Alfred Adler (Adlerian Psychotherapy)

Biographical Overview

Alfred Adler was born in 1870 in Vienna Austria.  He is the third of seven children and decided to become a doctor after a series of medical problems throughout his childhood.  He graduated from the University of Vienna in 1895 with a degree in opthamology.  In 1902, he was invited to work with Sigmund Freud, and together they founded the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.  In 1911 he parted ways with Freud due to a personal disagreement with aspects of his theoretical perspective.

Overview of Theory

Differences between Freud & Adler

“Adler throughout his lifetime credited Freud with primacy in the development of a dynamic psychology.  He consistently gave credit to Freud for explicating the purposefulness of symptoms and for discovering that dreams were meaningful (Corsini & Wedding, 2011, p. 67).”  However several differences can be seen between Freud and Adler.  Firstly, Freud conceived of the psyche in terms of fragmented components Adler perceived the human mind holistically.  Additionally, Freud “emphasized the role of psychosexual development…Adler focused on the effects of children’s perceptions of their-family constellation and on their struggle to find a place of significance within it (Corsini & Wedding, 2011, p. 67).”   Finally, while Freud is provides an objective and causal view of individuals as victims of their biology Adler provides a subjective and social psychology orientation to human nature (Corsini & Wedding, 2010).  Rather than conceiving individuals as victims of biology, Adler believes we are able to choose and shape our internal and social world as a matter of conscious choice (Corsini & Wedding, 2010).

What is Individual Psychology?

“Alfred Adler fashioned an image of human nature that did not depict people as victimized by instincts and conflict and doomed by biological forces and childhood experiences. He called his approach individual psychology because it focused on the uniqueness of each person and denied the universality of biological motives and goals ascribed to us by Sigmund Freud. (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d., p. 130).”

He choose to utilize the term individual to describe his theory, since in German this term literally means “undivided” (Boree, 2006).  As a neurologist, Freud’s theory focused on our biology as an innate explanatory factor for “why we are as we are”.  In contrast Adler believed we were social beings and develop as we are as a result of our interaction with the world around us (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.).   Additionally, rather than conceiving humans as sexual beings, Adler focuses on social factors stating that we strive to become members of a group.  What follows is a list of basic assumptions of Adlerian psychotherapy according to my course textbook (Corsini & Wedding, 2010).

  1. “All Behavior occurs in a social context..people cannot be studied in isolation (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 68).”
  2. “Individual psychology is an interpersonal psychology (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 68).”  How we work to transcend social interactions is critical to personal development and growth.
  3. Adler’s perspective focuses on a holistic perspective that favors social psychology in favor of a biological reductionism.  “This renders the polarities of conscious and unconscious, mind and body, approach and avoidance…meaningless (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 68).”
  4. In Adlerian psychotherapy, the conscious and unconscious serve the individual’s personal goals.  In this respect the unconscious is not a separate cognitive structure within the mind but an adjective which describes that which is not understood (Wedding & Corsini, 2010).
  5. Conflict is interpersonal as a result existing as a byproduct of ambivalent action.  “Although people experience themselves in the throws of conflict… they create these antagonistic feelings, ideas, and values because they are unwilling to…solving their problems (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 68).”  
  6. Subjectivity not objectivity is critical when understanding the person.  “Understanding the individual requires understanding… the convictions individuals develop early in life to help them organize experience, to understand it, to predict it and to control it. (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 68)” 
  7. Our behaviors change in accordance with the immediate demands of our life situation as well as our long-range goals (Corsini & Wedding, 2010).
  8. People are not pushed forward in life by an external cause (i.e. hereditary and the environment). Instead, “people move toward self-selected goals….and will preserve their self-esteem (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 69).”  
  9. “The central striving of human beings has been variously described as completion, perfection, superiority, self-realization, self-actualization, and mastery (Corsini & Wedding, 2010,  p. 69).”
  10. We are move through life confronted with alternatives and have the ability to choose based on our own values, beliefs and personal sense of meaning.
  11. Adlerians aren’t very concerned with diagnosis since & all behavior is seen as a “purposeful, psychogenic symptom (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 69).”
  12. Life presents key challenges, or life tasks, socially, vocationally, sexually, and spiritually (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 70).
  13. Courage in addressing these life tasks is essential, defined as: “the willingness to engage in risk-taking behavior” (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 70) while weighting options.
  14. “Life has no intrinsic meaning.  We give meaning to life (Corsini & Wedding, 2010, p. 70).”  This meaning determines our behavior, since we assume this meaning is a fact and not perception.  Life then is expected to coincide with this.

Key Concepts

What Motivates Us?

“Adler felt that the ‘will to power’  or ‘the striving for superiority’ are the major sources for motivation in humans (Rosenthal, 2005).” Freud conceived human behavior as a byproduct of innate biological instincts and mechanical in nature.   In contrast, “Adler sees motivation as a matter of moving towards the future, rather than being driven, mechanistically, by the past. We are drawn towards our goals, our purposes, our ideals. This is called teleology (Boeree, 2006, p. 6).” This notion is based on Nietzsche’s concept of will-to-power which influenced Adler’s work.  Several other concepts pertaining to Adler’s definition of motivation are worth mentioning:

Inferiority Complex

Adler felt that “dealing with inferiority and striving for perfection are innate qualities (Rosenthal, 2005),” were innate components of human motivation.  Additionally, a feeling of inferiority exists as a motivating force for one’s behavior.   It can result in compensating for our inadequacies or striving to grow beyond them.  An inferiority complex is defined as “a condition that develops when a person is unable to compensate for normal inferiority feelings (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.).”

Superiority Complex

When individual’s overcompensate for shortcomings this is a superiority complex.  “This involves an exagger- ated opinion of one’s abilities and accomplishments. Such a person may feel inwardly self-satisfied and superior and show no need to demonstrate his or her superiority with accomplishments. Or the person may feel such a need and work to become extremely successful (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.).”

Fictional Finalism

Boeree (2006) also notes that Adler was influenced by the work of Hans Vaihinger, who wrote  a book titled  “The Philosophy of ‘as if'”.  He continues by noting that “we use these fictions in day to day living as well. We behave as if we knew the world would be here tomorrow (Boree, 2006, p. 6).”   Essentially, in order to move towards our goals, we conceive them as actualities in a future perfect sense.  He called this term fictional finalism (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.).

Social Interest

In the course of our early childhood development Adler believed that getting along with others and belonging were key tasks.  “He proposed the concept of social interest, which he defined as the individual’s innate potential to cooperate with other people to achieve personal and societal goals (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.).”   While biology does provide some motivational influence in our lives, it isn’t considered primary, as in Freud’s theory.  Instead, Adler notes that in order to this social interest is a byproduct of our desire to achieve our developmental life goals.  We need to cooperate with others in order to achieve them.

Birth Order

Adler was the first to note the influence of birth order on one’s development.  He first notes that three early childhood experiences have a profound influence on one’s personality development: (1) health (i.e organ inferiority); (2) neglect, and; (3) pampering (Boeree, 2006).  With this in mind, Adler notes that the birth order of an individual determines which of these experiences predominate their childhood.

  1. First-Born Children receive quite a bit of pampering & attention until this status is “dethrowned” when a younger sibling is born.  Consequently, they can respond by behaving badly, and become rebellious. “Adler found that first-borns are often oriented toward the past, locked in nostalgia and pessimistic about the future…[and] also take an unusual interest in maintaining order and authority. (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.).”
  2. Second-Born Children don’t receive a sense of dethrownment.  Instead they can tend to experience a sense of competition with the oldest for a parents attention.  Their parents adopt a more relaxed style and are more likely to develop into competitive and ambitious adults (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.).
  3. “The youngest child is likely to be the most pampered in a family with more than one child. After all, he or she is the only one who is never dethroned! And so youngest children are the second most likely source of problem children, just behind first children. On the other hand, the youngest may also feel incredible inferiority, with everyone older and ‘therefore’ superior. (Boeree, 2006, p. 10)”
  4. “Only children never lose the position of primacy and power they hold in the family; they remain the focus and center of attention. Spending more time in the company of adults than a child with siblings, only children often mature early and manifest adult behaviors and attitudes (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.).”

Psychological Types

According to Adler, we are social beings.  Therefore, he conceived personality as something that was shaped by “social environments and the interactions (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d, p. 131).”  Therefore a discussion of psychological personality types for Adler would involve a discussion of how they adapt to their social world as well as their lifestyle.  In contrast Freud’s biological determinism, Adler held the belief that we create our personality.  “…neither heredity nor environment provides a complete explanation for personality development.  Instead the way we interpret these influences forms the basis for the creative construction of our attitude toward life (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology”, n.d., p. 137).” Two aspects of of this attitude toward life are worth noting: (1) our lifestyle (discussed in a later section); (2) and our social style.

As social creatures, “Alfred Adler postulates a ‘single drive’ or motivating force behind all our behavior and experience…the striving for perfection (Boeree, 2006, p. 5).”  Later he termed this striving for superiority. Additionally, we all inevitably end up falling short in one respect or another.  For example. Adler describes poor health as organ inferiority and psychological inferiorities as a personal character trait we interpret negatively.  When individuals encounter an inner conflict between a desire to strive for superiority an an awareness of inferiority, they struggle with neurosis.  This neurosis involves an insufficient level of social interest as the individual becomes ego-driven by a desire to hide their inferiority and compensate for it.  He describes four psychological types, each a unique social style based on a desire to compensate:

Ruling Type

Have a social style originating in childhood that produces a tendency toward aggression and social dominance.  They have low levels of social awareness and behave “without regard for others (Alfred Adler Independent Psychology, n.d., p. 147).” “The most energetic ones are bullies and sadists; somewhat less energetic ones hurt others by hurting themselves and include alcoholics. Drug addicts, and suicides (Boeree, 2006, p. 9).”

Getting/Leaning Type

This type of social style presents a sensitive and dependent temperament.  Boeree, (2006) states that they: “have developed a shell around themselves which protects them, but they must rely on others to carry them through life’s difficulties (p. 9).”  Additionally, Adler states that this type can suffer from phobia, obsession, compulsion, and anxiety (Boeree, 2006).

Avoiding Type

These low-energy types “makes no attempt to face life’s problems (Alfred Adler Independent Psychology, n.d., p. 137).” Boeree, (2006), notes they assume an avoidant approach towards people be life in general. Extreme avoidance, Adler’s view produces psychosis.

Socially Useful Type

Is an energetic and socially interested healthy personality.  “The socially useful type cooperates with others and acts in accordance their needs…cope with problems within a well-developed framework of social-interest (Alfred Adler Independent Psychology, n.d., p. 138).”

Style of Life

“…instead of talking about a person’s personality, with the traditional sense of internal traits, structures, dynamics, conflicts, and so on, he preferred to talk about style of life (Boeree, 2006, p. 6).”  Instead, Adler felt a person’s lifestyle reflected their personality by reflecting how one adapts to the social world.  Additionally, our lifestyle reflects efforts to achieve personal goals, (or  striving for perfection).   In doing so we act “as if” what we wish to be/become is present today.  “Each other f our lifestyles, there sits one of these fictions, an important one about who we are and where we are going (Boeree, 2006, p. 6).”

Overview of Counseling Process

How does change happen?

Alder felt human beings were social creatures and we all strive to achieve an idealized version of ourselves.   In doing so, we tend to perceive our reality in a future perfect tense.   What I believe I am is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is reflected throughout our lives.  In order for change to happen, “the patient must come to understand his or her lifestyle and its root in self-centered fictions (Boeree, 2006, p. 12).”  Since this insight cannot be forced, part of a therapists job is to help the client along the stages of change.  Clientd must want to understand and grow.   They are ultimately responsible for themselves.

Adler’s therapeutic style.

“Adler’s approach was more relaxed and informal than Freud’s (Alfred Adler Independent Psychology, n.d., p. 143).”   Conversations necessitated a building of rapport through the use for humor and some casual conversation.  Adler preferred to speak with clients face to face and avoided “appearing too authoritarian (Boetee, 2006, p. 12).

Assessment in Adlerian Psychotherapy

In order to help you discover the ‘fictions’ your lifestyle is based upon, Adler would look at a great variety of things (Alfred Adler Independent Psychology, n.d., p. 11).”  Overall, his methods of assessment are less scientific, involving empathy and intuition.   Key factors that can help uncover our personal fictions are discussed below.

Verbal & Nonverbal Communication

Adler assessed the personalities of his patients by observing everything about them: the way they walked and sat, their manner of shaking hands, even their choice of which chair to sit in. He suggested that the way we use our bodies indicates something of our style of life (Alfred Adler Independent Psychology, n.d., p. 143).”  The point is, how is the client communicating their belief system about who they are.  How does this fictionalizef self-fulfilling prophecy play out in their lives?

Early Childhood Memory

people remember from early childhood (a) only images that confirm and support their current views of themselves in the world . . . and (b) only those memories that support their direction of striving for significance and security. [His] focus on selective memory and lifestyle emphasize what is remembered. In contrast, Freud’s approach to interpret- ing early memories emphasizes what is forgotten through the mechanism of repression. (Kopp & Eckstein, 2004, p. 165)

Adler felt our lifestyle choices and social style develops as a result of our earliest childhood experiences.  In his research, Adler found a correlation between lifestyle choices and early childhood memories. Therefore, he cautioned it was important to use their s as a contextualizing factor when assessing the impact of early events (Alfred Adler Individuals Psychology, n.d.).

Dream Analysis

Like Freud, Adler felt “dreams were important (Boeree , 2096, p 11).”  However, while Freud interpreted dreams as pertaining to the unconscious, Adler felt they represented lifestyle choices.  Additionally, Adler interpreted dreams pragmatically: “dreams involve our feelings about a current problem and what we intend to do about it (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d., p. 144).”  However, he cautioned against interpreting dreams without knowledge of the client’s lifestyle.

Measures of Social Interest

“Psychologists have developed tests to measure Adler’s concept of social interest (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d., p.145).” These tests include include the Social Interest Scale (SIS) and the basic Adlerian Scales for Interpersonal  Succesd (BASIC-A) (Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, n.d.). While Adler had no interest in measuring personalities using an assessment, research has proven they are useful.


Alfred Adler Individual Psychology, (n.d.) Retrieved from:
Boeree, C. G. (2006). Alfred Adler:  Personality Theories.   Retrieved from:
Corsini , R.J. & Wedding, D. (2010). Current psychotherapies. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Kopp, R., & Eckstein, D. (2004). Using Early Memory Metaphors and Client-Generated Metaphors in Adlerian Therapy. Journal of Individual Psychology, 60(2), pp. 163-275.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.

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