Book Summary: The Courage to Be Disliked

A brief overview of Adlerian psychology in contrast to Freud

"It’s as if you see the world through dark glasses, so everything is dark. But if that's the case, instead of lamenting about the darkness, you could remove the glasses. Maybe you’ll want them back on, but can you even take them off in the first place? Do you have the courage?"


Over the past year I dove into the rise of therapy culture, which I wrote about last week. This week I'll build off some ideas proposed in The Courage to Be Disliked, a book that dives into the Adlerian school of psychology, comparing and contrasting with that of Freud.

Much of modern psychology as we know it is attributed to Jung and Freud, with Adler left to the wayside — which is disappointing, considering how interesting his philosophy is. Generally speaking, Adler's main idea is that your past does not determine your future, and that all of us can be happy if we choose to be. If we become comfortable with change and stop caring about what others think of us, we can become content with our lives and be truly happy. Further, since we spend too much time focusing on our problems, we, in effect, manifest their existence.

To understand this, let's compare and contrast Freud and Adler.

Freudian psychology is based in etiology, the study of causation. His idea is that a person’s psychic wounds (traumas) cause their present unhappiness, and when you treat a person’s life as a vast narrative, there is an easily understandable causality and sense of dramatic development that creates strong impressions and is extremely attractive. 

When one adopts the Freudian point of view, they see life as a great big story based on cause and effect — everything is about where you were born, what your childhood was like, what school you went to and how that school prepared you for the job you now have. Basically, your past determines who you are now and who you will become, and that puts us in a position to live life based on external praise and punishment, something Adler wholeheartedly rejects.

Adler flips this idea on his head and instead focuses on teleology, the study of the purpose of a given phenomenon, rather than its cause. This is the main differentiator between Freud and Adler — Adler’s belief that something's purpose is different from its cause.

Thus, he denies Freud's trauma argument, stating, “No matter what has occurred in your life up to this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on.” And further, "We humans are not so fragile as to be at the mercy of etiological (cause-and-effect) traumas." Adler says directly that you, living in the here and now, are the one who determines your own life — as a result, we can all choose happiness (if we get out of this etiological mindset).

For Adler, you're not bound by the past, since life isn't a linear narrative. Life isn't like climbing a mountain. You are not "en route".  It's more like a series of dots/moments. "Here and now." Instead, it’s more like dancing — you're moving in different directions while remaining focused on the present moment.

He isn't saying that the experience of a calamity or abuse during childhood or other such incidents have no influence on forming one's personality — their influences are strong. But he's saying we can determine our own lives according to the meaning we give to those past experiences. In effect, as Adler would say, we have deep seated present goals we want to achieve, and sometimes we fabricate subjective inferiorities in ourselves to achieve those goals.

Take the example of a depressed adolescent who traps themself in their room. One could think, "Well, their depression caused them to stay in their room." That's perhaps what Freud would say.

Instead Adler frames this another way: "If I stay in my room all the time, without ever going out, I can get all of my parents’ special attention focused on me. On the other hand, if I take even one step out of the house, I’ll just become part of a faceless mass whom no one pays attention to. No longer special." Adler helps us acknowledge our complicity in our suffering, and in explaining why we’re attracted to wallowing in it, shows us we can make meaning out of suffering in other ways.  

Another example is blaming a person for a past relationship's fracture. Quoting the book: "My father was a moody person. But to blame him for why our relationship went bad is Freudian etiology." The Adlerian teleology reverses the cause-and-effect interpretation — Adler would say the person brought out the memory of his father's badness because he doesn't want his relationship with his father to get better. "That’s right. For me, it was more convenient to not repair my relationship with my father. I could use having a father like that as an excuse for why my own life wasn’t going well. That for me was a virtue. And there was also the aspect of taking revenge on a feudal father."

Yet another example is how we make excuses for not pursuing what we want.  If a person wants to be a novelist, for example, but never seems to complete his work, he leaves the possibility of “I can do it if I try” open by not committing to anything. If he tried and failed, he feels like he would have shut the door to that thing. Adler thinks many things are like this: manufactured reasons to never try or put yourself out there. If you can just be all alone by yourself, you’ll even have a justification ready whenever other people snub you. That if you didn't have your shortcomings, you too could be loved.

The book posits that “Freedom is being disliked by other people,” and that the courage to be happy also includes the courage to be disliked. More broadly, Adlerian psychology is often described as psychology of courage — ie. courage to step outside one's comfort zone, be content with what they're born with, and live a life not based on external validation. Whether you’re disliked or not, you should pay it no mind and live free — don’t care what people say about you.

Winston Churchill made the point differently, yet succinctly too: (Don't be a jerk but:) “You have enemies? Good. It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

As much as we like to believe that everyone's always thinking about and judging us, out of ten people, two will love you, one will dislike you, and seven won't pay attention to you. The key to happiness, according to Adler, is to focus on the two that love you, not the ones that dislike you or the seven who don't care.

Most people default to unhealthy competition, one in which they seek superiority over another individual. Once you can believe “People are my comrades, [and] the world is a beautiful place,” you'll be much more content.

Instead of comparing ourselves to others, a healthier form of competition would be with our present self vs. our future self — our future self being the ideal form of who we want to be.

Adler was very critical of education by reward and punishment. It leads to mistaken lifestyles in which people think, If no one is going to praise me, I won’t take appropriate action and If no one is going to punish me, I’ll engage in inappropriate actions, too.

Part of this is because we've lost our sense of belonging as our communities have deteriorated. We now think we're the center of the world, and everyone should conform to our version of reality. It's quite a self-centered approach when you think about it.

Instead, Adler is a proponent of contributing to a community to find the sense of belonging we all desire. All joy stems from human relationships, as do all problems. 

When we stop thinking about "I" and begin thinking about how we contribute to the broader "we," each person can begin to see how they fit into the broader world we live in. "As long as you don’t lose sight of the guiding star of 'I contribute to others' you will not lose your way, and you can do whatever you like."

To do this, we first need to strive for self acceptance (acknowledgement that we are who we are, and acceptance that we can change), then confidence in others (which is key to any deep relationship), and finally, contribution to others (the thing Adler claims will bring us the most fulfillment and happiness).

I’ll close with this Adler quote that sums up his rallying cry of choosing how we see our past: "The greatest life lie is to not live here and now. It is to look at the past and future, cast a dim light on one's entire life, and believe that one has been able to see something."


Read of the week: Make Government Cool Again, by Katherine Boyle.

Listen of the week: Balaji Srinivasan on Bankless podcast. The Bankless podocast is great more broadly.

Watch of the week: Documentary of Thomas Sowell’s work.

Cosign of the week: Robbie Crabtree and Andrew Barry, who launched On Deck Performative Speaking and On Deck Course Creators respectively.

Until next week,

Erik