‘It would not be easy to find another author from which so much has been borrowed from all sides without acknowledgement than Alfred Adler’ (The Discovery of the Unconscious, Henri Ellenberger).
Though Alfred Adler was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, he is often overshadowed by his contemporaries, Sigmund Freud and Carl Yung. Initially a colleague of Freud and founding member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Adler broke away from the group to establish the ‘individual psychology’ school of thought. In ‘The Courage to be Disliked’, Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi offer a concise introduction to Alder’s thought in an engaging format. Modelled on the Socratic dialogues preserved by Plato, the book is written as a conversation between a philosopher and an irreverent youth. The authors discuss many of Alder’s provocative insights, but here are some of my main takeaways:
Trauma does not exist.
'We are not determined by our experiences, but by the meaning we give them.
We determine our own lives according to the meaning we give to those past experiences.'
'We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences - the so-called trauma - but instead we make out of them whatever suits our purposes.'
A controversial point which suggests that, at every moment, the individual has agency to choose how she will live. Our present choices are not predetermined by past events. This stands in sharp contrast with the teachings of Freud, which often rely on determinism. The philosopher argues that Freudian psychology denies our free will and treats humans like machines.
We choose our emotions to fulfil our own aims.
‘You did not fly into a rage and then start shouting...you got angry so that you could shout...to fulfill the goal of shouting, you created the emotion of anger.’
Personal anger is nothing but ‘a tool for making others submit to you.’
If we apply this counterintuitive point to other emotions, we do not cry because we are sad, but rather, we cry because we have the goal of being sad. Perhaps we have this goal because we want those around us to pity us and give us their attention. It’s an interesting framing which makes us question why we feel certain emotions in our daily lives.
Your lifestyle is unchanged as you are persistently making the decision not to change it.
If our lifestyle is not in line with our own conception of ‘a good life’, why would we choose not to change it? Maybe we see our current lifestyle as more practical. It is easier to continue living as we are than to change paths. A more painful and unhappy life might lie ahead. But the philosopher encourages us to realise that there is a trade-off involved in our choice. When we decide not to change our lifestyle, we are choosing to suffer the disappointment resultant from not changing over the anxiety generated by changing.
‘He dreams of becoming a novelist, but he never completes his work. He says his job keeps him too busy, and he can never find enough time. But the real reason is that he wants to leave the possibility of 'I can do it if I try' open. He doesn’t want to face the reality that he might produce an inferior piece of writing and face rejection. He wants to live inside that realm of possibilities, where he can say that he could do it if he only had the time.’
All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.
This controversial idea states that the only way for all of our problems to disappear would be to live without interpersonal relationships, and it is impossible to live without other people. Further, the philosopher states that each individual has her own tasks to complete. Every interpersonal relationship problem is caused either by intruding on other people’s tasks, or having your tasks intruded upon.
The philosopher asks us to ‘think with the perspective of 'whose task is this?' and continually separate one’s own tasks from other people’s tasks.’ To tell whose task it is, think, 'Who ultimately is going to receive the result brought about by the choice that is made?'
‘Remember the words of the grandmother: ‘You’re the only one who’s worried about how you look.’ her remark drives right to the heart of the separation of tasks. What other people think when they see your face - that is the task of other people, and is not something you have any control over’.
As long as we postpone life, we can never go anywhere.
'As long as we postpone life, we can never go anywhere, and will only pass our days one after the next in dull monotony, because we think of here and now as just a preparatory period, as a time for patience.'
In Tim Ferris’ ‘The Four Hour Work Week’, he discusses the 'deferred life plan' approach to life. This approach is characterised by putting off what we really want to a later date so as to meet societal expectations. For instance, you might plan to retire on your 60th birthday to finally take a trip abroad, spend more time with family and really start to enjoy life. But what if you pass away the week before? It’s a sobering thought but one that offers immense power to shape our decisions in line with our own conception of ‘a good life’.