Coffee with Alfred • Part One

Alfred Adler.

Heard of him?

He’s a major player in our counseling and psych history. He taught us the inferiority complex—you’ve heard of it, right?

Most everyone has.

Scattered throughout the Table of Contents of his famous book, Understanding Human Nature, you find words counselors love: consciousness, psyche, security, adaptation, feeling, our mental universe, dreams, the unconscious, vanity and ambition, mood, playing God, jealousy, envy, greed, hate, anxiety, schoolroom behavior, religiosity, anger, grief, disgust, joy, and humility.

He asks a question there too: “How do we become who we are?”


Me too. I’m a counselor.

My copy of Understanding Human Nature has 14 dog-eared pages for quick reference, three post-it notes, underlines, brackets, personal commentary, scattered highlights, and a printed/folded-in-half copy of the Wikipedia article on Adler.

Books ought to get tattered I say.

My copy of Understanding Human Nature

Understanding Human Nature was required reading for my counseling studies and it didn’t seem like work at all.

Fun read.

I love stuff that explains stuff. That gets below the surface, or at least tries.

My mom has reminded me repeatedly that I immediately took apart all my toys as a child—I had to see what made them tick.

As a child, the dentist’s waiting room wasn’t bad as long as there was a copy of Popular Mechanics or Popular Science to investigate. (I always wanted to buy something from one of those little ads in the back but never had the money. My brother Mark might have gotten a magic kit once. Or was that Paul?)

That “gotta-know-what-makes-it-tick-mindset” still endures within. I do marriage counseling and it’s useful in hunting down the deepest problems.

But more about Al.

If you were to open the cover of my paperback copy of Understanding Human Nature, here’s the intro you would see:

“Alfred Adler (1870-1937), Viennese psychologist, contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and the father of Individual Psychology, remains one of the most influential figures in modern psychology and psychotherapy. Among Adler’s most significant contributions are: his emphasis on holism, arguing that one must study and treat the patient as a ‘whole person…’. His most famous concept is the inferiority complex, which addresses the problem of self-esteem and its negative compensations. Other seminal theories include the importance of birth order in the formations of personality, the impact of neglect or pampering on a child’s development…and the idea that individuals develop a story about themselves in early childhood, a ‘life-style’, that guides their perceptions and choices throughout life…Adler died in 1937, leaving more than 300 articles and books on child psychology, marriage, education, and the principles of Individual Psychology.”


300 books and articles? He clearly dedicated his life to this. I wonder if he did any marriage counseling? (Just curious.)

If Al was still alive and lived in Green Bay, I might wander to the contact form on his website: “Dr. Adler, hey, I enjoyed your book, can I buy you a cup of coffee at Kavarna sometime? I’d love to hear more about your work with kids, and I have some questions.”

I’d want to hear about his early life. Apparently he couldn’t walk till he was four, was hit by a car at five, was skinny and sickly, tormented by an older brother, and rejected by his mother.

That all sounds really hard. Did he ever want counseling I wonder?

I must be honest with you. While I would enjoy the coffee and the conversation, I would have a deeper motive.

See, Adler observed and wrote about something really big. His contribution was eminently more practical and valuable than Freud’s or Jung’s, and he has probably been helpful to many people over the years, but I absolutely cannot agree with his conclusions on several things, including communal living or his view of schools in the well-being of children.

And, WARNING, you might find yourself pushing back at my view on the inferiority complex when you hear it at the seminar. The inferiority complex is not what you think.

HINT: when people observe themselves in comparison to other people they are actually often accurate in their assessment. It’s what happens next that’s the problem.

So, Adler’s observations brought him to the brink of some profound knowledge that’s extremely helpful to counselors.

If only he had compared his observations with a certain ancient book.

A book that describes human psychology in the deepest possible way.

A book that ought to be the best friend of every counselor and therapist.

Click here to read Part 2. “I’d probably block out two hours for coffee with Alfred, if he was willing and had the time. His appointment calendar would likely be full…”

Click here to see if you can answer questions like this one: What is the deepest way to understand motivation beyond nature and nurture? 

Click here to learn more about Dave and Adrianne.