There are many modern ways to understand yourself. The internet is filled with content about limiting beliefs, discovering your MBTI, attachment style and what not. I prefer instead to rely on perennial approaches to self-understanding, one of them being Adlerian Psychology.
Popularized in the book “The Courage to Be Disliked”, Alfred Adler’s approach offers a straight-forward way of understanding yourself through understanding your goals and perceived inferiority.
Adler was one of the great psychodynamic thinkers of the last century next to Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. But his approach was radically different from Freud’s focus on biological drives and Jung’s focus on mysticism.
The first thing you need to know about Adler is that this guy was practical. He proposed that everything we do has a purpose and is directed towards a goal. The goal is to move from a natural state of inferiority to superiority, from minus to plus, achieving safety and significance. The concrete form this goal takes of course varies from person to person, according to Adler this depends on ones upbringing, family constellation, and physical inferiorities. But the desire to move from a lower to a higher state remains the same, we usually call it growth.
In its best form this process is grounded in what Adler called social interest, the notion that your progress doesn’t just benefit you but also your community.
Unconsciously, we then collapse all our attention, thinking, feeling, and doing around achieving this goal, more times than not without realizing what it is we pursue. An individual forms inner laws, world views, interests, feelings, thoughts, character traits to achieve the fictitious end goal. And whatever contradicts or hinders this movement is internally forgotten, denied, or ignored.
Taking together the beliefs about yourself, others, and the world you create to move closer to this goal, you arrive at a key Adlerian concept, which is the “lifestyle”.
Adler’s concept of the lifestyle is not the modern understanding of lifestyle as in income level, fancy experiences, social prestige. For Adler your lifestyle is your beliefs about yourself, others, the world, and the behavior you use to achieve your goal. He said:
“All success or failure depends on one’s lifestyle, the unconscious belief about life.” – Alfred Adler
Therefore, if you want to understand yourself with Adlerian Psychology, you have to understand your lifestyle.
Your lifestyle is not something that comes upon you. It’s a creative act. You create your lifestyle to reach your goal. Through the influence of your perceived inferiority, family constellation and birth order, you develop a personal philosophy by as early as the age of five or six. This personal philosophy was intended to increasing your chances to gain safety and significance in your earliest relationships. And this personal philosophy that becomes your lifestyle serves multiple crucial functions in your psyche:
First, it helps you make sense of the world and predict what will happen next. You don’t walk through life as if you experience everything for the first time. If everything was novel to us all the time, we would be completely overwhelmed, unable to navigate life because we’d never know how to make sense of our experience and behave appropriately. We don’t encounter people as if we’ve never met a human before, we have preconceived notions about whether we can trust people or what to expect of others. And in this way we always operate based on old scripts we learned in the past. In the case of Adlerian psychology, your lifestyle provides the filter through which you understand the world and set expectations.
Second, your lifestyle provides you with an identity, a sense of who you are. Even though our goals are individual, in general we strive for a sense of safety and significance and therefore, your lifestyle gives you a place in the world. Establishing a robust self-concept provides you with a coherent sense of who you are. It allows you to tell stories, connects you with your past and future and more importantly with other people. Only when you know who you are, when you’ve answered basic questions about your identity can you enter into relationships with other people. In the best case your self-concept is sturdy enough that it provides you with coherence and safety; and flexible enough that it allows you to grow and change when needed.
Third, your lifestyle gives you a sense of control. Experiencing agency and a sense of control is so important to people. You really cannot overestimate this. We need to know that we have the ability to chose, to design, to create our own destiny. And our internalized sense of self, our understanding of the world, using our beliefs to predict what might happen allows us to feel that we’re in control.
Let’s put this theoretical knowledge into concrete lifestyle convictions for you! A lifestyle includes different convictions or beliefs that you live by and use as filters for your experience.
The first one is your self-concept, the idea you who you are.
Then there is the self-ideal which is the ideal you strive for.
The next conviction is around your “Weltbild” I love that German word and it means your view of the world and life.
And lastly, ethical convictions, what are the ethics, right-and-wrongs you use to navigate life and judge yourself and others.
To map this out, feel free to complete the following sentences:
- I am… (this reflects your self-concept)
- I strive to be… (which reflects your self-ideal)
- Others are…
- Life is…
- One should always/never…
Getting stuck in big problems and self-sabotage usually happens when our lifestyle includes what Adler called basic mistakes. When it’s not well adjusted to reality and not built on active social-interest, as you might have seen in the examples before.
It’s not easy to correct them because usually we get very defensive to protect and justify our way of viewing ourselves, others, and life in general, (because remember, we need this to feel in control, stabilize our identity, and be able to predict what happens next) so that we sometimes don’t respond well to common sense when we should.
Our lifestyle is not based on facts. We develop our lifestyle based on our subjective interpretation of events. Those past subjective interpretations consequently act as a filter for present and future experiences. Adler takes a stand that is very empowering (although it can feel invalidating the first time you hear it). He says that:
“We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give them is self-determining.” — Alfred Adler
Whether I always agree with this quote – I don’t know – but I think in some situations it can be a helpful reframe. Adler emphasized that lifestyle is not a static concept you are stuck with for life. It’s a creative process that started very young but that doesn’t mean it’s over.
Once you’ve become aware of your lifestyle, you can make a conscious effort to catch yourself, adapt in a way that is more helpful to live in community with others, and create a new lifestyle for yourself.