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Portrait photo of Alfred Adler

Pioneering psychotherapist Alfred Adler recognized our innate need to feel superior in some legitimate way. (Photo: public domain)

Austrian doctor and pioneering psychotherapist Alfred Adler made the inferiority complex central to his thinking. He believed that, “When the individual does not find a proper concrete goal of superiority, an inferiority complex results. The inferiority complex leads to a desire for escape and this desire for escape is expressed in a superiority complex, which is nothing more than a goal on the useless and vain side of life offering the satisfaction of false success.”

Adler’s “concrete goal of superiority” is a shorthand way of describing the authentic struggle for self-discovery and self-realization, which always plays out as a determined quest for various life goals. Failure to pursue self-realization (what life is all about) results in self-alienation. I can personally testify that this mental state does lead inevitably to feelings of gross inadequacy and inferiority. These negative feelings in turn prompt the formation of a monstrous vain and supercilious false persona, Adler’s “goal on the useless and vain side of life offering the satisfaction of false success.” Builders of false personas chase ego-enhancing goals with little in the way of usefulness, substance, or relevance to their authentic selves. Empty flash and glitter triumph over meaningfulness and emotional gratification.

Existential guilt is another entry point for problems with inferiority and superiority complexes. Such guilt can propel us into conceptualizing, and then trying to establish with “willpower” (consciously enforcing decisions), a more acceptable false persona in a futile attempt to escape from being who and what we truly are. The ultimate objective is a diminution of guilt feelings about our actual character and the things we truly will to have happen. At bottom, we wish (not will!) to be more acceptable to others and more like our idealized false persona or artificial self. We circle back to vanity as the big player in this fruitless game.

When discomfort with who we are prompts us to forego self-realization, we fail to find our proper path in life. In short, existential guilt may be the reason why an individual “does not find a proper concrete goal of superiority.”

The desire for escape, whether from feelings of inferiority or of guilt, can also manifest itself as a powerful longing for what might be termed “remote solitude,” the desire to leave mainstream society and live apart as a hermit, or at least a rather solitary individual languishing on the edge of society. Such urges help explain why Walden and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam remain perennial favourites. The persistent emotions, mental images, and imaginings associated with such a craving are symbolic of an underlying and poorly understood need for psychological and emotional independence, for the guilty pleasure of being who we really are.

The way out of the trap is to accept our darker side. Forget about using logic as the only legitimate tool for managing the psyche. Such a scheme inevitably entails reason, which is seldom in possession of all the facts, rejecting some of our own emotionally important ideas, and then trying, via the mechanism of “willpower,” to overcome these “undesirable” entities, with self-alienation and anxiety as its reward. Another powerful argument in favour of accepting our less desirable qualities is the fact that anything denied a proper outlet remains largely in the unconscious, from whence it ambushes us by means of projection, transference, externalization, Freudian slips, “acting out,” and so on.

In these egalitarian times, the idea of having superiority as a goal may make some people cringe. There is no need to fear. Being superior does not entail acting in a supercilious or snobbish manner. The idea is to find something at which to be genuinely good, and then taking legitimate satisfaction and pride in the accomplishment.

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