I first heard about The Courage to Be Disliked through Khe Hy’s newsletter; when he wrote that it was a book about “whether happiness can be learned, how inter-personal relationships form our identities, and how to overcome a fear of failure,” I instantly put a library hold on a copy.
I did not, however, join Hy’s online book club. I thought about it, and then I reminded myself that I did not have time to take on another commitment—which was definitely the right choice.
So was reading this book.
The Courage to Be Disliked takes the form of a dialogue between a philosopher and a youth; together, they break down the various tenets of Adlerian psychology, such as “all problems are interpersonal relationship problems.”
There were certain aspects of the dialogue that felt instinctively right; I loved the section about the division of tasks, for example. (One of the reasons we get into interpersonal problems is because we try to do other people’s tasks for them or try to get other people to do our tasks.)
I also loved the idea that we should strive for true horizontal relationships, in which both parties see and relate to each other as equals, instead of the more common vertical relationships in which one person sees themselves as above or below the other.
But I finished the book with as many unanswered questions as the youth, and no philosopher of my own to turn to.
For example: I understood, intellectually, the rationale behind the whole “we do not scream because we are angry; we tell ourselves we are angry because we want an excuse to scream, and we want an excuse to scream so we can put another person below us” thing. That works in the exact customer service situation the youth describes to the philosopher, in which the youth explains that they could not help screaming at the waiter who spilled soup (and the philosopher explains that the youth actually wanted an excuse to feel superior to the waiter).
But some situations are more complicated than a waiter spilling soup, and sometimes it feels like we’re screaming because we don’t want other people to put us below them. They are not doing their share of the tasks, not treating us like equal individuals, etc. etc. etc.
So, okay. The philosopher at this point might say “If that other person is making a choice to put you below them, then you can also make a choice—the choice to leave that relationship.”
Which is a very hard choice to make, and the philosopher even notes that it’s nearly impossible with family.
The philosopher also notes that it’s very difficult to get someone else to change their behavior. All you can do is change yours—which is a truth I absolutely believe in—and wait to see how they respond.
Of course, in the majority of the situations in which I’ve tried this, the other person does not change. (It also feels super patronizing to do the thing where you tell a perpetually late partner that, since they did not meet you at the previously discussed time, you went ahead without them—because I did it. Once.)
Essentially, the book argues that if you have the courage to set boundaries, pursue your own tasks, treat others as true equals, stop dwelling on the past (because that’s another excuse to try to put yourself above the people who have hurt you), change yourself without trying to change others, and understand that some people will dislike you for living this way, you can live a happy life.
Except you also have to find a community to be a part of. That’s the last step, and you won’t be truly happy without one.
And since the majority of people do not live this way, as the philosopher admits…
Well. Once again, it’s hard.
Looks like I’ll need to get myself a copy. ❤️