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Alfred Adler is an Austrian scientist. Like many other theorists who received medical training and practiced as psychiatrists, he devoted his first theoretical work to the problems of human behavior. Alfred Adler formulated basic tenets of the theory of neurosis. Only in the 20s, he developed his theory so that it covered issues of a healthy personality. Adler’s theory of personality is based on a few basic concepts. One of the most notable achievements of Alfred Adler is introduction of the concept of the inferiority complex. The aim of the paper is to study the inferiority complex and consider its origins and influence on a person since it is quite common in the today’s society.
Alfred Adler’s Biography
Alfred Adler was born in a suburb of Vienna in a family of a middle-class Jewish merchant. As a child, he suffered from many serious diseases, including rickets. Nevertheless, Adler fought hard against his physical weakness. It is possible that this childhood experience is related to such aspects of his theory as underlining the importance of the public interest and the idea of compensation for organic inferiority. In childhood, Adler faced death several times. His younger brother died in their shared bed when he was three years old. Later, he was twice on the verge of death in street accidents. At five, he became ill with pneumonia hardest. After recovery, Adler decided to become a doctor.
In 1895, Adler received a medical degree. He started private practice, first in the field of ophthalmology and then in general medicine. Due to the growing interest in functioning and adaptation of the nervous system, the area of his studies moved to neurology and psychiatry. At the beginning of his career, he adhered to the opinion of Sigmund Freud in several theories. However, later his views on neurosis became very different from the Freudian ones.
Alfred Adler founded an organization called the Association of Individual Psychology, which gradually spread throughout Europe. Adler and his followers worked in the field of education, especially in training of teachers. He believed that it was essential to work with those who shaped minds and characters of the youth. Adler and his team also organized counseling centers for children in public schools where children and their parents could get advice. He published numerous articles and monographs. In connection with the strengthening of Nazism, Adler left Vienna in 1932. Alfred Adler died at the age of 67 during a lecture tour of Europe in Scotland in 1937. Adler’s individual psychology, interest to which slightly decreased after his death, was once again in the center of attention of psychologists in the 50s. It significantly influenced formation of humanistic psychology and a new approach to the problem of personality (Sulz &Hagspiel, 2015).
A General Notion of the Inferiority Complex
The inferiority complex is a term of individual psychology of Alfred Adler. “The inferiority complex, one of the most important discoveries of individual psychologists, has become world famous” (Schirmacher & Nebelung, 2001, p. 69). It shifted from its purely terminological usage and became a commonplace notion in the modern speech of people. The inferiority complex is the energy potential of mental activity caused by the feeling of insufficiency experienced by every person in early childhood. There is supplanting of this feeling in the unconscious. It causes the feeling of constant unsaturation. A desire for a positive experience of feelings of competence stimulates various activities whereby real or perceived success is possible. In the article, Alfred Adler explains that it is necessary to understand that the word ‘complex’, which is used in respect to inferiority and superiority, primarily reflects the exaggerated sense of inferiority and the pursuit of excellence. If to look at things this way, it will remove the seeming paradox of two opposing trends that exist in the same individual. It is obvious that normally commitment to excellence and a sense of inferiority complement each other. If people are satisfied with the current situation, there should be no place for the desire to surpass and succeed. These two properties complement and negate each other. If a person strives for excellence, it is quite possible that it is only due to the inferiority complex.
The Origins of the Inferiority Complex
At the very beginning of his career, Adler published a monograph entitled Study of Organ Inferiority and its Psychical Compensation. In this work, he developed a theory why one disease worried a person more than others and why the disease affected some parts of the body more than others. He suggested that each individual had some organs that were weaker than others. It makes a person more susceptible to diseases and lesions of precisely these organs. Moreover, Adler believed that every human had the disease of the organ, which was less developed, less successfully functioned, and, in general, was defective from the birth. For example, some people are born with a severe allergy, which may cause damage to lungs. These people may suffer from frequent bronchitis or infectious diseases of the upper respiratory tract. Adler later observed that people with a severe organic weakness or defect often tried to compensate these defects by training and exercises. It often leads to the development of mastery or power (Adler, 2014).
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In the early stages of his career, Adler introduced the idea of inferiority of the organ and overcompensation. In his monograph about organic inferiority, which was published in 1907, Alfred Adler suggested that each individual had certain weaknesses, i.e. organs that were prone to various diseases. Shortly after the publication of the monograph about organ inferiority, Adler expanded his ideas of inferiority, including any sense arising from the experience of social or psychological inconsistency in addition to experiences associated with physical weaknesses and poor health. At this time, Adler identified inferiority with manliness or femininity. He called compensation the masculine protest.
However, later he subdued this point of view to a more general one consisting in the fact that the feeling of inferiority arises from a feeling of defectiveness or imperfection in any area of life. For example, a feeling of inferiority motivates a child to the pursuit of a higher level of development. Upon reaching this level, the child also has the feeling of inferiority.
Adler argued that the sense of inferiority was not a sign of pathology. It is a cause of human perfection. “The striving for superiority and the sense of inferiority coexist in every human being” (Adler, 2006, p. 133). However, the feeling of inferiority may be abnormally exaggerated by special conditions. In this case, there may be some abnormal phenomena such as the complex of inferiority or compensatory superiority complex. However, under normal circumstances, the feeling of inadequacy or insufficiency is a great driving force. In other words, people are pushed forward with the desire to overcome their inferiority. It entails commitment to excellence.
History and literature provide many examples of exceptional achievements resulting from efforts made to overcome organ failure. Demosthenes stuttered since childhood. Nevertheless, he became one of the most prominent speakers in the world. Wilma Rudolph who suffered from physical ailment in childhood won three Olympic gold medals in track and field. Thus, organ inferiority, its inherent weakness, or insufficient functioning can lead to impressive achievements in human life. However, it can also lead to an excessive sense of inferiority if efforts aimed to compensate the defect do not lead to the desired result.
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Of course, there was nothing new in the idea that the body tried to compensate its weakness. Doctors have known for a long time that if, for example, one kidney does not function well, the other takes over its function and carries a double burden. However, Adler indicated that this compensation process took place in a mental health. People often seek not only to compensate the lack of an organ, but they also have a subjective feeling of inferiority. It develops out of a sense of psychological or social powerlessness. Originally including this feeling of inferiority in bodily functions, Adler advanced the whole concept of the inferiority complex. He mentioned not only physical disability, but also inferiority associated with the human psyche. Besides, Adler tried to clarify when a person could start developing this complex.
Adler believed that the sense of inferiority had its roots in childhood. A child experiences a very long period of dependence when he/she is completely helpless and must rely on parents. This experience raises feelings of inferiority in comparison with other stronger and more powerful people in a family environment. Emergence of this early sense of inferiority indicates beginning of a long struggle to achieve superiority over the environment, as well as the pursuit of excellence and perfection. Alfred Adler argued that the pursuit of excellence was the primary motivational force in human life (Crowley & Crowley, 2012).
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Thus, according to Adler, everything that people do aims to overcome feelings of inferiority and strengthen a sense of superiority. However, the feeling of inferiority may become excessive for some reasons. As a result, there is the inferiority complex, which is an exaggerated sense of weakness and failure. Each person experiences a sense of inferiority. It is not a mental disorder. Moreover, on the contrary, it stimulates normal aspiration and development.