Entry #5: Does Our Past Determine Who We Are?

The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change your Life ...
“The world is simple, and life is too”

The above line was taken from a philosophy/ self-improvement/ psychology book “The Courage to be Disliked” written by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi. They uncover the principles of psychologist Alfred Adler in a very easy-to-read manner, laying them bare through conversations of a teacher and his younger disciple. I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in rediscovering a new outlook on life.

Through modern psychology and exposure to better self-care methods, we’ve been led to believe that understanding the root cause of our problems will help us come out happier and stronger. Alfred Adler disputed this, as according to him we don’t need to dig into our past if we want to change. He even went as far as to claim that trauma doesn’t exist (or rather, its existence doesn’t matter), a view that remains controversial to date.

Freudian psychology demands us to know the why to every problem

Modern psychology as we know today stems from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis principles. He famously put forward that many of our actions and behaviors are governed by our unconscious thought (which is often shaped by the past). His method of tapping into this unconscious part of the mind to uncover the root cause of our problems is known as aetiology.

A familiar scene of a psychologist asking the patient “What do you think caused it to happen?” as popularised by media. Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

An example of the famous “Freudian slip” is when someone accidentally says something inappropriate in a social setting. According to Freud, this happens because our mind is filled with repressed sexual thoughts.

While famous and widely adopted, Freud’s aetiology has been challenged by many philosophers as “unscientific” due to the fact that it’s impossible to disprove his theory.

But wait, if it cannot be disproven, doesn’t it mean that it’s true?

No it doesn’t. It simply means that there is no method that could prove that it is true. If a trauma survivor ends up depressed for life, Freud’s aetiology would attribute it to the emotional pain that the person experienced. On the other hand, if that person managed to overcome their trauma and became a Nobel Prize winner, aetiology will also say that the trauma has reshaped their outlook on life. If every example is taken as “proof”, then aetiology is no more than a self-serving story we tell ourselves. Yet despite so, this technique of digging to the root cause is still widely adopted in modern psychology. From watching tons of Netflix, we should be familiar with a typical scene of a psychologist asking the patient “What do you think caused it to happen?“.

Adlerian psychology tells us the why doesn’t even matter

Adler, on the other hand, had a completely different approach. According to him, we do what we think is beneficial for us, whether we realise it or not. This view is known as teleology.

But how come some people are miserable and unhappy? Why couldn’t anyone just change and be happy? According to Adler, it is because the present situation (perhaps subconsciously to them) is more beneficial. Changing is a difficult and scary process, no matter how easy self-help books make them appear to be. So we would rather cling to the ideals that IF we do change, we WILL become a happier person. Therefore, it’s to our benefit that we don’t try to change to avoid getting hurt

According to Adler, our misery might be our own undoing. Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

While seemingly opposing theories, Adler’s teleology could be seen building on to Freud’s aetiology. The main difference is Adler’s give us the power to control what our story should be. If our past simply serves as a narrative of our life at the present, aetiology is focused on finding what exactly happened in the past, while teleology is telling us to change our present.

Which then circles back to why the book on Adler’s teaching as mentioned above is called “The Courage to be Disliked”. If Adler could pinpoint the one reason why we can’t change to be better and happier, he would attribute it to fear. When a person is ready to admit their shortcomings and muster enough courage to live their own ideals, they are on their first step towards happiness.

On his controversial view that trauma doesn’t exist, many people seem to associate it with victim-blaming. I don’t agree with this at all. Adler’s principles as laid out in the book by Kishimi and Koga did not indicate that whatever happens to the person is deserved in any way. Quite the contrary, Adler seemed to acknowledge that traumatic experiences do influence a person’s life greatly. However, those events happen in the past, and going back to teleology, what we make of our past in our present life is totally up to us.

The keys to a happy life according to Adler

Although it won’t be discussed in detail, the other two very interesting principles Adler has on leading a happy life is on separation of task and community feeling. To put it quite simply, separation of task means that we should never be burdened by things that are other people’s responsibilities, and community feeling refers to how we should associate others as comrades instead of competitors. I do acknowledge these two new principles can be quite confusing in a blanket statement, and maybe they would make for a nice blog entry at a later date.

Now after reading Adler’s point of view on individual psychology, what do you make of it? I truly hope it turns down your appetite for self pity and digging up old wounds. And if you do, you better make one hell of a story out of it (much like Joey in the IG post!)

If you want to read more on Adlerian psychology, you can get an overview here

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