Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Classical Adlerian Depth Psychotherapy, Volume I -
Theory & Practice: A Socratic Approach to Democratic Liviing
Part One: Overview of Classical Adlerian Theory
By Henry T. Stein, Ph.D.

Chapter 5: Style of Life

          "Anyone who wants to understand Individual Psychology correctly must accept the unitary purposefulness of thinking, feeling, willing, and acting of the unique individual. He then will recognize how an individual's attitude and style of life, which is like an artistic creation, are the same in all situations of life, unalterable until the end – unless the individual recognizes what is mistaken or abnormal in regard to cooperation, and attempts to correct it. This becomes possible only when he has comprehended his errors conceptually and subjected them to the critique of practical reason, the common sense – in other words, through convincing discussion."
          "The style of life dominates. The person is cast all of one piece. This we must find constantly in all its parts. In this self-consistent casting, the striving for fictive superiority is contained. Every neurotic patient attempts to veil through his symptoms the fact that he is worried about his fictive superiority."
          "More clearly discernible than under normal conditions is the neurotic's style of life after a decisive failure, when confronted with being tested and having to make decisions. The fear of new defeats brings all neurotic manifestations into sharper focus."
          “The rigid, fixed style of life, the ultimate ideal, continually dominates and selects. The style of life turns our experiences into reasons for our attitude, calls up these feelings and determines conclusions in accordance with its own purposes.”
          “No amount of bitter experience can change the style of life, as long as the individual has not gained insight.

Alfred Adler

          In art, "style" is a unique, consistent way of expressing an idea or feeling through a particular medium. We recognize it from fragments of a piece of music, painting, or architectural structure. In nature, we find fractal images, repeating the same patterns from micro to macro scales, in clouds, coastlines, and crystals. From birth to death, an individual continually moves through circumstances, confronting tasks, opportunities, and difficulties. If he confronts these circumstances in a repetitive, self-limiting pattern, he develops a "style of life." This pattern dictates how he will view and respond to whatever life presents to him from a narrow frame of reference decided in early childhood, serving the purpose of avoiding what he feels unprepared for and seeking his own advantage rather than mutual benefit.
          Infants explore and experiment. Depending on the degree of safety and stimulation provided by his caretakers, at best, the growing child will move out into ever larger circles of life with curiosity and courage. At worst, he will retreat into a lonely hell of autism. In between, lie varying degrees of contact and achievement. After an extended period of trial and error, the infant forms an impression of what feels pleasant and what brings a sense of success. The attitude, feelings, and behavior of the surrounding adults provide the initial arena for his psychological adventures. Crawling, walking, running, eating, playing, talking, and feeding himself feel good. It also feels good to elicit certain responses from the huge people who frequently can be easily manipulated, at least emotionally, like puppets. Between the ages of three and four, the prefrontal lobes of his brain develop, endowing him with the capacity to look into the future. He begins to imagine not only what will happen later on when he grows up, but also what he believes he can make happen.
          The push of the normal feeling of smallness, weakness, and dependency helps form the style of life. The young child wants permanent relief from the bothersome sense of being "inferior" to the larger people who seem able to do anything, have whatever they want, and go wherever they wish. This situation, in itself, provides adequate motivation for his development. However, he may feel additional pressure from a body that does not serve him normally, or an overburdening situation of abuse, neglect, or domination. Excessive pampering, service, and pity can also drain his initiative and deprive him of the challenges he needs to conquer. Even before he has words or concepts, he sizes up his chances of dealing successfully with life as he sees it, and begins to express his "opinions" of himself, others, and life through his actions. These actions may advance or hinder his development; he may train himself to attack a problem and keep trying through many frustrations, seek undue attention by adopting symptoms, or give up easily and play the helpless baby. If he feels a movement has a subjectively good result, he repeats it again and again, until he is adept at it. He also imagines that this "strategy" will serve him indefinitely into the future. After many repetitions and satisfactions, the behavior becomes "automatic." To keep himself on track, he forms a single, very specific, unconscious, psychic goal, an ideal that promises everything he yearns for. He must have “it” or nothing. This goal acts like a magnetic North Pole, urging him to follow a single main direction.
          We cannot really know the form this organizing goal takes in a three, four, or five-year old. But it may well be coded and stored as an image. Metaphorically, a hologram may represent the elusive image structure of this goal and its parts, wherein each small piece of the image contains a somewhat fuzzy duplicate of the whole. This melodic consistency is expressed in the remarkably coordinated parallels of thinking, feeling, and action. The entire symphony of the soul is revealed in the smallest details of functioning: perception, apperception, memory, choice, dreaming, posture, gait, gesture, facial expression, and even sleeping position. Every cell in the body may possibly reflect a single, overall, coherent purpose. The larger the scale, the more apparent the attitude. This remarkable unity in the diversity of expression may appear in handwriting, tone of voice, or the functioning of an organ (organ dialect).
          We might well ask why such a well-orchestrated concert of efforts pushes, pulls, and guides the young child in one primary direction. Adler believed that it grew partly out of the experienced uncertainty of life, prompting a desire for an imagined, predictable future. Coincidentally, with the development of the prefrontal lobes of the brain, the young child begins to grasp a sense of the distant future: "when he grows up." Because the real complexity of life is beyond a child's comprehension, he tends to simplify it to make it seem more manageable. Consequently, he acts "as if" he could compress a grasp of life into a simple antithetical formula, expressing the generic life movement from minus to plus (i.e., "I am small and I want to be big," or "I am weak and I want to be strong."). Early in the development of his theory, Adler emphasized the primacy of the feeling of inferiority as a "push" motivator, a life-long, continuous impulse to relieve that feeling with the "pull" of a compensatory goal. Later in his career, he changed the emphasis to a more positive striving for completion, de-emphasizing the primacy of the feeling of inferiority as a motivator.
          This dynamic of a creative, expansive unfolding of our potential cannot be realized in all directions. Once the child has formulated his fictional final goal, the internal structure of the style of life provides the most efficient way for him to stay on track, moving toward that goal, day after day. By nesting this dynamic in the unconscious, throughout his life he frees himself to deal consciously with immediate events, yet bends each experience and outcome as far as possible in the direction of his hidden goal. This illusion of progress and personal gain keeps him filled with the anticipation of safety and significance. If adult life denies him the achievement of his goal, he may feel progressively discouraged, anxious, and angry.
          Individuals seek situations that seem to promise the fulfillment of the goal or that permit the exercise of the style of life. They try to avoid circumstances that might inhibit or exclude the desired result. Consequently, they narrow their sphere of activity within the boundaries of anticipated, imagined superiority. The ultimate narrowing of that sphere would be a catatonic psychosis.
          Although we have some evidence of a neuromuscular triggered degree of activity in infants, children gradually adopt the degree of activity required by their immediate goal. By the time the style of life and goal are set, the degree of activity is also stabilized as a result of self-training. As the child grows, failures may reduce the degree of activity and success may stimulate it. "Averaging out" a person's activity level globally is usually misleading, because he may exhibit a high degree of activity in an arena where he anticipates success and a much lower degree of activity in an arena where he anticipates failure.
          Individuals express activity in physical, mental, or emotional terms. Because physical activity is more visible, it may easily be mistaken for achievement; however, people who are endlessly busy may not be doing much to solve the problems facing them. For example, an excessive amount of exercise can be used as self-punishment. On the other hand, physically inactive people may be engaged in vigorous mental activity. Some individuals who have strong, mercurial feelings may channel most of their activity into emotional incubations and outbursts, without a comparable measure of solution-oriented thinking and action.
          To illustrate with a brief case example: a woman who seemed quite depressed sobbed deeply for a long time when faced with an unpleasant task, one where she was expected to do her share of the work. Her activity was exclusively emotional, producing the tears that elicited consolation and assistance from her sympathetic circle of caretakers. Anyone who did not respond to her "water power" she considered to be “cold and heartless.” Those who soothed and served her were rewarded with fleeting smiles between the endless river of tears.
          Once a person establishes a pattern of avoiding or exploiting life's demands, the daily self-training of thinking, feeling, and acting becomes habitual. The familiar becomes less anxiety-provoking than the unfamiliar, even though it may bring hardship or suffering. Amidst the anxiety-provoking uncertainty of life, an illusion of predictability soothes the distress. Staying within the domains of familiar thinking, feeling, and acting (within the walls of one’s “self-created stall,” in Adler’s words) takes less courage.
          A person who has practiced depreciating others for years will feel insecure about expressing genuine appreciation. He does not know what it feels like, or what reaction he may get from the other person. He also does not know how he will feel about the other's response. He runs the risk of feeling disoriented and emotionally inept. A cluster of opinions, based on private logic, lies at the root of a style of life. To orient and prepare himself for the present and future, the individual forms opinions, influenced by a variety of factors, about essential reference points: the self, others, life, difficulties, security, and success. Not usually conscious thoughts, these beliefs are implicit in his attitude, behavior, and feelings. He acts "as if" he held such opinions.
          His opinion of self may not be realistic, in either an overdone or underdone direction. He may make unrealistic comparisons between himself and others, alternating between feeling less than others and more than them. Lacking a realistic self-appraisal, never seeing himself as being of equal value, he feels entitled to take rather than give. If an individual has been spoiled as a child, he may see himself as an entitled prince who needs to do very little, but expects the service and flattery of his devoted entourage. If he has been neglected, rejected, or abused as a child, he may have a similar expectation of unearned praise and devotion. From quite different beginnings, each may yearn for a similar paradise – the former, because he is used to it; the latter, because he feels entitled to it as compensation for what he was denied. They both suffer from an oversimplification of life. The spoiled or abused child’s opinion of others may be similarly distorted. Mistakenly, he may idolize the famous and powerful, despising the unknown and weak of the world, focusing mainly on the particular qualities that fit his limited scheme of apperception and ignoring the totality of each individual. He may manufacture feelings of deficiency to drive him compulsively to the imagined heights of absolute superiority.
          There is an old joke about a man searching for the meaning of life. He has heard about a wise man in a far-off monastery who could answer his age-old question. Motivated to pursue this source, he first endures a long, difficult trip through a hot, humid, and dangerous jungle. Exhausted by this ordeal, he can barely begin the next stage of his journey up a steep mountain to visit the famous monk in a remote monastery. Cold and suffering from the painful injuries sustained in the climb, he is told that he must now wait several months and endure a regime of severe fasting to cleanse himself for an audience with the monk. Depressed and frustrated, but burning with curiosity, he agrees to comply with the demand. Several months later, weak and thin from his series of ordeals, he is finally granted an audience. The monk smiles gently and asks his visitor, "What would you like to ask me?" Almost too weak to talk, the man replies, "What is the meaning of life?" The monk nods his head slowly, responding carefully, "Life ... is ... a ... fountain!" The man's jaw drops in disbelief – he has endured a living hell searching for an answer, and he is visibly shaken and puzzled by the monk's words. Mustering his last reserves of strength, he grabs the monk’s robe and gazes penetratingly into his eyes. Tearfully, he recounts all that he has suffered for the privilege of asking his question, finishing angrily with the retort, "And this is all you can tell me, that life is a fountain?" The monk, looking hurt and puzzled replies, "Isn't it?"
          When asked about the meaning of life, Adler replied that life itself has no meaning, but that each of us chooses the meaning we give life, which shows in the way we live it. Interpretations shape experiences; the larger mistakes of childhood interpretations eventually lead to an adversarial attitude, resulting from the conflict between the actual demands of life and the subjective pull of a style of life. The individual keeps using this tendentious pattern to try to prove an early fiction, adopted in childhood, rather than allowing himself to discover the realities of social living. Although never free from small mistakes, healthier individuals attempt to correct and improve impressions by acknowledging the needs of others and situations.
          Difficulties are often quite subjective. Certainly, a lack of adequate preparation contributes to the experience of distress. The individual's opinion of difficulties in general is colored by his core belief about the value of challenge in his development. Whereas the pampered child usually prefers to avoid difficulties, hoping to find a servant to do the dirty work of life, the unspoiled child may be trained to view difficulties through the lens of opportunity, as a chance to build skill and self-esteem, i.e. trained "to appreciate a challenge." The discouraged child or adult tends to unconsciously measure immediate tasks against the background of his inferiority feeling and final goal, so that a relatively normal task may take on the illusion of the "impossible." The prospect of a "normal" achievement then seems trivial and useless to someone crucified by a torturing self-demand for absolute perfection. In the face of impossibly high expectations, a person anticipates great, self-created difficulties. This internal formulation can lead to a vicious circle of subjectively heroic acts that actually have no real social value.
          Within the narrow confines of a style of life, security and success may be conceived in many forms: distance from anticipated harm, wealth, personal power, fame, total knowledge, being a winner, not feeling emotional pain, and hundreds of other imagined positions, possessions, and achievements. However, the further an individual deviates from security and success in the forms of positive contact, cooperation, and contribution, the more haunted and miserable his life becomes.
          Every unrealistic, self-centered personal ideal, and its habitual means of fulfilling it, contains a significant degree of error in relation to the needs of all situations. Life never stays the same; new, ever-changing circumstances challenge us to respond creatively with a unique "first time" freshness. Perceiving and meeting the real needs of a situation require a capacity for self-transcendence, a letting-go, at least momentarily, of the singular magnetic pole of a personal ideal. Ultimately, the narrow limits of a style of life, with its relatively rigid antithetical scheme of apperception, lead us into conflict with the needs of others or life's demands. As we learn to recognize and accept the needs of every new situation, which includes the welfare of others, we can gradually break away from a limited style of life that relies heavily on the past and personal advantage. Ideally, in psychotherapy, we dissolve this historical limitation.
          According to Abraham Maslow, the most creative, reality-oriented way of living reflects a growth-motivated pursuit of one of the higher, "eternal" values, such as truth, beauty, or justice. This "higher level" motivation contrasts sharply with the more common, narrow, deficiency-motivated pursuit of a compensatory goal. According to Adler, optimal development means the therapeutic dissolving of the inferiority feeling, compensatory goal, and style of life.

Classical Adlerian Depth Psycholtherapy, Volume I: A Socratic Approach to Democratic Living
Distance Training in CADP
Back to Adler Institute Home Page