Adlerian Psychology: A Psychology for UU's

a sermon by Barbara Fairfield
Paint Branch UU Church
January 11, 2004

On Tuesday, December 30th, Don and I returned from our holiday travels to find that our home had been broken into and a number of items of value stolen. It was a rather disheartening experience—anyone who has gone through something similar knows the feelings of being violated and personally disregarded. In talking with the police officer, he asked the "why" question—"why does someone do that?" My background in Adlerian psychology not only makes it possible for me to answer that question, it also makes it possible for me to have hope for the thieves involved, undoubtedly young people who live near us, according to the officer.

Let me take you on a tour of Adlerian psychology, so that you, too can understand the why of people’s behavior and so that you can see how I relate this psychological model to Unitarian Universalism.

Alfed Adler was born in the environs of Vienna in 1870, the son of a Jewish grain merchant. He became a physician and as such was always interested in the social circumstances of his patients. In his first publication, Health Book for the Tailoring Trade, Adler wanted to show the relationship between the economic situation of patients and their medical conditions. Adler met Freud around 1900 and he, like Jung another colleague, became part of Freud’s psychoanalytic society, even heading the group in 1910. Eventually, he and Freud disagreed substantively on this very issue of why people behave the way they do—Freud taking a position of sexual drive being the key determining factor in an individual’s psychological development while Adler saw people as part of a social whole who were challenged to live together cooperatively to survive.

Adler saw human beings as moving purposefully in life towards goals that make private sense to each individual. These goals are determined by the individual child in the first 4 or 5 years of life, even though the child is unaware of their process. These goals come from the child’s perceptions in those early years, perceptions of oneself, of others and of life itself. From these perceptions, the child concludes that certain goals are important and then he/she develops ways of moving towards those goals. The set of beliefs surrounding these goals Adler called the "lifestyle" of the individual.

In these early years, as each of us develops our life style, we are aware of our smallness, our weakness, our vulnerability. Thus each of us has inferiority feelings and it is the goal of each person to overcome that felt inadequacy. We do this in either useful or some useless ways and both the useful and the useless get inadvertently reinforced by those around us as we grow up.

Adler believed that within each person there is an innate capacity for learning to be socially motivated, for caring about others beyond the self. This capacity he termed "gemeinshaftsgefuhl", translated as social interest or community feeling. Since this is only a capacity, not yet developed in the child, Adler emphasized the importance of social education in the family, in school and in the community. I think he would have applauded congregations like ours that make sure that events take place where youth can participate in positive, cooperative ways alongside adults and learn how to contribute and, in the process, become aware of their own unique gifts.

Adlerian psychology is a psychology that assesses and attempts to enlarge an individual’s courage. Courage is the fuel we use to move toward our socially useful goals and it includes a positive, solid belief in oneself—an "I can do it" attitude toward life. Being courageous means being able to be resilient, to not require success and to not be destroyed by failure. One definition that I like for "courage" was given by Rudolph Dreikurs, Adler’s most well-known protégé: Dreikurs said that courage is the ability of a person to make mistakes without a loss of self.

True courage, then, means that although we recognize that we often feel inadequate, we don’t act on that feeling because we recognize the equal worth and value of all individuals. Being an equal among equals is a stance that increases our courage and gives us hope. Here, Adlerian psychology as a philosophy or way of life lines up with our Unitarian Universalist principle that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

So, let me go back to the adolescent thieves who broke into our home over the holidays. The life style of each of these young people was developed when he/she was under the age of 5. Like all of us, they drew conclusions about themselves, others and life from their limited data and therefore, they, like us, necessarily made mistakes in their conclusions. Clearly, their innate capacity for social interest did not get developed sufficiently, so that when they were faced with the problems that any young person is faced with: challenges of learning in school, developing friends, living in a family, they did not have sufficiently developed social interest to deal constructively with those problems. Their life style went in a negative direction in overcoming their inferiority feelings—for example, by lording it over others, demanding their own way or resisting the requirements of others, especially those in positions of authority. These young people fear defeat more than they expect success, so their actions come out of their attempt to not be defeated.

But hear what Adler says about these individuals: "Anyone capable through his creative power of constructing with artistic perfection a useless, mistaken life style, previously hardly understood, is also capable of changing himself and of producing a generally useful form of life." Our UU principle also affirms and promotes this acceptance of one another and the encouragement of spiritual growth.

Adlerian psychology, then, is a psychology of hope, a psychology that believes in people and in their ability to grow and change, to evolve. With this personal evolution there comes about a cosmic evolution of a social nature—we are all capable of contributing to the development of a community based on social interest and self-worth, a community of equals among equals. Like the Unitarian Universalist’s 2nd and 6th principles, Adlerian psychology exhorts us to work towards justice, equity and compassion in human relations toward a goal of world community.

I was talking to Corporal Briggs, the officer who responded to our 911 call. He was saying that he wished he could understand the mind of the criminal. I told him that there was a way to get that understanding. All you had to do was to ask the person to tell you his/her earliest memory.

Adler figured this out. In working with his patients, he frequently asked them to recount their earliest memories. What he discovered was that people don’t have many specific memories from childhood. So he was curious as to why we remember the few things we do recall. After working with a patient for some time, he began to look back at the memories they had shared with him and he realized that the themes and goals symbolized in those memories were the very ones that the individual was operating with in his/her current life. He concluded, then, that to understand a person’s movement in life, one could inquire about their early memories. He also discovered that the very earliest memory contained a major theme of the person’s life style. Our early memories , therefore, are a key to understanding how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we view life and the conclusions we have drawn about what is important and what goals make sense to us.

Corporal Briggs laughed and said that his earliest memory was about catching frogs. "See, I said, now you are catching thieves!"

Let me tell you what Adler’s earliest memory was: As he related it…"I remember sitting on a bench bandaged up on account of rickets, with my healthy elder brother (whose name happened to be Sigmund!) sitting opposite me. He could run, jump and move about quite effortlessly, while for me, movement of any sort was a strain and an effort. Everyone went to great pain to help me and my mother and father did all that was in their power to do." Here we see some of Adler’s themes that he played out in his life: being an observer of others, understanding the impact of physical problems, being impressed with the relationships between people and helping people to the limit of one’s ability to do so. You can see the seeds of his emphasis on social interest in that memory.

I invite you to think for a moment of your own earliest memory. It should be a one-day, one-time memory before age 8 or 10. This memory is like a signpost or symbol for your most important themes and your own private goal. It is not actually the moment where you determined that goal—that happened throughout those first 5 years, but your mind has selected or created that memory to re-mind you of your chosen path.

(Here, pause for congregation to recall their earliest memory.)

I won’t ask you to share yours, but I will share mine with you so that you can see how to go about interpreting your memory. "I am two years old. My mother, father and I have been invited to go up in a small airplane. I am in the airplane, in the back. My father is next to the pilot in front; my mother is between them and me. I look out the window and see everything getting smaller and I get scared and start to cry that I want down. My mother turns around and laughs and tells me ‘It’s too late now.’ I am upset, but also fascinated by what I see below."

When Adlerians summarize the themes in an early memory they often use a paradigm that goes—I am…; others are…; life is…; therefore, I must…Here is what I might say about my memory that shows my lifestyle:

I am at the mercy of my own decisions.
Others are unsympathetic to my problems.
Life is a scary but exciting adventure.
And therefore, I must accept responsibility and rely on myself when things get difficult.
I invite you to think about your own earliest memory using this schema: I am…; others are…; life is…; therefore I must…

(Here, pause for the congregation to interpret their memories silently)

I was an Adlerian before I was a Unitarian Universalist. I came to that philosophy when Don and I took an Adlerian parenting course more than 30 years ago and I went on to study at Bowie State University in the Adler-Dreikurs Institute of Human Relations there. Don and I were first introduced to Unitarian Universalism by Adlerian friends of ours, Mollie and Phil Thorn who were members at Davies Memorial UU Church. I think you can understand how when I attended Paint Branch for the first time, I felt like I had come home!

Now, I wish I could talk to those young thieves who entered our house uninvited. I would ask them for their early memories and I would try to help them see that their memories contain both their strengths and their mistaken ideas. I would want them to know that I believe in their capacity for social interest and that I consider them to be worthwhile—worth the effort to understand them.

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