Adlerian Theory: Understanding The Individual

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated September 17, 2023by 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?

Alfred Adler was a well-known psychologist born in Austria in 1870. He started his career in medicine as an ophthalmologist and later transitioned to general practice. Adler became a colleague of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Stekel, and Rudolf Reitler, with whom he formed the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, which Adler led as its first president.

Adler ended up breaking away from Freud due to differences in his clinical beliefs. This pivotal moment would soon be regarded by many as the beginning of Adlerian theory.

Unlike Freud and many other prominent psychologists of his day, Adler believed that individuals were made up of both the internal factors and external factors that they have dealt with throughout life. According to Adler, much of human behavior can be attributed to the whole of an individual rather than just certain “parts.”

Other psychologists at the time were generally focused on the internal factors that contributed to a person’s mental health and overall constitution. Adler believed that individuals were indivisible and should be treated as such, which is why his therapeutic approach is generally regarded as individual psychology.

Today, psychology is still heavily influenced by Alfred Adler and his insight.

The Lasting Effects: Alfred Adler’s Mark On Psychology

Many institutes and schools of thought have formed based on Alfred Adler’s ideas and practices. For example, the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology and Adler University were founded based on Adlerian principles.

Over the course of a century, many psychologists have become major proponents of Adler's ideas and have revolutionized how therapists perceive their patients.

Adlerian Theory: A Sense Of Belonging To Ourselves And Others

As discussed above, one of Adler’s main beliefs was that people need to feel that they belong. He believed that people can be their best selves when they feel connected to and loved by those around them. 

This can be especially important in families, which are often the first communities most people belong to, whether or not the experience is positive or negative. When a person feels that they are not appreciated, they may act in unhealthy ways. According to the Adler Graduate School, this may include withdrawing, competing, or giving up on connecting altogether. Feeling discouraged may increase this behavior and lead the person to become isolated from their family.

Many times, parents may choose to punish children’s poor behavior. This discipline may eliminate the behavior, but Adler believed that it could also lead to other forms of acting out. He maintained that "a misbehaving child is a discouraged child" and that individuals may act out when they feel unloved, devalued, or unsupported.

Therefore, by embracing the child fully while using appropriate discipline across any spectrum of behavior, a parent might see an improvement, Adler hypothesized.

Adler On Parenting: Understanding Unique Beliefs Of Children And Youth

Adler believed that when we take time to analyze where our personal beliefs come from and how they influence our behavioral patterns, we can start taking steps toward growth and healing. In particular, looking at the ways we seek validation and acceptance may be especially helpful to understanding our behavior. However, the ways we look for a sense of belonging from those around us are not necessarily static. They can change with time, dedication, and therapy.

Adler On Society: Accepting The Individual

The Adlerian approach generally views each person as a whole individual, as opposed to just an accumulation of behaviors, products, beliefs, and influences. Adler stressed that to effectively treat and accept someone, we must study the entire individual. 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 Theory In Therapy

In therapy, the Adlerian approach may benefit clients by helping them understand the root of their behaviors, how they can change their view of themselves, and how they can change their view of their childhoods. This generally happens in four steps, known as the four “stages” of Adlerian therapy: creating a relationship, assessment, insight, and reorientation.

At the beginning of Adlerian therapy, the therapist often seeks to develop a close, trusting relationship with the client. 

The next step is assessment, during which the therapist typically encourages the client to talk about their experiences, emotions, behaviors, family, upbringing, and driving factors. This information may help the therapist establish how the individual’s current behaviors have come to be, as well as any relevant influences.

In this psychoeducational approach, this information may be necessary for treatment as the therapist seeks to understand the client. The therapist may ask a series of questions, such as: 

  • Was there a significant life event that made you feel ashamed or guilty?

  • Did this event push you into the shadows or cause you to become quiet to avoid feeling inadequate? 

  • Did you believe that you deserved what you got?

This assessment and ongoing line of questioning may help the therapist understand the current behaviors and beliefs of the client.

During the third step, the therapist typically offers insight into how past experiences might have shaped the client’s current beliefs and behaviors. Gaining insight 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.

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.

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The goal of Adlerian therapy for many counselors is to show the client that they can have control over their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Early beliefs about inadequacy or lack of control can be transformed into new beliefs that the client does have worth and that their opinions do matter—offering them the opportunity to take ownership of their story.

Once clients are shown that old beliefs don't have to determine their current lives, they may be able to move forward more confidently.

How Can Adlerian Therapy Help?

Adlerian therapy may help individuals gain confidence and make better decisions. It can often help people feel independent without fear of failure. Although failing is a part of life, constantly feeling like a failure due to an internal belief can interfere with daily living, which is where Adlerian therapy may be valuable. Once that fear is addressed and overcome, it may be possible for a person to live their best life and form healthier relationships with others.

Ultimately, a main goal of Adlerian therapy is to replace long-held negative beliefs, which may lead a person to become more self-reliant, confident, and socially empowered. These achievements, in turn, can lead to healthier decisions and relationships. Although this type of therapy can take time, replacing those beliefs can open a host of opportunities that a person didn't think possible.

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 for most people.

Another possible limitation is that Adlerian therapy generally 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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