The Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler, another of Freud’s early followers, also disputed the importance of sexual motives. Adler described a coping strategy that he called compensation, which he felt was an important influence on behaviour. In his view people compensated for a behavioral deficiency by exaggerating some other behaviour: a process analogous to organic processes called hypertrophy, in which, for example, if one eye is injured, the other eye may compensate by becoming more acute. In Adler’s view, a person with a feeling of inferiority related to a physical or mental inadequacy would also develop compensating behaviours or symptoms. Shortness of stature, for example, could lead to the development of domineering, controlling behaviours. Adler assigned a prominent place to family dynamics in personality development. Children’s position in their family—their birth order—was seen as determining significant character traits.


Adler’s theory suggested that every person has a sense of inferiority. From childhood, people work toward overcoming this inferiority by “striving for superiority.” Adler believed that this drive was the motivating force behind human behaviors, emotions, and thoughts.


While Freud focused on only the internal processes — mainly sexual conflicts — that affect a person’s psychology, Adler was adamant that to fully understand a person, a psychologist must also consider other internal factors as well as external factors.

Adler thought that the basic psychological element of neurosis was a sense of inferiority and that individuals suffering with the symptoms of this phenomenon spent their lives trying to overcome the feelings without ever being in touch with reality (White, 1917).

Compensation for Weaknesses

According to Adler (2013b), all infants have a feeling of inferiority and inadequacy immediately as they begin to experience the world.

These early experiences, such as the need to gain the parents’ attention, shape the child’s unconscious, fictive goals. They give the child a need to strive towards rectifying that inferiority — a need to compensate for weakness by developing other strengths.

There are several outcomes that can occur on a child’s quest for compensation. First, if the child receives adequate nurturing and care, the child can accept his challenges, and learn that they can be overcome with hard work. Thus, the child develops “normally” and develops the “courage to be imperfect” (Lazarsfeld, 1966, pp. 163-165).


However, sometimes, the process of compensation goes awry. One way in which this happens is that the feelings of inferiority become too intense, and the child begins to feel as though he has no control over his surroundings. He will strive very strenuously for compensation, to the point that compensation is no longer satisfactory.

This culminates in a state of overcompensation, where the child’s focus on meeting his goal is exaggerated and becomes pathological. For example, Adler (1917) uses the ancient Greek figure Demosthenes, who had a terrible stutter but ended up becoming the “greatest orator in Greece” (p. 22).

Here, Demosthenes started off with an inferiority due to his stutter, and overcompensated by not just overcoming his stutter, but taking up a profession that would normally be impossible for a stutterer.

Inferiority Complex

Overcompensation can lead to the development of an inferiority complex. This is a lack of self-esteem where the person is unable to rectify his feelings of inferiority.

According to Adler (2013a), the hallmark of an inferiority complex is that “persons are always striving to find a situation in which they excel” (p. 74). This drive is due to their overwhelming feelings of inferiority.

There are two components of these feelings of inferiority: primary and secondary. Primary inferiority is the “original and normal feeling” of inferiority maintained by an infant (Stein & Edwards, 2002, p. 23). This feeling is productive, as it provides motivation for the child to develop.

Secondary inferiority, on the other hand, is the inferiority feeling in the adult results when the child develops an exaggerated feeling of inferiority (p. 23). These feelings in the adult are what is harmful, and they comprise the inferiority complex.

Superiority Complex

The superiority complex occurs when a person has the need to prove that he is more superior than he truly is. Adler (2013a) provides an example of a child with a superiority complex, who is “impertinent, arrogant and pugnacious” (p. 82).

When this child is treated through psychotherapy, it is revealed that the child behaves in this impatient manner because he feels inferior.

Adler (2013a) claims that superiority complexes are born out of inferiority complexes; they are “one of the ways which a person with an inferiority complex may use a method of escape from his difficulties” (p. 97).

Adler did not approve of the concept of personality types; he believed that this practice could lead to the neglect of each individual’s uniqueness.

However, he did recognize patterns that often formed in childhood and could be useful in treating patients who fit into them. He called these patterns styles of life.

Adler (2013a) claimed that once a psychologist knows a person’s style of life, “it is possible to predict his future sometimes just on the basis of talking to him and having him answer questions” (p. 100) Adler and his followers analyze a person’s style of life by comparing it to “the socially adjusted human being” (p. 101).

The term birth order refers to the order in which the children of a family were born. Adler (2013b, pp. 150-155) believed that birth order had a significant and predictable impact on a child’s personality.


First-born children have inherent advantages due to their parents recognizing them as “the larger, the stronger, the older.”

This gives first-born children the traits of “a guardian of law and order.” These children have a high amount of personal power, and they value the concept of power with reverence.


Second-born children are constantly in the shadow of their older siblings. They are incessantly “striving for superiority under pressure,” driven by the existence of their older, more powerful sibling.

If the second-born is encouraged and supported, he will be able to attain power as well, and he and the first-born will work together.

Youngest Child

Youngest children operate in a constant state of inferiority. They are constantly trying to prove themselves, due to their perceptions of inferiority relative to the rest of their family. According to Adler, there are two types of youngest children.

The more successful type “excels every other member of the family, and becomes the family’s most capable member.”

Another, more unfortunate type of youngest child does not excel because he lacks the necessary self-confidence. This child becomes evasive and avoidant towards the rest of the family.



Only Child

Only children, according to Adler, are also an unfortunate case.

Due to their being the sole object of their parents’ attention, the only child becomes “dependent to a high degree, waits constantly for someone to show him the way, and searches for support at all times.”

They also come to see the world as a hostile place due to their parents’ constant vigilance.

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