Alfred Adler - Psychotherapy - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Alfred Adler
The Canon


BORN 1870, Rudolfsheim, Austria-Hungary


DIED 1937, Aberdeen, Scotland


Educated at the University of Vienna



Alfred Adler’s theories, which were eventually combined into a school of thought that came to be known as Adlerian therapy, were almost too wide-ranging for their own good. Adler is said to have been incredibly generous with his insights and not particularly concerned with being given credit for the developments he brought to the field, and so his influence is likely far greater than his name recognition.

Many of Adler’s ideas sprung from psychoanalytic thought, and he was a respected contemporary of Freud’s. But Adler gradually broke away from psychoanalysis and moved toward greater emphasis on how we perceive ourselves within our social relationships, in contrast to Freud’s emphasis on biology and on the instincts. Adler labeled his approach individual psychology because it emphasizes the individual as a whole person rather than fracturing the self into components, as psychoanalysis has sometimes done. He also felt that our thoughts about the future are more worthy of focus than the events of the past, and he didn’t particularly believe that past events predetermine anything about who we eventually become.

Adler brought significant focus to the notion of the drive—what motivates us, and what we strive for. Striving for perfection is the term he used for the motivation to reach our goals and become our true selves. Sometimes this involves striving for superiority, which can be problematic in its emphasis on needing to be better than everyone else. Most famous is the counterpart to this, the concept of the inferiority complex. According to Adler, we all have some areas where we feel inferior, and we attempt to compensate for those deficits. Some of us do this in healthy ways, whereas others among us become overwhelmed by our inferiority. This may not even be a real inferiority but may instead be a perceived inferiority we’ve developed because of messages we’ve absorbed throughout our lives. When someone has an inferiority complex, it is maladaptive, and it takes over various aspects of functioning. The person will try constantly to overcompensate, to bridge the gap of his or her deficits. People with an inferiority complex are on a chronic quest to prove something to themselves and to others.

Adler’s theories about our relationships with other people are best represented by his thoughts about social interest: our consideration of our communities and the people around us. How empathetic we are, how strong our relationships are, how well we interact with the people around us—Adler thought that these are all decent measures of how psychologically healthy we are in general. He felt that most psychological problems can be traced in large part to a lack of social interest—not to being introverted or shy, but rather to having no concern for our role with regard to other people, to caring only for ourselves, and to simply not giving a hoot about how we affect others.

Adler is also known as the first psychological theorist to have placed significant focus on birth order—the question of whether someone is an only child, the oldest, the youngest, and so on. He recognized that this information is more useful in general terms than as a specific formula for any given individual or family situation. But he noticed trends in personality that depend on one’s role within a sibling group, with only children sometimes suffering from too much attention from their parents, oldest children tending more toward leadership and assertiveness, middle children sometimes struggling to find a place and perhaps even turning conflict-avoidant, and youngest children often being babied and prone to dream big but not to actually realize their potential. Once again, Adler acknowledged that in any given family, individual dynamics—and age ranges—might matter more, but his belief that sibling relationships can exert a powerful influence has stood the test of time as an insightful concept.


Adler directly influenced a diverse range of theorists and practitioners. Elements of his work were later reflected in the humanistic therapeutic beliefs of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers and in the existential approach of Viktor Frankl. Adler’s more practical techniques of examining a patient’s maladaptive behaviors can be seen as a forerunner of Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT) and cognitive therapy, and Adler’s spin on psychoanalysis, with its focus more on social relationships than on biological drives, influenced Karen Horney.



Let’s say I have a magic wand and can solve, overnight, a problem that you are dealing with, or that I can get you to a goal you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to meet. You will wake up, and it will have been taken care of. What will your life look like then? That’s not just a question—it’s the question, as Adler named this therapeutic technique. He argued that there is a lot to be gained from having someone visualize what his or her life will be like after a problem has been solved or a goal has been met, especially because the person’s ideal life, which he or she can clearly outline and seems to crave so wholeheartedly, may actually be exactly what the person is afraid of. In fact, he said, the very fact that the problem has been so long in the solving, or that the goal has been so long unmet, may reflect unconscious anxiety, which the person has been unable to face and overcome. Can’t ever bring yourself to buckle down and finish that degree? Maybe deep down you’re terrified of being done with school and facing the expectations and responsibilities of the “real world.”

Of course, not every goal we set or fail to meet is associated with unconscious fears, and so this intervention isn’t universally applicable. But its magic lies in the fact that it forces us to think of things from another perspective, and that it can lead us to acknowledge that sometimes the most persistent forms of self-sabotage come from secret fears we have not allowed ourselves to articulate. When we procrastinate on something that we supposedly want to do, or when we sit around wishing that a problem would just disappear, we may be fooling ourselves about exactly what’s stopping us. Illuminating such obstacles can go a long way toward helping us realize our true potential.