Adler's Portrait Of The Vain Individual

"No other vice is so well designed to stunt the free development of a human being as that personal vanity which forces an individual to approach every event and every fellow with the query: 'What do I get out of this?'"

-- Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature

What is the difference between healthy self-assertion and ambition on the one hand, and rank egotism and vanity on the other? From a moral and psychological point of view, why is excessive vanity a "bad" thing?

These questions were taken up by Alfred Adler in his book Understanding Human Nature (1927). Adler, a contemporary of Freud's and Jung's, was the founder of "individual psychology," an approach to psychotherapy that examines how feelings of inferiority affect individual behavior.

The passages below have been excerpted from the chapter "Aggressive Character Traits" in Understanding Human Nature.

"As soon as the striving for recognition assumes the upper hand, it evokes a condition of greater tension in the psychic life. As a consequence, the goal of power and superiority becomes increasingly obvious to the individual, who pursues it with movements of great intensity and violence, and his life becomes the expectation of a great triumph. Such an individual loses his sense of reality because he loses his connection with life, being always occupied with the question of what other people think about him, and being concerned chiefly with the impression that he makes. The freedom of his action is inhibited to an extraordinary degree through this style of life, and his most obvious character trait becomes vanity.

"It is probable that every human being is vain to some degree; yet making an exhibit of one's vanity is not considered good form. Vanity, therefore, is frequently so disguised and cloaked that it appears in the most varied transformations. There is a type of modesty, by way of example, which is essentially vain. One man may be so vain as never to consider the judgment of others; another seeks greedily after public approbation and uses it to his own advantage.

"Exaggerated beyond a degree vanity becomes exceedingly dangerous. Quite beside the fact that vanity leads an individual to all kinds of useless work and effort which is more concerned with the semblance of things than with their essence, and beside the fact that it causes him to think constantly of himself, or at the most only of other people's opinion of him, its greatest danger is that it leads him sooner or later to lose contact with reality. He loses his understanding for human connections, his relations to life become warped. He forgets the obligations of living, and he loses sight especially of the contributions which nature demands of every man.No other vice is so well designed to stunt the free development of a human being as that personal vanity which forces an individual to approach every event and every fellow with the query: 'What do I get out of this?'

"People are wont to help themselves out of the difficulty by substituting the better-sounding word 'ambition' for vanity, or haughtiness. How many people there are who are exceeding proud to tell us how ambitious they are! The concept 'energetic' or 'active' is also frequently used. So long as this energy proves itself of use for society we can admit its value, but it is usually the rule that all these terms 'industry,' 'activity,' 'energy,' and 'go-getting' are expressions to cloak an unusual degree of vanity...

"The objection has frequently been made that without great ambition the great accomplishments of mankind would never have taken place. This is a false view in a false perspective. Since no one is entirely free of vanity, everyone has a certain amount of it. But it is not this vanity, surely, which is responsible for determining the direction his activity has taken toward universal usefulness, nor has it given him the power to carry out his great accomplishments! Such accomplishments can occur only under the stimulus of a social feeling. A work of genius becomes valuable only through its social connotation. Whatever vanity is present in its creation can only detract from its value, and disturb its creation; in a real work of genius the influence of vanity is not great...

"There are people who are deeply convinced that they are not vain. They look only at the outside, knowing that vanity lies much deeper. Vanity may be expressed, for instance, in that a person always demands the full stage in his social circle, must always have the floor, or judges a social gathering as good or bad according to his ability to maintain the center of the stage. Other individuals of this same sort never go into society, and seek to avoid it as much as possible. This avoidance of society may express itself in various ways. Nonacceptance of invitations, or coming late, or forcing one's host to coax and flatter before one comes, are some of these vain tricks.

"Other individuals go into society only under very definite conditions and show their vanity by being very 'exclusive'. They proudly consider this as a laudable trait. Others again show their vanity by wishing to be present at all social gatherings.

"One must not feel that these are unimportant and insignificant details; they are very deeply rooted in the soul. In reality a person who can be guilty of them has not much place in his personality for the social feeling; he is more apt to be a destroyer of society than its friend...

"The one motive which we can discover in all vanity indicates that the vain individual has created a goal which is impossible of attainment in this life. It is his purpose to be more than all others in the world, and this goal is the result of his feeling of inadequacy. We may suspect that anyone whose vanity is well marked, has little sense of his own worth. There may be individuals who are conscious that their vanity begins where their feeling of inadequacy becomes evident, but unless they make a fruitful use of their knowledge their mere consciousness is sterile."