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Adlerian Concepts: Vertical vs. Horizontal Planes of Movement

Xenia J. Kozlov

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

Matthew, 12:43-45

If I started a research on a vertical movement, I would build it on the experience that we have gained over many years of moving up as a priority – vertical movement only is a direct path to neurotization (Sicher, 1955).

The negative side of vertical plane is known; so as the positive outcomes of horizontal one. But can we do without vertical one? Is it useful for human development somehow or it is a kind of atavism, such as fangs or tailbone?

First of all, we still have fangs and tailbone which means that our social progress is far ahead of our body evolution. What about psyche? We know that ambition as emotion or trait of human character used to be marked negatively in Ancient, Christian and Eastern traditions (Burton, 2014). However, philosophers warned that excessive control over one’s ambitions could provoke internal or even external rebel – which leads to the idea that ambition is a kind of self-preservation mechanism for personal self-identity. Modern specialists refer ambition as one of the main indicators of modern culture (Greenfield, 2013) which also may be interpreted as self-preservation in action. So, voluntary or involuntary, we have to deal with our vertical striving and, moreover, be really gentle with it.

But, from the other side, being aware of toxic impact of vertical striving is important and necessary for everyone. In social structure, it is manifested through hierarchy, status, uneven distribution of power, oppression and cascading aggression (Basch, 2004). On a personal level, in terms of individual psychology it is striving for personal superiority, related with personal appraisal which makes individual self-esteem instable (Adler, 1982). The mechanism of vertical movement could be compared to the effect of the narcotic substance - temporary satisfaction, emptiness, need for a larger dose, obsession. Like a narcotic substance, vertical striving can have healing effect if being properly dosed – or balanced by horizontal movement. Being helpful, being useful, being supported, involved, belonged – from the point of vertical superiority, it is all “philosophy for simpletons”, but we need just look around, for instance, look at dictators who appropriated all the power, money, sources in their countries, and now face inevitable consequences – hate, loneliness, fear of others.


Adler, A. (1982). The Fundamental Views of Individual Psychology (Links to an external site.). Individual Psychology: The Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice, 38(1), 3.

Basch, L. (2004) Human security, globalization, and feminist visions, Peace Review, 16(1), 5-12. DOI: 10.1080/1040265042000210085

Burton, N. (2014, November 16). Is Ambition Good or Bad? The psychology and philosophy of ambition. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Greenfield, L. (2013, April 28). Modern Emotions: Aspiration and Ambition. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Sicher, L. (1955). Education for freedom. American Journal of Individual Psychology, 11, 92-203.

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