Theories of Personality 9th Edition

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Chapter 3 Adler: Individual Psychology 89


Personality development can be halted when people run away from difficulties.
Adler referred to this tendency as withdrawal, or safeguarding through distance.
Some people unconsciously escape life’s problems by setting up a distance between
themselves and those problems.
Adler (1956) recognized four modes of safeguarding through withdrawal:
(1) moving backward, (2) standing still, (3) hesitating, and (4) constructing
Moving backward is the tendency to safeguard one’s fictional goal of supe-
riority by psychologically reverting to a more secure period of life. Moving back-
ward is similar to Freud’s concept of regression in that both involve attempts to
return to earlier, more comfortable phases of life. Whereas regression takes place
unconsciously and protects people against anxiety-filled experiences, moving back-
ward may sometimes be conscious and is directed at maintaining an inflated goal
of superiority. Moving backward is designed to elicit sympathy, the deleterious
attitude offered so generously to pampered children.
Psychological distance can also be created by standing still. This withdrawal
tendency is similar to moving backward but, in general, it is not as severe. People
who stand still simply do not move in any direction; thus, they avoid all respon-
sibility by ensuring themselves against any threat of failure. They safeguard their
fictional aspirations because they never do anything to prove that they cannot
accomplish their goals. A person who never applies to graduate school can never
be denied entrance; a child who shies away from other children will not be rejected
by them. By doing nothing, people safeguard their self-esteem and protect them-
selves against failure.
Closely related to standing still is hesitating. Some people hesitate or vacil-
late when faced with difficult problems. Their procrastinations eventually give
them the excuse “It’s too late now.” Adler believed that most compulsive behaviors
are attempts to waste time. Compulsive hand washing, retracing one’s steps, behav-
ing in an obsessive orderly manner, destroying work already begun, and leaving
work unfinished are examples of hesitation. Although hesitating may appear to
other people to be self-defeating, it allows neurotic individuals to preserve their
inflated sense of self-esteem.
The least severe of the withdrawal safeguarding tendencies is constructing
obstacles. Some people build a straw house to show that they can knock it down.
By overcoming the obstacle, they protect their self-esteem and their prestige. If
they fail to hurdle the barrier, they can always resort to an excuse.
In summary, safeguarding tendencies are found in nearly everyone, but when
they become overly rigid, they lead to self-defeating behaviors. Overly sensitive
people create safeguarding tendencies to buffer their fear of disgrace, to eliminate
their exaggerated inferiority feelings, and to attain self-esteem. However, safe-
guarding tendencies are self-defeating because their built-in goals of self-interest
and personal superiority actually block them from securing authentic feelings of
self-esteem. Many people fail to realize that their self-esteem would be better
safeguarded if they gave up their self-interest and developed a genuine caring for
other people. Adler’s idea of safeguarding tendencies and Freud’s notion of defense
mechanisms are compared in Table 3.1.

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