- Julius de Jong
Better Friendships, Relationships and More Love (Episode 38-39)
What We Can Learn from Alfred Adler
A while ago I’ve read with great interest and pleasure the book ‘The Courage to Be Disliked’ by the Japanese authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. The book is written in the form of a dialogue, a Socratic exchange, or Confucian conversation, if you will, between a young man and an older, experienced professor. Together, they are discussing the concepts of the Austrian psychologist and medical doctor, Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It is an interesting exchange emphasizing the Adlerian teachings and ideas that we as individuals are responsible for our own choices. Our happiness is up to us, whether we make life simple or complicated, and if and how we admit and own up to fault, and how and if we move on from this, It’s all up to us. We hold the power of individual choice. Causes don’t lead to outcomes, that’s something we do by how we respond to what happens to us. To me, this is a very empowering premise. The book argues further that we as human beings are social beings. Therefore, by definition, all our problems are relational problems. Think about that for a moment. To me, that too is an empowering thought. It put’s things, however difficult and complex, inside our control. Alfred Adler also emphasized the universal fellowship of human beings and the importance of a positive encouraging life focus, and the irradiation of inequality (Carlson and Englar-Carlson, 2017). These are all very interesting and practical concepts to me, hence I decided to explore the field of Adlerian though.
To learn more about Adlerian theory and practice, I connected and talked with Professor James Robert Bitter, an emeritus professor at East Tennessee State University. Professor Bitter is a Nationally Certified Counselor, a Diplomate in Adlerian Psychology, and an Adlerian Counselor with Individuals, Couples, and Families. He is also the author of the books ‘Contributions to Adlerian Psychology’, and ‘Adlerian Group Counseling and Therapy: Step-by-Step’ and has published a number of other books on couples and family counseling. Growing up, was looking for some guiding principles, having parted with his catholic upbringing. He found a big part of these guiding principles through the work of Alfred Adler.
A shared community
A big part of Adlerian theory is the idea that we are innate social beings, sharing a common human society, or community of life, as professor Bitter explained. ‘Encompassed in Adlerian psychology is this notion of being part of humanity, and a community of life and that you have to make a difference. You have to live your life in such a way that you contribute to the whole’ (Bitter, 2022). We’re all connected to each other and have a shared responsibility for our communal wellbeing. According to professor Bitter, the most important notion in Adlerian theory, which has been also most transformative concept for his personal life, is the German notion of “Gemeinschaftsgefühl”, which roughly translates to Community feeling’ in English. This doesn’t limit to merely the direct community we live in, or of a particular country, but the community of humankind in the broadest sense. Not only humankind right now, but also in the past and projected to what it could become in the far and distant future (Bitter, 2022). ‘It is humanity perfected’ (Bitter, 2022). As he explains in line with this; ‘the reason why I smile at people or greet them even if I don’t know them is not because my greeting will transform their lives forever, [but] for a moment in time it adds a piece of happiness in the larger world and the community of humankind’ (Bitter, 2022). I like and recognize this very much. These seemingly small acts contribute to a better shared community and social interaction with those around us. This sense of being part of a larger community of humanity has a very practical aspect. It stimulates us do things in a way that help us care for humanity and make a difference, big and small, on a daily basis.
The power of personal choice
The second notion of Adlerian theory that stands out for professor Bitter is the notion that we are not limited by our heredity or by our circumstances, or our past. These are just fasts. What we do with these facts is up to us. How we respond and perceive life is in our control. Adlerian theory holds the notion that we can change and choose new ways of doing and being. As Bitter shared, this notion was very significant in his life. I too recognize the importance of this. Every day we can commit, or even re-commit to a different way of being or improving. Even when we mess up, there is the chance to start anew. I too find this a very empowering thought. ‘Adler envisioned a psychology of growth, where people could strive to overcome difficulties and actually change their lives’ (Carlson and Englar-Carlson, 2017). As Bitter shared during our talk, ‘We have the opportunity to choose the best possible opportunities for our lives and for those in our lives’ (Bitter, 2022).
Trauma and personal choice
Building on this premise of personal choice this Kishimi and Koga argue in ‘The Courage to Be Disliked’ that there is no such thing as trauma. As we discussed this, Professor Bitter provided some justified nuance to this by arguing that trauma does exist, but that it doesn’t have to be determinative, and then take over to determine the rest of our lives (Bitter, 2022). As he further illustrates, a lot of the current work on trauma is aimed at achieving a calm stance in relation the endured traumatic experience. However, as Bitter continues, it is important to recognize the belief system induced by the traumatic experience. If this is negative, resulting in depressing and pessimistic thinking, the trauma will most likely be maintained through this. When this happens, we become self-absorbed with our traumatic experience. Professor Bitter then said something very interesting, as he stated ‘I would like to help people then find their connection in others’ (Bitter, 2022). This is very significant to me, as I believe a big part (of the acceleration) of our healing lies in our connections with other people. ‘It’s amazing how fast your trauma gets better if you’re out helping other people who have been traumatized’ (Bitter, 2022).
Helping other to help ourselves
With regard to the social element to our own healing, Bitter shared the advice of a friend who started counseling psychology in Hong Kong. When he was working with people who came into his practice depressed, he would then ask them to go find someone more unhappy than they were and cheer them up (Bitter, 2022). This is in line with the advice I’d gotten previously from one of my business partners when feeling overwhelmed and stuck with a particular situation relating to our business in Myanmar. He also recommended me to in those cases to focus on doing five good things both for myself and other people. Before we reach number five, our energy will have shifted. Since then, I always practice this and can attest to its effectiveness. These are great examples of Adlerian conceptualization, putting ourselves in the driver seat and thereby in control of our wellbeing and ultimately, destiny. ‘The way out of your own self-pain is to get involved with being useful and helpful to other people’ (Bitter, 2022).
The challenges of social interaction, and the solution of friendship and relationships
‘Interactive mode brings out both the best and the worst in us’ (Bitter, 2022). As mentioned above, all our problems are relational problems. A big part to solving these problems is being a friend to those around us. According to Adler, it is crucial for our health to develop and maintain social interactions. ‘The individual successfully meets life’s challenges largely due to and through quality connection with others’ (Friday, 2016). A study by the University of North Carolina found that social networks are as important as exercise and diet across the span of our lives (Vassiliadis, 2016). During our talk, Bitter shared an illustrative example in relation to this, and why friendships and relationships are crucial to our health and wellbeing. A student who was sent to Bitter for counselling. He was depressed and had stayed in his room in the dormitory and didn’t come out for over 3 weeks. As professor Bitter realized, this student was suffering from loneliness. The student agreed with the diagnosis, and Bitter enthusiastically responded, ‘I’m glad, because that’s something we can handle right away. I was afraid it was something serious’ (Bitter, 2022). As Bitter continued to the student; ‘you’ve just forgotten how to do friendship’ (Bitter, 2022).
How to do friendship
Bitter proceeded to explain the rules of friendship, which do not only apply to the student suffering from loneliness, but to all of us (Bitter, 2022). Find these listed below:
You have to leave your room and go out into the world. No one is going to come knocking on your door asking, ‘will you be my friend?’ We have to show up first. Be proactive, make the first move.
Interact with people. You have to learn how to smile and walk outside and see and be seen with other people. No one wants to be friends with a really sour and unhappy person. Go out, and smile and say ‘hello’ to virtually everyone you pass. While doing this, really look at them and see what they look like. If someone slows down, as they might think you know them, tell one lie, a good lie, and ask them, ‘don’t I know you from somewhere?’ Then, when it turns out that you don’t, say ‘sorry, maybe I was mistaken’. Then see if some kind of conversation starts. From then on, you’re no longer allowed to lie, but the basis for interaction is made and you can build on that proactively;
Show up, but not too much. ‘Friendship means showing up when people need you, and not showing up when they don’t need you. That’s called stalking, and that’s a bad thing’ (Bitter, 2022). As with everything, balance is important. We should refrain from smothering people, but at the same time make them feel that we are available when they need us. When applying this, it also means we can at times also ask people for help. But of course, we have to be there when they need us, it’s a give and take process.
Love and intimacy
As we move through life, the largest goal we have according to Bitter is ‘to become whole, complete, perfected, successful’, something Adler refers to as life goals (Bitter, 2022). The goal is fictional, we’re never going to get there as Bitter argues, however, it guides us to work towards it. We become whole through different pathways. ‘Adler believed that for all people there are three basic life tasks: work, friendship, and love or intimacy’ (Carlson and Englar-Carlson, 2017). The work task is achieved when our work is satisfying and meaningful. The friendship task is satisfied when we have meaningful and fulfilling relationships with others. Then, lastly, the task of love and intimacy is addressed by loving oneself and others. In order to do this, we have to embrace our imperfections and learn to deal with our feelings of inferiority.
Put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others
Virginia Satir, a very famous family therapist and the founder of the first theories in family therapy, argued that when growing up, we sometimes create holes in us by our experiences. ‘If my hole says I’m really not lovable, then I depend on the other person to constantly reinforce that […] I’m still loved’ (Bitter, 2022). The problem is that with such a hole, the love from another person will never be enough. Instead, we need to learn to love and accept ourselves, and through that close our hole. We can achieve this by accepting that we are okay the way we are, and who we are becoming. That is something we can influence. It also relates to understanding that we are by definition flawed and imperfect beings, and that’s okay. It starts by accepting ourselves. It starts by loving ourselves. When we can do that, we can learn to fully accept and love others for who they are, instead of who we imagine or want them to be. The two are very different. Professor Bitter provides a very fitting illustrative example for this bringing home this argument. When two people who love and accept themselves hug, and they release their hugs, they can go back to being themselves. However, when one of them holds the hug, while the other let’s go, holding the other one so tight, the person who let go will feel smothered, and will want less of it. The feeling then that the other person wants to let go will make the still hugging person feel like they have to hold on even stronger (Bitter, 2022). This dynamic happens in codependent relationships. Instead then, to look at our partners and those around us to fill our holes, and heal our wounds, we need to look in the mirror. As in the airplane, we need to put our own oxygen mask on first before we can help others. The same is true for love. We need to first love ourselves, before we can truly (and freely) love someone else. As mentioned already, accepting our imperfections, and feelings of inferiority are a big part of this process.
The courage to be imperfect
Psychologist Sophie Lazarsfeld coined the phrase, “the courage to be imperfect”. This basically comes down to having the courage to simply be human: flawed beings who make mistakes and get on with life in spite of them, trying to learn and improve as we go. When our mistakes hurt other people, the response should be a sincere apology and to try not to make the same mistake again. ‘It is not to beat yourself up with guilt, it is not to shame yourself or run into hiding, withdrawing from life’ (Bitter, 2022). Instead, we ought to acknowledge the mistake and look for ways to make things better. By definition we will make mistakes. Especially in social interactions we are prone to mess things up. It’s easy to be misunderstood, or press someone’s buttons, triggering some unresolved issue or their feeling of inferiority. What helps us being authentically imperfect, is communication and vulnerability.
Communication and vulnerability
‘One of the things that couples have a hard time doing is really talking to one another about what’s important in their lives, their sadness, their hurts’ (Bitter, 2022). We need to learn to really listen, without judgement and with the intention of trying to understand. We need to learn to see their perspective and what drives their actions and words. Similarly, we need to practice honesty and open communication. We need to dare to show up. When partners become ‘responsible’ for each other happiness, when one is unhappy, automatically the other is to blame. This leads to defensiveness and partners explaining to each other why their problem actually is the other person’s problem (Bitter, 2022). As professor Bitter explains, ‘this is when we see them in couples counselling. One of the first things then is sitting partners down and focusing on really listening, focusing on understanding each other. Adlerian theory here focusses on understanding that both people have an individual style of living and a unique way of moving through life. Those different styles can collide. In those instances, it’s about taking a step back, opening up, listening, taking the other person in, and then releasing them (Bitter, 2022). If we can grow into what our partner needs, we become a better person (Bitter, 2022). ‘To do that, we first have to understand what [our partner’s] needs and gains and losses are […] and how they are being experienced by our partners’ (Bitter, 2022).
We do this by embracing the imperfection of both ourselves and our partner, but also by being vulnerable and truly showing up as we are, who we are, and with what we are experiencing in that moment. The fear of rejection often prevents us from doing so. Because of this then, we upkeep a façade and stay hidden behind our masks. This stands between us and the other person and prevents us from connecting fully and wholly. Instead, it is the imperfection, and owning our imperfection that leads to true connection. What can help any relationship in this regard is a sincere shared ambition to grow and improve, alone, and together. Supported. We connect with people being as faulty as we are. It helps us lower our armor, and allow the other person in.
As professor Bitter added in relation to the above, a lot of us are wounded from our childhood. A friend of him had fittingly said, ‘if you’re going to fall head over heels in love with someone, you will have shorted through all of the people who would be good for you in life and will have found the one person who will be guaranteed to irritate you for the rest of your life’ (Bitter, 2022). The reason for this is that we feel there is an element of us that is incomplete since we were little. Something we wanted from our parents, or an older brother. We then find someone who somewhat matches that, and then we insist that this person is better than our childhood (Bitter, 2022). Through this, we’re trying to heal an old wound from our childhood. ‘A lot of times, people don’t know what their wound is until they really take the time to do some self-examination. Secondly, they are not clear about how they are demanding how the other person meets [their demand to heal their childhood wound(s)]’ (Bitter, 2022).
Then, if we know and understand what our partner is asking of us, that it is something to make life better, to heal a wound, or to help the other person feel whole, we are more likely to respond positively to them. However, to see and hear this, we need to truly show up, show ourselves in its entirety, and we need to really listen. For this, it’s of crucial importance that we are present. We need to listen with the desire to really understand them, even though that will most likely come from a very different angle then we might expect, or where we ourselves come from. When we are present, we can start to see these old wounds we and the people around us carry with us, and how our decisions and behaviors are shaped by them.
When we hold our partner responsible for completing the missing part in us, of for filling the hole we carry with us, whilst we are not communication about what we need, but instead are hiding and acting from behind our mask and façade, a recipe for disaster is in the making. For people coming in for counseling, this is almost always the case, replied professor Bitter to my question if this was a prevalent problem between partners.
Feelings of inferiority
The inferiority feeling is natural to everyone, explained Bitter. It’s only when we allow them to become so large, or make them so large in our heads, that they keep us from moving, from being. That’s when our feelings of inferiority become a problem (Bitter, 2022). ‘The more we let feelings of inferiority overwhelm us, the more we behave and do things in such a way as to protect […]ourself; to close off, to hunker down’ (Bitter, 2022). Once this happens, we stop seeing avenues out. In some form or another, the way out from this feeling is always involving us moving towards others, not maintaining the isolation and self-absorption. As Bitter explains, this takes both courage and seeing the world differently. As he continues, it is then the job of the counselor (or friend or family member) to help see the world in a different perspective.
The other face of inferiority feelings is the adaptation and experience of feelings of superiority. An extreme form is this is narcissism (Bitter, 2022). As Alfred Adler identified, the people who express feelings of superiority actually do this masking the presence of their feelings of inferiority.
A big fundament under lasting relationships in whatever form is equality. Alfred Adler, and his theory envisions equality of all people. In his view, social inequality ‘is a disease that harms entire populations. He was one of the leading advocates for the rights of women, children, and other groups marginalized by their social context. Adler promoted equal pay for women in the workplace, addressed issues of violence against women in society, and more generally promoted social equality as a mechanism for improved psychological functioning’ (Bitter, 2011). We each have the same right to be valued and respected. In line with this, as advice for his daughter, Alfred Adler wrote a letter to his daughter when she got married. In it, he wrote, ‘May the two of you be good friends, and may the two of you look out for each other’s wellbeing and be more concerned about that than you are about yourselves (Bitter, 2022). I think we can all learn from Adler’s marital advice for his daughter. Trying to make the other person’s life valuable and happy is the only safeguard in a relationship, argued Bitter during our talk. And I think he’s right. Relationships only last when they are about both people involved, and not centered around only one side and merely their interests. If each person tries to make the other person’s life valuable and happy, each person in the relationship is protected (Bitter, 2022).
Global community feeling
At the end of every interview, I always ask the question, what question I didn’t ask or what angle I missed during that particular talk. Professor Bitter thought for a while and raised a question which had been on his mind too for some time now. In a world in disarray, where baby formula is out of stock due to problems in the supply chain, where energy prices are shooting up and inflation is growing, with the war in Ukraine, and with the ever-growing polarity in the world today, how can we find a way to keep connected as a community, a community of humankind, a global community feeling? How can we achieve that “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” that Alfred Adler identified? ‘Just because that really hard to get to, doesn’t mean that shouldn’t be part of our daily work’ (Bitter, 2022). Thus, ending with that question in mind, what can you do to contribute to a global community feeling?
To learn more about Adlerian theory and practice, which comes from the work of Austrian psychotherapist and medical doctor Alfred Adler, I have talked to Professor James Robert Bitter.
Professor Bitter is a Nationally Certified Counselor, a Diplomate in Adlerian Psychology, and an Adlerian Counselor with Individuals, Couples, and Families. Professor Bitter is also the author of the books ‘Contributions to Adlerian Psychology’, and ‘Adlerian Group Counseling and Therapy: Step-by-Step’ and has published a number of other books on couples and family counseling.
James Robert Bitter is emeritus professor at the Department of Counseling and Human Services of the East Tennessee State University and obviously holds a special interest in Adlerian counseling and therapy.
This talk was very educational and practical. For anyone wanting to be a better friend-, lover or a better person in general, this talk is for you. It is full of nuggets and insights, and I am sure you’ll enjoy it. I know I did!
Website of Professor James Robert Bitter: https://www.jamesrobertbitter.com
International Committee of Adlerian Summer Schools event in the Netherlands, July 24-August 6, 2022: https://www.icassi.net/icassi-2022/
Bitter, James Robert and Manford Sonstegard, 2004, Adlerian Group Counseling and Therapy: Step-by-Step. https://amzn.to/3wCp1HX
Bitter, James Robert, 2011, Contributions to Alderian Psychology. https://amzn.to/3GePQWa
Carlson, Jon and Matt Englar-Carlson, 2017, Adlerian Psychology. https://amzn.to/3MEhfT
Friday, Shawn, 2016, Gemeinschaftsgefühl: How Social Interactions Improve Your Overall Well Being. Vital Work Life. https://insights.vitalworklife.com/blog/2016/01/29/how-social-interactions-can-improve-your-overall-well-being, accessed on Saturday 21 May 2022.
Kishimi, Ichiro and Fumitake Koga, 2019, The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness. https://amzn.to/3PzeV2a
Vassiliadis, Kim, 2016, Social networks as important as exercise and diet across the span of our lives. https://uncnewsarchive.unc.edu/2016/01/04/social-networks-as-important-as-exercise-and-diet-across-the-span-of-our-lives/, accessed on Saturday 21 May, 2022.