Adlerian life attitudes: Finding belonging
Life attitudes are a concept in Adlerian psychology that categorises behavioural tendencies. Their aim is to provide a framework for understanding similarities between individuals. Keep reading to discover what those attitudes are, how they manifest, and what drives their use.
It is important to note that we all display these attitudes in our daily interactions. We dip in and out of them according to the demands of the situation. Adler himself was against pigeonholing people, and the purpose of life attitudes is not to reduce individuals to a set of behaviours. We’re much more complex than that. So, without further ado, what are the Adlerian life attitudes?
What are the Adlerian life attitudes?
Have you ever met someone who seems to be going out of their way to prove to you they’re better and different from others? Someone who takes up all the space and attention in a dramatic fashion? Chances are they are more on the ruling/defeating side.
Their modus operandi is that being dominant and 'defeating' others will result in them feeling safe and significant. For some, the best defence is a good offence. And it doesn’t always have to be very obvious. It can be just as subtle as picking a different career from what’s been the traditional family choice.
What is the purpose behind this attitude? What contributes to the ruling/defeating tendency?
It’s usually a crippling fear of insignificance, of being unimportant. The rulers/defeaters of the world are prone to develop an existential fear of having no meaning, so they develop a strategy of (moral) superiority to take over others. Whilst people in their lives feel angry and challenged, the purpose of such an attitude might be to prove that one is capable. It’s a way of saying 'I can do this!', albeit in a way that causes friction and disconnection from others.
The term 'getting' has caused plenty of confusion in Adlerian psychology. It surely bewildered me when I heard about it from my therapist! What helped me understand and recognise a getting attitude is the element of control that binds to it. 'Getters' try to control situations by demanding things from others at an impossible standard, or by compulsively relying on others for things they can take care of themselves. Helplessness can be an insidious form of control.
What is the fuel and aim of the getting attitude? What does it strive for?
The short answer would be 'control'. But that would be reductive, and doing a disservice to anyone trying to understand their getting tendency. I have found that people who tend to employ that attitude are trying to avoid the piercing pain of being ridiculed, of appearing 'stupid'.
There’s also an element of restitution, of getting even. If we make others feel as bad as we do, we show others that we count, we make a difference. Because there’s only one way to do things right, getters are likely to arouse feelings of hurt in others, thus alienating them even further. Who wants to go for after-work drinks with the micromanaging boss who wants to be on top of the team’s every single movement?
Have you ever collaborated with someone who seems to be hiding under a rock every time the going gets rough? Or who seems to be willing to do anything but face a challenge head-on? If the alternative is to take any risk, they would rather stand still or turn back to familiar ground. Their life motto can easily be, 'Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t'. Avoiding can manifest itself also in the form of helplessness, of acting as if one is inadequate to tackle life’s issues.
What lies behind the avoidance tendencies? What happens for someone who side-steps conflict and uncomfortable situations?
Avoiders gravitate towards lacking the courage they need to deal with stress, conflict, or pressure. They have made an unconscious priority out of safeguarding against these situations.
By steering clear of challenges, they might be allaying an unconscious fear of being responsible, of having the freedom to choose. It might sound irrational, who doesn’t want the freedom to choose a course of action? For many, avoiding is a strategy that has been carefully crafted in someone’s past, probably serving a self-defence function. It just so happens that this strategy has stopped working once adulthood is reached, and the unfortunate result is others feeling despaired by the avoider’s surface inertia.
Adlerian psychology deems this attitude to be the most prepared for cooperation with others and contributing to society – both of those are perceived as markers of good mental health.
When someone has a socially useful attitude, they have the needs of the situation at the forefront of their mind, as opposed to their own needs. A socially useful attitude is oriented towards connection with others, for the genuine enhancement of others.
Someone with a strong socially useful mindset could be described as sanguine, reasonably optimistic and cheerful. Do you know someone who always seems composed, who gets sad on appropriate occasions but does not collapse, or who experiences pleasure at the right time without going too far? Those could be signs of a socially useful life attitude.
What does this mean for belonging and security?
We use these life attitudes, or strategies, to move in the world. If we grow up with a sense of inferiority in certain areas, that can feed into developing an unconsciously fabricated view of ourselves, others and the world. That results in safeguarding mechanisms aiming to help us keep our psychological stability. These safeguarding mechanisms usually translate as life attitudes.
The ruling, getting and avoiding attitudes are misguided ways of finding belonging, security and significance because they entail that the individuals are oriented within, they are self-centred. These ways made sense in the past, as created by a child’s mind, but they are no longer necessary now.
When the rubber hits the road we can choose to be courageous and face our daily challenges using socially useful methods. Will we make mistakes along the way? Of course. We are human. Should that stop us from trying? Absolutely not, the juice is definitely worth the squeeze on this one.
Where do you find yourself on this spectrum? Do you tend to go more for control, or avoidance? Did you see yourself more in the getting description, or do you tick the socially useful boxes?
If you’re unsure, think of the last two or three stressful situations you’ve been in. Try to remember, step by step, what you thought, felt and did as a response. Lastly, think about how observers reacted. Were they irritated, angry, hurt?
In my life coaching work, I collaborate with you to tease out experiences that signal your preferred life attitude. I use compassionate enquiry to facilitate your discovery of the unconscious strategies that were probably developed in early childhood.
Being aware of your dominant life attitude is paramount for permitting change to happen. Knowing your behavioural tendencies is the first step to designing small and actionable steps you can take to improve the way you want. If you’re curious and want to know more about working with life attitudes, get in touch and we can jump on an intro call.
- The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. Edited and annotated by Heinz L. Ansbacher, Ph. D and Rowena R. Ansbacher, Ph.D.
- Why do I do that? Psychological defense mechanisms and the hidden ways they shape our lives. Joseph Burgo, Ph.D.