In the early moments of Psychology, Alfred Adler noted that the feeling of belonging to a community and the experience of creating meaning from it are basic for healthy personal development … at any stage of life.
Alfred Adler is in the expository handbooks that university textbooks are because of his debate with Freud and his departure from the Psychoanalytical Society, of which he was the first president. The big headline tells us that this early rupture in the psychoanalytical world was due to Adler’s resistance to accepting Freud’s theory that the origin of neuroses is in the repression of the libido.
But nothing is more unfair for something intellectually interesting than to see it reduced to headlines. And certainly, if there is a case in contemporary thought in which the headlines have hidden the content of a work to the extreme of looting it, is that of Adlerian psychology. And yet today, the great ideas and concerns of Alfred Adler turn out to be strangely current and suggestive.
A communitarian conception of personality development
There’s a lot of the Epicurean teachers in Adler. For him, the idea of communal belonging is central. We define ourselves and complete ourselves in a family community from birth, and we feel our deficiencies in relation to those around us. With them, we try to complete ourselves, compensate for deficiencies by developing other skills, and mature a through of improvement and contribution, an ideal form of a healthy Gemeinschaftsgefühl – community feeling. In this context, our personality is built not only with desires, but with goals and objectives through which we grow and overcome our feelings of lacking.
The drive for meaning, a willingness to improve the inferiorities that we feel at every moment of our development, will feed a life cycle of learning that makes us grow, since our problems, at the same time as our feeling of belonging, our definition of community, are expanded from our family to the surroundings, and finally project the idea of contribution towards humanity as a whole.
From the viewpoint about the family as community, Adler put the accent not so much in conflicts of the discovery of sexuality and desire as on the place of the individual in the structure of the family network. He wondered about the derivatives roles of being a boy or girl, or the place in birth order, to reconstruct expectations and understand the feelings of lacking and abandonment in the early phases of childhood, especially prior to eight years old.
But if, for whatever reason, we don’t feel part, if the family as first community of belonging doesn’t serve to support us and overcome those first insecurities, a whole series of wrong goals appear that seek wrong compensations for the vacuum of meaning in life that come from not feeling community protection: the search for attention and recognition first, the need to exercise power over others later, and finally, when the pain makes fruitlessness of all these false goals obvious, bitterness and the desire for revenge. It is the pathological path, the path of inferiority complexes, empowered and exaggerated by a hierarchical culture of falsely competitive values, exclusion and individualism.
With a whole series of issues going unanswered, or even worse, badly answered, the individual will develop defensive or defeatist narratives, and will develop a private logic made of convictions that often times contradict their own common sense. In it, there will be false reasons for the exclusion of others and for inaction itself. The attempt to fit everything together and justify avoiding aspects of some of four four big fields of Adlerian relationships (work, love, sex and other people) make up a lifestyle recognizable by its critical elements — among other things, because of its moments of violence and its feelings of guilt. These feelings, to Adler, are reactions of common sense to the inaction that private logic leads to. A healthy person, for Adler, does not have feelings of guilt: s/he learns and acts accordingly through contributing and from renewed effort.
Meaning and belonging
Not long ago, Javier wondered if there was a relationship between the dysfunctional development of productive scales that reinforced the destruction of community settings and the massive emergence of a series of personality disorders beginning with World War II. Adlerian psychology would undoubtedly respond affirmatively: deprived of real community, the human experience can only be plunged into a lack of meaning, and an erroneous substitution of an interesting life with strategies of power and revenge.
But once the experience of community is made possible, Adler’s thought is optimistic and trusts in the capacity for personal strategies of compensation, within a healthy community setting, have to build people more and more empathic with humanity in general. In an inclusive real community, it is our problems and deficiencies that help us grow and make our life interesting. Additionally, healthy personal development leads to expanding the borders of the family community towards a more and more extended real community, towards friends and classmates or co-workers; and finally, from abstract forms and the generosity of the communal relationship towards a general empathy towards humanity.
In fact, while Freud was pessimistic and denied the possibility of a non-nuerotic culture and society, Adler understood the development of community spirit, Gemeinschaftsgefühl, not only as a basis for individual therapy, but as a way of social transformation, as a path that, if developed, would modify the way a society sees itself and change the way it manages its inevitable conflicts.
On the path of the development of community spirit, Adler, child of his time, accepted that intermediate onion layers could exist between the feeling of belonging to a community and love for what is generically human: abstractions like national identity or class. But experience leads us to think that, in general, imagined communities, and especially the nation, have a different nature. Recent empirical works in the field of international adoption show how the adoptive parents who are most resistant to giving a place to the biological mother in the story of the origins of the child, were the most inclined to include those same children in courses on the culture and national tongue of the country in which s/he had born, even though s/he has no memory of its use, having been adopted prior to learning to speak. These same families are the ones that least often allow contact with the biological family to continue. The national story of the country where the child was born serves to substitute for the memory of the family of origin. A similar thing occurs where States drive strong nationalism: the family history, beyond a certain point, normally the grandparents, is confused and blurs with the official history of the nation and its myths. National identity seems like a virus that reproduces by inserting itself into community and family memories to be perpetuated using their own mechanisms of reproduction (domestic stories, the memories of living relatives, the stories of life, etc.).
But maybe the most suggestive of Adlerian contributions today is not his social hopes, but rather the fact that the logic of the goals and the definition of the lifestyles are the basis for a true communal microsociology.
We’ve known for some time that systems of industrial organization that practice participatory methodologies in collectives that don’t share broad reflection and previous interaction, end up reinforcing charismatic or professionalized leaders as the only way to overcome the risk aversion that transparency exacerbates. The result, in the end, produces those same indifferent attitudes that were criticized as characteristic of traditional systems.
That is why businesses, even the ones that seek democratic innovations, easily become sick communities. In the first place, because are not usually formed out of the deliberation of their members, so generally there’s no excess of community feeling. And when ideas are brought in from outside, the changemakers usually think that changing procedures or rules is enough. The results, logically, fall well short of expectations. In practice, the leaders themselves very frequently end up continuing mistaken strategies: anxiety for recognition, the need to exercise power to be affirmed… all very Adlerian.
No wonder in other realms with similar problems, from the communities of neighbors to boards of foundations, courses and manuals on coexistence abound. And in all these collectives, that microsociology outlined in the Adlerian proposal, seems to be clamoring to become community knowledge.
This is the least-developed line of Adler’s ideas, but also, surely, one of the most powerful, above all if we accept the original epicurean idea that sums up all his thought: the feeling of belonging to a community, and the experience of create meaning from it, are basic for healthy personal development… at any stage of life.