The Courage to be Disliked

Ichiro Kishimi, Fumitake Koga

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Enlightening philosophy text on how to be happy. Adler is a little less known than Freud and Jung, but his ideas are actionable and almost stoic.


YOUTH: I want to ask you once again; you do believe that the world is, in all ways, a simple place? PHILOSOPHER: Yes, this world is astonishingly simple and life itself is, too. YOUTH: So, is this your idealistic argument or is it a workable theory? What I mean is, are you saying that any issues you or I face in life are simple too? PHILOSOPHER: Yes, of course.

None of us live in an objective world, but instead in a subjective world that we ourselves have given meaning to. The world you see is different from the one I see, and it’s impossible to share your world with anyone else.

No, it’s not an illusion. You see, to you, in that moment, the coolness or warmth of the well water is an undeniable fact. That’s what it means to live in your subjective world. There is no escape from your own subjectivity.

PHILOSOPHER: If we focus only on past causes and try to explain things solely through cause and effect, we end up with “determinism.” Because what this says is that our present and our future have already been decided by past occurrences, and are unalterable. Am I wrong? YOUTH: So you’re saying that the past doesn’t matter? PHILOSOPHER: Yes, that is the standpoint of Adlerian psychology.

PHILOSOPHER: Think about it this way. Your friend had the goal of not going out beforehand, and he’s been manufacturing a state of anxiety and fear as a means to achieve that goal. In Adlerian psychology, this is called “teleology.”

But Adler, in denial of the trauma argument, states the following: “No experience is in itself a cause of our success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences—the so-called trauma—but instead we make out of them whatever suits our purposes. We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give them is self-determining.”

Focus on the point Adler is making here when he refers to the self being determined not by our experiences themselves, but by the meaning we give them. He is not saying that the experience of a horrible calamity or abuse during childhood or other such incidents have no influence on forming a personality; their influences are strong. But the important thing is that nothing is actually determined by those influences. We determine our own lives according to the meaning we give to those past experiences. Your life is not something that someone gives you, but something you choose yourself, and you are the one who decides how you live. [Life is only the narrative we tell ourselves]

YOUTH: So people are not controlled either by emotion or the past? PHILOSOPHER: Okay, for example, suppose there is someone whose parents had divorced in his past. Isn’t this something objective, the same as the well water that is always sixty degrees? But then, does that divorce feel cold or does it feel warm? So this is a “now” thing, a subjective thing. Regardless of what may have happened in the past, it is the meaning that is attributed to it that determines the way someone’s present will be. YOUTH: The question isn’t “What happened?” but “How was it resolved?” PHILOSOPHER: Exactly.

“People are not driven by past causes but move toward goals that they themselves set”—that was the philosopher’s claim.

Why are you rushing for answers? You should arrive at answers on your own, not rely upon what you get from someone else. Answers from others are nothing more than stopgap measures; they’re of no value.

“The important thing is not what one is born with but what use one makes of that equipment.” You want to be Y or someone else because you are utterly focused on what you were born with. Instead, you’ve got to focus on what you can make of your equipment.

At some stage in your life, you chose “being unhappy.” It is not because you were born into unhappy circumstances or ended up in an unhappy situation. It’s that you judged “being unhappy” to be good for you.

In a narrow sense, lifestyle could be defined as someone’s personality; taken more broadly, it is a word that encompasses the worldview of that person and his or her outlook on life.

YOUTH: I don’t get what you’re saying. How on earth could I have chosen it? PHILOSOPHER: Adlerian psychology’s view is that it happens around the age of ten.

Adlerian psychology is a psychology of courage. Your unhappiness cannot be blamed on your past or your environment. And it isn’t that you lack competence. You just lack courage. One might say you are lacking in the courage to be happy.

PHILOSOPHER: He should just enter his writing for an award, and if he gets rejected, so be it. If he did, he might grow, or discover that he should pursue something different. Either way, he would be able to move on. That is what changing your current lifestyle is about. He won’t get anywhere by not submitting anything. [Experiment and be prolific]

“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.” That you, living in the here and now, are the one who determines your own life.

Why do you dislike yourself? Why do you focus only on your shortcomings, and why have you decided to not start liking yourself? It’s because you are overly afraid of being disliked by other people and getting hurt in your interpersonal relationships.

PHILOSOPHER: Don’t be evasive. Being “the way I am” with all these shortcomings is, for you, a precious virtue. In other words, something that’s to your benefit.

All problems are interpersonal relationship problems. This is a concept that runs to the very root of Adlerian psychology. If all interpersonal relationships were gone from this world, which is to say if one were alone in the universe and all other people were gone, all manner of problems would disappear.

PHILOSOPHER: 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.

Adler is thought to be the first to use the term “feeling of inferiority” in the kind of context in which it is spoken of today.

PHILOSOPHER: It was not, in fact, lacking in or lesser than something. Sure, my 61 inches is less than the average height, and an objectively measured number. At first glance, one might think it inferior. But the issue is really what sort of meaning I attribute to that height, what sort of value I give it.

However, there is one good thing about subjectivity: It allows you to make your own choice. Precisely because I am leaving it to subjectivity, the choice to view my height as either an advantage or disadvantage is left open to me.

But if you change your point of view, a diamond is nothing but a little stone. YOUTH: Well, intellectually it is. PHILOSOPHER: In other words, value is something that’s based on a social context. The value given to a one-dollar bill is not an objectively attributed value, though that might be a commonsense approach. If one considers its actual cost as printed material, the value is nowhere near a dollar. If I were the only person in this world and no one else existed, I’d probably be putting those one-dollar bills in my fireplace in wintertime. Maybe I’d be using them to blow my nose. Following exactly the same logic, there should have been no reason at all for me to worry about my height.

For instance, if one had a feeling of inferiority with regard to one’s education, and resolved to oneself, I’m not well educated, so I’ll just have to try harder than anyone else, that would be a desirable direction. The inferiority complex, on the other hand, refers to a condition of having begun to use one’s feeling of inferiority as a kind of excuse. So one thinks to oneself, I’m not well educated, so I can’t succeed, or I’m not good-looking, so I can’t get married.

PHILOSOPHER: Exactly. How to compensate for the part that is lacking. The healthiest way is to try to compensate through striving and growth. For instance, it could be by applying oneself to one’s studies, engaging in constant training, or being diligent in one’s work. However, people who aren’t equipped with that courage end up stepping into an inferiority complex. Again, it’s thinking, I’m not well educated, so I can’t succeed. And it’s implying your capability by saying, “If only I were well educated, I could be really successful.” That “the real me,” which just happens to be obscured right now by the matter of education, is superior.

PHILOSOPHER: One makes a show of being on good terms with a powerful person (broadly speaking—it could be anyone from the leader of your school class to a famous celebrity). And by doing that, one lets it be known that one is special. Behaviors like misrepresenting one’s work experience or excessive allegiance to particular brands of clothing are forms of giving authority, and probably also have aspects of the superiority complex. In each case, it isn’t that the “I” is actually superior or special. It is only that one is making the “I” look superior by linking it to authority. In short, it’s a fabricated feeling of superiority.

PHILOSOPHER: Ah, but you are wrong. Those who go so far as to boast about things out loud actually have no confidence in themselves. As Adler clearly indicates, “The one who boasts does so only out of a feeling of inferiority.” YOUTH: You’re saying that boasting is an inverted feeling of inferiority? PHILOSOPHER: That’s right. If one really has confidence in oneself, one doesn’t feel the need to boast. It’s because one’s feeling of inferiority is strong that one boasts.

A healthy feeling of inferiority is not something that comes from comparing oneself to others; it comes from one’s comparison with one’s ideal self.

This is what is so terrifying about competition. Even if you’re not a loser, even if you’re someone who keeps on winning, if you are someone who has placed himself in competition, you will never have a moment’s peace.

Now we come to the important part. When you are able to truly feel that “people are my comrades,” your way of looking at the world will change utterly. No longer will you think of the world as a perilous place, or be plagued by needless doubts; the world will appear before you as a safe and pleasant place. And your interpersonal relationship problems will decrease dramatically.

PHILOSOPHER: It is true that one cannot use a time machine or turn back the hands of time. But what kind of meaning does one attribute to past events? This is the task that is given to “you now.”

PHILOSOPHER: The child oppressed by his parents will turn to delinquency. He’ll stop going to school. He’ll cut his wrists or engage in other acts of self-harm. In Freudian etiology, this is regarded as simple cause and effect: The parents raised the child in this way, and that is why the child grew up to be like this. It’s just like pointing out that a plant wasn’t watered, so it withered. It’s an interpretation that is certainly easy to understand. But Adlerian teleology does not turn a blind eye to the goal that the child is hiding. That is to say, the goal of revenge on the parents. If he becomes a delinquent, stops going to school, cuts his wrists, or things like that, the parents will be upset. They’ll panic and worry themselves sick over him. It is in the knowledge that this will happen that the child engages in problem behavior. So that the current goal (revenge on the parents) can be realized, not because he is motivated by past causes (home environment).

Irascible people do not have short tempers—it is only that they do not know that there are effective communication tools other than anger. That is why people end up saying things like “I just snapped” or, “He flew into a rage.” We end up relying on anger to communicate.

If you think you are right, regardless of what other people’s opinions might be, the matter should be closed then and there. However, many people will rush into a power struggle and try to make others submit to them. And that is why they think of “admitting a mistake” as “admitting defeat.” [This is an issue with people who don't want to admit they make mistakes in their logic. It's become part of their goal to win.]

PHILOSOPHER: First, there are two objectives for behavior: to be self-reliant and to live in harmony with society. Then, the two objectives for the psychology that supports these behaviors are the consciousness that I have the ability and the consciousness that people are my comrades.

The kind of relationship that feels somehow oppressive and strained when the two people are together cannot be called love, even if there is passion. When one can think, Whenever I am with this person, I can behave very freely, one can really feel love. One can be in a calm and quite natural state, without having feelings of inferiority or being beset with the need to flaunt one’s superiority.

YOUTH: So I am making up flaws in other people just so that I can avoid my life tasks, and further more, so I can avoid interpersonal relationships? And I am running away by thinking of other people as my enemies? PHILOSOPHER: That’s right. Adler called the state of coming up with all manner of pretexts in order to avoid the life tasks the “life-lie.”

PHILOSOPHER: True, I don’t know anything about your past. Not about your parents, or your elder brother either. I know only one thing. YOUTH: What’s that? PHILOSOPHER: The fact that you—and no one else—are the one who decided your lifestyle.

PHILOSOPHER: Studying is the child’s task. A parent’s handling of that by commanding the child to study is, in effect, an act of intruding on another person’s task. One is unlikely to avert a collision in this way. We need to think with the perspective of “Whose task is this?” and continually separate one’s own tasks from other people’s tasks.

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? When the child has made the choice of not studying, ultimately, the result of that decision—not being able to keep up in class or to get into the preferred school, for instance—does not have to be received by the parents. Clearly, it is the child who has to receive it. In other words, studying is the child’s task.

PHILOSOPHER: All you can do with regard to your own life is choose the best path that you believe in. On the other hand, what kind of judgment do other people pass on that choice? That is the task of other people, and is not a matter you can do anything about.

First, one should ask, “Whose task is this?” Then do the separation of tasks. Calmly delineate up to what point one’s own tasks go, and from what point they become another person’s tasks. And do not intervene in other people’s tasks, or allow even a single person to intervene in one’s own tasks. This is a specific and revolutionary viewpoint that is unique to Adlerian psychology and contains the potential to utterly change one’s interpersonal relationship problems.

And so, such intricate knots—the bonds in our interpersonal relationships—are not to be unraveled by conventional methods but must be severed by some completely new approach. Whenever I explain the separation of tasks, I always remember the Gordian knot.

As Adler says, “Children who have not been taught to confront challenges will try to avoid all challenges.”

PHILOSOPHER: Maybe it is easier to live in such a way as to satisfy other people’s expectations. Because one is entrusting one’s own life to them. For example, one runs along the tracks that one’s parents have laid out. Even if there are a lot of things one might object to, one will not lose one’s way as long as one stays on those rails. But if one is deciding one’s path oneself, it’s only natural that one will get lost at times. One comes up against the wall of “how one should live.”

PHILOSOPHER: An adult, who has chosen an unfree way to live, on seeing a young person living freely here and now in this moment, criticizes the youth as being hedonistic. Of course, this is a life-lie that comes out so that the adult can accept his own unfree life. An adult who has chosen real freedom himself will not make such comments and will instead cheer on the will to be free.

In light of what we have discussed until now, the conclusion we reach regarding “What is freedom?” should be clear. YOUTH: What is it? PHILOSOPHER: In short, that “freedom is being disliked by other people.” YOUTH: Huh? What was that? PHILOSOPHER: It’s that you are disliked by someone. It is proof that you are exercising your freedom and living in freedom, and a sign that you are living in accordance with your own principles.

The courage to be happy also includes the courage to be disliked. When you have gained that courage, your interpersonal relationships will all at once change into things of lightness.

Adler was opposed to any kind of dualistic value system that treated the mind as separate from the body—reason as separate from emotion, or the conscious mind as separate from the unconscious mind.

In Adlerian psychology, physical symptoms are not regarded separately from the mind (psyche). The mind and body are viewed as one, as a whole that cannot be divided into parts. Tension in the mind can make one’s arms and legs shake, or cause one’s cheeks to turn red, and fear can make one’s face turn white. And so on. YOUTH: Well, sure, there are parts of the mind and body that are connected. PHILOSOPHER: The same holds true for reason and emotion, and the conscious mind and the unconscious mind as well. A normally coolheaded person doesn’t expect to have a fit of violent emotion and start shouting at someone. We are not struck by emotions that somehow exist independently from us. Each of us is a unified whole.

When one separates the “I” from “emotion” and thinks, It was the emotion that made me do it, or The emotion got the best of me, and I couldn’t help it, such thinking quickly becomes a life-lie.

PHILOSOPHER: In other words, he is espousing that community is not merely one of the preexisting frameworks that the word might bring to mind but is also inclusive of literally everything—the entire universe, from the past to the future.

A way of living in which one is constantly troubled by how one is seen by others is a self-centered lifestyle in which one’s sole concern is with the “I.”

PHILOSOPHER: Not just you, but all people who are attached to the “I” are self-centered. And that is precisely why it is necessary to make the switch from “attachment to self” to “concern for others.”

All of us are searching for the sense of belonging, that “it’s okay to be here.” In Adlerian psychology, however, a sense of belonging is something that one can attain only by making an active commitment to the community of one’s own accord, and not simply by being here.

One needs to think not, What will this person give me? but rather, What can I give to this person? That is commitment to the community.

A sense of belonging is something that one acquires through one’s own efforts—it is not something one is endowed with at birth. Community feeling is the much-debated key concept of Adlerian psychology.

Though this might be termed a “you and I” relationship, if it is one that can break down just because you raise an objection, then it is not the sort of relationship you need to get into in the first place. It is fine to just let go of it. Living in fear of one’s relationships falling apart is an unfree way to live, in which one is living for other people.

One must not praise, and one must not rebuke. That is the standpoint of Adlerian psychology.

In the act of praise, there is the aspect of it being “the passing of judgment by a person of ability on a person of no ability.” A mother praises her child who has helped her prepare dinner, saying, “You’re such a good helper!” But when her husband does the same things, you can be sure she won’t be telling him, “You’re such a good helper!”

The more one is praised by another person, the more one forms the belief that one has no ability.

Even if you do derive joy from being praised, it is the same as being dependent on vertical relationships and acknowledging that you have no ability. Because giving praise is a judgment that is passed by a person of ability onto a person without ability. YOUTH: I just cannot agree with that. PHILOSOPHER: When receiving praise becomes one’s goal, one is choosing a way of living that is in line with another person’s system of values.

If one is building horizontal relationships, there will be words of more straightforward gratitude and respect and joy.

It is when one is able to feel “I am beneficial to the community” that one can have a true sense of one’s worth. This is the answer that would be offered in Adlerian psychology. YOUTH: That I am beneficial to the community? PHILOSOPHER: That one can act on the community, that is to say, on other people, and that one can feel “I am of use to someone.” Instead of feeling judged by another person as “good,” being able to feel, by way of one’s own subjective viewpoint, that “I can make contributions to other people.” It is at that point that, at last, we can have a true sense of our own worth.

If I stopped going to work, my boss would have no trouble finding someone to replace me. I am needed only for the unskilled labor I provide, and it doesn’t actually matter at all if it is “I” who is working there or someone else, or a machine, for that matter. No one is requiring “this me” in particular. In such circumstances, would you have confidence in yourself? Would you be able to have a true sense of worth?

To put it more simply, say you’ve got a score of 60 percent, but you tell yourself, I just happened to get unlucky this time around, and the real me is 100 percent. That is self-affirmation. By contrast, if one accepts oneself as one is, as 60 percent, and thinks to oneself, How should I go about getting closer to 100 percent?—that is self-acceptance.

Accept what is irreplaceable. Accept “this me” just as it is. And have the courage to change what one can change. That is self-acceptance.

Suppose, for example, that you are in a love relationship, but you are having doubts about your partner and you think to yourself, I’ll bet she’s cheating on me. And you start making desperate efforts in search of evidence to prove that. What do you think would happen as a result? YOUTH: Well, I guess that would depend on the situation. PHILOSOPHER: No, in every instance, you would find an abundance of evidence that she has been cheating on you. YOUTH: Wait? Why is that? PHILOSOPHER: Your partner’s casual remarks, her tone when talking to someone on the phone, the times when you can’t reach her . . . As long as you are looking with doubt in your eyes, everything around you will appear to be evidence that she is cheating on you. Even if she is not.

But if you are afraid to have confidence in others, in the long run you will not be able to build deep relationships with anyone.

In other words, you’re saying that to feel “it’s okay to be here,” one has to see others as comrades. And that to see others as comrades, one needs both self-acceptance and confidence in others. PHILOSOPHER: That’s right. You are grasping this more quickly now. To take it a step farther, one may say that people who think of others as enemies have not attained self-acceptance and do not have enough confidence in others.

It is because one accepts oneself just as one is—one self-accepts—that one can have “confidence in others” without the fear of being taken advantage of. And it is because one can place unconditional confidence in others, and feel that people are one’s comrades, that one can engage in “contribution to others.” Further, it is because one contributes to others that one can have the deep awareness that “I am of use to someone” and accept oneself just as one is. One can self-accept.

PHILOSOPHER: People who suffer from stammering are looking at only a part of things but judging the whole. With workaholics, the focus is solely on one specific aspect of life. They probably try to justify that by saying, “It’s busy at work, so I don’t have enough time to think about my family.” But this is a life-lie. They are simply trying to avoid their other responsibilities by using work as an excuse. One ought to concern oneself with everything, from household chores and child-rearing to one’s friendships and hobbies and so on. Adler does not recognize ways of living in which certain aspects are unusually dominant.

Such a father has probably been able to recognize his own worth only on the level of acts. He works all those hours, brings in enough money to support a family, and is recognized by society—and, on that basis, he views himself as having greater worth than the other members of his family. For each and every one of us, however, there comes a time when one can no longer serve as the provider. When one gets older and reaches retirement age, for example, one may have no choice but to live off one’s pension or support from one’s children. Even when one is young, injury or poor health can lead to being unable work any longer. On such occasions, those who can accept themselves only on the level of acts are severely damaged.

PHILOSOPHER: Does one accept oneself on the level of acts, or on the level of being? This is truly a question that relates to the courage to be happy.

For a human being, the greatest unhappiness is not being able to like oneself. Adler came up with an extremely simple answer to address this reality. Namely, that the feeling of “I am beneficial to the community” or “I am of use to someone” is the only thing that can give one a true awareness that one has worth.

PHILOSOPHER: You are not the one who decides if your contributions are of use. That is the task of other people, and is not an issue in which you can intervene. In principle, there is not even any way you can know whether you have really made a contribution. That is to say, when we are engaging in this contribution to others, the contribution does not have to be a visible one—all we need is the subjective sense that “I am of use to someone,” or in other words, a feeling of contribution. YOUTH: Wait a minute! If that’s the case, then what you are calling happiness is . . . PHILOSOPHER: Do you see it now? In a word, happiness is the feeling of contribution. That is the definition of happiness.

All types of problem behavior, from refusing to attend school, to wrist cutting, to underage drinking and smoking, and so on, are forms of the pursuit of easy superiority. And your shut-in friend, whom you told me about at the beginning, is engaging in it, too. When a child engages in problem behavior, his parents and other adults rebuke him. Being rebuked, more than anything else, puts stress on the child. But even if it is in the form of rebuke, the child wants his parents’ attention. He wants to be a special being, and the form that attention takes doesn’t matter. So in a sense, it is only natural that he does not stop engaging in problem behavior, no matter how harshly he is rebuked.

PHILOSOPHER: What Adlerian psychology emphasizes at this juncture are the words “the courage to be normal.” YOUTH: The courage to be normal? PHILOSOPHER: Why is it necessary to be special? Probably because one cannot accept one’s normal self. And it is precisely for this reason that when being especially good becomes a lost cause, one makes the huge leap to being especially bad—the opposite extreme. But is being normal, being ordinary, really such a bad thing? Is it something inferior? Or, in truth, isn’t everybody normal? It is necessary to think this through to its logical conclusion. YOUTH: So are you saying that I should be normal? PHILOSOPHER: Self-acceptance is the vital first step. If you are able to possess the courage to be normal, your way of looking at the world will change dramatically.

People who think of life as being like climbing a mountain are treating their own existences as lines. As if there is a line that started the instant one came into this world, and that continues in all manner of curves of varying sizes until it arrives at the summit, and then at long last reaches its terminus, which is death. This conception, which treats life as a kind of story, is an idea that links with Freudian etiology (the attributing of causes), and is a way of thinking that makes the greater part of life into something that is “en route.” YOUTH: Well, what is your image of life? PHILOSOPHER: Do not treat it as a line. Think of life as a series of dots. If you look through a magnifying glass at a solid line drawn with chalk, you will discover that what you thought was a line is actually a series of small dots. Seemingly linear existence is actually a series of dots; in other words, life is a series of moments.

With dance, it is the dancing itself that is the goal, and no one is concerned with arriving somewhere by doing it. Naturally, it may happen that one arrives somewhere as a result of having danced. Since one is dancing, one does not stay in the same place. But there is no destination.

The life of the past that looks like a straight line appears that way to you only as a result of your making ceaseless resolutions to not change. The life that lies ahead of you is a completely blank page, and there are no tracks that have been laid for you to follow. There is no story there.

For example, one wants to get into a university but makes no attempt to study. This an attitude of not living earnestly here and now. Of course, maybe the entrance examination is still far off. Maybe one is not sure what needs to be studied or how thoroughly, and one finds it troublesome. However, it is enough to do it little by little—every day one can work out some mathematical formulas, one can memorize some words. In short, one can dance the dance. By doing so, one is sure to have a sense of “this is what I did today”; this is what today, this single day, was for. Clearly, today is not for an entrance examination in the distant future. And the same thing would hold true for your father, too—he was likely dancing earnestly the dance of his everyday work. He lived earnestly here and now, without having a grand objective or the need to achieve that objective. And, if that was the case, it would seem that your father’s life was a happy one.

The greatest life-lie of all is to not live here and now. It is to look at the past and the future, cast a dim light on one’s entire life, and believe that one has been able to see something. Until now, you have turned away from the here and now and shone a light only on invented pasts and futures. You have told a great lie to your life, to these irreplaceable moments.

And Adler, having stated that “life in general has no meaning,” then continues, “Whatever meaning life has must be assigned to it by the individual.”

No matter what moments you are living, or if there are people who dislike you, as long as you do not lose sight of the guiding star of “I contribute to others,” you will not lose your way, and you can do whatever you like. Whether you’re disliked or not, you pay it no mind and live free.

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