Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington


Striving for Significance

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 htstein@att.net.

Alfred Adler:

"The inner life of the child, on the strength of his feeling of inferiority, grows in the direction and toward the goal that promises tranquility, satisfaction, standing, and superiority, in short, 'expansion.' Every manifestation of the child points in that direction." (From a newly translated journal article "The Child's Inner Life and Social Feeling," in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

"There is no nervous patient who does not attempt to veil through his symptoms the fact that he is worried over his fictive superiority. We know this from experience. The neurosis is altogether a veiling maneuver. Behind the illness is the pathological ambitious striving of the patient to regard himself as something extraordinary." (From "The Technique of Treatment," in "Superiority and Social Interest," edited by Heinz and Rowena Ansbacher.)

"The final cause of neurosis and psychosis is the superstition about the fundamental inequality of human beings. This forms the basis of the feeling of inferiority and the morbid striving after fictitious superiority. (From a newly translated journal article "Progress in Individual Psychology, Part II," [1924] in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

"Whoever strives for personal superiority prevents his connection with the community. He does not seek integration with others but their subordination. With that, he naturally disturbs the harmony in life, in the society and among his fellow human beings. Since no one is made to allow himself constantly to be under a yoke, those who seek to dominate, even over their partner in their love relationship, will face enormous difficulties. If they wish to bring their tendency toward overbearance and superiority into the sexual relation, they must either find a partner who appears to submit to them, or they must struggle with a partner who also seeks superiority or victory in sex, or can be enticed into it. In the first instance we see a transformation from love to slavery, in the second there is a constant mutually generated struggle for power that has no promise of harmony." (From a newly translated journal article "Disturbances In Love Relationships," [1926] in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)


Kurt Adler:

"Adler's first basic assumption was that life is foremost movement and that it must endlessly strive for better adaptation to the environment. 'This compulsion to achieve a better adaptation,' said Adler, 'can never end.' In this lies the basis for our concept of striving for mastering, striving for overcoming, striving for superiority."

"The child who endlessly strives for better adaptation will create for himself, concepts, however vague, of an ideal goal of perfect adaptation. Such a goal becomes necessary for him as a guiding light towards which to direct all his striving. Adler said, "This struggle is in accordance with unconsciously formed but ever present goal. A vision of greatness and perfection and superiority."

"I can give you the example of a student who fails and does not study and what is his goal? Is his goal really to fail? No. His goal is really mastery and superiority. But how? By deceiving his parents who tell him he has to study. That is his idea of what mastery is and superiority is. To fail and defeat them on their battleground because they are pushing him to study."

(From unpublished transcriptions of lectures by Kurt Adler given in 1987, in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)


Alexander Mueller:

"We do not always strive for genuine power, more often for the feeling of power. We want not so much to be superior as to feel superior. Frequently, we attain the feeling of superiority by following paths that lead us increasingly away from reality." (From "Principles of Individual Psychology," an unpublished manuscript in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

"Whether one strives for power or the feeling of power, whether one seeks to be superior or to feel superior, such behavior leads automatically to upsetting human relations." (From "Principles of Individual Psychology," an unpublished manuscript in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

"The striving for power is an important concept in Individual Psychology and can easily be misunderstood. A positive striving for power reflects a feeling of 'I can do something,' or 'I am able when there is understanding.' This is reflected in the Latin (posse- potestas) and the French (pouvoir- le pouvoir) derivations of the word. In this sense, a striving for power relates to the striving to overcome; to be strong and powerful enough to master various situations. In this way, Individual Psychology regards the striving for power, for ability, for knowledge, etc., as a positive means to attain relative security. This striving becomes negative when it does not serve a person's existence, but leads to a feeling of superiority, or when it leads to dominance." (From "Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology," an unpublished manuscript in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)

"It should be added here that Adler's concept (of the striving to overcome difficulties) in one sense is often misunderstood by assuming that he believed, in essence, in a striving for power. On the contrary, Adler had always described the striving for personal superiority, for power, as well as the striving for dominance as the most destructive forces in the community. He often stated that 'My critics confuse my psychology with the psychology of my patients.'" (From "Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology," an unpublished manuscript in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)


Lydia Sicher

"A goal of personal superiority is one in which the individual strives to overcome and be above others. This type of goal is pushed further and further out so that the person cannot be outdone anymore. These goals all go in the same direction: superiority over others, face-saving, prestige. All goals of personal superiority are unreachable, fictitious, goals of Godlikeness, of perfection, absoluteness, and many times are expressed in a specific form. Insane individuals live "as if" they had reached their ultimate goal of perfection, for example, they are Christ. Neurotics live their lives explaining to themselves and others the reasons they did not reach their goals of perfection. Personal goals of superiority should not be confused with Adler's notions of the natural human movement to overcome a feeling of inferiority and to move from a minus to a plus situation."

"In general, security can be viewed as some situation of superiority, or assumed superiority. This can be a situation of knowledge superiority, position superiority, or whatever a person might consider the realm of superiority over others. The more inferior individuals think they are, the more superiority they will have to gain in order to think they are really secure. Eventually what can be seen in all these neurotic and psychotic patients is that security, in their opinion, can only be obtained if they themselves have reached a point where they cannot be outdone anymore. This would be a point where they would now think that there is no one higher than they are, or more advanced than they are."

(From "The Collected Works of Lydia Sicher: An Adlerian Perspective," edited by Adele Davidson.)


Anthony Bruck:

"This striving towards security makes it possible for us to educate the child, because it desires to increase its security (and significance) through learning. There are, however, two great reasons that hamper the child's interest in learning: one is an excessive feeling of inferiority, the other, the usual consequence of the former, the development of a striving, no longer towards security and equality, but towards power and superiority." (From a journal article "The Inferiority Feeling," originally published in "The Individual Psychologist.")

"The fact that Adler introduced the concept 'feeling of inferiority' brought about a tendency of people to call the opposite of inferiority: 'superiority'. This is not a good term because people immediately ask 'superiority to whom.' The German term that Adler used for being 'up' was 'Geltung'. It could best be translated according to my mind, as significance. This word avoids any connotation above the comparison with others." (From "Twenty Lives," an unpublished manuscript in the AAISF/ATP Archives.)



Sofie Lazarsfeld:

"If a person has learned never to regard his affairs as purely personal matters...but to consider all problems as part of a communal life,...he will not try to conceal defeat....He will not feel himself shaken by failure, nor toppled from a position of superiority, but in his humanity he will renew his courage and make a fresh start, either in a different field of activity or in a different manner of approach within his old field. And that is what we call daring to be less than perfect." (From a journal article "The Courage of Imperfection," originally published in the "Journal of Individual Psychology," Vol. 22, 163-165, Nov. 1966.)


Henry Stein:

"It is helpful to distinguish between positive and negative striving. Positive striving would be in the direction of overcoming difficulties, gradual self-development, and improving a situation for mutual benefit. The individual moves ahead in reality (a 'horizontal' movement), and his significance is confirmed by other people. By contrast, negative striving would be wanting power over others, superiority over others, dominating others, and seeking Godlike supremacy. The individual merely moves up and down in his fantasy (a 'vertical' movement), and his significance is largely imagined." (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
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