While I have a few nitpicks with The Courage to be Disliked, it introduced a new-to-me field of psychology and some interesting language to think about interpersonal relationships, happiness, freedom, and several other concepts applicable to how one lives.
That field of psychology is Adlerian psychology, founded by Alfred Adler. My reading is that The Courage to be Disliked puts a philosophical twist on the original principles of Adlerian psychology, and emphasizes points of it that may have not been the original emphases of Adler himself, but this is the first material I’ve read on the subject so I’ll have to do some more research.
The book is formatted as a dialogue between a youth and a philosopher, modeled after the dialogues of Socrates. I found it relatively easy reading, although the dialogue itself is unnatural at times, probably due to a combination of translation from the original Japanese and the format itself. I didn’t find this a significant downside, though.
The principles are often extreme, and it’d be a stretch to be able to accept them at first blush. For example, one of the principles is that all relationships should be “horizontal” relationships, in which both members feel they are “equal but not the same.” The book does not make light of qualifiers lke “all” — it really means all, including in this case relationships such as those between a manager and an employee, a student and a teacher, and other traditionally “vertical” relationships where one person is in a position of superiority over the other. This is one of those points that feels a bit too extreme to myself, personally, and I need to see some more material on this particular point to be able to accept the scope of it.
Let’s go over some of the bigger points from the book.
Human behavior is about your current telos, not past experiences
The point here is that a human’s behavior is driven by their current goals and desires (their telos, or purpose) rather than their past experiences and traumas. The focus of other schools of psychology around Adler’s time, namely the Freudian and Jungian schools, was on the effect of someone’s past on their current behavior, with the belief that current behavior could be explained by past experience. In contrast, Adler believed that people create behaviors to support the goals they currently have, and that people are able to change their goals and thereby their behavior, independently of their past experiences.
This makes the core of Adlerian psychology radical free will. Free will both to assign a meaning to past experiences and to create new purpose in the current moment irrespective of them. This is one of those aforementioned extreme points, as it goes so far as to say that trauma does not matter at all in human behavior.
All problems are interpersonal relationship problems
There is no such thing as worry that is completely defined by the individual; so-called internal worry does not exist. Whatever the worry that may arise, the shadows of other people are always present.
While the claim that all problems are interpersonal problems is a bit extreme, the core of the point is relevant to most of us living in a modern society. Someone living by themselves on an island would still have significant problems, I believe — like where to find their next meal, or how to find shelter when a hurricane suddenly hits. But for the people reading this, a very large portion of our problems are actually rooted in interpersonal relationships. Judgmental comments, interpersonal power dynamics, and the weight of cultural expectation all place demands on our psyches that are hard to escape.
Separating tasks and not intruding on other people’s tasks is the way to freedom
Tasks are the responsibilities of a person in life.
Philosopher: There is a simple way to tell whose task it is.Think, Who ultimately is going to receive the result brought about by the choice that is made?
Most of us do not separate those tasks that we are responsible for, and those tasks that others are responsible for, and this brings about much suffering and causes interpersonal problems. If we try to impose ourselves on another’s task, we are trying to control something we do not have control over - after all, it is not our task. Attempting to control it is a form of power struggle, and not helpful to us or the person we are trying to control.
Recognizing when a task is someone else’s and not intruding on it frees us to make our own choices. This works in two directions; one, we will not try to exert our control outwards onto others, and two, we will recognize when others are trying to impose on our tasks and not mind them. This second
Going through life completely ignoring others is not feasible, of course. We live in a society and can scarcely do anything truly independently — even “solitary” activities like reading require that someone has written a book to read. So, since all problems are interpersonal problems, and we free ourselves by tending only to our own tasks, how are we to go about existing freely if we cannot just ignore other people?
The meaning of life is not pursuing happiness, it is fulfillment from a “feeling of community”
Adler does not focus on happiness as the purpose of human life, but meaning. And that meaning is achieved through contribution to others, which creates a “feeling of community.” This counterbalances the earlier point that all problems are interpersonal relationship problem by asserting that, in addition, the main drive behind human life is also based in interpersonal relationships. The path to achieving fulfillment, rather than getting problems from those relationships is the meat of Adlerian psychology.
Contributing to others is the way to do this. Contribution is different from imposing yourselves on others’ tasks. Instead of attempting to exert control over others by imposing yourself on their tasks, you can still be of use to them by offering encouragement. Encouragement could be literal verbal encouragement, or a more substantial help involving actual work - the key here is that the encouragement you offer to other people does not impose on their autonomy. You also should not care what becomes of your encouragement, since the fact that you provided it is the extent of your task. If the receiving person rejects your encouragement or does not use it, that is their task, and of no concern to you.
The Courage to be Disliked was an interesting read, and one I’d recommend. It reads as more of a philosophy than a psychology, but I didn’t find it a bad thing. The absolute correctness of a lot of the principles in it might be questionable, but regardless, I believe they provide a useful mental framework for interacting with the world and reducing suffering.