• Dale V Wayman, PhD

Microaggressions in a Contemporary Adlerian Society

Courage takes on my forms and is a central theme within our work. From an emotive and linguistic understanding, courage holds many meanings that shape our lives. At times, the feeling elicits doubt, shame, fear, pain, or even grief. When we hear the word courage, our immediate inclination is the association we make with a figure or circumstance that requires courage. Sophie Lazarsfeld credits this as beyond the surface level of adversity or an uncomfortable situation and rather associates it with the ability to accept and face imperfection. When we think about everyday acts of courage, we can reflect on instances that hold opportunities for meaning-making. We hold onto the hope that everything will turn out okay when in a situation that calls upon us to be curious and courageous.

One situation that calls for courage is when a microaggression occurs. Microaggressions are subtle forms of discrimination, racism, prejudice, or misogyny that are sometimes callous remarks (Psychology Today, n.d.). An example is when someone says, “Your English is really good, where are you from?” or “Only people who work hard can succeed in this world”. Often credited to the work of Chester Pierce and colleagues in the 1970s, research has since expounded upon this concept to include how deeply embedded it is within in social systems (Brown et al., 2019). Sue et al. (2007) explain that perpetrators are often unaware that they engage in these acts when interacting with people of color. The remark may or may not be intentional, but communicates hostility, offense, and slights an individual.

This correlates closely to the Adlerian principles of social interest and private intelligence. Adler (1968, p. 253) states that “According to private intelligence an individual may attempt through a personal, private view of the world to assert himself and enhance his own sense of superiority by injuring that of someone else. Private intelligence is at work whenever a person tries unfairly to turn to his own advantage the social contributions of another person. But here, we shall have to add a qualification: the injury inflicted is not deliberately intentional”. Adler’s description strongly resembles the definition of microaggressions.

With that being said, the question becomes “What we do when we encounter a microaggression from an Adlerian stance?” I refer to the idea of courage. It takes courage to tell someone that their action or remark is an act of microaggression. Using the uncomfortableness to advocate from one’s own needs, we can help encourage movement toward social interest about each other’s journeys. Adler (1956) reiterates this point by emphasizing “understanding is a common matter, not a private function. To understand is to understand as we expect that everybody should understand. It is to connect ourselves in a common meaning with other people, to be controlled by the common sense of all mankind”.

On the opposite end, if we are the one perpetuating the microaggression, we show courage by apologizing and inquire about ways to understand. Even when not directed toward us, we demonstrate courage through allyship by addressing the microaggression and the impact on others. We believe that is the nature that we can begin to see with the eyes of another, listen with another’s ears, and feel through their hearts.

This post was written by Corey Frantz of The National Association for Adlerian Psychology for the June 2021 membership newsletter References


Adler, A. (1956). The Neurotic Disposition. In H. L. Ansbacher & R. R. Ansbacher (Eds.), The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (p. 253). Basic Books.

Brown, S. L., Johnson, Z., & Miller, S. E. (2019). Racial microaggressions and black social work students: A call to social work educators for proactive models informed by social justice. Social Work Education, 38(5), 618–630. https://doi-org.ezproxy.adler.edu/10.1080/02615479.2019.1594754

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Microaggression. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/microaggression

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.

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