Henry Stein, Ph.D.,
is a classical Adlerian psychotherapist, training analyst, Director of the Alfred
Adler Institute of San Francisco and the author of numerous articles on Adler's
philosophy and approach to clinical practice. For the past seven years,
he has been the primary editor for the soon-to-be-completed twelve-volume series
The Collected Works of Alfred Adler. Integrating Alfred Adler's and Abraham
Maslow's visions of human health and potential, Stein has developed several
innovative treatment methods for cognitive, affective and behavioral change.
WIE: Could you please explain Alfred Adler's understanding of
what the ego is?
Adler was very influenced
by a German philosopher named Hans Vaihinger, who wrote about how every discipline—psychology,
sociology, law, you name it—establishes fictions to try to describe things.
And after a while, we tend to think of these fictions as having reality to them.
And when we talk about the ego or self, we're basically trying to hone in on
a region of functioning that in fact doesn't exist. When we talk about the ego
or self, what we're trying to do is get to a mysterious core of something in
a way that I don't think a neurobiologist could, you know, if they would try
to cut a person open to find the self. Where is it located? Is it in the head,
is it in the stomach, in the heart? But if you respectfully accept the idea
of a fiction, you could say that the ego is the entire person
function. Adler equated the ego with the entire self or personality.
disagreed with Freud on a number of issues, particularly regarding the division
of the personality into ego, id and superego. Freud hypothesized a division
of the personality into these so-called segments or dynamic parts, but Adler
said that there is no division, that the personality is a complete unity. Adler
believed that you could not accurately look at the personality as subdivided,
that you had to look at it only as a whole, as an organized whole without contradictions.
Freud made a distinction between conscious and unconscious. But Adler didn't
feel that there was such a distinction. He felt that there was a kind of fluidity
there, because what seems to be unconscious can be raised to consciousness very
rapidly under certain circumstances. Freud indicated that there was a conflict
or war between the parts of the personality, between the id and the ego and
the superego. But Adler said that that is an erroneous assumption. He felt that
there is no internal war or conflict, and that the individual moves only in
direction, even if it appears contradictory. In other words, you
can have a person who seems to be in deep internal conflict, but that internal
conflict is an illusion because the conflict has been developed largely to simply
prevent action. But the main thing was that Adler believed that the personality
was organized around a single "fictional final goal." This fictional
final goal is unique to each person and pretty much guides and dictates most
of the individual's actions. So you might say it defines the ego and sense of
self. Adler said that everything within the personality, whether it's thinking,
feeling, memory, fantasy, dreams, posture, gestures, handwriting—every expression
of the personality—is essentially subordinate to this goal. This is pretty much
Adler's way of getting a sense of the person.
WIE: Can you explain what this fictional
final goal is?
It's like an imagined final position or
result. It's sort of like if you were a playwright, it would be your curtain
line. It's where everything is leading toward as an imagined fulfillment. Now,
this goal gets formulated even without words in early childhood and becomes
what Adler called the "childhood prototype." The child imagines some
time in the future when they will grow up, when they will be strong, when they
will overcome insecurity or anything else that bothers them. So if they feel
that they are ugly, they will be beautiful. If they feel that they're stupid,
they will be brilliant. If they feel that they're weak, they'll be strong. If
they're at the bottom, they'll be at the top. All of this is conceived without
words as a way of living in the insecurity of the present that may be uncomfortable
or unbearable. It would be unbearable to say that these feelings of insecurity
or inferiority are a permanent
condition for you. So what the child does,
and eventually what the adult does, is they imagine that the future will bring
a redemption, will bring relief from the inferiority feeling. The future will
bring success, significance, a correction—a reversal
of everything that's
wrong. It's very purposeful. This fictional final goal is an embodiment of their
vision of the future. It's similar to a hologram insofar as each little piece
of it carries the whole story in miniature. Each part is a reflection of that
WIE: Why did Adler feel it was important
to see the human being as an undivided whole?
Responsibility. Otherwise, you could say,
"One part of me wanted to do this, another part did not," or "The
devil made me do it," or "This little voice in me said . . . "—basically,
"I'm not in control; I'm not responsible." This is all grounds for
mischief. Adler was saying, "It's you!
WIE: There's fundamentally
in there calling the shots.
Yes, calling the shots and having an intention.
It's not instinct, and it's not something like the universal unconscious that
is affecting you. You have chosen
to do this, at some point. Now when
you chose it, it may have been a guess as to the best way to go, but then what
happened is that it became automatic and like a habit, and then you just kept
doing it. And it may not function very well anymore, but you keep doing it anyway.
idea of singularity is very important when it comes to treatment. In treatment,
how in the world do we deal with the person who has fifteen different symptoms
and all these little bad habits and problems? My God, we're going to be busy
for years. They've got emotional issues and they've got cognitive issues and
behavioral issues and you could say, "Hey, this is not going to be done
in six weeks, this is going to take six years." It's sort of like trying
to put a whole bunch of puppies in a basket—one jumps out as you put the next
one in—you get the emotions under control and then the physical symptoms act
WIE: If you approach it in this way, it
can be a lifelong project to straighten all this out.
Yes. Adler says, "Wait a minute. If
in fact there is a single goal and this single goal is causing the symptoms
and problems and is, in a sense, orchestrating everything, you don't work on
the fifty-two different subcategories of symptoms, you work on the goal
When you change the goal, everything else begins to shift, the symptoms begin
to vanish. People get goose bumps when they come to the realization that they
can change their life so dramatically and that it isn't an overwhelming, laborious,
lifelong task. That's the good news. There's bad news: The bad news is that
you now have responsibility. And that's a trade-off. When people are willing
to accept this responsibility, they almost have a sense of being reborn, and
the sense of freedom and empowerment is wonderful. And then they accept the
responsibility very willingly; it's not a burden. But other people—who don't
want the responsibility—will back off, and what they'll do is they will either
forget the insight or they will argue with it or sabotage it.
WIE: What is Adler's definition of conscience,
and how is it different from Freud's concept of superego?
Freud's superego is an external pressure:
the parental voice, the culture's expectations about what you should do or should
not do. It's based on the assumption that there is a very unruly, selfish, aggressive,
sexual little child in us who will do a lot of damage if not controlled. Adler's
concept of conscience is very different, much more optimistic and positive.
Adler said that the core issue is social feeling or the feeling of community.
This starts out in a child as a sense of contact with a person, usually the
mother, who is absolutely reliable, who is safe, who is encouraging and nurturing.
It starts out as a feeling, but eventually it can become cognitive. If the child,
and eventually the adult, develops this sense of connection and contact—this
sense that there are other worthwhile, reliable human beings with whom they
have a feeling of trust and safety, who they want to be near—and if they are
also given enough encouragement and training, they learn to reciprocate, and
this leads to a very good result. Now, this starts out as a feeling or as an
action; it starts out in a noncognitive way. Eventually, when the child begins
to think about bigger issues, when they begin to think about conscience and
morality, there is a sense in which this gives cognitive support to what they
already feel. From the Adlerian standpoint, you don't help a person develop
a conscience by moralizing, by threats, by "shoulds" and control.
What you do is you build that sense of contact, connection, trust and empathy,
and out of that
you build a logic of conscience and morality. You see,
the cognitive side cannot contradict the emotional side. What I'm saying is
that no matter how you indoctrinate somebody intellectually, no matter how much
you preach to them, no matter how much they read, if there is not at the core
a feeling of caring and connection, you will never get genuine conscience.
see, Adler said that when you feel connected to people, you then begin thinking
in a commonsense
way, and in a moral way because it makes a lot of sense—you
care about them. And you feel
in that direction. He doesn't make a sharp
distinction between what you feel and what you think because once a person develops
the sense of connectedness, the thinking and feeling sort of work together like
music and lyrics. So, for Adler, this would be a prerequisite for genuine spirituality
and religious practice because without it what you get are contradictions. I
have a number of clients who are very devoted to their religion, but their life
is a contradiction of the religion's teachings. They're caught up in a compelling
inner image that is stronger than their religious influence. And this causes
them a certain amount of aggravation; but until they develop that sense of real
connectedness, not just to a spiritual practice but with other people, they
really can't go very far, in spite of their efforts.
WIE: Many religious traditions view the
spiritual quest as a war between different parts of the self, between the opposing
inclinations toward good and evil within the individual. In the Koran, Muhammad,
upon returning with his warriors from battle said, "Now we return from
the lesser holy war to the greater holy war—the war against the ego." In
many religious teachings, the word "ego" is used to describe the baser
instincts that we confront in this war, particularly selfishness, narcissism
and the fundamentally aggressive need to always see ourselves as separate from
others. These traditions see the ego as the enemy on the spiritual path, as
that which thwarts our higher aspirations. It is the source of the seven deadly
sins in Christianity and the five poisons in Buddhism. In Adlerian psychology,
is there an understanding of a noble battle against the ego in this sense?
No, there's not a battle against the ego.
Adler said you don't have to fight against aggressive impulses and selfishness.
That would imply a war with, essentially, a negative self, and that's not the
case. What you do is, you bring out a person's feeling of connectedness. If
you bring out the sense or feeling of community, if you bring out the courage
of an individual, without even addressing issues of egocentricity and aggression,
these things vanish. You don't have to fight them, you don't have to root them
out. I look at them as crutches; you know, when your leg heals, you drop the
crutches. No one has to tell you, "You better throw those away." There
is an assumption there about the core nature of the human being, that the human
being is essentially bad and has to be broken of bad habits and has to learn
to be good. Adler said, "No, the individual is potentially very good but
needs to be trained."
At the same time, one can certainly look at the early tendency for a child to
be egocentric. This is a natural thing, but we could say that as you grow up,
what you must learn to do is to conquer your egocentricity. This is not saying,
though, that you're conquering your ego. This is an aspect of your behavior,
of your attitude. And you must conquer your egocentricity and learn to develop
consideration for other people. Now if you do this, you can hold on to your
ego—and by this I mean the sense of the direction of the person in terms of
how they envision their development in life—and you'll be fine.
WIE: Many contemporary therapists and popular
self-help teachers and authors have put a great deal of emphasis on the idea
that we all have "wounded egos." They encourage us to get in touch
with the wounds and traumas of childhood, to unconditionally love and accept
ourselves just as we are, and to stop judging ourselves in order to heal our
fragile and damaged egos. In Adler's view, however, it seems that the movement
from seeing oneself as a victim to seeing oneself as fundamentally free and
responsible for one's own life and choices is essential for psychological health
and maturity. Do you think that contemporary therapeutic approaches that emphasize
our woundedness and victimhood are helpful in furthering self-development? Or
do you think they have the potential of promoting a kind of developmental arrest?
It depends on whether, in fact, there was
abuse. If there was such an experience, then it has to be dealt with. And I've
worked with people like this. They have been terribly abused, and what they
need is a corrective experience. If in fact there was this wounding, there has
to be a healing. But I don't assume that that's always the case. There are many
people who have not
been wounded as children; they have simply been spoiled
rotten. Sometimes very spoiled people imagine that they've been wounded. And
do you know what the wounding consists of? It consists simply of the termination
of pampering. So you've got to be pretty clear. As you look at a person's past,
you have to realize that there's frequently a high degree of distortion.
WIE: In light of this, it sounds like you
would not support the blanket approach of unconditional self-acceptance that
is becoming very popular.
I think the idea of unconditional self-acceptance
is very seductive, especially to people who have a great wish to be pampered.
If you wake up and look at the world, you see that there is a lot of stuff that
people do that is really not very good—and they should stop doing it. This brings
up Adler's idea of guilt: There's good guilt and bad guilt. Good guilt is when
you feel really crappy and you stop doing it. Bad guilt is when you feel guilty
but you keep doing it. So, unconditional self-acceptance? No. I think sometimes
it's good that a person feels crappy about what they've done. Maybe it's time
to change that. Now it may be that they are debilitating themselves by the degree
of self-hatred or self-rejection, and that I would try to pull back on. But
there may need to be retained a certain amount of, you might say, dissatisfaction.
There's nothing wrong with that. We don't try to simply get rid of it; we try
to use it to push you into doing something about it.
WIE: What is Adler's highest vision of self-development
or human potential?
Adler really believed that we need
ideals. Adler's work is very appealing philosophically, I must say, because
it's one of the few really value-oriented psychologies. It puts its values up
front as a philosophy. We're not saying that all truths are equal, that everything
is fine. No, we're saying that there are certain values that are important and
that are healthy, and Adler even said that these are the ones that are most
important. Adler's ideal was for the individual to fully develop as much as
possible the feeling of community within them, as I've been speaking about,
with a high enough degree of activity and courage to carry it out. Someone who
has developed this sense of connection does things for mutual benefit. And their
sense of responsibility, their sense of connectedness with people, grows into
a larger and larger circle. They have a very deep-seated, very positive, very
natural concern about the welfare of others that becomes almost as natural as
breathing. Adler said that this feeling of community starts out simply as cooperation
or consideration and eventually can become a feeling of being connected with
the whole, with humanity, and a cognitive perspective on the welfare of mankind.
Not everybody develops this, but it's entirely possible. And it goes even farther
than that, oddly enough, in terms of what's possible. This feeling of connectedness
can extend as far as the cosmos. And as if that wasn't enough, he said that
this feeling should also extend to the past—through looking back in time and
seeing a vision of what all of these people did who brought the world to where
it is now, in the positive sense, and appreciating that. Adler sometimes used
the image of being in the stream of evolution. And he said, "Here you are
in the stream, and it's brought your life to where it is now. What will you
add to this?" He said that it's not enough just to adapt. In fact, he said
that mere adaptation is a form of exploitation. Adler asks: "What are you
going to add for the future? What would you improve upon?" And it doesn't
have to be something spectacular because we don't need spectacular things all
the time; we need lots of little improvements. So, in this respect, there is
a sense of: Where do I belong on this earth? What's my role? Where do I fit?
What do I do? And Adler's answer is, "You contribute,
This is also why he emphasized our creative power. For our time, for our place,
for our circumstances and for who we are, even with our disabilities—we have
creative power. Invent a solution to the problems.
WIE: What did Adler feel was the best way
to encourage or promote this in people?
Probably the best thing that pulls us toward
this is a good example. This is one of the things that we stress again and again
in Adlerian training: You have got to live what you're talking about. There
are some therapies that are largely technologies, where it's not so important
what kind of character you have but only how skillful you are in the technique
you are using. And I find that remarkably absurd. Adler would say that you really
cannot convince or persuade anybody until you are able to show
well what you mean: You have to do
what you talk about.
And it's the same thing with parents. Be a good example, number one. But that's
not enough, though certainly that is helpful. The other thing is encouragement.
People need an incredible amount of encouragement. To be there to encourage
the person to go beyond what they believe is their limit at the moment—that
is important. Everybody needs encouragement, and encouragement is not a very
widespread skill—real encouragement, which is patient and not generalized and
not just trivialized with buzzwords. And eventually what a person needs, beyond
the good example and the encouragement, is some information or stimulation of
an ideal of what is possible.
WIE: What did Adler feel was the role of
religion or spirituality in representing this ideal?
Adler felt that religion can represent
a concrete image or embodiment of human perfection, not to be taken literally
but as a stimulation and as a kind of a prodding tool to improve ourselves.
It's probably the most beautiful and crystallized form of that perfection that