Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Safeguarding Tendency

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:

"We see how, for the safeguarding of his picture of the world and for the defense of his vanity, the patient had erected a wall against the demands of actual community life. Without clearly realizing it himself, he was able to exclude or shove aside all disturbing problems of life, while he abandoned himself utterly to his feelings and to the observation of his symptoms. These symptoms were the result of the shock which he experienced when, in a difficult situation, he felt himself too weak to arrive at the high goal which he, in his vanity, had set for himself; when he felt too weak to play a pre-eminent role commensurate with that which should be his according to his picture of the world. Thus he was able to avoid the shock of imminent problems, and could relegate those problems to the background. Such a procedure of exclusion naturally appeared to him the lesser of two evils." (From "The Neurotic's Picture of the World, in "The International Journal of Individual Psychology, v. 1, no 3, pages 3-13.)

"Neurotic symptoms and the failures of problem children are defense mechanisms, safeguards, arranged escapements and self constructed barriers to avoid being revealed as inferior." (A new translation of "Introduction into the More Recent Psychology," which first appeared in "Einführung in die neuere Psychologie," Osterwick/Harz, published by Zickfeld, 1926, pages 364-372, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

Kurt Adler:

"The patient has to work through the parallels between his childhood experiences and his present life on a feeling level. Cognitively he has to come to ideas and conclusions that indicate to him that a change of his attitudes will be of advantage to him; and, he has to have developed the courage to give up the safeguarding devices which he has used since his early childhood to protect his prestige..." (From an edited version of a paper delivered to the INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF I.P. - Muenster - July 11-16 1987.)

Alexander Mueller:

"The neurotic actually is not as convinced of his uselessness or worthlessness as is generally assumed. He does not feel inferior, but fears being discovered as inferior, not being able to meet the demands of life. Some of his traits, such as hesitancy, avoidance, withdrawal from difficult tasks, and his fear of losing, make sense only when understood as safeguards which preserve his self-esteem. What difference would his defeat make to him had he already given up, or had he already resigned himself to it? Only as long as he still has his ambition, does security from defeat make sense. Adler himself always emphasized that neither lack of courage nor ambition alone will mark the neurotic; the neurotic is identified by the concurrence and the mutual aggravation of these two traits." (From "Principles of Individual Psychology," an unpublished manuscript in the AAISF/ATP archives.)

Lydia Sicher:

"While education of the child means formation of his world of values, the re-education of the grown-up who has lost himself on the way means transformation, an inner change, a different way of experiencing life and oneself in it; a process of freeing oneself from safeguarding the ego, thus enabling it to grow, and to mature. (From "The Collected Works of Lydia Sicher: An Adlerian Perspective," edited by Adele Davidson, published by QED Press, second printing, 1992.)

Sophia de Vries:

"Heinz Ansbacher, in The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, talks about the many differences between Freud and Adler. Regarding safeguarding, he says, 'Freud's defenses provide protection of the ego against instinctual demands. Whereas Adler's safeguard protect the self esteem from threats by outside demands and problems of life.' Now there you have a significant difference. It is not against instinctual demands that people have to safeguard themselves, it is that their self esteem is suffering, because they have a feeling that they cannot meet the demands of life that come from the outside. So, the symptoms of the neurosis come in between as a protection against what you should do about the problems from the outside. And you will always find that there is, at that time a lack of courage due to several factors--you have to find out what these different factors are. One can be a lack of preparation, or inadequate preparation--there is always a way of preparing yourself better. People can have a goal of excelling in a specific direction, and then, because they have the feeling, 'I cannot excel,' they won't do anything to improve themselves. They want to be there, without going there. You can help a person to improve himself, to improve his self esteem, instead of making excuses. The patient unconsicously selects certain symptoms, and develops them until they impress him consciously as real obstacles. The patient really has found a way out in the symptoms he produces. And when he comes in, he tells you about his symptoms--leading you off the track, onto the side track. You must never neglect the person's own use of his symptoms to get away from the real problems in life that he has to solve. The entire interest of the neurotic is turned to shock results and symptoms."

"I am seeing a woman, who was referred to me by a psychiatrist where I work, because nobody could understand her language. She had forgotten how to speak English. She originally came from Holland, and lived in the southern part of Holland, where there is a very strong dialect. Then she moved to Canada, where she worked in a hospital and was fluent in English. She is now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she cannot talk English anymore. Her husband is Austrian, but speaks English fluently. When she came to the office, nobody could understand her. I was the only person who in the office who could speak several languages, including Dutch. The first time I saw her, she talked three languages in one sentence. She had words in French, in German, and in Dutch. And she mixed it up. By the way she looked at me, I knew that she thought, 'Now I've got you!' So, I answered her by saying 'It doesn't make any difference which language you use, because I know all three of them.' Then I asked her, 'Do you feel more comfortable if I talk Dutch to you, or French, or German, or would you rather I use English?' She said, no, Dutch would be fine. And then she went off in a another direction, using a different Dutch dialect. So, I knew, immediately, from this response that she wanted to avoid getting well. So I said, 'Yes, I'm very familiar with your dialect, and it appears that you come from the city of ___________'. 'How do you know?' she asked. I said, 'Because I happen to know the dialect.' So, it didn't work. And then she told me that she had lived in another province, where they had another dialect. I said, 'Yes, I know that one very well too, I visited there quite often.' She couldn't get anywhere with these tricks, so she gave up this language safeguard."

(From an edited transcription of a tape recorded seminar presented by Sophia de Vries in San Rafael, California on 8-20-76, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

Ferdinand Birnbaum:

"Many children will choose a safeguarding route, in order to prevent at least part of their feelings of inferiority. Yet this flight can never be successful, since it will run counter to the community. Thus the child is struggling to escape his own trap, and the more he struggles, the more it closes in on him."

"The safeguard of indolence avoids defeat by never even taking up arms against difficulties. However, the indolent person still more or less wants to be considered by others as someone who could achieve something if only he wanted to, and therefore occasionally even finds it necessary to show at least something of his sparkling mind to assure himself of some kind of belief in his abilities."

(From an edited new translation of "Threats to a Child’s Psyche: An Individual-Psychologic Guide to Prevent Ineducability," by Ferdinand Birnbaum, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

Henry Stein:

"The degree of safeguarding, felt as necessary by the client, is directly proportional to the height of his unconsicous, but intoxicating fictional final goal. He can imagine a great abyss of inferiority into which he may fall, if prevented from scaling the mountain of his ambition. Essentially, it is his mistaken obsession with 'superiority as security' that chronically threatens him. The therapeutic challenge is to help the client discover, Socratically, that real security comes from an unshakable belief in, and feeling of, equality (of worth) with others (regardless of his intelligence, possessions, or talents). There is little threat in this position, consequently, no excessive safeguards are needed. There are only temporary inconveniences, as one pursues a path of never-ending, gradual improvement." (From a transcribed, tape recorded interview of Henry Stein by Martha Edwards on 3-28-95, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

For permission to copy or reproduce any of this material, please contact:
Henry T. Stein, Ph.D., Director
Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington
2565 Mayflower Lane
Bellingham, WA 98226
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