Few contemporary authors have been able to rescue the classical inheritance with the finesse and the originality of Adler. His is a story from which we can learn a lot about how the practice of cooperation and contribution can help us to develop a individual and community “ethos” that empowers each and every one of us in the real communities in which we live our lives.
As we discussed in the prior post, for Adler, our behavior is oriented by goals, by objectives that are formed in the first years of childhood. The point of departure is the “feeling of inferiority” of the child in its first community: the family. That feeling is not in itself negative, because, as Adler says:
The behavior of all our life movements is is to progress from incompleteness to completeness. Accordingly, all of our personal life path has a tendency towards improvement, a tendency to grow, seeking to be superior.
But if fear, rejection or the sense of not having a place of ones own where one belongs, inside from the family, they increase this feeling of inferiority in the child until it is overwhelming. It will be oriented toward wrong strategies: drawing attention, exercising power, seeking vengeance or isolation (creating imagined deficiencies or exaggerating real deficiencies, for example).
Because, as beings guided by goals, the strategies (right or wrong) appear when we are little. In the bosom of our community of origin and as a function of it, we give ourselves our first life objectives. It is then that our first prejudices also arise about others and about ourselves, which Adler calls “private logic.” The joining of life goals (acceptance, belonging, recognition…) with private logic (“friends always fail,” “no one loves me,” etc.) will give shape and coherence to our sensations and feelings throughout our lives, and with them, the way we live, our “lifestyle,” an important concept that Adler defines as
the set of strategies of behavior and safeguards that orient us towards our successes and our failures.
But what is it that makes that our lifestyle fall on one side (the useless side, the side of wrong compensation) or the other (the useful that allows us grow) for our whole life?
The Adlerian Virtus
The Roman “Virtus” was virtue that consisted of having the courage necessary to confront fear in critical situations and be able to improve a difficult situation for one’s community. It was usually represented accompanied by “Honos,” a similar, though less demanding virtue that referred not to personal improvement for one’s own benefit, but to the assumption of the costs of being fair with outsiders. In classical Rome, it was associated with the army, and over time (and several semantic slides), became contemporary “honor.”
Adler’s “courage” looks a lot like its Latin ancestor. For him, it’s not right to expect a life forever free of distress. Distress is just the constant expression of our fear of failing and therefore being rejected. From childhood, distress points out challenges to us, situations in which we don’t feel valuable or strong enough, clever or capable enough, to get ahead. That feeling of inferiority to others and of fear of change is not, in itself, negative. Just the opposite — for Adler, the contrast between our limitations and our life objectives is the engine that gets our creative capacities moving.
True courage, Virtus, is the ability to confront our life tasks, to go from the useless side to the useful side when we make adjustments and compensations. It is decide to take risks and feel a sense of belonging.
Only those that are capable of finding courage and moving towards the useful side, considering themselves a part of a whole, are at home on this Earth and with humanity.
If Virtus is not a daily part of our lifestyle, the fear of being wrong — amplified by social rules based on social punishment of error — will lead us to look for “bad compensation,” which include fictitious paralyzing goals such as the “search for perfection” or strategies of compensation that provide us with a destructive feeling of superiority over others (obsession with earnings, exercising power, “staying on top,” etc.). Perhaps, simply, we try to compensate falsely some aspects of life with others, as if success in certain objectives could make up for deficiencies in others.
The community and “learning” about Virtus
Of course there are also right compensations, compensations that help us to grow, but, once again,there is the crucial factor in the whole Adlerian perspective: the Gemeinschaftsgefühl, community feeling, the knowing how to grow with others that requires and produces Virtus.
That community Virtus is none other than the overcoming of the fear of making a mistake, taking risks, and feeling like a part of something in common. It does not mean, as Yang, Milliren and Blangen remind us, not being afraid, but overcoming it on the basis of intelligence, patience, constancy and determination. The Adlerian Virtus is a capacity that can be learned and be developed, a “psychological muscle” that allows us to grow using cooperation and contribution when we understand that the good of the people we love is the ultimate meaning of of life.
The idea according to which community feeling can be learned and practiced is already in Epicurus, even though, interestingly, the above-mentioned authors recall the Confucian idea in which courage is tempered through “ritual, love of knowledge and the development of a certain feeling of righteousness.”
Cooperation and contribution
In the Adlerian vision, in any case, “community spirit,” which is principally an attitude, can be developed through the practice of cooperation and contribution until it become an “ethos,” and an inseparable pair of values through which the individual him/herself judges the coherence and utility of his/her actions.
What capacities should be practiced to “learn to cooperate”? Adler points to the ability to identify with others through learning to hear and to have the view of the other, which we Indianos have always insisted:
Life presents us with problems that require the ability to cooperate to solve them. To hear, see or speak “correctly” means dissolving the “I” completely in another person or in a situation, and being identified with them. The ability to identify with others, which makes us capable of feeling friendship, empathy, sympathy, worry and love, is the basis of community feeling and can only be practiced together with others.
But cooperating is only one of the aspects of the community life. The other is contributing. Contributing, for the Adlerians, means including the other members of the community in our effort to improve and get ahead. The desire to contribute is made clear only when it is understood that there is no scorecard, no direct relationship between contribution and reward. The path of personal improvement and of community spirit is about wanting to give more than one receives. The well-being of the whole is the base of every contribution worthy of that name, and the improvement of one’s personal situation can only be secondary.
Why is the proposal so strong, so clear, so contrary to the dominant ideology concerning contributing? Because for Adler, contributing is what truly empowers each of us. Through contributing, we feel useful, we value ourselves, and we build our self-esteem. If we make cooperation a way of life, it takes hold of us and contributes to our identity. To contribute and feel that we contribute is the type of individuation that strengthens us and makes us grow.
For Eva Dreikurs, surely the most influential Adlerian psychologist after Adler himself, the three life tasks of a person are
Work, which means contributing to the well-being of others, friendship, which encompasses all social relationships with peers and relatives, and love, which is the most intimate unity and represents the strongest and closest emotional relationship that can exist between two human beings.
The classical Greeks distinguished between four forms of love: storge (the “natural” affection that we feel for relatives or the neighbors for the simple fact that they are who they are), philias (sympathy with those with whom we share ideas, situation or objectives), eros (proximity based on what we get from a relationship, whether sex or any other thing) and “agape,” unconditional and disinterested love that starts with identifying with the other. Needless to say, the Adlerians understand both friendship and the love of a couple or family as agape, and that, of course, the key that makes it possible to reach it is, once again, the practice of cooperation and contribution in the framework of a strong community feeling. The love of a couple, love for family and fraternity with friends, are all sustained in the same way of relating — agape — and build, as a whole, la real community of each individual.
Dreikurs adds two more tasks, which she calls existential tasks: self-acceptance — knowing how to be alone and learning to deal with with oneself — and belonging — finding a community through which we can create meaning for our own life. Both are especially important for the analysis of that dimension of our lives that the Adlerians call work.
The relationship with work
Adler defines work as “any kind of task, activity or occupation useful for community.” It includes not only professional work, but housework, caring for loved ones, visits to friends, etc. Work is that space which is both personal and social through which we develop our life goals, and find belonging and mutual dependence. Even if you’re unemployed, there is “work” in your life. The question is how it happens, and how much.
As for the productive work, the Adlerian view allows us to understand why many people are identified with purely “functional” professional environments to the point of what some call “workoholism.” The cold” environments of the corporate world, which reduce our “contribution” to predetermined and identical tasks that don’t really need conscious cooperation from and with others, make it possible to (easily and mistakenly) compensate for deficiencies in other life tasks… including those of one’s own work.
But not even the most mechanical employment, within the most rigid procedures, protects us completely from challenges. And challenges once again give us that feeling of inferiority that forces us to improve ourselves or leads us to imaginary compensations. The more hierarchical and structurally unequal the relations in a business are, the more incentivized the feeling of inferiority is, most permanent it will become, and greater the distress and fear of self-improve will be. That is why in general terms, the corporate world suffers from what the Adlerians call a “collective inferiority,” a shared fear of the life task of work and belonging, which is expressed institutionally through the obsessive substitution of conversational processes by “procedures.” The more rigid the procedure, the easier it is to hide in it, and the easier it is to pass the blame when something goes wrong.
Of course, even in the most rigid corporate worlds, leaders appear from time to time who transform the environment, creating true community feeling, using intrinsic motivation (so work does good for community members) more than extrinsic (economic reward, status or public recognition), strengthening cooperation and contribution rather than comparison and competition with peers.
But it’s difficult: paradoxically, the more community feeling the individual tries to develop in a “traditional” work environment, the easier it is for another kind of wrong compensations, inherited from childhood through our “private logic,” to emerge. That’s when we see attempts to get attention (procrastinating, bypassing bosses, faking illnesses, deficiencies of all kinds, victimization, claims of incompetency, etc.), to exercise power (the tyrannical boss and his “fix that for me,” the obsession with climbing the corporate ladder, etc.) and finally, rancor and different forms of verbal and symbolic violence (the aggressiveness of the vendor, the arrogance of the consultant, the bitterness of the functionary, the obsessive hatred of those who are fired or chastised…).
Would “flattening” the business be enough to eliminate these risks? Would a cooperative, or a community company, be safe from “wrong substitutions?” Certainly not. “Flatter” businesses and cooperatives don’t reach the extreme “feeling of inferiority” that the old structures create. It’s easier for them to avoid or face the problems, but in the end, they’re not safe from the “private logic” of their members, which is not born of the system of organization but of a “lifestyle” formed in the family experience during childhood.
What the Adlerians would recommend is to orient people towards contributing in those fields where they could make positive substitutions that reinforce them, insisting on “see with the other person’s eyes” and right from the beginning, promote the objective of “giving more to others than we receive.” All this must be within a general discourse that clearly unites the real community of each person with the objectives and outcomes of work.
And, obviously, they also recommend a different kind of job interview, starting with a certain comprehension of the lifestyle of the applicant, to wisely evaluate whether or not there is capacity to integrate him/her, and whether or not the organization, such as it is, can provide him/her with ways to overcome his/her own fears. In the same way that a person cannot be friends with just anyone, not every enterprise, network or community is good for the development of a given person… or the other way around. That’s why the Adlerians who are specialized in team selection ask things as “strange” as whether the candidates see the creating of meaning and life goals in the position they are applying for, and understand it as a way of improving others’ lives and their own immediate surroundings. Because, in the final analysis, for the Adlerians,
work is what we use to build our meaning of life and find our social and emotional belonging
An common example of positive compensation is the redefinition of Beethoven from performer to composer, when he went deaf. It was a full neurotic crisis, and he even thought about committing suicide, but he came through it by compensating for this fundamental deficiency for the lifestyle and self definition he had chosen by developing another latent ability (composition) and redefining himself on the basis of that. To be able to do so meant a good dose of courage, of Virtus, because all his life tasks, from being comfortable with himself to the relationship with his circle of friends and his family and wife, were affected, and certainly he must have felt fear of being mistaken.
Because Virtus is the key ability to be able face these changes, several Adlerians highlight the figure of the “facilitator,” a person (or several) from the surroundings that, through their interaction, demonstrate and encourage living life in their community in “agape.” The question is how to transform an environment of coexistence in “facilitation.”
When it comes to tools, once again, a classical reference appears in Adler: the Socratic dialogue. The Adlerian reading of the dialogue seeks to work with the other to investigate the feelings and fears behind their actions. The analyst or facilitator never asks “why,” and attempts to keep the conversation on-topic through new questions and comments that remove the centrality of facts so that the “lifestyle” of the interviewee is expressed freely, becoming visible to both.
In many Adlerian texts, it says that “people need encouragement like plants need water,” so the facilitator reinforces everything that points towards the “community spirit” of the other with positive comments. The objective is to reinforce the tendency towards “community spirit” if it exists, or simply make sure to replace the tendency towards zero-sum logic. It starts from the psychoanalytical idea of helping the person discovering their own “private logic,” prejudices and fears from childhood that are impeding change, as a way to gain the strength to overcome them. This can be summarized in “the” Adlerian question: “how would your life change if I had magical powers and could make everything you want real?”
Beyond this, Adlerian analysts have developed a whole series of tools, from questionnaires to ways of representing the family we grew up in, but dialogue has to be the device from which the most can be learned outside of professional practice. This was an idea that Adler himself supported, since always asserted that many of the problems that psychologists deal with can be overcome without their help. Surely his final hope was not establish a form of therapy, but a practical ethic based on a common sense that does not reject humor, paradox, or irony.
Few contemporary authors have been able to rescue the classical inheritance with the finesse and the originality of Adler. His great merit was build a story about the pivotal elements of our life, and above all, about how to improve them, that begins with the communal logic of our species and our desires.
It is a story from which we can learn a lot about how to develop, through the practice of cooperation and contribution, an individual and community “ethos” that empowers each and every one of us in the real communities in which we live our lives.