Alfred Adler’s Personality Theory Explained


Born in 1870, Alfred Adler suffered a difficult childhood. Because of rickets, he was unable to even walk until he was 4 years old. After recovering, he would come down with pneumonia and almost die at the age of 5. This caused Adler to decide that he wanted to be a physician when he grew up, so he focused on his academic accomplishments.

By 1895, he had received his medical degree, moving him toward the field of psychiatry. Adler would join with the discussion groups that were led by Sigmund Freud. This caused Adler to become interested in personality theory. When Freud would bring an emphasis of sex into the idea of personality, Adler would find himself disagreeing with such a notion.

This caused him to develop his own work on personality. It would be published in 1923 and was called “The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology.”

What Drives Adler’s Personality Theory?

Alfred Adler’s personality theory is what gives us the term “inferiority complex.” Although his theory would evolve over time, what he eventually came to believe was that there was a single and specific drive which caused everyone to pursue their motivating force. That force is based on a desire to fulfill the full potential of every individual.

That is why Adler eventually came to the idea that every person was unique. No generalized theory of personality could apply to everyone because every personality had different points of emphasis. Every person would define “success” with their own emphasis. Some people might prefer having a career that helps other people, while others might pursue monetary success, while still others might focus on establishing a strong and supportive family.

Instead of declaring that these motivations were because of hidden sexual desires or some other motivation, Adler felt that people were motivated by the inferiority complex. People would see others at a higher level of development and want to be at that level instead of where they happened to be. This would drive them forward toward what their end goal happened to be, based on the idea that every person has an idea about what would make them “perfect.”

This thought would then transform the inferiority complex into what Adler would describe as the “superiority complex.” It would also place people into 4 roles: ruling, getting, avoiding, and socially-useful.

What Does It Really Mean to be Superior?

People drive forward because they feel inferior to others. They will keep driving forward until one of three specific conditions occurs.

  • There are no other people who are superior to the individual striving forward, which leads that person to feel superior to everyone else.
  • The individual has achieved their desired level or definition of success, which causes them to stop pressing forward because they have reach a feeling of internal superiority.
  • There are roadblocks on the journey from inferiority to superiority that cause an individual to stop pursuing their definition of success for some reason, such as poverty, geographic location, or political interference.

In Alfred Adler’s personality theory, the conscious mind and the unconscious mind work together to achieve a certain level of “finalism.” Life, according to Adler’s theory, is comparable to a mathematical equation. Every person starts with a specific equation that they can solve. Sometimes this means there will be negative components that go with the positive components, but eventually there will be a “superior equation” that can be achieved.

This equation would be based on the type of person that an individual happens to be. Adler noticed that three of his four personality types were negative. Rulers, for example, would control others. Avoiders would isolate to prevent experiencing defeat. Only the socially-useful role would focus on benefiting society as part of their definition of success.

Fighting for Principles and then Living Up to Them

Adler believed that people would eventually come a place where they would suppress any feelings that would get in the way of accomplishing their definition of success. Even those who were passive and would let others dictate the course of their life would one day come to the conclusion that there was a better way to accomplish their goal of superiority.

This means Adler would show that many people would be willing to fight for their beliefs, principles, and ideas of superiority. Implementing a plan of action to achieve them, however, would separate individuals from one another. Some people would attempt to solve their personal equation immediately. Others would go at a slower pace. And some might not ever attempt to solve their equation.

Alfred Adler’s personality theory is unique because it didn’t attempt to generalize humanity into categories. It instead identified roles that people would play and put their personality development into their own hands.