Reading Notes on ‘The Courage to be Disliked’

November 13, 2018

6 min read

The Courage to Be Disliked is a series of conversations between a philosopher and a downtrodden youth seeking happiness. The philosopher explains the answers found in the psychology and philosophy of Alfred Adler.

The principle idea is that people are unhappy because they don’t like themselves. How does one get self-worth? Adler has a simple answer, that one feels worth by being a contributing member of a community.

Most of the book is dedicated to the individual and how they should approach relationships. Even if you don’t buy into Adler’s vision for community, there is a strong message of self-empowerment and integrity that can be readily applied.

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.

Accept oneself. Adler describes self-acceptance as the first step.

One ascertains the things one can change and the things one cannot change. One cannot change what one is born with. But one can, under one’s own power, go about changing what use one makes of that equipment. So in that case, one simply has to focus on what one can change, rather than on what one cannot.

Create horizontal relationships. After accepting oneself, one accepts others. One sees each other as fundamentally equal. When two people see each other as equal, they form a horizontal relationship. Attitudes of competition, praise and rebuke are attempts to build vertical relationships where one is above another.

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!” … In other words, the mother who praises the child … is unconsciously creating a hierarchical relationship and seeing the child as beneath her.

Adler warns against competition, that it is likely to result in negative behavior. One may start to see everyone as enemies or threats. One may try to raise oneself by putting others down. There is a healthy view of competition where one accepts oneself and is motivated by others to improve.

Accept being disliked. Adler warns that the only way to be liked by everyone is to live others’ versions of your life.

What should one do to not be disliked by anyone? There is only one answer: It is to constantly gauge other people’s feelings while swearing loyalty to all of them.

Seek the feeling of contribution. Adler points out that it’s not about being sacrificial and doing things for others. After all one can never know if one’s contribution was useful to someone; the feeling is enough.

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.

Adler believes that feeling worth is so important because it gives us the courage to face one’s “life tasks”.

Do not avoid one’s tasks. The book makes more references to this advice than any other. A “life task” is a personal responsibility or a responsibility one has to oneself. In a relationship, one has the task of trusting the other, but the act of following through is the other’s task. Whether a child studies is their task—not the parent’s, because the child is the one who receives the outcome. If one wants friendship, then one has to risk being disliked or denied. If one wants to work, one has to risk being viewed as incompetent. If one wants to achieve any goal, one must face being unable to do so.

I have a young friend who dreams of becoming a novelist, but he never seems to be able to complete his work. According to him, his job keeps him too busy, and he can never find enough time to write novels, and that’s why he can’t complete work and enter it for writing awards. But is that the real reason? No! It’s actually that he wants to leave the possibility of “I can do it if I try” open, by not committing to anything.

In each task we have something to lose—“the dignity of one’s irreplaceable self”. It is by facing our tasks that we can make any progress.

Simply put, people have various complaints about things, but it’s easier and more secure to be just the way one is … When we try to change our lifestyles, we put our great courage to the test.

You are the only one who can assign meaning to your life. Early in the book the author uses an analogy of drawing water from a well. In the winter, the water feels warm, and in the summer it feels cool, yet it is the same temperature. This isn’t an illusion. It’s the nature of experience. How one chooses to view the world is subjective.

What is the meaning of life? What are people living for? When someone posed these questions to Adler, this was his answer: “Life in general has no meaning.” … During the war, my grandfather was firebombed, and his face was severely burned. In every way, it was a horrendous and inhumane event. It would certainly have been within the realm of possibility for him to choose a lifestyle with the perspective of “the world is a horrible place” or “people are my enemies.” however, when my grandfather rode the train on visits to the hospital, there were always other passengers who would give up their seats for him. This is something I heard about through my mother, so I do not know he actually felt. But this is what I believe: My grandfather chose a lifestyle with the perspective of “People are my comrades, and the world is a wonderful place.” That is exactly what Adler is pointing to when he says whatever meaning life has must be assigned to it by the individual. So life in general has no meaning whatsoever. But you can assign meaning to that life. And you are the only one who can assign meaning to your life.