An Adlerian Theory of Self-Confidence

Adler's Self-Confidence Theory

According to psychologist Alfred Adler Self-Confidence Theory, individuals’ early experiences guide how they see themselves and the world. When marginalized or bullied, children may struggle with self-esteem and self-confidence as adults. The adult problems with confidence continue regardless of one’s achievements or financial status.

Basic Mistakes

Adler calls the first problem a “basic mistake.” The basic mistakes children make are the simplistic beliefs they gain about themselves. For example, suppose a child’s classmates ostracize her nose (or weight, or race, or intelligence), and this teasing makes her feel bad about herself. Adults recognize that children may be jealous or unintentionally hurtful of each other. However, children’s brains aren’t developed enough to take this big-picture view. They form a mistaken way of thinking about themselves from this emotional experience. They may believe something is wrong with them or that they are not as good as the other children.

The Development of An Inferiority Complex

According to Adler’s Self-confidence Theory, children’s confidence is fragile. When it is eroded, the basic belief about one thing often generalizes into other areas. Suppose that a child is made fun of for his hair. He makes the mistake of believing that because someone made fun of his hair, there is something wrong with his hair. However, he may soon believe that other aspects of his appearance are inferior as well. Then he may start thinking that he is ugly. Over time, he may feel that he lacks value as a human.

This generalization from the perception of having one flaw to believing that the whole person is inferior is what is known as an “inferiority complex.” A person with an inferiority complex feels like many things are wrong with him or that he is broken.

Compensatory Strivings and the Development of Perfectionism

Frequently, children try to excel in various areas to compensate for their feelings of inferiority. For example, a child who feels bad about his body or athletic skill may work extra hard to win academic praise. Another child who is told that he is dumb may work extra hard to excel in athletics. The recognition the child gets from these compensatory strategies helps his feelings of confidence and is powerfully reinforcing. He feels good about himself only when praised, so he develops a pattern of striving for superiority in all things. This results in perfectionism, which carries far into adulthood.It is difficult for people with these perfectionistic tendencies to separate their value from their performance. Hence, making mistakes or failing makes them feel inferior as human beings.

From this general process, many high achievers feel a discrepancy between how others see them (intelligent and kind individuals) and how they see themselves (flawed and different from everyone else).

Application of Self-Confidence Theory for for High Achievers

Use a cognitive-behavioral approach to build self-confidence by reshaping negative self-beliefs. The cognitive-behavioral approach is where we examine the beliefs and assumptions we made as children to see if they are accurate. If they are not, we work to change these mistaken beliefs about ourselves to something more accurate. For example, a very damaging belief of “I’m not as good as other people” might be reframed into “I’m neither better nor worse than other people.”For high achievers who struggle with self-confidence, a key component of resolving the dilemma is to allow people you trust to see your weaknesses. When we know that people see our flaws and love us anyway, we build the sense of being lovable for who we really are. This strategy attacks the insidious fear of high achievers who wonder if they are fundamentally unlovable or if they are valuable apart from their contributions.Believing that we are fundamentally lovable and valuable makes it easier to let go of the perfectionistic tendencies that simultaneously reward and punish us. Our confidence grows as we understand that we are lovable and valuable apart from our performance.Shifting the beliefs from inferiority to self-value takes time and persistent effort. It can feel like three steps forward and two steps back because the thoughts have been present for so long. The work is worth it.Take baby steps. Take one negative thing you believe about yourself and start working to change it. As your self-confidence grows, you’ll feel more optimism and courage. It will be easier for you to take risks and accept imperfections and failure. Keep your eyes open for friends who are loving and supportive, as they will help you on your journey to see the beautiful person you are.
Self-confidence workbook

An Adlerian Approach to Self-Confidence:

People tell me I'm amazing but I never feel good enough.

This workbook is in response to the outpouring of interest about the Adlerian theory of self – confidence. If the information below resonates with you, I hope this workbook helps to guide you to your own confidence that you are amazing and you are loved.



A Personal Message from Dr. Groff on Self-Confidence

I’ve always desperately wanted to help people tear away the negative things they believe about themselves. Letting go of needing to be perfect to be loved is true freedom. The Adlerian theory of self-confidence appeared to be of interest to many people, and I made a commitment to producing a workbook on it. If you struggle to feel that you are “enough,” the workbook above provides informational sections followed by encouragement and questions to guide your thought process.