Adlerian theory and psychotherapy (A guide)

Adlerian theory

In this article, we will talk about Adlerian theory and psychotherapy.

We will also highlight the differences between the Adlerian theory and psychoanalysis, and also important concepts from the Adlerian theory. 

The Adlerian theory 

Alfred Adler is the first psychologist to create a holistic theory of personality, striving to take into account all the fundamental influences that mark an individual’s life. 

The Adlerian theory considered the person as a whole, without divisions or inner barriers.

What the individual does, thinks and feels is unitary, aimed at achieving his personal, unique goal.

A person is more than the sum of his physical, mental, emotional functions, and behavior is best understood if it is seen as a unit, as a lifestyle.

Adlerian theory and psychotherapy (A guide)

Adler’s “individual psychology” is a psychology of an “indivisible whole” which relates both to the individual himself and to his relationship with the community.

He pleads for the development of the feeling of social communion, and on a maximum scale, the development of the feeling of human cosmicity.

Adler is a follower of teleology, the theory according to which every man has a unique purpose in his life.

Usually this goal is not conscious, but the individual always moves towards it. Life is a continuous movement towards personal fulfillment.

He believed that all people live in the “world of meaning”, as well as that all people have fundamental creative power, as well as the freedom to change direction in life.

The Adlerian theory will influence many great personalities in the world of psychology, such as Karen Horney, Abraham Maslow, Victor Frankl, Rollo May, Albert Ellis and many others.

Adlerian theory and psychotherapy (A guide)

Adlerian psychotherapy

Adlerian psychotherapy was founded by the Austrian physician and psychotherapist Alfred Adler, who founded the school of individual psychology as a result of the break-up of the psychoanalytic school.

Adler was the first important personality whose ideas conflicted with those of Freud and who left the circle of psychoanalysts to form an independent school of psychotherapy, with a new theory of human personality.

His conception of  a person is included in individual psychology, which studies man holistically.

Unlike psychoanalysis, in Adler, sex is no longer an essential factor in development, and the center of personality is the conscious.

People are considered social and cultural beings, motivated by social interests.

Adlerian theory Vs. Psychoanalysis

Both Adler and Freud developed their theories based on the clinical cases encountered and their own experiences from childhood and within the family.

The difference between the two is that Freud’s patients came from the Viennese bourgeoisie, which had mainly sexual problems, and Adler’s patients came from marginal social beds, whose problems were of a social nature.

Secondly, Freud was marked by the relationship with his parents, and for Adler the most important relationships were those with siblings and friends of the same age – “understanding man in terms of his position on social tasks.”

Freud’s theories focused mainly on causality and the past, while Adler was interested in the purpose of life, human goals and the future. Only Jung’s psychology will consider both.

Another difference between Adlerian psychology and psychoanalysis is the contents of the unconscious. 

If in Freud the unconscious contains primordial instincts and impulses, in Adler the content is formed by the desire for self-affirmation and feelings of inferiority.

Regarding the cause of neurosis, Adler argued for the failure to replace feelings of inferiority with those of superiority, while Freud argued for the faulty resolution of the Oedipus complex.

On the other hand, Adlerian psychology has developed some essential theories of psychoanalysis: the difference between pathological condition and mental health is only grade and not quality (like Freud, Adler will build a psychoanalysis of health from psychopathology ) early childhood is crucial for personality development; the theory of the two planes – conscious and unconscious; psychotherapy is based on the analysis of the unconscious and the first childhood, in order to raise awareness of the contents of the unconscious.

There is a conflict, not just between the Adlerian theory and psychotherapy, but also between a master level clinician and psychotherapy.

Adlerian theory and psychotherapy (A guide)

Personality – lifestyle in Adlerian vision

Adler viewed personality as the lifestyle we each choose from childhood – around the age of 5, that is, the way we live, solve our problems and develop interpersonal relationships (“a generalized pattern of responses in most situations, unique to each individual”). 

According to Adler, man has four beliefs about lifestyle: the concept of self (who I am); the ideal self (who I should be to find my place in the world); image of the world (beliefs about others); ethical beliefs (personal code of good and evil).

Rejecting the inclusion of people in exclusive categories, only for didactic reasons, Adler proposed a typology consisting of four patterns that can dominate the lifestyle in general:

  • Dependent type – the one who takes without giving back. In order to face the difficulties in life, one must support those around him. The amount of energy or social interest is very low, and when he feels overwhelmed he can develop mental disorders such as phobias, obsessions, compulsions, generalized anxiety.
  • Avoiding type – one who avoids social contact, for fear of failure or rejection. He has the lowest level of energy or social interest and is prone to psychosis.
  • The leading type – characterized since childhood by the tendency to be dominant and aggressive. The high level of energy makes him pursue personal power at any cost. He is prone to antisocial behavior – sadistic, alcoholic, drug addict, suicide.
  • The socially useful type – the healthy, open and active one. He has an optimal level of energy and social interest. He is a mature, positive, adapted person, caring with those around him. He does not want to be superior to others, but he wants to solve his problems so that he is useful to others as well.

Unlike Freud, who believes that man is motivated by instincts that must be controlled or transformed to have a behavior accepted by society, in Adlerian psychology behavior is learned and under control.

The dynamics of human psychology is explained by the existence of goals and ideals of perfection that motivate us.

A person is seen as a social being dominated by the conscious rather than the unconscious.

What we are and what we do depends entirely on us and not on the content of the unconscious; we control our own destiny and we are not a victim of it.

Everyone builds the reality around them, depending on how they look at the world.

According to the Adlerian theory, people are not fundamentally good or bad, but they can choose to be good or bad, depending on the evaluation of the situation and the possible benefits.

The social interest is innate and represents the capacity and will to participate and contribute to society. 

Sufficient social interest is necessary for mental health – too little or too much leads to deficiencies and maladaptation.

Social affiliation is a goal pursued throughout life and is reflected in the effort to “find our place in the world.”

Adlerian theory and psychotherapy (A guide)

Key concepts in Adlerian theory

Inferiority complex

Every human being begins his life with primary feelings of inferiority, because he is completely dependent on those around him.

The person begins to become aware of these feelings very early, due to the relationship with the parents.

These feelings become a strong motivation for setting a goal in life and for achieving it.

However, it can happen that various obstacles – physical deficiency or handicap, sexual affiliation, economic and social situation, inadequate education – lead to the accentuation of the feeling of inferiority.

This stage is called inferiority complex and translates into the feeling of adult failure, resulting from the adoption of an unrealistic goal, often one that leads to perfection.

Self-esteem is the way in which the individual evaluates his own value, relating to others, from an emotional point of view, not rational.

Adequate response to social requirements can take place only in conditions of self-esteem, in other words a positive sense of self-worth.

The disturbance of the balance can take place in the conditions of the appearance of new social requirements.

Compensation

Compensation is a way to get rid of and replace the feeling of inferiority with a positive sense of self-worth.

The real compensations act on the causes that produced the feeling of inferiority, in order to correct them.

When this is not possible, another dimension of personality is developed to compensate for the deficiency.

Pseudo-compensation acts at the level of feeling and not of the cause, removing it from consciousness.

There are three types of pseudo-compensation: virile protest – denigration of feminine qualities and promotion of masculine ones (Freud’s “penis envy”), counterideal or de-idealization – relation to a human reality equal to or less than value, and resentment – desire for revenge, hatred, envy .

Overcompensation leads to more than balancing self-esteem, to outstanding performance.

Adler believed that geniuses are born of the process of overcompensation, and we have many examples of this kind: musicians with hearing impairments, blind writers, orators with speech defects.

The pursuit of overcoming defects at any cost can lead to neurosis at the same time.

The feeling of social communion or social interest

It represents the need of every human being to create connections with others, to benefit from identity and recognition in society.

Social interest is seen as the innate ability of empathy – emotional identification with other people.

When the social interest has been properly developed, we manage to find solutions to problems and feel comfortable in the world at large.

Social communion means recognizing the interdependence of individuals – the well-being of one person depends on the well-being of others.

Disinterest in the well-being of others is considered pathogenic. A pathological lifestyle is marked by egocentrism, exploitative behavior, demanding, lack of compassion, aggression.

There are several factors that can interfere with the development of social interest: physical inferiority, pampering and neglect of the child.

Family constellation

Adler used this term to describe the composition of the family or the position of the subject within the family system.

The family constellation mediates the child’s genetic factors and cultural factors.

The personality characteristics of each family member, the sex of the siblings, the size of the family and the order of birth are factors that influence the place assumed by the subject in this world. 

Each person subjectively interprets the place held in the family and forms their own world, depending on perceptions.

Our behavior is determined by what we think we are and not what we really are.

Specific techniques of Adlerian psychotherapy

The creative freedom of this type of therapy involves the use of various therapeutic strategies, depending on the patient and to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities.

The stages of therapy represent a conceptual framework, but the treatment is unique for each patient. 

The session with children usually lasts 30 minutes, and with adults 45-50 minutes.

Towards the end of the session, the therapist no longer raises new issues, but summarizes the discussion. Patients are usually given “homework.”

Encouragement

Encouragement is both a principle and a widely used therapeutic technique, especially in treating children.

Adler said of children that they become what they are encouraged to be.

Encouragement is expressed through trust in the patient, recognition of his efforts, emphasis on positive points, building self-confidence, patient appreciation for what he is.

The question

The big question can be “If I had a magic wand that would eliminate all the symptoms, what would be different?”, Or “What would be different if you were healthy?”.

These questions – asked at the beginning of psychotherapy – help the patient to find out what he really wants to change.

 “As if”

Patients who claim to do various things if they have certain qualities are asked to behave as if they had those qualities and are encouraged to “get into the skin” of the character, adopting new behaviors.

For example, a man who does not have the courage to ask a woman for a date is asked to behave as if he had enough self-confidence to talk to a woman.

 This technique is based on the principle that a person must change his behavior to provoke different responses from those around him.

Button pressing technique

The therapist asks the patient to imagine that he presses a button, then to build in his mind a pleasant experience, in as much detail as possible.

Then the patient must recall the feelings during the experience, while “pressing the button”.

The second part of the technique is to repeat the exercise of imagination, but replacing the pleasant experience with an unpleasant one. 

After repeating the cycle of positive-negative experiences several times, the therapist tells the patient that he can control the mood at any time, thinking about one of the two experiences.

Role play

The interpretation of various roles gives the patient the chance to live new experiences and to explore a new behavior, safe in the psychotherapist’s office.

This requires a group therapy session, in which each patient will have a role – parent, brother, etc.

The therapist provides guidance, encouragement and realistic feedback, all to strengthen self-confidence and courage.

Establishing tasks

The therapist gives the patient “homework” to get acquainted with the situations that cause him horror.

For example, a depressed person is asked to do something pleasant every day, following a daily schedule; in order to promote the social interest, work in the interest of society or volunteering is required.

Surprise yourself

This technique is also a task for the patient. He must try to catch himself “in the act” when he resumes a behavior that he must avoid.

The goal is to become aware of old unwanted habits and replace them with new behavior.

The patient must anticipate a situation before it occurs.

Limitations of Adlerian psychotherapy

The weaknesses of Adlerian psychotherapy are reflected in aspects such as accuracy, testability and empirical validation.

Concepts such as birth order, early childhood memories and social interest have been very little tested to verify their effectiveness in psychotherapy. 

Critics say Adlerian psychology tends to oversimplify some complex human problems and rely too much on common sense.

In addition, Adler failed to systematize his thoughts and ideas so that they could be easily understood by others.

He preferred to focus on teaching the principles of his theory rather than systematizing them.

Adlerian theory and psychotherapy (A guide)

Conclusions

In this article, we talked about Adlerian theory and psychotherapy.

We also highlighted the differences between the Adlerian theory and psychoanalysis, and also important concepts from the Adlerian theory. 

Adlerian theory was founded by the Austrian physician and psychotherapist Alfred Adler, who founded the school of individual psychology as a result of the break-up of the psychoanalytic school.

Adler was the first important personality whose ideas conflicted with those of Freud and who left the circle of psychoanalysts to form an independent school of psychotherapy, with a new theory of human personality.

If you have any questions, comments or recommendations, please feel free to leave them in the comments section. 

FAQ about the Adlerian theory

What is adlerian theory?

The Adlerian theory considered the person as a whole, without divisions or inner barriers.

What the individual does, thinks and feels is unitary, aimed at achieving his personal, unique goal.

A person is more than the sum of his physical, mental, emotional functions, and behavior is best understood if it is seen as a unit, as a lifestyle.

What are the key concepts of Adlerian Theory?

The key concepts of Adlerian theory are: the inferiority complex, compensation, social interest, family constellation, holism, goals and equality.

What is the goal of Adlerian therapy?

The main goal of Adlerian therapy is to offer support and understanding for people to feel more confident in the  society.

Unlike psychoanalysis, in Adler, sex is no longer an essential factor in development, and the center of personality is the conscious.

People are considered social and cultural beings, motivated by social interests.

What are the four phases of the adlerian therapeutic process?

The four phases of the Adlerian therapeutic process are as following: engagement, assessment, insight, and reorientation.

What is the question in adlerian therapy?

In Adlerian therapy, the question is “If I had a magic wand that would eliminate all the symptoms, what would be different?”, Or “What would be different if you were healthy?”.

These questions – asked at the beginning of psychotherapy – help the patient to find out what he really wants to change.

References

Allen, Kimberly, et al. “”An Integrative Adlerian Approach to Creating a Teen Parenting Program.” The Journal of Individual psychology, vol. 70 no. 1, 2014, p. 6-20. Project MUSE

Adlerian Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Practitioner’s Approach, Fifth Edition, by  Thomas J. Sweeney

Peluso, Paul R. “Adlerian Therapy: Theory and Practice.” Journal of Counseling and Development, vol. 86, no. 4, 2008, p. 505+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 16 June 2020.

Pomeroy, Heather and Arthur J. Clark. “”Self-Efficacy and Early Recollections in the Context of Adlerian and Wellness Theory.” The Journal of Individual psychology, vol. 71 no. 1, 2015, p. 24-33. Project MUSE,

Adlerian theory and psychotherapy (A guide)

Nadejda Romanciuc

Nadejda Romanciuc holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a diploma in Addiction studies. She is part of the Romanian Association of Integrative Psychotherapy as a psychotherapist under supervision. She's practicing online counselling for over two years and is a strong advocate for mental health.