. But when we confront difficulties and struggle to find the best solution, our intellect helps us find the way. All individuals, mind, intellect, and common sense move toward the ideal goal of completion.

The Pull of a Creative Goal

We are always pulled by a goal. The means for approaching this goal, which we can never fully achieve, can be found in heredity, meaning the achievements of evolution, and in the impressions given by the environment. But these are merely the tools we use for finding the way to solve the problems of life in our development. These impressions from the outside, the environment, and our experiences do not lead us. We merely use them.

Our capacities alone do not give a direction; only the use of them shows direction. In our social life, we also find that a person’s capacities are not what’s important for his life development, worth, and value, but the use he makes of them. Many famous and worthwhile authors focus solely on our capacities, which are not only inherited abilities and disabilities, but also the impressions given from the outside world.

Individual Psychology maintains that the same impressions are used by each individual in a different way. Now who is using them? Who is accomplishing something with all these impressions? Are these impressions merely reflexes which we have to consider? Can a trained reflex alone lead us? Who assimilates the impressions, sensations, experiences, shocks, advantages and disadvantages we experience and feel, suffer from and enjoy?

This master of assimilation is the part of life we call the creative power. This creative power is a striving power, which we can see in different aspects of life, in evolution, and in our ability to achieve the goal of an ideal completion to overcome the difficulties of life.

If we were to count only on our capacities and impressions, we could never master the many new tasks facing us every day. We never experience the same situations. They are always different. Our life today differs entirely from the life of former generations. And yet we are not prepared in advance for it; we do not have the achievements of evolution for it. But we must strive to meet the challenges of life, and we can do this only by using our mind and working with this creative power which every individual inherits and can develop. This creative power, the foundation of a striving life, must be considered as much more important than our capacities, what we inherit, or the impressions we receive.

Artistry to Find Uniqueness

We acknowledge that statistics reveal similarities in human behavior patterns. But we must not conclude that these similarities are most important; they merely help us create guidelines for understanding.

We must use rules only for enlightening the field. But we must be sure that in this field, in considering personality, the psyche and the mind of an individual, we always find a uniqueness, something never entirely identical to another person.

Psychology cannot use measures, numbers, types and rules; we must combine an artistic ability with science and our own experience. Then, at last, after we are sure of finding a distinct personality with our artistic ability and scientific experience, we have to prove over and over again that we are on the right track. It is not, as for instance in the case of a mathematical task, that we can be sure of having found the correct answer. We must be much more careful, and this is the difficult task to which I invite you.

I spoke about the psyche as a movement. I have described it for many, many years. I have described that movement cannot be considered without a goal in mind. Perhaps no psychologist can afford to overlook any more that in the psyche, as in each movement, we must look for the goal, for the direction.

We see the same development also in physics now. The most important question, the greatest problem of physics today is the direction, and the goal is sought in the smallest parts of movements. I am sure this similar focus on direction and goal is not accidental, but a common view of things which considers their movements and relationships to each other.

In discussing the general principles of Individual Psychology, I do not want to go too much into detail. I have lectured about it so often and written so many books about it that anyone who wants to have a fixed standpoint for himself for considering life or social life, the life of a nation, a country, etc., can easily look for it. I believe I have described these principles in such an obvious and clear style that people who have never understood them will find them very easy. But take care; they are complicated; it is not obligatory that things be easy.

What I want to present here in discussing general principles is, in the first place, something in regard to the goal of a human being. If we have the goal of a movement in mind, we can predict and know which direction the movement must follow. We know that to every phase the next phase will be connected. We cannot make any mistake if we are sure of the goal, of the direction.

Now, leaving theory and proceeding to practice, what is the goal in our real life? Undoubtedly, in the life of every individual we can find the goal of an ideal completion. But we can picture it in many different ways. For instance, we can picture it as the highest security, not to be shaken, not to be irritated, etc. The highest goal of completion is to be more than another person. In this way, a million varieties exist, and we must find the varieties in a single case, perhaps for preventing mistakes, or for education, or for changing a person, or perhaps in the treatment of a neurotic or psychotic person, or in a failure of any kind.

We must find the direction in all individual cases, and this direction cannot be mentioned or explained by the individual, for he does not know it is hidden from him. But he has a direction and this direction is very important for him because it establishes the unity of his personality, all his potential, all his powers, and all the tools in his mind and psyche, also using his physical capacities to move toward one special goal.

We can prove that we understand a personality only when we can prove that the thoughts, feelings, wants, likes, and movements of that personality move in the same direction. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is difficult to prove this coherence, but only after this work has been accomplished can we be sure of understanding someone.

Examples of Types

Now we must use some examples to find these coherences in all the expressions and movements, and to find how a person uses everything as part of his creative power in his striving to overcome. We will also see other movements in this direction, as goals of the highest completion. For instance, many people believe, or their striving indicates that they believe without being aware of it, that the highest goal of a person is to lean on others, to use them, and be supported by them. Here also we will find a million varieties.

People with such a goal, either to tyrannize others or lean on them, resent in a certain way having this goal. But we also find that each individual differs, and to describe and understand such a personality, not having seen others of a similar personality, is an artistic piece of work; consequently, we must train extensively for this art.

To mention another direction, another goal, I should point to those personalities who probably are not frequent enough in our world, who move in the direction of cooperation and contribution, who show more interest in others than in themselves. They also have a goal of superiority, of feeling worthwhile, of striving for an ideal completion, and such a personality can serve as a standard of measurement for everyone else.

Reading Movements in a Direction

Every human has a goal, and we have to uncover it; it helps to see how we can determine its direction. We can find it only where we can see the lines and expressions all aiming in one direction; more than one of these movements must agree in this human striving toward one goal to make the goal concrete, to make the movement concrete, and to have consistency in all the movements. Accepting this premise, which can be proved only by experience, leads to important conclusions.

For instance, we have to conclude that the meaning of life for a person must agree with his direction. His attitude toward things, problems, and other people must agree with the direction in which he is moving. So we have many opportunities to correct mistakes we have made, after using our experiences.

Therefore, Individual Psychology is a careful science, very skeptical about itself, never resting, and never content before finding agreement in many points, for instance: in thinking about understanding life, dreaming, in remembering, how to behave toward the family, toward other people, toward the problem of friendship, toward work and occupation, how to cooperate with others, and how to behave toward the other sex.

In all problems of life which we meet from earliest childhood, we want to compare, for instance, how a child behaves toward the mother with how he behaves, later, in old age. In the goal of life we can see many points in which the same leading line unites all capacities, using them to strive for the individual’s more or less mistaken goal of completion.

This process occurs because at present the way we solve life’s problems by using our mind and psyche must be justified later by evolution. If we are not justified, then probably evolution will be like a purification process which destroys and creates other powers, giving to mankind in its inherited abilities, what we must find out now by our common sense, understanding, and intelligence. This process is automatic. We cannot escape evolution; we must act in a harmonious equilibrium with the demands from the outside.

Social Interest

In mentioning some of the principal goals in the striving of human beings, I have hinted that we can use as a standard of measurement for ideal development the goal of always being ready for cooperation and contribution. If we insist on this standard to measure all deviations, failures, varieties, and differences, then we must be able to prove this standard is possible.

Everybody knows what is good and what is bad. Of course, not everybody uses this knowledge, but everybody could use it, hence something in our whole make-up must give us a hint of how to measure worth and value for the welfare and development of mankind.

All our capacities develop in this way, and we can call them truly normal only if they function for the development of mankind, helping in the way of evolution for an ideal completion of the human family. We could never call a striving normal if we can see it would destroy life, or could hinder development. Surely, if we look at the simple functions of a human being, we will find that the only person who is correctly developed contributes something in his looking and listening, in his perceiving and apperceiving the outside world, and shows an interest in people, things, and the external world.

If we were trained properly, not to use tests, but in an artistic way, by judging from movements, we could find out the degree of a person’s interest in others by his demeanor or attitude. We would not believe that a person with an intimidated look is interested in others. If in speaking with him he always looked away from us at an angle, we would not judge that he is really interested in us, that he wants to cooperate. Or the bad demeanor of a criminal would show us that he has no social interest in another person. The demeanor of a psychotic or an insane person would show that he is interested only in himself.

Seeing means more than accepting a picture on the retina; seeing means to connect with others. While considering this great achievement in evolution in regard to seeing, we must not forget that all the pictures on the retina move on and off, up and down, and yet we are able to fix them, to stabilize them. While we go around with this “camera” seeing the ever-changing pictures on the lens, it is very difficult to understand this magic power of our eye to fix the moving pictures we have on our retina.

This inheritance is an achievement of evolution. We have many similar achievements, such as walking upright. Even if he were not taught, every child would eventually walk upright. This is an achievement of evolution, just as speech is an achievement of evolution. We have it in our bodies and in our minds as a fixed achievement which can never be lost and every child would start to speak even if he were not taught to speak. The child would not speak in the prevailing language, but would speak in his own way. All our organs function as evolution has developed them to. Our excretory organs, without being taught, function properly because their proper function is necessary for mankind.

A mistaken education, not nature, causes us to find normal functions lacking so often among children. As a child on the first day of life understands how to suck and swallow, as all humans are able to control the muscles of the tongue without biting it, so also in our other functions we are blessed with the inheritance of our ancestors; therefore; we can say the development of these functions also expresses an achievement in social interest. We call our functions normal only if they are developed sub specie aeternitatis, for the highest development of mankind, if they are developed in regard to cooperation and social interest. We call them failures if they are not so developed. I am sure that in many thousands of years, we will develop to the point where social interest will be involved much more in all human beings. It will be given to us automatically, like automatic functions.

I hinted that evolution has surely created a degree of social interest already, but as we can see it is not sufficient, because many people do not use their eyes and ears correctly, or use their speech correctly, because language and speech also originate out of a social environment. Connecting people with each other by language is an achievement of social interest and is therefore based on it. Only those individuals who are interested in others will look, listen, and speak correctly.

So we can find in the mistakes and failures in seeing, speaking, and hearing how far a person is inclined to cooperate. In this way, we can find the degree of ability to cooperate. Inasmuch as there are so many failures, we can conclude that evolution has not reached so high a level that we can trust the instinctual nature of this most important function.

We must do more for it. We must learn to understand its importance, and in discussing the general principles of Individual Psychology, I must emphasize this point which I believe has been our greatest contribution. An individual can solve his problems correctly only if he has sufficient social interest; in the mistakes of all individuals, this social interest is insufficient. Some believe that in the future mankind will probably exist in the face of its present and future growing problems only if social interest is sufficiently increased. Today it is an intellectual understanding; later it will be an automatic function.

Intelligence, rightly called common sense, means to understand things, persons, and problems. Therefore, understanding is not a private matter, in spite of the many people who try to understand things for their own behalf, to understand how they can be applied merely to themselves and not in an objective manner. We see again, not only that these three functions, seeing, listening, and speaking form the foundation of understanding, but also that our understanding can be developed correctly only if it is based on a sufficient degree of social interest.

Perhaps I should stop here in the interpretation and discuss some of the general principles of Individual Psychology asking you to think about: what goals can you find in yourselves and your friends, when you consider your lives and their lives? You can make mistakes, but if, for instance, you gave me merely the general idea of what you have found as a goal of superiority, as a goal of striving for completion, you would be using one of the most important ways to learn Individual Psychology, because this science presupposes a great capacity for guessing. This is a difficult problem in psychology. We cannot count on things and facts which can be grasped, seen, or felt immediately. All of what we want to find out lies under the surface; therefore, psychology is a challenge of imagination, speculation, and even fantasy.

At first some people are scared, and even many scientists shrink away from a science based on imagination, because merely to see, order, qualify, and characterize all the facts and things we can grasp is no science. Science begins at the point where we can look beneath the surface, finding underlying lines which combine the details leading to a certain point, finding the coherence of the common denominator among all the parts we have in our hands, so that at last we find a typical rule as we have always found in all the sciences. Medicine is also based on imagination. Law and all the professions cannot be carried on if a person looks merely at the surface and what he can see immediately. He must find out more, the connections and overall coherence.

Guessing Individual Goals

We are not presented with all the facts of our inquiries; we have to guess. Consequently, we must strengthen our guessing ability. When properly developed, this guessing ability is based on social interest because a person can guess correctly only if he is connected with his environment, perceives that all the advantages and disadvantages of life belong to him, and that he has to solve life’s problems. Only he can guess correctly because he is a part of the whole and suited for social living, which demands social interest.

To give some practical examples, I want to present a few personalities I have met in my life, either as a physician, a psychiatrist, an educator, a friend, or an acquaintance.

Case - A Lawyer

I remember a man, perhaps thirty-two years of age. He should have been a lawyer, but up to this time he had not taken one examination; he escaped from it again and again. He was not very pleased with his situation, but this escape from all confrontation was so habitual with him that anybody whose attention was directed to it could see that he was always escaping throughout his life.

He was the youngest son of a well-respected family and had been his parents’ favorite. Believed to be intelligent and precocious as a child, he was he was expected to be a prodigy. But when he came to school he failed, as often happens with such a child. We see here one example of the pampered children we frequently meet, the type of pampered children who represent the greatest number of all failures in life. When he should contribute and cooperate, he does not move forward, but stands at a great distance from the solution of a problem. As a lawyer, he would be required to contribute and cooperate.

When we find that in childhood was in an unusually favorable situation, always supported, always protected, and when he came to school where he was no longer in such a favorable situation he failed, then we can see part of his direction, how he moves. He moves as long as he is in a hothouse, but he stops and looks for a retreat when he is confronted.

We can say more about this common movement of retreat. It is not a conclusion resulting from thinking or intelligence. This retreat is entirely automatic. It is always so; if he does not feel warmth, his whole body is irritated and begins to vibrate.

For all my students who are interested in the physical deviations and disturbances involved, I want to say we have complete proof that in such a situation we see all the results of shock, and if a person is shocked, the equilibrium of his body is disturbed. In the first place, the involuntary nervous system, especially the sympathetic nervous system, is irritated. These irritations reach further and also involve the muscle tone. Particularly the adrenaline system and the thyroid system begin to function in an abnormal way. Secretion is much greater; therefore, such a person really does not feel able to go on, move forward, and solve problems.

This exogenic factor would not be a terror to everybody. But for him who has always leaned on others, expected not to contribute, but only to receive, to be in a favorable situation, and not be confronted, for him such a shock is much greater than it would be for others; therefore, his whole body is irritated and vibrates.

Not only his body vibrates; there is also a shock result in the mind, which can arouse anxiety, anxious grief, temper outbursts, etc., so that because of these aroused effects, emotions, and feelings, he is not able to go on any more. It is not an automatic result we are considering now, because it is aroused in him as it would be aroused in anyone who experienced such a great terror. For us it is not a great terror, but it is for him because he is not trained for such things and his goal is different.

His goal is always to be supported and favored, especially to be favored in the beginning of everything. Therefore, in such a person with a goal to have it easy, to have success in the beginning, all his characteristics also move in the same direction.

Such a person must be hypersensitive because he lives in a hostile world. He must be patient because he fears he might lose. He must be high-strung in some way because he does not feel strong enough to cope with a situation which might arise, and he must be greedy because he feels deprived and wants to enrich himself.

All these characteristics result from his desire for one thing: to be supported. He thinks only of himself, not of others. For him, cooperation later as a lawyer is not important. We would find his thoughts follow this line: “I do not want to be a lawyer. Why should I be a lawyer? What is the use in it? My father has proposed it, but I do not like it.” In not liking these things, he does not realize that he wants merely to eliminate being forced to cooperate and contribute as a lawyer.

Case - Factory Technician

Regarding this point, I have seen and remember two other men of the same age. One man was a technician who worked in a factory, perhaps successfully, but he was very ambitious and from childhood trained for being ahead, to be the first in an easy way, to be ahead of all the pupils in school. He was not satisfied with his position, and then the idea came to him that at the present time when technology is developed so highly, it is of no use to be a technician. Being a sociologist and solving sociological problems would be much better; being a technician contributes to unemployment and makes people unhappy. This was his private logic. He thinks solely of himself and being ahead of others, which is how he has been trained. In his dreams, his remembrances, and his approach toward all the problems of life, we see the same picture.

Almost at the same time, I met a man who was an older student of sociology. But he did not go on and did not want to take his examinations, insisting, “What is the use of studying sociology today? We must be technicians because the most important development of mankind must be technical.”

These people are not stupid. They reason in an intelligent way, but they have a private intelligence. They do not reason on behalf of mankind, sub specie aeternitatis, knowing that we must have both technicians and sociologists. Their reasoning does not come from common sense, but from their fear of not being ahead, not being the first.

Case - Wife, 35

This case is one of the pictures I want to present. A married woman, thirty-five years old, with a child of four and a gentle, kind husband, had been suffering from compulsion ideas. These compulsion ideas were the usual ones. She constantly had the idea she could kill the child, tear somebody to pieces, or stab somebody. She never harmed anyone, and there was no danger. Individuals with these compulsion ideas sound terrible, but are more or less passive and not active, similar to someone who likes to curse. For instance, a taxi driver says such things as, “I will kill you,” etc. We must be careful because a compulsion idea is not as strong as cursing. It is more like a faint cursing because the person is really afraid. It is as if a person curses, but at the same time scared about cursing, just as it also appears sometimes that a person curses and feels guilty about it.

In a way, this woman’s life had been typical. There had been many children in her family; she was the oldest, and as frequently happens in such families, she had to tutor the other children. Nearly every year another child came. She pitied her mother, for her mother also suffered because of this large household and many children. But she herself had been forced to take care of the children and all her remembrances played with this idea: how she had been oppressed by her father and mother, and how her parents cursed when she did not obey. She accepted this cursing, and probably her father and mother often spoke about killing, also without meaning it.

When she first married, she was in good financial circumstances that soon changed forcing her to do housework alone, while before she had a maid. This new situation of being forced to do housework which she had resented so much as a child, gave her the same impression of resentment as she had before, and when her child came, she had another impression just as she had had in her childhood.

She had to take care of this child and could not go out anymore; she had no entertainment. Life was as it had been in her childhood. As she had cursed in her childhood, as the parents had cursed the children, she had to find an outlet to express this idea, and it appeared in this compulsion. She seemed to be in a vicious circle because, in order to be free from this child, she let him do what he wanted and gave him everything he wanted. He could get everything if only he were quiet. In such a situation, children ask for more and more, and occupy the mother much more than they could otherwise do; consequently, she was really tortured by this child. Like cursing, this compulsion idea appeared now.

Do you see what the goal of this woman was? The goal of completion in her case was to be free from confrontations because as a child she had suffered so much, from housekeeping, from not being free, from not being able to get out, and always being forced to take care of the children, etc. In this way, she had been suffering from a wound that she wanted to get rid of; in this emotion the whole body and mind vibrated, and to curse would have been an intelligent outlet. If she had been strong enough to curse, she might have escaped a compulsion idea, but not being strong enough, she went merely to this point which is like cursing, but stops short, afraid of it. We see how a personality can be constructed based on some impressions.

But we cannot make a rule out of it; we cannot say in this last case, for instance, that all girls who have to take care of younger children will later develop a compulsion neurosis. What makes such a compulsion neurosis? Only her own creative power, her view of the world, especially her lack of social interest, her striving for a completion which consists of not being confronted, not being bothered by others. She has a goal of completion, a goal of superiority, but lacks social interest. The other causes I mentioned are similar. For instance, the two boys who wanted to change their profession had been thinking only of themselves, seeking a place which would make them superior, as many people throughout their lives believe they need merely find the right place for everything to turn out well.

In the first case of the student who should take his examinations, we can also see his idea was to be supported by others; this was his meaning of life. In these four cases we find a lack of courage, a lack of self-confidence. We find a deep feeling of inferiority, excuses, and a preference for alibis and subterfuges. Therefore, Individual Psychology is correct in insisting that all these failures come from a lack of social interest and become an inferiority complex. That this inferiority complex is not visible, but usually covered by a superiority complex does not change the matter. These people feel inferior and they do not have enough courage. We will see this mistake again and again.

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