Trauma Doesn't Exist

The Philosophy of Alfred Adler

September 6 2023

“No matter what has occurred in your life up to this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live your life from now on.” - Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler was a prominent psychologist who worked around the same time that Freud did. But unlike Freud if you asked one of the countless 19 year old white girls studying psychology at a college they can’t afford about him, there is a good chance they would have no idea who Alfred Adler was, his stuff is not as commonly taught. This is likely because some of Alder’s ideas, specifically on trauma, are much less comforting than those of Freud, but in the context of working through difficulties in life I think Adler’s are much more useful and much closer to the truth.

The common belief among psychologists today, which originated from the teachings of people like Freud, is that trauma shapes our lives. If someone’s parents got divorced when they were a kid they will likely have a negative outlook on marriage. If someone was abused as a kid they will likely to grow up to be abusive towards others. If someone gets in a bad car accident they will likely feel anxious about driving. If someone has a relationship end in a bad way they will likely be hesitant going into future relationships and might even remove themselves from the dating pool completely. If someone fails at a task in some spectacular fashion they will likely be afraid to try again.

I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this sort of thing. There are plenty of people these days who make their trauma their personality, but is this a good thing? I don’t think so, and Alfred Adler would go so far as to say that trauma dosen’t exist.

Freud looks at the world through an etiological perspective, meaning he is looking to the past for the cause of a person’s feelings and behavior. Adler takes a teleological approach and views a person’s thoughts and actions as derivatives of their goals both conscious and subconscious. If we take these ideas to their extremes we see that Freud believes that humans are incapable of change while Adler believes that with the right focus we can overcome any obstacle.

But, someone might ask, there is evidence for trauma, isn’t there? I provided a bunch of examples above and they all seem to prove the theory of trauma, but is that the only way that someone could look at these things? Let’s take a deeper look into a traumatic event and response.

Let’s say there is a teenage girl learning to drive and in her second month of learning she causes a car accident that totals the family car, gives her a concussion, messes up her dad’s back and breaks her younger brother’s leg. After this she vows that she will never drive a car again and doesn’t get a drivers license until she is well into her twenties.

Freud would see this behavior as a clear traumatic response to the accident. The accident was the reason she chose not to get a drivers license when everyone else usually does. That makes pretty good sense doesn’t it?

Adler would link this behavior to a goal. It is fairly common for people, especially young people, these days to want to avoid responsibility. Driving is a responsibility, you have to pay attention and drive safely to protect your life and that of others. Then when a teenager gets a drivers license they loose the comfortable dependence on their parents that they enjoyed their entire life, if they are given a car they are now responsible for getting themself where they need to be and may have to take on the responsibility to take younger siblings places as well.

Adler would say that the girl in our scenario didn’t want the responsibility of driving, her goal was to avoid it and she uses the trauma of the accident to justify her decision not to get a drivers license and avoid responsibilities. Of course she didn’t cause the accident on purpose, it is quite possible that she didn’t have that goal of avoiding responsibility, or at least hadn’t fully committed to the goal, until after the accident, but regardless of when she made that goal, or even if she is fully conscious of the goal, her actions after the accident took place because of that goal being in place. The accident was just a good excuse for her actions.

Now I will admit that my decision to include the point that the girl could have made the goal to avoid the responsibility of driving after the accident made the last few paragraphs a bit more difficult to write while trying to make the two outlooks on life sound as different as possible but I decided that it is okay if they sounded a bit similar because they are both describing possible reasoning for the same thing. It would be odd if there wasn’t a similarity there. But if we change just one detail of this hypothetical girl’s story the similarities between Adler and Freud’s theories describing her actions disappear and only one really makes sense.

Let’s say that girl causes that same accident when she is at that same low level of experience driving with the same injuries (or even worse ones) happening but then a few months later we find her in the DMV excited that she passed her drivers license test and drives without terrible anxiety for the rest of her life. How would these two psychologists explain how she was mentally able to do that?

Adler would say that she had the goal of getting a drivers license, and because of her commitment to that goal she was able to overcome the mental struggle that being in that accident would have caused.

On the other hand I don’t know how Freud, or someone who subscribes to his philosophy, would respond. The girl clearly went through a traumatic experience yet it didn’t seem to have any long-term affect on her, if trauma exists how could that be? I’m sure there is some explanation out there but I’m no psychologist and I haven’t gone out to look for it because I don’t think that it is useful to analyze the behaviors through an etiological lens in the first place.

There are plenty of people in the world who go through traumatic experiences and are able to get through it. There are lots of people driving on the road today who have caused terrible car accidents, even ones that have killed people, but they are still driving without anxiety, hopefully they are more careful than before, but regardless they are still driving.

Ultimately everyone has to decide how they view themselves. Are you an object that can only be acted upon, or are you an agent capable of choice? How you react to trauma is a choice. Reacting in a predictable and negative way is often the easiest, so much so that we don’t see any other way to react, especially when the traumatic event wasn’t foreseen, but it is not the only way to react. If we initially reacted in such a way it is okay to change. It is okay to overcome trauma. It is okay to get better.

The doctrine of repentance teaches us that we don’t have to, nor should we, be defined by the worst thing that we have ever done. In a similar sense I don’t think we should define ourselves by the worst thing that has ever happened to us, that’s not how Job lived, he didn’t see himself as a victim. We should recognize the truth that we are capable of overcoming hard challenges. We are not destined to be weak, we can be strong if we want to be and we can always strive to be stronger.

If there is such a thing as trauma then we have no agency. If there is such a thing as trauma then we are simply objects cursed with the ability to think and feel. If there is such a thing as trauma then the world would be a much darker place than it is.

“No experience is a cause of success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences – the so-called trauma – but we make out of them just what suits our purposes. We are self-determined by the meaning we give to our experiences, and there is probably always something of a mistake involved when we take particular experiences as the basis for our future life. Meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations” - Alfred Adler

Give yourself a good purpose. Give your experiences good meanings. Give yourself good goals that you can commit to, and replace the bad ones you have trapped in your subconscious. Be a player in your own life, not a character in someone else’s. You can overcome hard things.