“Every individual acts and suffers in accordance with his peculiar teleology, which has all the inevitability of fate, so long as he does not understand it.” – Alfred Adler.
While reading Alfred Adler, the 20th century Austrian psychotherapist, i learnt why dealing with neglect in early life can end up ruling and sometimes ruining your life. I will share some of his wisdom on how he recommends dealing with it.
But first, let me tell you my story of neglect to set the scene.
I suddenly lost my dad to a heart attack when i was 11. My mother coped by focusing on making ends meet. I was left to become like the others kids, who I was not. Slowly but surely, the feeling of neglect crept in. Neglect felt like a lonely, old woman with long finger nails and nicotine drenched teeth wanting to hug you with her cold, wrinkled hands. It’s when you feel you don’t exist. It fills you with inferiority. I fought her for a while. But she won.
I had to figure out how to cope with the fear of neglect to survive. I found it in selfishness. Selfish living entails accepting to live your life with your eyes and heart closed — this way you can be safe from the world. And to walk, i got myself a fancy walking stick, laden with symbols of status, to show the world that I can survive. It became such a habit that i forgot i could see. But deep inside, I craved to open my eyes and open my heart and let go of my stick and feel like that kid again.
I prayed hard for light in the dark.
Then she came. Dressed as a shadow. She blew in and broke my heart. Until it opened. What came out was a force of unconditional love. It soaked me to the bone and permeated every pore of my body. It was a force of nature that helped me to let go of my facade. I threw my stick into the fire and quit my soul-crushing job; isolated myself from all my so-called elite friends; stumbled alone in shame and regret. I felt pain like I had never felt before. My demons descended in gangs. They stabbed me day in night out …until all my old blood was drained.
Then one day I felt something stir inside. It was a little giggle that surprised me like a hiccup. It went away for a while and then again it came. Another giggle. Like a child playing hide and seek inside. This time I felt it for a little longer. Then I saw him. It was me. I had found my fearless self again.
Adler revealed to me that, what i went through is sometimes a necessary path to freedom from your old inferior feeling self in order to set your self up for the next phase of living a free life. Here is his wisdom in 5 steps.
“The science of the mind can only have for its proper goal the understanding of human nature by every human being, and through its use, brings peace to every human soul.” — Alfred Adler
- The core of his theory suggests that every person suffers from some sense of inferiority in childhood and people as they grow up work towards overcoming it by `striving for superiority’. He believed that this drive was the motivational force behind human behaviors, emotions and thoughts. He theorized that what we choose to do with our inferiority determines the nature and quality of our life.
- His thinking proposes that all humanity is structured by the striving for a multitude of goals with respect with different aspects of our life. The choice of these goals is structured by a higher-order goal called our Self Ideal. It represents the kind of person we would like to become and its formation begins early in childhood. We wonder early on how to find our place in this world. The Self Ideal points to the future and ‘pulls’ us towards what could be/might be.
- This self-ideal in turn drives our striving for superiority– according to Adler, the fundamental drive behind human behavior in order to actualize our self-ideal.
The material of life has been constantly bent on reaching plus from a minus situation. — Alfred Adler
To achieve this state, according to Adler we adopt a suitable lifestyle that helps us achieve our goals that ladder up to our imagined self-ideal. Lifestyle then serves as a set of subjective, unarticulated set of guidelines individuals develop and use to move them through life and towards their goals. Every lifestyle was adequate according to Adler, until life presented it with a task for which it was not prepared; it was at those times that its `weak points’ emerged. These weak point frustrate us in our pursuit of superiority and trigger feelings of inferiority.
4. The way we deal with these feelings according to him are found in two types of behaviors. We either resort to coping behaviors or safeguarding behaviors. Coping techniques can differ between active problem solving or compensation that try to overcome the inferiorities one feels with action. On the other hand, safeguarding behaviors are used to convince oneself to others that the reason for their failure is outside their control. This shows up in different forms that include various forms of fears and anxiety disorders. Sometimes this also shows up in behaviors that Adler called Distance seeking that shows up as procrastination or feeble attempts at achieving the goals that we are seeking before falling back into our comfort zone.
5. While a lot has been written in modern literature and motivational psychology about how to overcome this; sometimes according to Adler — the reason we get addicted to safeguarding behaviors is not because we are incapable of the task but because we have a Self Ideal that is not conducive to a healthy existence. Perhaps it may have lost its value to guide our goals; or it may be too unrealistic ideal of perfection that is unnecessary; or too reliant on transient symbols like wealth, fame or beauty.
Adler advises therefore that,
Becoming more aware of what we are striving for, and adjusting our self-ideal if necessary, is a crucial step towards self improvement. — Alfred Adler
In the end, Adler pushes us one step further on the road to self-improvement by overcoming our inferiorities by facing them with courage. He believed the core purpose of psychotherapy was to help people develop a more courageous attitude to life.
I might have found the wisdom of Adler in hindsight of my own journey but he has given me a clearer road map on my future mental growth, for which i am grateful. I feel en`couraged’ and reassured that I did the right thing in taking a long hard look and `updating my self ideals’ and made sure they were not compensating for inferiority felt in childhood and driven instead by an ideal that is rooted in self-worth and service. My lifestyle choices have changed dramatically as a result of this Self Ideal reframe and I feel richer for it.
I wish you all the same.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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