Masculine Protest

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Masculine protest is a foundational concept of Alfred Adler’s individual psychology. Generally, Adler describes masculine protest as any tendency to compensate for feelings of inferiority or inadequacy by exaggerating traditional masculine characteristics, particularly through overt aggressive behavior.

Perhaps, Adler’s heavy reliance of the concept of masculine protest has moved his psychological work out of favor in the twenty-first century. While Adler never suggested that the masculine qualities of men were superior to the feminine qualities of women, his psychology suggests, at the very least, society at the time did, and possession of these feminine qualities created mental discordance.

Feelings of Inferiority

Adler believed that feelings of inferiority were the motivating force for action. Normally, this motivates healthy action to improve life circumstances. However, in neurosis, the feelings of inferiority led to motivational action goals for superiority—God-likeness.

​Often these neurotic impulses for superiority begin in childhood. Adler wrote, “the fixation of the inferiority feeling in neurotically disposed children leads to the compensatory stimulation of instinct activity and constitutes the beginning of that peculiar development of the psyche which terminates in the exaggerated masculine protest.” Adler later adds, “the psychic habitus of the neurotically disposed child is always clearly visible. It is a feeling of inferiority compensated by the masculine protest” (2011, p. 85-91).
​Masculine Protest and Neurosis

One cannot underestimate Adler’s emphasis on the role of masculine protest. It is central to his entire psychology, and the focus of his method of treatment. Adler interpreted the masculine protest as an overcompensation for feelings of inferiority. And this overcompensation he regarded as “the main motive force in neurotic disease:—the masculine protest against feminine or apparently feminine stirrings and sensations” (p. 109).

Underlying Concept of Inferiority in Women

Adler argues that the most universal contrast in the world is between male and female. Adler stated that popular thought of his time conceived the female as “an incomplete, emasculated, or mutilated male.” He continues, “her intricate anatomy unrecognized, she is merely thought of as being without the organs of masculinity, without the enterprise and courage that go with these organs in well-developed male, and therefore naturally destined to weakness, inferiority and ignominious subjection” (Aikins, 1927). 

Strong, inflammatory, and ignorant language flourished in the early twentieth century. I believe we have progressed. However, there is enough men out there that sit on the couch, drink beer, and live off their wives income that still think they are superior because they possess a well-developed organ.

People cling to the silliest criteria to save themselves from facing the realities of their existence. Instead of getting off the couch, sobering up, and making something of themselves to escape a nagging sense of inferiority, they place value on something determined at birth (their anatomy), requiring no personal responsibility.

Example of Masculine Protest

Social media often provides a plethora of examples on mental illness. Perhaps because the lack of enforcement of social appropriate behavior, people just expose unedited emotions.

A month ago, I posted on research  on facebook about social exclusion and loneliness. An article I wrote during the COVID-19 pandemic. The article was about our fundamental need to belong. One of my social page followers, notorious for commenting on articles without reading them, responded with a masculine protest rant. “This is what’s wrong with America.” He continued, “I’m not a sissy. I don’t need anybody to make me feel of worth.” Such comments scream masculine protest, and that, in fact, he does needs an entire group to label as inferior to bolster his self worth.

This posters comments immediately brought to my mind Adler’s masculine protest. The poster, probably suffering from loneliness and a sense of inferiority, emotionally reacted to a social media posting that jabbed at his sensitivities. He, then, defensively reacted with masculine protest, suggesting that inclusion and social bonds were a feminine quality, and therefore belong to inferior beings (sissies). And then, perhaps, after his venomous comments, goes back to suffering in the silence of masculine loneliness.

Gender and Masculine Protest

Adler did not believe masculine protest was solely a neurosis belonging to men. Aikins wrote that Adler believed that “a neurotic woman is just as much dominated by masculine protest as her neurotic brother; she feels inadequate, she suspects the cause to lie in a disgraceful lack of masculinity, and so she firmly sets her teeth to prove in devious ways that after all she is a man at bottom, and not a proper person to endure the ignominious fate of women” ​(Aikins, 1927).

Masculine Protest in Woman

​A woman, according to Adler, is engaging in masculine protest by rejecting socially constructed roles and refusing to participate in activities considered ‘feminine.’ In many ways, Adler’s use of this concept with women is similar to Freud’s better known theory of ‘penis envy.’

In the early twentieth century, these roles were very restrictive. Perhaps, Adler would see a vast majority of  woman today as neurotic, with their fights for equality seen as engaging in masculine protest.

Masculine Protest in Men

Men, according to Adler, also engage in masculine protest. They fight feelings of inferiority by magnifying traits seen as masculine in nature. Masculine protest in men is manifest as a superiority complex which is developed to hide deeply engrained feelings of inferiority. The masculine protest pushes the man to prove he is superior to others by placing an extreme emphasis on self-assertiveness, conquest, and power over other people.

Perhaps, our “small man complex” comments directed at ‘small’ men driving large trucks is derived from Adler’s masculine protest hypothesis. Or, then again, perhaps some small men by large trucks to hide their sense of inferiority because of their size.

​A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

Adler’s theory reminds of the biases that so easily impacts our thoughts. While there may be some strains of truth in his masculine protest, applying to some people, some of the time, his insistence that masculine protest is at the foundation of all neuroses weakens his arguments, and falsifies his theory.

Unfortunately, a large variety of cultural biases, traumas, faulty thinking and biological deficits lead to mental disorders. Each individual suffering from any of these disorders needs an individualized plan to alleviate suffering. Oddly, individual psychology is the term Adler used to describe his brand of therapy. While he subscribed to a universal symptom of masculine protest, he did believe individual histories held the key to the cure.

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Adler, Alfred.(1919/2011)  The Practice And Theory Of Individual Psychology (The International Library of Psychology: Individual Differences) (p. 99). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.​

Aikins, H. (1927). Woman and the Masculine Protest.  Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 22(3), 259-272.

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