Individual, Existential, and Humanistic Psychology

Dr. C. George Boeree

Although we usually consider Freud the founder of personality psychology, there would be many others to come.  First, there would be those who basically followed in his footsteps, like his daugher Anna Freud and her student Erik Erikson, and others who would develop theories not unlike Freud's, such as Carl Jung.  Second, there were the Behaviorists like Pavlov and Skinner, who took the point of view that personality was nothing more than the sum total of all our habits.  And third, there were many psychologists who fit in neither the Freudian nor the Behaviorist camps, but developed theories that emphasized things like consciousness, free will, social concern, and creativity.  In this chapter, we will look at three of those psychologists and their theories:  Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology, Existential Psychology as represented by Ludwig Binswanger, and Humanistic Psychology, as represented by Carl Rogers.

Alfred Adler

Freud had a hard time getting along with his more independent minded colleagues, several of whom left his circle.  Over time, these colleagues developed their own theories and therapies, had their own circles and students, and went on to contribute to the field.  One of the most influential was Alfred Adler.

Alfred Adler was born in the suburbs of Vienna on February 7, 1870, the third child of a Jewish grain merchant and his wife. As a child, Alfred developed rickets, which kept him from walking until he was four years old. At five, he nearly died of pneumonia. It was at this age that he decided to be a physician.

He received a medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1895. During his college years, he became attached to a group of socialist students, among which he found his wife-to-be, Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein. She was an intellectual and social activist who had come from Russia to study in Vienna. They married in 1897 and eventually had four children, two of whom became psychiatrists.

He began his medical career as an opthamologist, but he soon switched to general practice, and established his office in a lower-class part of Vienna, across from the Prader, a combination amusement park and circus.

He then turned to psychiatry, and in 1907 was invited to join Freud's discussion group. After writing papers on organic inferiority, which were quite compatible with Freud's views, he wrote, first, a paper concerning an aggression instinct, which Freud did not approve of, and then a paper on children's feelings of inferiority, which suggested that Freud's sexual notions be taken more metaphorically than literally.

Although Freud named Adler the president of the Viennese Analytic Society and the co-editor of the organization's newsletter, Adler didn't stop criticizing Freud. A debate between Adler's supporters and Freud's was arranged, but it resulted in Adler, with nine other members of the organization, resigning to form the Society for Individual Psychology.

During World War I, Adler served as a physician in the Austrian Army, first on the Russian front, and later in a children's hospital. After the war, he was involved in various projects, including clinics attached to state schools and the training of teachers. In 1926, he went to the United States to lecture, and he eventually accepted a visiting position at the Long Island College of Medicine. In 1934, he and his family left Vienna forever. On May 28, 1937, during a series of lectures at Aberdeen University, he died of a heart attack.

Individual Psychology

Alfred Adler postulates a single "drive" or motivating force behind all our behavior and experience. By the time his theory had gelled into its most mature form, he called that motivating force the striving for perfection. It is the desire we all have to fulfill our potentials, and is basically the same idea as Carl Rogers' idea of self-actualization.

Second in importance only to striving for perfection is the idea of social interest, i.e. caring for family, for community, for society, for humanity, even for all life.  Adler felt that social interest was not simply inborn, nor just learned, but a combination of both: It is based on an innate disposition, but it has to be nurtured to survive.

So here we are, all of us, "pulled" towards fulfillment, perfection, self-actualization. And yet some of us end up terribly unfulfilled, baldly imperfect, and far from self-actualized. And all because we lack social interest, or, to put it in the positive form, because we are too self-interested. So what makes so many of us self-interested?

Adler says it's a matter of being overwhelmed by our inferiority. If you are moving along, doing well, feeling competent, you can afford to think of others. If you are not, if life is getting the best of you, then your attentions become increasingly focussed on yourself.

Obviously, everyone suffers from inferiority in one form or another. For example, Adler began his theoretical work considering organ inferiority, that is, the fact that each of us has weaker, as well as stronger, parts of our anatomy or physiology. Some of us are born with heart murmurs, or develop heart problems early in life; Some have weak lungs, or kidneys, or early liver problems; Some of us stutter or lisp; Some have diabetes, or asthma, or polio; Some have weak eyes, or poor hearing, or a poor musculature; Some of us have innate tendencies to being heavy, others to being skinny; Some of us are retarded, some of us are deformed; Some of us are terribly tall or terribly short; And so on and so on.

But Adler soon saw that this is only part of the picture. Even more people have psychological inferiorities. Some of as are told that we are dumb, or ugly, or weak. Some of us come to believe we are just plain no good. In school, we are tested over and over, and given grades that tell us we aren't as good as the next person. Or we are demeaned for our pimples or our bad posture and find ourselves without friends or dates. Or we are forced into basketball games, where we wait to see which team will be stuck with us. In these examples, it's not a matter of true organic inferiority -- we are not really retarded or deformed or weak -- but we learn to believe that we are.

Adler also noted an even more general form of inferiority: The natural "inferiority" of children. All children are, by nature, smaller, weaker, less socially and intellectually competent, than the adults around them.

If you are overwhelmed by the forces of inferiority -- whether it is your body hurting, the people around you holding you in contempt, or just the general difficulties of growing up -- you develop an inferiority complex. You become shy and timid, insecure, indecisive, cowardly, submissive, compliant, and so on. You begin to rely on people to carry you along, even manipulating them into supporting you: "You think I'm smart / pretty / strong / sexy / good, don't you?" Eventually, you become a drain on them, and you may find yourself by yourself. Nobody can take all that self-centered whining for long!

You can also develop a superiority complex. The superiority complex involves covering up your inferiority by pretending to be superior. If you feel small, one way to feel big is to make everyone else feel even smaller! Bullies, braggarts, and petty dictators everywhere are the prime example. More subtle examples are the people who are given to attention-getting dramatics, the ones who feel powerful when they commit crimes, and the ones who put others down for their gender, race, ethnic origins, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, weight, height, etc. etc. Even more subtle still are the people who hide their feelings of worthlessness in the delusions of power afforded by alcohol and drugs.

But Adler's theory is not a pessimistic one!  Many people respond to all these inferiorities by putting their striving for perfection into action through compensation.  People with organ inferiorities often make up for them in some way:  The inferior organ can be strengthened and even become stronger than it is in others; Or other organs can be overdeveloped to take up the slack; Or the person can compensate for the organic problem by developing other aspects of who they are. There are, as you well know, many examples of people who overcame great physical odds to become what those who are better endowed physically wouldn't even dream of!

People with psychological inferiorities often do the same kind of thing:  Some compensate by becoming good at what they feel inferior about; Others compensate by becoming good at something else.  And as for the general sense of inferiority we all feel in childhood, Adler suggested that, if we look at children's games, toys, and fantasies, they tend to have one thing in common: The desire to grow up, to be big, to be an adult.  Most of us manage quite well!

Ludwig Binswanger

Existential psychology, like Freudian psychoanalysis, is a "school of thought," a tradition of theory, research, and practice which includes the work of many men and women. It has its roots in the work of a rather diverse group of philosophers of the second half of the nineteenth century, especially Friedrich Nietzsche.  Although there is no clear "founder" for Existential psychology, most acknowledge that it is Ludwig Binswanger who is its best representative.

Ludwig Binswanger was born April 13, 1881, in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, into a family already well established in a medical and psychiatric tradition:  His grandfather, also named Ludwig, founded Bellevue Sanatoriaum in Kreuzlingen in 1857.

The Ludwig Binswanger received his M.D. degree from the University of Zurich in 1907. He studied under Carl Jung and assisted Jung with Freudian Society work.  Like Jung, he interned under Eugen Bleuler, who coined the term schizophrenia.

Jung introduced Binswanger to Sigmund Freud in 1907. In 1911, Binswanger became the chief medical director at Bellevue Sanatorium. The following year, he became ill and received a visit from Freud, who rarely left Vienna. Their friendship lasted until Freud's death in 1939, despite their fundamental disagreements over theory! In the early 1920's, Binswanger cultivated an interest in Existential philosophy and, by the early 1930's, we can honestly say that he was the first truly existential therapist. In 1943, he published his major work Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschlichen Daseins, which remains untranslated into English.

In 1956, Binswanger stepped down from his position at Bellevue after 45 years as its chief medical director. He continued to study and write until his death in 1966.

Existential Psychology

Existentialism uses a philosophical method called phenomenology. Phenomenology is the careful and complete study of phenomena, and is basically the invention of the philosopher Edmund Husserl. Phenomena are the contents of consciousness, the things, qualities, relationships, events, thoughts, images, memories, fantasies, feelings, acts, and so on, which we experience. Phenomenology is an attempt to allow these experiences to speak to us, to reveal themselves to us, so we might describe them in as unbiased a fashion as possible.

If you've been studying experimental psychology, this might seem like another way of talking about being objective. In experimental psychology, as in science generally, we try to get rid of our nasty subjectivity and see things as they truly are. But the phenomenologist would suggest that you can't get rid of subjectivity, no matter how hard you try. The very attempt to be scientific means approaching things from a certain viewpoint -- the scientific viewpoint. You can't get rid of subjectivity because it isn't something separate from objectivity at all.  This inter-connectedness of subject and object is called intentionality.

This method has been used to study different emotions, psychopathologies, things like separation, loneliness, and solidarity, the artistic experience, the religious experience, silence and speech, perception and behavior, and so on.  Existentialism just takes this method and asks the big question:  What is it to be human?

You could say that the essence of humanity -- the thing that we all share, and makes us distinct from anything else in the world -- is our lack of essence, our "no-thing-ness," our freedom. We cannot be captured by a philosophical system or a psychological theory; we cannot be reduced to physical and chemical processes; our futures cannot be predicted with social statistics. It is true that some of us are men, some are women; some are black, some are white; some come from one culture, some from another; some are rich, some are poor; some have one imperfection, some another - the "raw materials" differ dramatically. But it is how we choose to live that makes each of us what we are.  We each create ourselves.

Binswanger adopted many of the terms and concepts introduced by the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger. The first and foremost term is Dasein, which many existentialists use to refer to human existence. Literally, it means "being there," but the original word carries a few more subtle connotations: The emphasis is on the "Da" or "there," and so Dasein has the sense of being in the middle of it all, in the thick of things, yet never quite belonging there.  We are "thrown" into a universe that is not of our choosing.  When we begin choosing our lives, we begin with many choices made for us -- genetics, environment, society, family..., all those "raw materials."

Existentialists are famous for pointing out that life is hard. The physical world can give us pain as well as pleasure; the social world can lead to heartbreak and loneliness as well as love and affection; and the personal world, most especially, contains anxiety and guilt.  And these hard things are not merely possibilities in life: They are inevitable.

Existentialists sometimes seem preoccupied with death. It is in facing death that we are most likely to come to an understanding of life. We are, it appears, the only creature that is aware of its own end. When we become aware of our mortality, we may at first shrink from it and try to forget its reality by getting "busy" in the day-to-day activities of the social world. But this will not do. Avoiding death is avoiding life.

According to Existentialists, most of us, most of the time, live lives that involve a denial of our full humanity, of our Dasein, with its anxiety and guilt and death.  They call this denial inauthenticity.  Someone who is living inauthentically is no longer "becoming" but only "being." If life is movement, they have stopped.

There are as many ways to be inauthentic as there are people, but conventionality is the most common style of inauthenticity today.  It involves ignoring one's freedom and living a life of conformity and shallow materialism.  If you can manage to be like everyone else, you don't have to make your own choices.  You can turn to authority, or to your peers, or to the media for "guidance."  You can become too "busy" to even notice the moral decisions you need to make.

To live authentically means to be aware of your freedom and your duty to create yourself, of the inevitability of anxiety, guilt, and death. It means to accept these things in an act of self-affirmation. It means involvement, compassion, and commitment.

Carl Rogers

Humanism is the American version of Existentialism.  Like many things American, it is more optimistic and up-beat and tends to emphasize what is good about people rather than what is bad.  Even though this may seem like an unfortunate bias, this optimism is a much needed addition to the psychology of personality, which has traditionally focussed on less-than-healthy people!

Like Existentialism, Humanism is a broad collection of theories and theorists that are sometimes hard to pin down.  But the best known and most influential person among them has to be Carl Rogers.

Carl Rogers was born January 8, 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, the fourth of six children.  His father was a successful civil engineer and his mother was a housewife and devout Christian.    His education started in the second grade, because he could already read before kindergarten.

When Carl was 12, his family moved to a farm about 30 miles west of Chicago, and it was here that he was to spend his adolescence.  With a strict upbringing and many chores, Carl was to become rather isolated, independent, and self-disciplined.

He went on the the University of Wisconsin as a agriculture major.  Later, he switched to religion to study for the ministry.  After graduation, he married Helen Elliot , moved to New  York City, and began attending the Union Theological Seminary, a famous liberal religious institution.  Rogers switched to the clinical psychology program of Columbia University, and received his Ph.D. in 1931.  He had already begun his clinical work at the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

He was offered a full professorship at Ohio State in 1940.  In 1942, he wrote his first book, Counseling and Psychotherapy.  Then, in 1945, he was invited to set up a counseling center at the University of Chicago. In 1957, he returned to teach at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsisn.  Finally, in 1964, he was happy to accept a research position in La Jolla, California.  He provided therapy, gave speeches, and wrote, until his death in 1987.

Humanistic Psychology

Humanists such as Carl Rogers see people as basically good or healthy -- or at very least, not bad or ill.  In other words, they see mental health as the normal progression of life, and mental illness, criminality, and other human problems, as distortions of that natural tendency, which Rogers called self-actualization.  Unlike Maslow, Rogers uses the term to refer to the drive every creature has to become "all that it can be," much like Adler's idea of striving for perfection.

Rogers tells us that organisms naturally know what is good for them.  Evolution has provided us with the senses, the tastes, the discriminations we need:  When we hunger, we find food -- and not just any food, but food that tastes good.  Food that tastes bad is likely to be spoiled, rotten, unhealthy. That's what good and bad tastes are -- our evolutionary lessons made clear!  This is called organismic valuing.

Among the many things that we instinctively value is positive regard, Rogers umbrella term for things like love, affection, attention, nurturance, and so on.  It is clear that babies need love and attention. In fact, it seems that they die without it.  They certainly fail to thrive -- i.e. become "all they can be."

Another thing -- perhaps peculiarly human -- that we value is positive self-regard, that is, self-esteem, self-worth, a positive self-image.  We achieve this positive self-regard by experiencing the positive regard others show us over our years of growing up.  Without this self-regard, we feel small and helpless, and again we fail to become all that we can be!

Rogers believes that, if left to their own devices, animals will tend to eat and drink things that are good for them, and consume them in balanced proportions.  Babies, too, seem to want and like what they need.  Somewhere along the line, however, we have created an environment for ourselves that is significantly different from the one in which we evolved.  In this new environment are such things as refined sugar, flour, butter, chocolate, and so on, that our ancestors in Africa never knew.  These things have flavors that appeal to our organismic valuing -- yet do not serve our actualization well.  This new, artificial environment is our society, with its rituals, its organizations, its technologies.

Our society also leads us astray with conditions of worth.  As we grow up, our parents, teachers, peers, the media, and others, only give us what we need when we show we are “worthy,” rather than just because we need it. We get a drink when we finish our class, we get something sweet when we finish our vegetables, and most importantly, we get love and affection if and only if we “behave!”

Getting positive regard on “on condition” Rogers calls conditional positive regard.  Because we do indeed need positive regard, these conditions are very powerful, and we bend ourselves into a shape determined, not by our organismic valuing or our actualizing tendency, but by a society that may or may not truly have our best interests at heart.  A “good little boy or girl” may not be a healthy or happy boy or girl!

Over time, this “conditioning” leads us to have conditional positive self-regard as well.  We begin to like ourselves only if we meet up with the standards others have applied to us, rather than if we are truly actualizing our potentials.  And since these standards were created without keeping each individual in mind, more often than not we find ourselves unable to meet them, and therefore unable to maintain any sense of self-esteem.

The aspect of your being that is founded in the actualizing tendency, follows organismic valuing, needs and receives positive regard and self-regard, Rogers calls the real self.  It is the “you” that, if all goes well, you will become.

On the other hand, to the extent that our society is out of synch with the actualizing tendency, and we are forced to live with conditions of worth that are out of step with organismic valuing, and receive only conditional positive regard and self-regard, we develop instead an ideal self.  By ideal, Rogers is suggesting something not real, something that is always out of our reach, the standard we can’t meet.

This gap between the real self and the ideal self, the “I am” and the “I should” is called incongruity.  The greater the gap, the more incongruity.  The more incongruity, the more suffering.  In fact, incongruity is essentially what Rogers means by neurosis:  Being out of synch with your own true self.

But Rogers is just as interested in describing the healthy person.  His term is "fully-functioning," and involves the following qualities:

1.  Openness to experience.  This is the opposite of defensiveness.  It is the accurate perception of one's experiences in the world, including one's feelings.  It also means being able to accept reality, again including one's feelings.  Feelings are such an important part of openness because they convey organismic valuing.  If you cannot be open to your feelings, you cannot be open to acualization.

2.  Living in the here-and-now.  Rogers, as a part of getting in touch with reality, insists that we not live in the past or the future -- the one is gone, and the other isn't here yet!  The present is the only reality we have.  Mind you, that doesn't mean we shouldn't remember and learn from our past.  Neither does it mean we shouldn't plan or even day-dream about the future.  Just recognize these things for what they are:  memories and dreams, which we are experiencing here in the present.

3.  Organismic trusting.  We should allow ourselves to be guided by the organismic valuing process.  We should trust ourselves, do what feels right, what comes natural.  Keep in mind that Rogers meant trust your real self, not the neurotic self so many of us have become!  In other words, organismic trusting assumes you are in contact with the actualizing tendency.

4.  Freedom.  Rogers felt that it was irrelevant whether or not people really have free will: We feel very much as if we do.  This is not to say, of course, that we are free to do anything at all:  We are surrounded by a deterministic universe, so that, flap my arms as much as I like, I will not fly like Superman.  It means that we feel free when choices are available to us.  Rogers says that the fully-functioning person acknowledges that feeling of freedom, and takes responsibility for his choices.

5.  Creativity.  If you feel free and responsible, you will act accordingly, and participate in the world.  A fully-functioning person, in touch with acualization, will feel obliged by their nature to contribute to the actualization of others, even life itself.  This can be through creativity in the arts or sciences, through social concern and parental love, or simply by doing one's best at one's job.

© Copyright C. George Boeree, 2003