There’s this story about a caterpillar suspended on a tree branch in its chrysalis. A man casually walks by and sees it wriggling inside its cocoon, struggling to break free from the captivity of its creation. The man concerned about ending this struggle eagerly makes a small incision at the base of the chrysalis in an attempt to set it free. The not-fully metamorphosed butterfly then breaks free, drops to the ground and dies.
Just like the metamorphosis stages of a butterfly, there’s a general idea that we hold, about; who we want to become, what we want our lives to look like, and perhaps how rich and powerful we want to be. Usually, we attach our sense of self-worth to how far we have come in achieving these ideals. Say you work in a corporate job where there’s a hierarchy of levels to get to the top of the chain of command; There’s an intrinsic and extrinsic value tied to the position you hold at the time; With one level of promotion comes the next level goal to be achieved and the next one after that. Invariably, each accomplishment drives one closer to approaching this ideal — top of command. However, the closer we get to who we want to be, the further we expand on this ideal. Alfred Adler, the founder of the school of individual psychology, calls this ideal “self-ideal”. Think of this self-ideal as a supposed final form of a butterfly.
As we grow in our environment, we learn about behaviours we want to imbibe that can take us closer to this self-ideal. In the process, we develop a set of guidelines to move through life towards achieving our goals. These guidelines are what Adler called our lifestyle.
“For Adler, there was no “normal” lifestyle. Every lifestyle was adequate, until life presented it with a task for which it was not prepared; it was at those times that its “weak points” emerged.”
(Harold Mosak and Michael Maniacci, A Primer of Adlerian Psychology)
These perceived “weak points” lead to feelings of ineptitude, as though one is lacking in completion. Over time, an inferiority complex is developed, which appears as a subjective evaluation of weak areas, sometimes in contrast to people who don’t possess or have overcome such weak points. Inferiority complex is marked by a conclusion that our weak points hinder us from reaching our goals — attaining superiority. For example, we may feel inferior about our weight; there’s an ideal body goal with that thought pattern that exacerbates this feeling into inferiority in comparison to someone who has achieved this body goal.
Adler suggested that there are two primary ways people deal with feelings of inferiority; Either we view our weak points as challenges to be overcome, thus using coping behaviours — dieting and gyming to lose weight, or we view them as problems to be avoided and resort to safeguarding behaviours — escapism and procrastination to deviate from the goal itself.
Generally, coping behaviours are seen as a more positive attitude when compared to safeguarding behaviours. In an instance where inferiority can be addressed directly, some people adopt a problem-solving approach. Where this inferiority cannot be solved, some then compensate by trying to excel at solving a different problem entirely. Some others adopt safeguarding behaviours such as excuses, procrastination, and distractions.
While we all adopt safeguarding behaviours from time to time, these behaviours could manifest physically in headaches, tiredness, or anxieties; the body’s way of making up reasons to exempt oneself from overcoming inferiorities to reach superiority.
We need to consistently question these self-imposed ideals; are your self-ideals realistic? Are your resulting behaviours affecting your mental health and thus driving you further away from your goals? Are you aware of the notions within you that limit your capacity to overcome inferiorities?
We must then recognize that life will continue to throw challenges at us. These challenges present an opportunity to: learn how to be comfortable with discomfort and uncertainty; develop healthy coping behaviours to address them as they come.
The butterfly needs to undergo the process of emergence, which will involve a struggle, and refinement, before transforming into something more beautiful.