Adlerian Theory: Understanding His Contributions

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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Connection can be a major part of what makes us human. Many thrive in community, allowing for true peer acceptance, communication, and emotional connection with one another, despite any differences in belief or creed. This community connection and the concept of the individual as a whole are two of the major contributions of Alfred Adler to the field of psychology.

Below, we’ll discuss Adlerian theory, who Alfred Adler was, and his contributions to connection-related theories in psychology.

Who was Alfred Adler?

Born in Austria in 1870, Alfred Adler was a well-known psychotherapist and founder of a school of thought known as individual psychology. Adler was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Though they worked closely early on, Adler ended up breaking away from Freud due to fundamental theoretical differences—while Freud believed that unconscious drives were the primary determinants of human behavior, Adler argued that social influences played a crucial role in the development of personality, behavior, and mental illness. 

Adler believed that individuals were made up of both internal and external factors. He emphasized the importance of social influences, suggesting that people's behavior and personality are shaped not just by their internal drives but also by family, community, and social norms. This perspective marked a significant shift from the more internally focused theories of Freud, placing a greater emphasis on the role of society in individual development.

Adler eventually developed his own theory, based on a holistic approach to understanding the individual within their social context. This continues to be a foundational aspect of modern psychological thought and practice. His concepts of the inferiority complex, the importance of social context and community feeling, and the emphasis on goals and purpose in human behavior have been widely integrated into modern therapeutic approaches and educational systems. 

The techniques of Adlerian therapy, a form of humanistic counseling, are still practiced by many professionals. Additionally, Adler’s ideas continue to be spread through the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology and its main publication, the Journal of Individual Psychology, which he founded in the 1930s. 

Understanding Adler's individual psychology theory

Adler's holistic understanding of human behavior and personality emphasizes the integration of the social, psychological, and cultural aspects of an individual's life. 

A sense of belonging

One of the key concepts in Adlerian theory is that love, human connection, and feelings of belonging are foundational to well-being. According to Adler, when individuals feel connected to others and perceive themselves as part of a community, they are more likely to develop a healthy sense of self and a positive orientation towards life. Research suggests that this view of social connectedness is valid—social support has been linked to a range of positive mental and physical health outcomes.

Adler believed that humans are goal oriented, and that much of human behavior is driven by a striving for belonging and significance within one's social group. When these needs are not met, individuals may compensate by developing feelings of inferiority or superiority, which can lead to social disconnection. Adlerian therapy often focuses on helping clients overcome these feelings by fostering empathy and social connectedness.


Parenting and child development

Adler also highlighted the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping one's sense of belonging. He emphasized the importance of understanding and addressing the unique beliefs and experiences of children and youth. He advocated for an approach to parenting and education that fosters a sense of competence and belonging. Adler believed that children form beliefs about themselves and the world from their interactions with their primary caregivers, and these beliefs significantly influence their future behavior and relationships. He stressed the importance of nurturing a child's sense of social interest and cooperation, rather than just focusing on discipline or achievement. 

Adler also highlighted the potential impact of birth order on personality development, theorizing that the position of a child within the family can influence their characteristics and behavior patterns. By understanding and responding to the individual needs and perceptions of each child, Adler believed that parents and educators could better guide children towards a healthy, balanced, and socially responsible lifestyle.

Examining the individual as a whole

The Adlerian approach views each person as a whole individual, as opposed to just an accumulation of behaviors, products, beliefs, and influences. Adler’s belief that we must study the entire individual to effectively treat and accept them is referred to as holism. He hypothesized that this is what gives us clues as to where growth can begin.

If we were to focus merely on negative behaviors, for example, then the person in question might feel that their other qualities don't have value, which may lead to compromised behavior patterns that don’t accurately reflect their beliefs or actions. However, when we highlight good qualities and show the person that they are valued, negative behaviors and beliefs may be slowly replaced over time due to the bond that connection provides.

These Adlerian concepts may be applied to every individual in a society, no matter what stage of development they’re currently at. Just as adults improve their behavior when they are made to feel valued and appreciated, so do most children. When we celebrate children’s accomplishments and highlight their talents, they may have less need to seek attention through poor behavior.

Adlerian psychotherapy

A type of humanistic therapy, Adlerian psychotherapy focuses on helping individuals understand the root of their behavior patterns and encourages them to develop a sense of belonging and fulfillment. This approach aims to address feelings of inferiority and works towards fostering a sense of self-awareness and personal growth. Through this process, clients are encouraged to overcome their perceived limitations and to establish more constructive and socially beneficial ways of living. 

What to expect in Adlerian therapy

In Adlerian therapy, the client and therapist delve into the client’s past and seek to gain insights as to how they may have been shaped by their experiences and environment. An Adlerian therapist typically leads their client through the therapeutic process in four phases, known as the four stages of Adlerian therapy.

  1. Engagement: At the beginning of Adlerian therapy, the therapist seeks to develop a close, trusting relationship with the client. 
  2. Assessment: The next step is assessment, during which the therapist encourages the client to talk about their experiences, emotions, behaviors, family, upbringing, and driving factors.
  3. Insight: During the third step, the therapist helps the client gain insight into how past experiences might have shaped certain patterns in their current beliefs and behaviors. These insights may help the client to change their behavior and perspective on their life. However, it is ultimately up to the client to agree or disagree with the therapist’s interpretation.
  4. Reorientation: Finally, the client may be reoriented. Together, the therapist and client can try to come up with a new interpretation of the client’s past, as well as strategies that they can use to change their life in positive ways.

This new, positive perspective may give clients the confidence they need to work toward their goals. Having shed the weight of shame, guilt, or lack of self-worth, they may find it easier to move toward growth and fulfillment.

The goal of Adlerian therapy is to show the client that they can have control over their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Early feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, or lack of control can be transformed into more adaptive self-talk and a greater sense of confidence and self-worth.

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How can Adlerian therapy help?

Ultimately, the goal of Adlerian therapy is to replace long-held negative beliefs and help individuals become more self-reliant, confident, and socially empowered. This, in turn, can lead to healthier decisions and relationships. In overcoming maladaptive thoughts and reframing the narrative of one’s life, it may be possible to overcome unhelpful thoughts and maladaptive behaviors, ultimately leading to a more fulfilling life.

Considerations for Adlerian therapy methods

This type of therapy may not be an ideal option for those who only want to be in therapy for a brief amount of time. Adlerian therapy generally takes effort, dedication, and commitment.

Another possible limitation is that Adlerian therapy involves a deep dive into early life events. This exploration might be off-putting to those who don’t want to confront childhood memories that are painful, upsetting, or disturbing. Since it can be helpful to establish the reasons for current behaviors and thoughts, Adlerian psychotherapists may request to establish a childhood timeline despite feelings of discomfort.

Individuals who do not wish to challenge current beliefs may find this type of therapy to be difficult.

How can online therapy help those interested in Adlerian therapy?

As discussed above, Adlerian therapy with a licensed therapist can help individuals of all ages with a variety of mental health challenges. However, symptoms of disorders such as depression and anxiety can sometimes make it difficult to attend in-person sessions. This is where online therapy may be helpful. With online therapy, you can participate in therapy from home via phone, live chat, or videoconferencing. You can also message your therapist at any time in between sessions via in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can.

Is online therapy effective?

Many have wondered about the efficacy of online therapy compared to in-person therapeutic methods. The National Center for Health Research conducted an extensive literature review and found online therapy to be just as effective as in-person therapy for those experiencing depression and anxiety. 


Adlerian concepts have had a major impact on the world of psychotherapy. Focusing on the whole human and interpersonal connection has helped many people make valuable breakthroughs and progress in their mental health journey. If you’re interested in Adlerian theory, it may help to connect with a licensed therapist, whether in person or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has training in Adlerian theory and methods. Take the first step toward getting support and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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