Horizontal vs. Vertical Planes of Movement
Note: Page numbers enclosed in parentheses are citations from The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A systematic presentation in selections from his writings. (H. L. and R. R. Ansbacher, Eds.). © 1964, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Used by permission of Perseus Books Group.
The terms horizontal and vertical planes of movement were introduced by Lydia Sicher in a paper presented at the 1954 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Adlerian Psychology (published in 1955, see below) to illustrate Adler's concepts of (a) striving for superiority in line with the social interest and (b) striving for personal superiority. Horizontal movement evokes an image of task-centered, egalitarian problem-solving. The question governing horizontal movement is, "What does the situation require?" In contrast, vertical movement is the pursuit of prestige and status, focused on a goal of self-elevation. Questions governing vertical movement are, "How am I doing?", "How do I look?" Horizontal movement proceeds on the strength of confidence in the processes of growth, development, and solidarity with others, minimizing contentiousness and competitive striving. Vertical movement proceeds from safeguarding attitudes and isolating ambitions of "getting ahead" so as not to be "falling behind" others, as if in a struggle for limited resources, minimizing the values of belongingness and feelings of mutual respect and engagement. [See Community Feeling/Social Feeling/Social Interest.]
When individuals . . . feel weak, they cease to be interested socially but strive for [personal] superiority. They want to solve the problems of life in such a way as to obtain personal superiority without any admixture of social interest (p. 260).
The idea of living on a vertical plane is . . . perhaps the most neuroticizing element of all [in a child's development]. Yet so much of the training of children is based on it: Hitch your wagon to the stars! The sky is the limit! Don't let anyone keep you down! You have to be better, more, than the next [person] (Sicher, 1955, p. 100).
Substituting the horizontal for the vertical plane of life changes the aspect completely. Here the ideas of superior and inferior have no place. . . . The horizontal plane affords the possibility of developing one's potentialities within the world of one’s fellow men; it alone allows for the dynamic forging ahead of one and all (Sicher, 1955, p.101)
[In horizontal movement] the desire to be useful can never be frustrated. . . . Self-fulfillment no longer depends on what others think or do, but on what one can contribute. Concern with status is unnecessary, since one can be sure of one’s place in the group as an equal (Dreikurs, 1973, p. 41).
The vertical movement of self-elevation, regardless of the height it leads to, both in status and accomplishments, can never bring lasting satisfaction and inner peace. There is a constant danger of falling and failing; the gnawing feeling of real or possible inferiority is never eradicated, regardless of success (Dreikurs, 1973, p. 41).
In view of these obvious consequences of a mistake-centered orientation, why is it then maintained? Two possible reasons seem evident. One is a vestige from an outgrown autocratic society. In such a society, doing wrong means not doing what one is supposed to do, and this is intolerable, as a defiance of authority. . . . [A second cause] . . . lies in the competitive strife on the vertical plane. Making a mistake . . . lowers one’s social status, as being right increases it. . . . Once we free ourselves from our fear of being INFERIOR and recognize our worth and dignity, we no longer fear making mistakes — and therefore make fewer. This is learned in psychotherapy. Our educational institutions are not yet prepared to teach this new social value of the courage to be imperfect (Dreikurs, 1973, p. 43).
© Griffith, J., & Powers, R. L. (2007). The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (2nd ed.). Port Townsend, WA: Adlerian Psychology Associates (p. 56).
Definitions of concepts are used by permission of Jane Griffith. A comprehensive list of concepts and definitions can be found in The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 Terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler by Jane Griffith and Robert L. Powers, available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Dreikurs, R. (1973, Rev. ed.). Psychodynamics, psychotherapy and counseling: Collected papers of Rudolf Dreikurs, M. D. Chicago: Alfred Adler Institute.
Sicher, L. 1955). Education for freedom. American Journal of Individual Psychology, 11, 92-