Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Classical Adlerian Quotes: Compensation

Developed by Henry T. Stein, Ph.D.

The following Classical Adlerian quotations are from the Adlerian Translation Project Archives at the Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco (AAISF/ATP). Selected works of Alfred Adler, Kurt Adler, Lydia Sicher, Alexander Mueller, Sophia de Vries, Anthony Bruck, Erwin Wexberg, Alexander Neuer, Sophie Lazarsfeld, Ida Loewy, Ferdinand Birnbaum, and other Classical Adlerians have been collected, translated, edited, and converted into electronic text. All of this material is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced without the expressed consent of Dr. Stein at

Alfred Adler:

"The striving for significance, this sense of yearning, always points out to us that all psychological phenomena contain a movement that starts from a feeling of inferiority and reach upward. The theory of Individual Psychology of psychological compensation states that the stronger the feeling of inferiority, the higher the goal for personal power." (From a new translation of "Progress in Individual Psychology," [1923] a journal article by Alfred Adler, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.

".....compensation is derived from whatever lifts him above his present inadequate state and makes him superior to all others. This brings the child to setting a goal, a fictitious goal of superiority which will transform his poverty into wealth, his subordination into dominance, his suffering into happiness and pleasure, his ignorance into omniscience, and his ineptness into creativity. This goal is set higher and will be adhered to more tenaciously the longer and more clearly the child perceives his insecurity, the more he suffers from physical or mental impediments, and the more intensely he feels being neglected. If this goal is to be discerned the child must be observed at play, at freely selected activities, or when he fantasizes about his future occupation." (From a new translation of "Individual Psychology, its Premises and Results," [1914] in The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, by Alfred Adler, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.

"The mechanism of the striving for compensation with which the soul strives to neutralize the torturing feeling of inferiority has its analogy in the organic world. It is a well known fact that those organs of our body which are essential for life produce an overgrowth and over-function when through damage to their normal state their productivity is lessened. Thus in difficulties of circulation the heart enlarges and becomes more powerful, seeming to draw its new strength from the whole body, until it reaches a stage in which it is more powerful than a normal heart. Similarly does the soul under pressure of the feeling of inferiority, of the torturing thought that the individual is small and helpless, attempt with all its might to become master over this inferiority complex. Where the feeling of inferiority is highly intensified to the degree that the child believes that he will never be able to compensate for his weakness, the danger arises that in his striving for overcompensation, will aim to overbalance the scales. The striving for power and dominance may become exaggerated and intensified until it must be called pathological. The ordinary relationships of life will never satisfy such children. Well adapted to their goal, their movements will have to have a certain grandiose gesture about them. They seek to secure their position in life with extraordinary efforts, with greater haste and impatience, with more intense impulses, without consideration of any one else. Through these exaggerated movements toward their exaggerated goal of dominance these children become more noticeable, their attacks on the lives of others necessitate that they defend their own lives. They are against the world, and the world is against them." (From "The Feeling of Inferiority and the Striving for Recognition," [1927] a journal article by Alfred Adler, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.

Kurt Adler:

"Taking his starting point from the organ inferiorities and their compensations, Adler started to work with cognitive ideas of inferiority and their resulting feelings of inferiority that people so generally hold about themselves. They may have developed these feelings on the basis of some realities, or from childhood based misinterpretations about their body, or from their social or physical relationship with their environment. Whatever the causes, there was always a strenuous striving for overcoming the deficit, the inferiority, and for mastery of the situation.

When the discrepancy between their self-estimate and their idealized goals was or appeared to them bridgeable, the feeling of inferiority acted as an impetus, pushing them forward for the overcoming of the deficit, for rising to higher levels, for mastery. When the discrepancy, however, seemed to them unbridgeable, when it was too large to even contemplate the possibility of success in an attempt at overcoming the gap, the feeling of inferiority acted as a block, as a hindrance to moving forward, due to the total discouragement that took place.

In such cases, instead of trying to overcome the deficit, the person will construct symptoms on which he can blame the failure or accuse others, or point to fate, heredity or his upbringing for his failure to overcome the difficulty. He will not even try to overcome the difficulty because if he should fail, it would show his incompetence. The contradiction between the low self-estimate and the high self-ideal remains unresolved."

(From "Socialist Influences on Adlerian Psychology," by Kurt A. Adler, New York, 19th International Congress of Individual Psychology Budapest, Hungary August 1 - 5,1993, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.

Alexander Mueller:

"It is a function of the living organism to rectify an equilibrium that has been disturbed, to redress a faulty condition. This is described in biology as compensation. Adler has assumed this term for psychology and interprets mental compensation as the striving to balance impotence as well as the feeling of impotence. One can conceive of every kind of physical, character, or intellectual training by a child or adult as a striving after equilibrium--as a compensation. In that sense, compensation is positive, even essential.

The path of a child should lead from a phase of "not yet being able" to a state of feeling equal to the tasks and situations he faces--that is, mature. Finding a balance between desire and ability can be considered a compensating move. The basis for a normal development is that growing up in one's environment and among people close by is accomplished with a fair amount of trust and self-confidence. The experiences of childhood and of inadequacy cannot destroy the self-confidence of a child. It can disturb the mental balance, but it does not need to cause a permanent or critical failing.

The development of a person, however, can easily be disturbed. The way to negative compensations is open when failures, frequently accompanied by the feeling of not having been accepted, seriously affect the self-confidence of a child. In the case of positive compensations, and enough courage, a goal is set and one trains to overcome difficulties. Then, the negative compensation no longer is directed to remedying real shortcomings and insufficiencies. The reinforced inferiority feeling awakens a need for greater security. An important turning takes place from reality to appearances. Instead of dealing with the real demands of life, one strives after unreachable goals: to be successful in every way, or absolutely to avoid failure.

Negative compensation can be divided schematically into two major groups: Overcompensation, which has the goal of superiority, and undercompensation, which entails the demand for help. Actual or presumed weakness is employed in order to gain the services of others.

The reinforced tendency toward security, from which negative forms of compensation develop, leads via overcompensation to a striving for power, dominance, self-esteem, and the tendency toward self-deprecation. Undercompensation leads to a lack of courage and to a fear of life."

(From the translation of an unpublished manuscript, "Principles of Individual Psychology," by Alexander Mueller, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

Sophia de Vries:

"There is quite a bit of choice in how an organ inferiority can been used, because there can be an acceptance, there can be a denial, there can be a doubt, there can be a compensation, and even an overcompensation." (From a transcribed, tape recorded seminar given by Sophia de Vries on 5-21-76, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

"There is the question of what happens if the central nervous system is not strong enough to do the compensation, or the overcompensation. Then you get children who feel fearful all the time, who cannot make it, and are much more quickly discouraged then other children, no matter what you do. They are more sensitive, and therefore, they are more quickly out of balance than the children who have a very strong central nervous system that can compensate, or overcompensate for the handicap that they are born with. Many people have these difficulties, and you get them in your office, and you cannot help these people further than they can go for themselves. They have to know what is going on, and they have to see, there are certain things they have to avoid in life, or otherwise, they get too far out of their balance. There are tensions that people, nowadays, cannot take. There are many people who cannot take our present tensions. And I do not think they have enough to compensate. So, they try to find a way out with all kinds of pills, and medications that give a little bit of a relief, but it is not solving the original problem. The only way the problem can be solved by the individual is if he really can feel that he has what it takes to compensate, or overcompensate." (From a transcribed, tape recorded seminar given by Sophia de Vries on 6-18-76, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

Alexander Neuer

"The foundations of Adler's theory were biological. The compensation and overcompensation of organ inferiority: if in a certain organism one organ is diseased, then the balance will be restored by adaptation of this inferior organ to the new, and more difficult, circumstances. Adler saw in this adaptation an ongoing training, which often plays a role of such enormous proportion that eventually more work is being done than would be the case if the organ were healthy. It is also possible that, to relieve the inferior organ, a healthy organ takes over the extra exertion. All this was known in biology.

The genius of Adler was that he transferred this idea of overcompensation to the area of psychic training. Indeed, eventually the whole of culture was considered to be an overcompensation for the difficulties of human existence in a world for which Homo Sapiens is equipped badly enough. And that is how Adler soon found himself moving from the biological into the sociological sphere. The compensations for the difficulties caused by the environment are not always necessarily in harmony with the demands made by the community. Because of a number of aggravating circumstances, particularly an unfavorable atmosphere in the family, the individual may lose the courage to reach his goal of attaining some appreciation and value, and fail to get on the way to useful achievements.

Every individual wants to acquire a certain value, to overcompensate for the situation from early childhood that is experienced as inferior. One should remember that a child of Homo Sapiens is helpless and unprotected for many years and even a completely non-authoritarian education cannot do away with this feeling of helplessness, which, in the struggle against the imperialism of the adults, may result in all sorts of deviations, neurosis just as easily as crime. Added to this are all the aggravations caused by inherited physical defects, unfavorable social positions, and dissatisfaction with the sexual role, all of which may develop into discouraging crises in the life of the individual.

However, all these difficulties are only projections to deviate from the useful, they do not force one to do that in any way. This is the main difference between the naturalistic points of view of the old psychology and pedagogy and Individual Psychology. The former make the origins mentioned above – physical constitution and environment – responsible for the resulting outcome, the latter, Individual Psychology that is, finds, by means of its theory of overcompensation, that every man is fully responsible for the way in which he tries to deal with his difficulties. He is in a position to choose whether they will become incentives for him, to tackle them courageously and do away with them, or whether he will make them into a reason to evade the tasks of his life and take flight into the deviations of neurosis or crime. It is of no consequence whether he chooses the way of least resistance and irresponsibility or that of the joy of completely independent responsibility, for in both cases everyone will feel the duty to justify oneself to the community and if one lets the community down, one will always need an excuse. And basically neurosis and crime are nothing but a system of excuses, the evasion of one’s duties in the face of the community. The best excuse is the one that refers to an unhappy destiny, with all its individual variations.

Everyone makes his own happiness. Not the ‘Homo Sapiens,’ the product of nature and at the mercy of his environment, but ‘Homo Faber,’ the working, creative man, who controls his own destiny and lives his live according to the tasks imposed on him by the community, that is – if not all signs of the time would be deceiving us – the ideal of our times, so terribly in need of an optimistic and active world view. Alfred Adler, who has liberated us from the fear of phantoms of determinism and fatalism, and has shown us the ideal and the direction, and he truly deserves the gratitude of the present."

(From a translation of "For the Sixtieth Birthday of Alfred Adler, Founder of Individual Psychology," a lecture by Dr. Alexander Neuer, in the AAISF/ATF Archieves.)

Henry Stein

"Classical Adlerian psychotherapy has the potential of dissolving a style of life, and with it the compensatory bridge between the inferiority feeling and fictional final goal. A new level of motivation can then emerge, similar to what Abraham Maslow described as the transition from deficiency motivation to growth motivation. No longer struggling between two opposing poles, and the pressure of compensation, overcompensation, or undercompensation, the individual pursues a new direction guided and pulled by one of the higher values (Maslow's B-Values). This does not happen frequently, but the therapist must always be prepared to guide the client who is ready for such a quest. This advanced phase of psychological/philosophical work is called meta-therapy." (From the transcription of an audio tape of distance training course DT302A: "The Technique of Individual Adult Psychotherapy - Part I," in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

For additional information about compensation, read "Classical Adlerian Theory and Practice," by Henry Stein and Martha Edwards, at .

For permission to copy or reproduce any of this material, please contact:

Henry T. Stein, Ph.D., Director
Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington
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