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?”

Intrigued?

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.

20180117_123536
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.”

adler

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.

Coffee With Alfred • Part Two


I’d probably block out two hours for coffee with Alfred, if he was willing and had the time. His calendar would no doubt be full.

We have no less problems now than they had back then. Maybe more? I wonder how many parenting questions he would have been asked by desperate parents.

I would truly be interested in his studies, and I would have loved to observe alongside him. Watch him work and ask questions.

In the days before our Kavarna meet-up, here are the thoughts and questions I might jot in my phone in a note entitled “Coffee With Al”:

  • Tell me about one of your most interesting children. (I would no doubt have further questions about family background on this case.)
  • Have you ever wondered if there’s a deeper origin to some of this stuff you’ve observed?
  • Are you doing any counseling or therapy with any of the families?
  • You wrote on page 67, “This feeling of inferiority is the driving force, the starting point from which every childish striving originates. It determines how individual children acquire peace and security in life, it determines the very goal of their existence.” In my work with people I’ve noticed the same thing…their home life does really affect them. But do you think it’s really that deterministic?
  • Do you believe there’s a God? (He must have because he does mention God-playing in his book. I wonder how he viewed God.)
  • You wrote, “The first thing we can discover about ourselves is that we are always striving towards a goal. We cannot, therefore, imagine the human spirit as a single, static entity.” Where do you think all that drive came from?

The time spent talking over a white mocha would probably be enjoyable, at least for me, if neither of us felt rushed.

Again, I must be completely honest, I might have some further hard questions on family and counseling topics.

Adler actually “happened” upon something very specific by observation but he wasn’t able to label it correctly.

Look what he wrote. Remember, he spent years studying children:

  • “Like adults, children want to surpass their rivals. They strain for superiority…” (32).
  • “…We will see strenuous evasions and complicated excuses, which serve only to emphasize their underlying thirst for glory” (32).
  • “To dominate those around them becomes their chief purpose in life…” (40).
  • Speaking of children who face obstacles in life he writes, “They demand an extraordinary amount of attention, and of course they think far more of themselves than of others” (42).
  • “The fantasies of children almost always involve situations in which the child exercises power” (57).
  • He wrote about, “the tendency to push oneself into the limelight” (68).
  • “Eventually, every natural feeling or expression of the child carries with it a hypocritical element with the final aim of the subjugation of their environment” (70).

These make me smile.

If you have experience with children, and you don’t have an overly-romanticized view of children, didn’t the corners of your lips break into an ah-yes-wry-smile as you read the bullet points?

ASIDE: I love kids. I have three of my own and I miss those kindergarten and grade school years…a lot. Why did they have to grow up so fast? (By the way, not everything children do is bad.)

Alright, what’s going on here? Is Al being unkind? Is he angry and bitter?

No.

He really did observe some ugly stuff…repeatedly.

Isn’t there something deeper going on here? What is it?

And how can deeper understanding help those seeking counseling or therapy?

Coffee with Alfred • Part Three


OK, so there might be a little dance in our conversation at this point because Al’s studies do contain value for all of us, yet there was something he didn’t fully understand—that we all have three categories of desires.

I wouldn’t want Al to think I was trying to correct or teach him, but I would want to gently ease the door open if he had questions for me.

Alfred Adler inadvertently stumbled upon one of the three desires that every counselor and therapist should understand.

And he does a nice job of capturing it but he doesn’t name it.

That’s too bad because what he identifies in Understanding Human Nature has specific origins and a clear explanation.

I’d weigh my next words carefully.

I’d probably shift uncomfortably in my chair.

Then I might invite him to the Three Desires Seminar.

At the seminar he would gain deeper understanding as to what he observed.

You can usually tell the spirit of a person in their written words, and Al seems kind to me. He wanted to help and I like that. If he did any counseling, I can imagine him as a good listener.

I don’t agree with his ideas on communal life. I don’t agree that schools are the best option for raising children, but I do agree with the very last words of his book:

“Our research takes the form of experiments in the science of human nature, a science that cannot otherwise be taught or cultivated. The understanding of human nature seems to us indispensable to every person, and the study of this science the most important activity of the human mind.”

Yes. Agreed.

People should know why they do what they do. Good counseling really depends on this.

Coffee with Alfred.

It can’t actually happen but it sure would have been fun.